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Wangfujing

Start: Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum (metro: Wangfujing).

Finish: Dong Si Mosque (metro: Dong Dan).

Time: 3 to 4 hours.

Best times: Weekday mornings or late afternoons.

Worst times: Weekends when window shoppers run rampant. Lunchtime can also be crowded.

Wangfujing (Well of the Prince's Palace) is the old commercial heart of Beijing. However, as you'll find on this tour, simply duck down alleyways in any direction and the facade melts away. Situated east of the Forbidden City, Wangfujing was the favorite residential neighborhood of royalty during the Ming and Qing dynasties. At the end of the Qing, when the princes fell on hard times, there was plenty of family silver to be sold. Pawnshops sprang up, and the street got its start as a commercial area. It also began catering to foreign tastes, not only for Chinese antiques but for imported luxuries. Unsurprisingly, it was one of the first targets of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

You wonder what the xenophobic Boxers would make of it now. There are only a handful of traditional Chinese stores left -- most of them have been razed to make way for huge megamalls. The cathedral leveled by the Boxers was soon rebuilt and was fully refurbished in 1999; its forecourt is a magnet for local skaters, talking a talk that owes nothing to the Confucian Classics. But continuing on, the Boxers might find solace in the small remnants of hutong and the distinctly Chinese (and more affordable) fashions and street food on offer in the stalls of Longfu Si Jie and Dong Si.

Taking exit A from the Wangfujing metro, you'll find:

1. Wangfujing Paleolithic Museum

The owners of Oriental Plaza were unimpressed when they struck 24,000-year-old bone in the basement of the largest mall in Asia. However, the powers-that-be couldn't resist the urge to build yet another monument to the longevity of Chinese civilization, and forced the Hong Kong developers to build this museum to house their ancestors (tel. 010/8518-6306; ¥10; daily 10am-4:30).

Ascend the escalator to find yourself in the basement of:

2. Oriental Plaza (Dongfang Xin Tiandi)

Critics wrongly predicted that this high-end mall would fail when it opened. Although the critics were right that former residents -- evicted so that developers could build Oriental Plaza -- can't afford to shop here, plenty of nouveau riche Chinese can. We tend to skip the familiar American and European brand-name stores, and hit the more unusual Chinese shops. The mall also includes a good basement-level cinema and food court. Shop AA10 Shanghaixu has a large selection of qipao, traditional tight-fitting, high-collared Chinese dresses. If they don't have anything you like, you can get one made to order. Next door, Emperor has a nice assortment of embroidered napkins and housewares. A few shops down at AA20, Art of Shirts has a nice collection of button-down and casual shirts for men and women. The Herborist at EE05 carries a line of traditional Chinese medicine toiletries.

Emerging from the west side of the mall, stick to the right (east) side and head north up Wangfujing Dajie, passing the huge but chaotic Wangfujing Bookstore. Cross the road to:

3. Gongmei Dasha (No. 200)

You're guaranteed to get the real thing at this large jade store, rather than the colored glass you might find elsewhere. Bargain down to a third of the marked price (tel. 010/6528-8866; daily 9am-9:30pm).

Continue along the right-hand side of Wangfujing Dajie to:

4. Shengxifu (No. 196)

Established in 1912, this famed hat shop is the place to get your proletarian Mao cap or a furry hat with earflaps decorated with Communist red stars. Return to Wangfujing Dajie, and continue north along the left (west) side to the next attraction.

Return to the main street, and continue north. On the right (east) side is:

5. Wuyutai Tea Shop (No. 186)

The second floor of this quality tea shop has an interesting exhibition of tea culture, including a collection of teapots, and a lively teahouse.

Return to the main street and head north for a few steps. On the left (west) side is a place to:

Take A Break -- Our favorite stalls in town for street food are at Wangfujing Xiaochi Jie (Small Eats Street). Don't be afraid to try the lamb skewers or the squid on a stick -- though they may look suspect, we assure you, they are clean and scrumptious!

Return to the main street and continue north to:

6. Foreign Language Bookstore (No. 235)

The Waiwen Shudian (tel. 010/6512-6911; daily 9:30am-9:30pm) houses Beijing's largest selection of English-language materials on the first and third floors. The second floor has a surprisingly wide range of CDs featuring local alternative bands, as well as Beijing opera and soothing instrumental music.

Continue north. It's hard to miss:

7. Dong Tang (East Church)

Also known as St. Joseph's Cathedral, this gray Gothic structure has endured a torrid history. Built on ground donated by the Shunzhi emperor in 1655, this Jesuit church was toppled by an earthquake in 1720, gutted by a fire in 1807, and completely razed during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. After a major renovation from 1999 to 2000, the church became notable for its wide, tree-lined forecourt, the favorite spot of Beijing's skaters. Sunday services are held at 6:15, 7, and 8am.

Across the street are two narrow lanes. Take the lane on the left to reach this memorial hall:

8. Lao She Jinianguan

Lao She was one of China's most famous writers. When Lao She returned to a newly Communist China in 1950, then-premier Zhou Enlai gave him this courtyard residence with the hopes that he would write propaganda novels for the new government. But he never turned out another famous novel, and he drowned himself during the Cultural Revolution.

Retrace your steps back to the street, and take the right alley into:

9. Fuqiang Hutong

This alley is immodestly named "Rich and Powerful Alley." Note the finely carved roof lintels with Buddhist swastikas and the lotus-emblazoned door piers at no. 18. While the rectangular door pier indicates that the residents weren't officials (whose houses were marked by circular door piers), they must have been well-off to be able to afford skilled stonemasons. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted during the Tian'an Men Massacre, lived at no. 3 under house arrest until his death in January 2005.

Following the hutong to the end, turn right to get back on Wangfujing. Then turn left, heading north until you reach the intersection with Wusi Dajie. Across the street on the left is:

10. Zhongguo Meishuguan (National Art Museum of China)

This museum has a good permanent collection of Chinese oil paintings and hosts international exhibitions curated by the likes of New York's Guggenheim.

Turn left out of the museum, and make a left at the next intersection. On the right side of the street is:

11. Longfu Si Jie

In this small alley you'll find bargain clothes, music, and street food that make an interesting contrast to the bustle and commercial flair of Wangfujing.

At the archway at the end of the alley, turn right and head south to Dongsi Nan Dajie. On the right side of the street is:

12. Dong Si Qingzhen Si (Dong Si Mosque)

One of Beijing's oldest mosques, Dong Si Qingzhen Si has been around since the 14th century. The second courtyard is especially serene -- a nice place to unwind and rest your feet.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.