Revisions required: The New York Times Beijing itinerary

A recent New York Times article provides a 36-hour itinerary for visitors to Beijing that in terms of nightlife selections, well, kind of sucks.* I won’t dissect the entire program – the Panjiayuan market part is headed ‘Capitalism at Work’ (ugh) – but will instead focus on the post-sundown sections. (Note: I’ll refer to the New York Times, or NYT, rather than to the author since it is possible that an editor stateside butchered this piece.)

Kicking things off, the itinerary for Friday night is okay but the one for Saturday night isn’t, so I suggest changing both. (NYT excerpts are in block quotes.)

[Friday] 8 p.m.
3) DUCK FOR DINNER

… The dining room of the Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant (22 Dongsishitiao; 86-10-5169-0328) is rowdy, as Chinese restaurants are supposed to be, and the braised eggplant is sweet and good. The skin of the lean bird is crisp, and its meat — wrapped in a thin pancake with spring onions and a sweet dark sauce — washes down nicely with red wine or beer.

There’s nothing wrong with duck but it works better on Saturday night. Why? Friday’s pre-dinner itinerary takes us to The Forbidden City. I say stay in that area rather than leave it to eat dinner and return again for the NYT bar choice, Bed.

You will find a slew of Chinese restaurants on Houhai‘s Lotus Lane. Most menus have pictures of available dishes and make ordering much less intimidating for those unfamiliar with Chinese food. Check the photos at a half-dozen places and then choose a spot – this is a good time to have an adventure and to follow your gut instinct rather than someone else’s itinerary. (Nevertheless, I’ll dig up the names of some of the better places there.) Dining on Lotus Lane makes it easy to grab a coffee at the Starbuck’s (for those who can’t live without it) and take a post-dinner stroll around Houhai and pop into a bar or two on the way to Bed.

Those looking for ‘Western’ eats might check Passby Bar, which has a comfy backpacker feel as well as food with a local twist, such as pizza with roast lamb. Again, this makes it easy to take a tour, this time of Nanluoguxiang, close to Bed.

[Friday] 10 p.m.
4) ANTIQUES AND SANGRIA

Beijing’s best known bar strip, the Sanlitun neighborhood, is a playground for hookers, expatriates and Nigerian drug dealers. Instead, take a cab to the Drum and Bell Towers, and slip into the hutongs, or historic alleys, heading north, toward Bed Bar (17 Zhangwang Hutong; 86-10-8400-1554). Look for a red lantern down a long, quiet lane. A converted machine-parts factory decorated with antique furniture and paintings of the old city, Bed is a pleasant place to drink sangria, talk with friends, and drink more sangria. If you’re with a group, reserve a private room overlooking the courtyard.

Bed is a good choice, though many is the time I have waited at that place for someone who knows his or her way around Beijing fairly well but nevertheless is lost. Suggesting “look for a red lantern down a long, quiet lane” and listing a phone number for the bar might not be enough help for those new to Beijing, though with persistance, and by asking people for directions, they’ll eventually find it.

As for drinks, why would I come to China to drink Sangria? Why not try the local grog (Chinese wine, Beijing beer, and the like) or see if the local bartenders can make a decent drink (at Bed, that means Mojitos)?

Re the Sanlitun** comments, it’s great the New York Times fact-checkers have pinpointed the drug dealers’ nationality: they’re Nigerian! I’d love to see statistics backing this up – if they’re handy (seriously).

By the way, I’m not sure about the past few weeks but during a six-month period that started in May, I wasn’t bothered by any drug dealers in Sanlitun. If they were there, they were less conspicuous and they survived that crackdown a few months back. Re hookers, maybe NYT means the “lady bar” touts – don’t answer them, don’t make eye contact, and just move on. Re expatriates, yes, there are many of them and they tend to be progressively drunker as the night wears on. I repeat – don’t answer them, don’t make eye contact, and just move on. (Even easier, don’t go to Sanlitun in the first place).

On to night number two:

7:30 p.m.
9) KARMA SERVED MEATLESS

Pure Lotus (China Wenlian Courtyard, Changhong Bridge; 86-10-6592-3627) is a vegetarian restaurant whose décor — a lotus motif stenciled from Silk Road grottoes, an altar of fresh flowers, candles in bamboo holders — seems destined for Manhattan…. The dishes have ridiculous karmic names (“Destiny Comes Together as a Cold Plate,” “Yoga Apple Salad”) and some are served amid floral bouquets and dried ice mists, so cynical thoughts should be channeled. Reserve a table in the beautiful main dining room, where the servers sing folk songs.

Pure Lotus is great… if you’re a vegetarian. I can’t imagine being a meateater, having 36 hours in town, and spending one of my two dinners at that place. This is what to have: 1) Beijing duck, 2) Xinjiang food, or 3) Sichuan food. These options feature food that is acceptable to most visitors and fun to share. They are also good alternatives for Saturday lunch (in lieu of Kong Yiji).

Since it’s Saturday, traffic is lighter and there is more flexiblity to pick a spot. Possibilities include Red Rose for Xinjiang food, Dadong (as noted by NYT) for Beijing duck, or Chuan Ban for Sichuan (this is the provincial office’s restaurant and slightly hard to find). I’m a fan of the Dongbei-style restaurant Manchurian Special Flavor Jianzi Restaurant, too.

11 p.m.

10) A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Centro (1 Guanghua Lu; 86-10-6561-8833 extension 42; www.shangri-la.com) is a lounge in the Kerry Centre Hotel in the desolate central business district where Western men in pinstriped suits and Chinese women with pearls drink, flirt and listen to jazz standards. The younger, and more adventurous, will head to faraway D-22, a rock club in the city’s university district (242 Chengfu Road; 86-10-6265-3177; www.d22beijing.com). In a country where the radio waves are controlled by the party and love songs by pretty girls are ubiquitous, rock ‘n’ roll is still considered esoteric. The house bands at D-22 — Carsick Cars, Hedgehog and others — are trying to change that.

NYT describes Centro as in “the desolate central business district” and as “where Western men in pinstriped suits and Chinese women with pearls drink, flirt and listen to jazz standards.” This is supposed to appeal to us? Hmm. Centro is okay if you live in Beijing, but if you’re visiting, go to The World of Suzie Wong. It’s a Beijing institution with something for those who like to boogie (a dance floor), relax with a drink (opium bed-style seating) or sit out on nice nights (a spacious deck). If it doesn’t end up being your style, other venues – Pepper, Souk, Block 8 (including the somewhat Centro-like I-Ultra Lounge) – are within walking distance and allow you to hit a few bars in one night. Or you can cab it to Workers’ Stadium, Sanlitun, Lucky Street, or elsewhere.

As for D-22, it’s a hike from downtown, but if you’re in Beijing and local live music scenes are your gig, then why not?

* As much for the choices as for the way in which they are described.

** By Sanlitun, I take it the NYT means the Sanlitun North strip with the long row of copy-cat bars (where the “lady bar” touts hang out) and the Tongli Studio area nearby (which is associated with drug dealers), not Sanlitun South, the home of The Bookworm, The Rickshaw, Q Bar and other spots).

Note: For another take on the NYT itinerary, see A Modern Lei Fong.

7 thoughts on “Revisions required: The New York Times Beijing itinerary”

  1. If you’re going to smack down the NYT recommendations, why suggest such a tacky destination as Lotus Lane? That strip is pretty devoid of character, in my opinion. I also think Kongyiji is a pretty good pick, as it’s cheap, it has tasty food, and it’s very Chinese.

    I agree that Beijing is great for Xinjiang and Sichuan food, though the noise at Red Rose gives me a headache and I had a terrible meal at the Chuan Ban; maybe that was just bad luck as I’ve mostly heard good things.

    Cut the NYT some slack: they have to include places like Panjiayuan and even though there are 75 places I’d rather eat at than Pure Lotus (it’s good but hey I’m a carnivore), stateside readers who don’t know the first thing about China would probably be interested in knowing about such a place.

    Full disclosure: I am a friend of the author; I don’t know what kind of editing chop-up was done on the piece, but I do know that he has been living in China a *long* time, so he would know where to go if given the opportunity.

  2. @ Ben,

    “… why suggest such a tacky destination as Lotus Lane?”

    As I explained in my post, Lotus Lane is a transition point between visiting the Forbidden City and going to Bed Bar (and it avoids having to cab it to Dadong and back on a Friday, when traffic is terrible). The food is generally tasty and the restaurants are tourist friendly. It might be tacky, but so what? You spend an hour or two eating, stroll around Houhai, maybe check out Nanluoguxiang, and go to Bed Bar.

    Re Chuan Ban, I’ve eaten there more than 25 times (I used to work nearby) and never had a problem. Re The Red Rose, it *is* loud, and while I may have a “been there, done that” attitude about the place, visitors to Beijing typically like it.

    And that’s really the point, isn’t it? The nightlife itinerary is for *visitors* to Beijing, regardless of whether long-term expatriates find it boring, tawdry or formulaic.

    I think you make the point here:

    “… even though there are 75 places I’d rather eat at than Pure Lotus (it’s good but hey I’m a carnivore), stateside readers who don’t know the first thing about China would probably be interested in knowing about such a place.”

    If stateside readers “don’t know the first thing about China,” then why not inform them about the Xinjiang and Sichuan food in Beijing, or about the 75 other places where you would rather eat, than force them to suffer through a showy write-up about a vegetarian restaurant?

    Serve the reader…

    Cheers, Boyce

    PS Re Panjiayuan, sorry if I was unclear, but I wasn’t criticizing it as a stop on the 36-hour tour. By all means, Panjiayuan is an interesting place, even if it is, as you might put it, “a bit tacky.”

  3. Boyce.

    Points well taken. I think as all the various comments on the piece show, Beijing cannot possibly be reduced to a 36-hour itinerary.

    I commented because this thread reminded me somewhat of the exchange on China Law Blog a week or so ago re Paul Midler’s comments on James Fallows’ blog. There are many of us that know a lot about China, but that does not necessarily mean that someone with whom we disagree has no credibility on the subject.

  4. Ben,

    I also thought of the Paul Midler-James Fallows issue, but probably in the opposite way that you did. I don’t know the NYT author but, given that you note he’s been in China a long time, I’m a comparative newbie.

    I’d never, nor did I, claim that the NYT itinerary has no credibility. As noted, I agree with NYT’s choice of Bed and Dadong.

    Thanks for commenting: it’s nice to know someone reads this thing!

    Cheers, Boyce

  5. Of course I didn’t mean to suggest that you questioned the correspondent’s credibility; it is more of a “crusty China hand syndrome” thing: sometimes when those of us who have spent a lot of time in China see something we don’t like, we assume the person writing it is clueless. I’ve surely been guilty of this in the past, but I am trying to be more opened-minded these days, especially as I’ve moved back to the States and my info isn’t always as current as it used to be.

    Look forward to reading more from you and knowing the good spots for when I am back in the ‘Jing.

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