If the word ‘Beijing’ were to be pinged in my direction in a game of word association, my first automatic response would be ‘big’. Not only because the city itself is big, but because everything in it seems to be too. With ten-lane roads, subway rides that take more than a few minutes to zoom from station to station, and office blocks that would outsize many an airport, this is a city that seems to need all the space it can get.
Tianan’men Square: The colossal core
Its inclination to big itself up is no recent trend either. A day spent exploring Beijing’s epicentre – namely Tianan’men Square and the adjoining Forbidden City – makes it clear that China’s capital has been using size to make statements of grandeur for several centuries now. The aforementioned square is the largest in the world of its kind and forms the heart of the city, with other culturally important landmarks positioned in line with it. To have such a concrete colossus at its core suggests an urge to assert dominance through the acquisition of size. It’s as if the very essence of Beijing is saying, through the regal grandeur of its vast centrepiece, ‘I’m here, I’m big, and all else circles around me.’
From a tourist’s point of view, the square more than merits a wander and some photos, but be prepared to go through an airport-style security check every time you enter. The streets which lead onto Tianan’men are of a quainter beauty, their colourful archways contrasting nicely with the square’s grey majesty. The narrow traditional laneways known as hutongs are full of character and often contain a charming mix of bookshops, art galleries, clothes shops and more, with Soloist Coffee being a pleasantly quirky spot to splash out on some Western-style hot beverages.
The Forbidden City: A massive maze of magnificence
If you really want to make the most of a visit to Beijing though, and get a true taste of how size has always mattered, The Forbidden City should be the number-one priority. So named due to the emperors’ exclusive hogging of the premises for five centuries, it is now far from forbidden, the 40 Yuan admission fee seeming ludicrously cheap. Once inside, the palace complex (which, like the square it stands at one end of, also boasts the title of being the world’s largest of its kind) stretches and stretches, with courtyard after courtyard containing yet another magnificent palace or temple at each end. Along the sides one can get joyfully lost in mazes of laneways and smaller buildings, some containing museum-like exhibits or offering souvenir-purchasing opportunities.
One word of warning for visitors is that once you pass under the Chairman Mao portrait and through the front gate, it will be a while before you see Tianan’men Square again. There’s no simple turning back, all visitors must go at least as far as a side exit, or if they enter the ticketed section, all the way to the other end of The Forbidden City in order to get out. So no quick-fire fast-in-fast-out visits here, any who enter are in for a long time and a lot of walking.
The Chinese desire for quantity almost invariably shines through at the dinner table, as group meals in restaurants see dish after dish piled onto the table in a somewhat wasteful gesture of extravagance. It came as no surprise, therefore, that when some Beijing-based colleagues treated myself, my fiancée and our friend to a taste of the local cuisine, the portions turned out to be on the large side. Hiring a private room in the excellent Bianyifang Roast Duck restaurant, we eagerly licked our lips as the round table’s lazy Susan became rapidly clustered. Containing all of the delicious meat from an entire duck, as well as various vegetable delicacies, our dinner left us stuffed and delighted for it. If you’re to truly enjoy the local specialty Beijing-style, it’s going to be in a big way. Another fantastic local restaurant resides nearby on Fahuasi Street; its name is only written in Chinese characters but it can be easily recognised due to ‘THEPRODUCTIONOFFINENORTHERNCUISINE’ being written along its wall while its windows are adorned with a multitude of red petals.
Sanlitun: A more modern quest for size
It’s not only in its historic centre that Beijing likes to make a big deal of itself; a subway ride out to the area known as Sanlitun will prove as much. The dimensions which are maximised in order to achieve such magnitude change, however. Whereas the previously-described Top Two of Beijing sightseeing stretch over an expansive area of land, the more modern buildings in the city’s outer rings (rings which encircle a particular square, and there are no prizes for guessing which one) reach for the sky. The towering efforts of this brightly-lit area to hit the big time show that size continues to be of utmost importance in the present day, with extensive shopping centres and high-end megastores making their presence known.
As well as being a shoppers’ haven, Sanlitun also offers drinking and dining options that look beyond its own country’s borders. Element Fresh serves up sumptuous meals ranging from Moroccan mixed platters to Mexican quesadillas, with a drinks menu containing Mediterranean wines, Belgian beers and classy Cosmopolitan cocktails. On a less positive note, the so-called bar street turned out to feebly underwhelming, with a series of seedy-looking pole-dancing clubs all showing as much originality and atmosphere as their dancers had clothes.
However, there is one establishment that only a city with such a drive for grandeur could pull off so effectively: Mercedes Me, a trendy bar inspired by trendy cars. With its comfortable couches and armchairs, and its cocktail menu that lists classic choices alongside their own signature mixes, which have automobile-themed names, this classy bar shows that Beijing’s tendency to think big can also take on a quirky side.
One last word of advice: Give it time!
Beijing’s size, and the size of everything within it, prevent it from being a tick-everything-off-the-itinerary holiday destination. If you have aspirations of seeing all the sights in a day or two, forget it. Tianan’men Square and The Forbidden City alone merit at least a day and a comfortable pair of walking shoes. And speaking of walking, it will only work within a certain area; casually strolling to a different neighbourhood won’t happen. So give it the time that its enormity demands rather than attempting to rush from place to place, and your stay in China’s capital will be a big deal. Big, that is, in the Beijing sense of the word.