Eat pancakes from a cycle rickshaw, squat on your heels while waiting for a bus, play keepie-uppies with a shuttlecock, roll your shirt up to reveal your belly in the summer (if you're male) and walk backwards, barefoot, along pebbled pathways. You’re in Běijīng now, where people do things differently.
- Běijīng Cuisine
Běijīng has pretty much every type of world cuisine covered – be it Chinese or international – but there are still a few restaurants knocking out genuine old-school Běijīng tucker.
Skip the expensive fry-up and coffee in your hotel and head to any restaurant between 6am and 8.30am that has bamboo baskets stacked up at its entrance. This indicates that they do dumplings. Order yītì bāozi (一屉包子; a basket of dumplings) with yīwǎn zhōu (一碗粥; a bowl of rice porridge), and tuck in. Other favourite breakfast combos here include yóutiáo (油条; fried dough sticks) with dòujiāng (豆浆; soy milk); and húntún (馄炖; wonton soup) with shāobǐng (烧饼; sesame-seed roasted bun).
- Snacks & Street Food
Things to look out for in the evenings include yángròu chuàn (羊肉串; lamb skewers) – any place with a large red neon 串 sign does them. During the day, look for jiānbǐng (煎饼; savoury pancakes), sometimes cooked off the back of a cycle rickshaw.
- Food Markets
Western-style supermarkets are increasingly popular, but wander through the hútòng in central Běijīng and you can still see the locals haggling over fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and meat at streetside minimarkets.
- Group Dancing
Locals often congregate in parks for a hearty singsong or a good old dance. Large, group formation dancing, accompanied by heavily amplified, patriotic songs, is the order of the day, and passers-by are always welcome to join in. Note, it isn’t just parks that attract group dancing. Any large paved area of the city, especially public squares (although not Tiān’ānmén Sq) and apartment compounds, are prime locations come early evening.
- Flying Kites
The all-time classic Chinese pastime is as popular as ever and Běijīng’s parks are a great place to join in. Buy a kite – try Three Stone Kite Shop – then head to any park; the northeast corner of Temple of Heaven Park is a good spot.
Card games are very popular, as is jiànzi: an oversized shuttlecock that’s used for keepie-uppies. Older people enjoy the soothing nature of róulìqiú (taiji softball). Whatever the game, locals are almost always happy for you to join in. So, don’t just stand there taking photos; play!
- Working Out
All Běijīng parks have exercise areas with low-tech apparatus, such as pull-up bars and leg curls. Hòuhǎi Exercise Park is a popular lakeside version. Some areas include a pebble path. Try walking barefoot along them; good for your circulation, apparently, especially if you do it backwards.
You’ll notice some trees in parks have a worn out ring of bare ground around the base of their trunk. This marks out the tree as a taichi spot. Every day, usually early in the morning, someone will come to this tree to perform his or her preferred taichi movements. It’s fascinating to watch.
Cyclist numbers are declining, but they are still huge, and cycling along with the masses is a great way to feel like you are a part of the everyday city flow. It’s also the perfect way to explore Běijīng’s hútòng (narrow alleyways).
- Table Tennis
It’s easy to understand how China dominates world table tennis when you see the facilities devoted to it. Schools have whole floors of buildings dedicated to table tennis, and there are free-to-use tables dotted around the city, in most parks and most residential areas. If you fancy being on the wrong end of a ping-pong thrashing, head to Jǐngshān Table Tennis Park. Hòuhǎi Exercise Park also has tables.
- Ice Swimming
Every day of the year, a group of dedicated Beijingers go swimming in the lakes at Hòuhǎi. Nothing strange about that, until it gets to December, when temperatures plummet and the lake freezes over. Instead of taking a winter break, they rise early each morning, smash a hole in the ice and go for the coldest swim imaginable. Head to Hòuhǎi Exercise Park if you want to watch or, heaven forbid, take a plunge yourself.
Bars and clubs are a Western influence. Most locals just go for a slap-up meal if they fancy a night out. If they do go anywhere after dinner, it’s usually to a karaoke joint, aka KTV. You’re locked away in your own private room, so it’s pretty boring on your own, but if you get the chance to join a group of Chinese friends, take it; the local enthusiasm for belting out pop classics is incredible, and most KTV joints have an English song list available too.
We recommend you go easy with this stuff – it is lethal – but Beijingers who are serious drinkers tend only to drink báijiǔ (白酒), a potent liquor made from sorghum. If you do get goaded into a báijǐu session at a local restaurant (no one drinks báijǐu in bars), take care. The protocol is to down glassfuls in one hit, while declaring ‘gānbēi!’ (‘dry glass!’), so it doesn’t take long to get legless.