Behind the Olympics: Hidden Beijing or what NBC won’t tell you

Chances are, the average Olympics-goer in Beijing will walk away from the trip thinking China’s capital is some blue-sky traffic-free English-friendly capitalist paradise. Well, the capitalist part is no doubt true. But the trouble with Olympic tourism is that by the nature of such events, it’s hard to get past the veneer painted on by the host country.

I spent last year reporting from China, partly on buildup to the Olympics. Of course, most of my “Beijing expertise” comes from those countless nights getting lost in the big city. Though I’m not a local in any stretch of the word, here’s what I know about getting a taste of the real Beijing.
Drinking. I would dare to say Beijing is a drinker’s oasis in a country that rather would stick to tea. This may have something to do with all those diplomatics and their expense tabs for alcohol, but even locals are getting into the swing of things. Of course, I still remember ordering a Guinness last year in a bar and tasting soy sauce in what was probably a Bud.

That pretty much describes the level of sophistication at Sanlitun and Houhai, the two bar districts primarily geared towards expats and foreigners. The real joints are tucked away–The Tree is one of them. For up-to-date insight on watering holes, see this blog and Time Out’s “best Beijing bars” issue.

Eating. OK, I would have to agree with the guide books on this one. For a place chock full with any sort of Chinese food you could want (crawfish and hot pots are its specialty), you have to go to “ghost street” or guijie in Chinese. Then there’s the obligatory slew of Peking duck restaurants.

The guidebooks here all recommend one particular chain found near Tiananmen Square–Quan Ju De. The place has photos splattered all over of foreign dignitaries like Castro and Bush, who have made the visit. But ha! The joke’s on them. These chains are pretty overpriced and to tell you the truth, the locals don’t really go there (like eating at Times Square).

Clubbing. Beijing nightlife is experiencing a renaissance almost as unprecedented as its current architectural one. The traditionalists will gravitate towards the crowd favorites: World of Suzie Wong and GT Banana while the indie fanboys are flocking to LAN and Block 8. Oh, and to give you a taste of how crazy things are getting, the government recently had to shut down secret rave parties that were getting out of control on, you guessed it, the Great Wall.

Seeing. Yes, you’ll have to see the obligatory attractions–Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, though I hear the crowds aren’t as bad as you would think during this time. One thought. Do not go to the Badaling Wall, unless you’re looking for something made in the 1970s (OK might have been a few years earlier). More authentic sections are at Mutianyu, Jinshanling, Simatai, and Jiankou, in increasing orders of “wildness”.

I’ve been to all four and recommend each of them, though Mutianyu is probably for more of the older crowd who want to play it safe. Some more off-the-beaten-path sights that I even haven’t seen include the “Long Corridor” and Juer Hutong.