Beijing’s centuries of history melds well with its more modern adult amenities—karaoke TV?!?!
Story and photos by Dennis Argenzia and Grace Cayosa
Poke. Poke. Poke.
We look down. A surly Chinese midget in a red velvet smoking jacket and white tuxedo is gesturing for us to move on, or at least, get out of the way. He’s the doorman and we’re dawdling in his zone. We comply, and head down the escalator, into a wall of techno sound and visual mayhem.
Welcome to Beijing.
Developing so rapidly that its centuries-old infrastructure can barely keep up, Beijing is the proud capital of a country lined up to be the next great global economy, and as China’s political/military/cultural center, Beijing is happy to show you what it has to offer.
For those who simply cannot visit a foreign country without exploring what it used to look like, Beijing has several Unesco World Heritage sites: the imposing Forbidden City; the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan); the beautiful Summer Palace (Yiheyuan); the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing dynasties; and, of course, the Great Wall, which was our hands-down favorite because you can hike the Wall and we’re the type who like to wander around ruins. There are fully restored sections of the Great Wall (e.g. Badaling), but we strongly recommend the largely un-restored sections of Jinshanling to Simatai for breathtaking views, a challenging walk and a chance to ride a questionable zip-line at the very end.
Other items on the cultural “to do” list are a rickshaw tour of the Shichahai hutongs (traditional Chinese courtyards); a visit to the 2008 Olympic grounds and its iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium; a taste of Beijing’s famous roast duck at Da Dong; an art walk through the repurposed military factory buildings of the 798 Art Zone (Dashanzi Art District); and, if your ears can handle it, a bit of Peking opera. If you consider shopping a cultural activity, there are plenty of goods for purchase, from omnipresent souvenirs, to the aggressively-bargained fakes at the Silk Market, to the luxury brands at Wangfujing Street, where you’ll find Cartier and Coach stores located right next to KFC, McDonalds and fried scorpions.
For entertainment, karaoke TV (“KTV”) is hugely popular in Beijing, as in, there are not one, but multiple KTV venues with literally 100+ rooms, some of which are open 24 hours. Basic set-up includes kitted-out karaoke equipment, as much alcohol as you can afford (usually served by attractive, attentive staff) and sofas for your friends to die laughing on. Beyond this, quality ranges from high-end to positively seedy; some KTV spots provide free buffet, drinks and nibbles, while others offer more, ahem, adult amenities.
Speaking of adult amenities, these aforementioned venues can also be a source for green. Please note that sale or possession of marijuana is illegal in China. A possession charge carries the very real possibility of being sent to a “rehab camp” (read: hellhole prison) while trafficking over 10 pounds of cannabis resin guarantees you a once-in-a-lifetime visit to one of the world’s busiest lethal injection chambers. However, with reports from travelers varying so widely between “Yeah, the police tend to look the other way if you’re a foreigner smoking pot” to “Don’t do it on pain of death,” you’ll have to make your own risk assessment.
If singing to a canned track makes you cringe and pub crawls are your passion, Beijing can satisfy. Noteworthy quirky watering holes are Chocolate (of midget doorman fame) with its Russian vodkas, Russian go-go dancers and Russian gold-plated urinals; Fubar, a speakeasy located behind a hot dog stand in the Worker’s Stadium; and 12SQM, a 44-meter-square bar in Nanluoguxiang. There are also sports bars such as The Den and Danger Doyles (great for anyone yearning to watch NFL games while overseas), and a significant music scene at venues such as M.A.O Live House, Mako Live House, Yugong Yishan and 2 Kolegas.
So, if visiting the capital city of the “Awakening Dragon” interests you and you are willing to play by their rules—which include not protesting human rights issues such as Tibet or Tiananmen Square, and generally behaving yourself in the presence of the military—then go ahead: apply for a tourist visa, learn a few Mandarin phrases, and remember to install a virtual private network on your laptop so you can upload videos of your buddy’s frighteningly good Brittany Spears’ impersonation onto Facebook.