Forbidden City Beijing

Beijing – a cheap backpacking paradise

Beijing might not always appear on a world backpacking trip route, but it should definitely not be overlooked. Where else can you get such a developed blend of ultra modern buildings, top spec technology, transport systems and huge modern highways coupled with some of the most fantastic ancient structures and remains on earth?

Beijing – the ancient capital

Beijing Capital Airport Welcome Sign

The city is a huge sprawl of high rise buildings which, on initial impressions, is just not that attractive. It lacks the bright light appeal of Shanghai and the old quaint style of smaller towns in the country. The concrete tower blocks and seemingly never-ending highways may just do enough to remind you that you are in the communist capital of the world. That’s just not what you want to see when you’re backpacking. You want experiences, culture and charm, not hundreds of tower blocks interspersed with a McDonalds and a KFC.

But you’ll not have to look hard to scratch beyond the big city surface and uncover a Beijing which is surprisingly traditional and modern at the same time. In addition, knowing the right places to look will yield an old world Beijing which is fast disappearing and must be explored before it is lost forever.

Beijing – cheap backpacking

Street Escalators Beijing

The great thing about Beijing is, quite simply, the prices. The city is largely a tourist destination for Chinese citizens and lacks in any real form any sort of mass, overpriced tourist traps. Having said that, you are paying more than a local for some things, but never mind, it’s likely only a couple of cents difference!

The city is huge and sprawling, and traffic is a nightmare, but you’ll be able to get around all the major sites for next to nothing. The underground is a modern, air conditioned network of plenty of lines and stations which serves the centre, and some outlying areas, well. A single journey on the excellent underground network costs only 2RMB (about £0.20), so you can be sure you’ll not break the bank. Taxis are also fantastically cheap – for example, a journey from Beijing Zoo to Tiananmen Square (circa 30 minutes in traffic) is about 200 RMB (about £2).

Seeing the sights in Beijing

Beijing - Forbidden City

Safe in the knowledge that you’re not going to bankrupt yourself when out and about, it’s time to hit the sights in Beijing. There are plenty of sights which are well known worldwide, such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China, all which charge an entry fee (but really, it’s not much at all) and which perhaps deserve their own article in themselves, but there are also plenty of other things to do in Beijing that also don’t cost the earth:

Hutong Flavour

Modern Beijing

Head to Beijing’s rapidly disappearing Hutongs, a collection of alleyways that, in the past, were the centre of the locals’ lives. Only a handful of original Hutongs remain and they are becoming more and more difficult to find, as they are bulldozed in favour of high rise apartments. The area around the Bell Tower and Hou Hai Lake will yield a network of alleys and houses, some opening their front doors to serve food, cut hair and sell cans of coca cola from their porches. Treat yourself to a cheap ride on a rickshaw through the old network and explore the sights and, somewhat unfortunately, smells. Yes, the Hutongs are so traditional that you’ll pass the communal toilets every couple of blocks. At least you’ll never get caught short... and it costs you nothing.

The Military Museum

Military buffs will love the Military museum (free entry if you bring your passport) and for those who love a little bit of history it’s also a great place to head. This huge museum is housed in a communist style building which really looks the part, and is full of history; you’ll find plenty of old planes and items seized from invading armies, amongst other things. There’s a whole floor dedicated to the Korean War, the Communist cause and plenty of others. A really interesting place to head and a little off the tourist trail, the museum will likely be filled with school kids and old Chinese men. What a great way to mingle with the people!

Hou Hai Lake

Hou Hai Happy Hour

It’s a little bit cheesy, but someone’s got to do it. For some great evening entertainment, head to the Hou Hai Lake, which you will access by navigating a succession of Hutongs. Here, you’ll find bars serving cocktails and local beer for next to nothing, great happy hour deals and restaurants galore. The prices aren’t the cheapest in town, as the area is fast becoming a tourist hot spot, but once again they’re certainly not going to bankrupt you – a mojito costs 2 dollars here. Why not take a boat out onto the lake and marvel at the lights and sounds of this old area.

Night Markets

Wangfujing Night Market

A favourite pastime across China is a trip to the night market for a quick snack. In Beijing it’s no different, and Wangfujing night market is probably the most famous. Here, pick up anything from fried scorpions to snake, parts of sheep that shall remain nameless and little baby ducks on a stick (fried of course). It’s not for the faint hearted, but it’s a well organised and regulated venue and you can be sure of fair prices and good food. If you find Wanfujing night market a little too sterile and touristy, then head into the main street and take the alley way opposite the KFC. Here, there’s another similar market that seems to be more orientated to locals. You may need to hold your nose on a few occasions, but that’s part of the fun.