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Capital’s Hidden Assets

A trip off Beijing’s beaten track rewards the visitor with quirky sites away from mainstream tourist trails

By Julie Wolf Updated Jul.1

Guyaju Cliff Dwellings, Yanqing District, Beijing

Beijing is a name that conjures visions of ancient world wonders, imperial palaces, and modern power. Few places in the world have such a long, varied, and complicated history and it is no wonder that this is one of the first places travelers explore when they get to China. They go to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and watch the flag ceremony in Tiananmen square and think, ‘I have done it! I have seen Beijing!” The more adventurous tourist might venture into the hutongs scouring shops for souvenirs and sipping tea or coffee in old alleys. All of those things are amazing and I strongly encourage you to go and experience them when you are here. But I have called this city home for over three years now and as with most tourist locations I can tell you, you are barely scratching the surface of what this place has to offer. Here are three of my favorite off-the-beaten-path locations for a truly memorable Beijing vacation.  

Let’s start with when to go. Spring. Beijing in springtime is a magical technicolor dream that rivals Dorothy stepping into Oz for the first time. Flowers bloom everywhere and the air is constantly scented with roses, cherry blossoms, and peonies (yes, some of them have a smell.) And Beijing has hundreds of public parks and gardens to take full advantage of the scenery. But my favorite is Jingshan Park. Like many of the gardens in Beijing, this was once an imperial pleasure garden that has since been renovated and opened to the public. This one has two things that make it particularly special. The first is that it is home to the most varieties of peonies in China, and some claim the world. That is because traditionally peonies were a sign of wealth and power and were often used to represent the royal family because the bushes could take generations to bloom but once established could survive the harsh Beijing winter and bloom majestically in perpetuity. And they are majestic.  

This particular garden has anywhere from 500 to over 1,000 varieties depending on who you ask and while I have never counted them, I can tell you they are in fact breath-taking against the backdrop of blooming trees and ancient temples housed inside the park walls. Walk along the paths and you are sure to catch artists sketching and painting, dance troops and musicians practicing, and children running thru the blooms as parents snap memories with their cameras. It makes for an idyllic and unique Sunday stroll.  

The second thing that makes this park unlike any other is its incredible views. It is located opposite the north gate of the Forbidden City and inside the park, you can climb up to Wanchun Pavilion. From there look north and you will have a panoramic view of all of Beijing stretching to the mountains, look south and you have a bird’s-eye view down into the imperial complex that is not to be missed. Park entrance is only 5 yuan (US$0.8) and you do not need a guide to get the most out of this experience. 

Antiquing Fantasies 
The next stop on the hidden Beijing trail for me is the massive maze of streets on the central east side of Beijing near the 4th Ring Road. They make up the antique market called Gaobeidian. Think of China's version of Portobello Road in London but much older and much larger. This network of old shops looks unassuming and a little run down. But pick a shop, any shop, and step inside for the fulfillment of all your antiquing fantasies. I can easily spend hours treasure hunting in the dusty backrooms and workshops where you will find everything from giant drums and old rickshaws to modern art and reclaimed wood carvings from demolished buildings. Pottery and old baskets as well as painted cabinets and screens are everywhere. Prices are not be as cheap as some of the other markets aimed at tourists but you are also more likely to stumble across a truly unique treasure with fewer mass-produced pieces. No cost of entry but be prepared to haggle hard. Some store owners have pretty good English skills but I strongly recommend having your translation app of choice on hand to help with price negotiations. If you ask they can generally arrange shipment anywhere in the world at an additional fee. 

Cliff Mysteries 
Finally, allow a day for a short excursion about two hours northwest of Beijing city center to hike a UNESCO world heritage site. The Guyaju Cliff Dwellings is one of history’s most recent mysteries. These elaborate cave dwellings carved into the rock were found in 1984 during an excavation of the area and there is still no clues as to who made them or why. No artifacts were found, and no pottery, weapons, or any evidence of habitation except the structures themselves. Many are multi-room homes with obvious bed chambers, areas where cooking fires were made, and ladders carved into the stone to allow travel between levels. In short, it is the coolest clubhouse you could have imagined as a kid with an added Scooby-Doo mystery. The hike to get there is not too challenging and healthy kids from age 8 and up could probably make the trek with no problem. If you have adventurous kids, I strongly encourage this day trip and if you are an adult I promise a stunning view that will get your blood pumping and your imagination racing. As of 2022, there is no fee to enter this park but you will need a car and driver to get there. While you can rent a car and drive yourself, I suggest paying to take a tour with a guide, particularly if your language skills are not strong as this is outside of Beijing and most people will only speak Chinese. I took the tour with a company called China Travellers for 420 yuan (US$60) and it included round-trip transportation, water during the hike, an excellent English-speaking guide, and lunch at a local farmhouse where we had as much farm-to-table local food as we could consume.  

Like most cities, Beijing has a myriad of unknown adventures and hidden gems waiting for travelers and locals to discover. 

Peonies in Jingshan Park, downtown Beijing