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Liulichang & Da Zhalan

Start: Zhengyi Ci Xilou, just south of the metro on Qian Men Xi Heyan Jie (metro: Heping Men).

Finish: Qian Men, south end of Tian'an Men Guangchang (metro: Qian Men).

Time: 3 hours.

Best times: Any weekday starting at about 9am or 2pm.

Worst times: Weekends are crowded. Most shops close about 8:30pm.

This pleasant stroll takes in many of Beijing's most famous shops. Even if you're not interested in buying anything, it makes an agreeable break from the fumes of the capital's constantly gridlocked streets. Liulichang, named for a factory that once turned out the glazed roof tiles that clearly delineated the rank of Beijing's buildings, was renovated in the 1980s to capture the look and atmosphere of the late Qing dynasty. Scholars and art connoisseurs once frequented Liulichang, and it is still home to the most famous art-supplies store in China, Rongbao Zhai. A cluster (at times it feels like a gauntlet) of shops sells art books, scrolls, rubbings, handmade paper, paintbrushes, ink sticks, "jade," and antiques (which are nearly all fakes). Liulichang runs about 6 blocks east-west. Southeast of it is Da Zhalan, an ancient, but more plebeian, shopping street that has been converted into a cobblestoned pedestrian-only mall. There are many ancient shops on Da Zhalan, including tailors, shoe stores, and apothecaries selling traditional medicines. North of Da Zhalan, the market streets of Langfang Er Tiao and Langfang Tou Tiao wind their ways toward Qian Men (Front Gate) overlooking Tian'an Men Square.

Walk south from the Heping Men metro station down Nan Xinhua Jie, and take the first left onto Qian Men Xi Heyan Jie, where you'll find on the right:

1. Zhengyi Ci Xilou

The original theater, which was demolished to make way for a new theater in the same place, dated back more than 340 years, and began as a Buddhist temple during the Ming dynasty. The new theater holds occasional evening performances.

Backtrack to the main road and go south for a few minutes. On the left, extending to the corner of Liulichang Dong Jie, you will see:

2. Zhongguo Shudian (No. 115)

Although it's sprawling and state-run, the largest branch of China Books offers a wide range of new and used books on Chinese art, architecture, and literature without the markups that plague arty bookstores.

Cross the main road to Liulichang Xi Jie. On the left-hand side of the road is:

3. Cathay Bookshop (No. 18)

One of several branches of China Books, this bookshop (south side of street; tel. 010/6301-7678) has an interesting paper-cutting exhibit upstairs and a great range of art materials -- paper, ink stones, chops, brushes, and frames -- at reasonable prices.

Across the street is:

4. Rongbao Zhai (No. 19)

The most renowned art shop in China (north side of street) greets you with what may be the world's largest ink stone. Rongbao Zhai sells wood-block prints, copies of famous calligraphy, historic paintings (reproductions), and art supplies. The handful of workers who are more interested in doing their jobs than in reading the paper are gold mines of information on Beijing's art scene.

Farther west, the street has more shops and traditional-style facades for another 100m (328 ft.), until you get to the wall explaining the history of glazed tile. When you are finished, backtrack to Nan Xinhua Jie and cross over to Liulichang Dong Jie. Continue east to browse:

5. Curio Shops

Liulichang Dong Jie eventually peters out into a series of touristy shops that sell Buddhist statues, ceramics, and reproductions of Tang Dynasty horses and emperors. No. 71 sells good chrysanthemum and green tea. Most of the street contains shops that sell the same knickknacks, but no. 58 carries some quality antiques and reproductions like grandfather clocks and jewelry. Just before no. 65, turn right down an alley marked with a gate bafflingly labeled PRADIPRION SCULPTURE, and follow the signs that say ANTIQUE CARPETS to 54 Dong Bei Yun Hutong. A couple sells Mongolian and Tibetan carpets in their small courtyard living room. No. 28 Liulichang Dong Lu sells elegant grey-green celadon teapots and vases.

Liulichang Dong Jie ends at Yanshou Jie. Turn right, then left on Yangmei Zhu Xie Tiao. When you reach the large T-intersection, turn right, then left on:

6. Da Zhalan (Dashilanr in Beijing Dialect)

Known as Langfang Si Tiao during the Ming dynasty, its name was changed to Da Zhalan after a large stockade was built, presumably to give peace of mind to the wealthy retailers who set up shop here. Now the proletarian answer to Wangfujing, it's a bustling pedestrian-only street with some of Beijing's oldest retailers.

On the right side, you'll find:

7. Nei Lian Sheng Xiedian (No. 34)

Established in 1853, this famous shoe store (tel. 010/6301-4863) still crafts cloth "happy shoes" (qianceng buxie) and delicately embroidered women's shoes by hand. Using a little bit of charm, you may get a peek at the workshop out back.

Continue east, and on the right is a well-known restaurant selling traditional steamed buns as well as other Chinese dishes:

Take A Break -- Locals certainly love the steamed buns sold by the steamer basket at Goubuli Baozi Dian (Da Shilan 29; tel. 010/6353-3338), a recently renovated and attractive restaurant. We prefer the ¥22 buns stuffed with wild vegetables and pork (ask for the yeshu bao) to the original pork flavored buns. On the west side of Meishi Jie are a number of cafes if you prefer coffee and Western food.

8. Tongren Tang (No. 24)

Beijing's most celebrated Chinese-medicine pharmacy was established in 1669. In the western wing, you can make an appointment to see a Chinese-medicine doctor while in the main hall people of all ages -- from youthful 20-somethings to senior citizens pushing ancient-looking wooden carts -- browse the medicine counters. On the second floor, a precious ginseng root that was harvested 80 years ago in Manchuria sells for a staggering ¥680,000.

You're nearly at the east end of Da Zhalan. Don't miss its most famous store, on the left (north) side:

9. Ruifuxiang Choubu Dian (No. 5)

Established in 1893 on the north side of Da Zhalan is the steel baroque facade of a fabric store that once supplied silk to the Qing Dynasty royalty. The company brochure claims that one of the first Chinese flags raised by Chairman Mao was also made from Ruifuxiang fabric.

When you reach the end of the street you should be at the newly renovated Qianmen Dajie. Turn right and explore the quiet lanes of the area once known as:

10. Ba Da Hutong (Eight Great Lanes)

A 1906 survey found that the capital was home to 308 brothels (more than the number of hotels or restaurants), most of them in this district. While there are assuredly now many multiples of that number in Beijing, the government is embarrassed by this area, and forbids local tour agents from visiting or even mentioning Ba Da Hutong. Lanes were once graded into three levels, from "lower area" (xia chu) streets such as Wangpi Hutong, where prostitutes satisfied the needs of the masses, up to lanes such as Baishun Hutong, where "flower girls" versed in classical poetry and music awaited. Money was no guarantee of success; there were various manuals on the etiquette of wooing courtesans. The Tongzhi emperor (reign 1862-74) was notorious for creeping out at night to sample the delights of "clouds and rain." He died of syphilis. These days, hair salons in nearby alleys are unlikely to house courtesans skilled in the arts of conversation and playing the lute, but the basic requirements of the masses are provided for.

North of the east end of Da Zhalan, the hutong becomes Zhubaoshi Jie, a jumble of stands, shops, and carts peddling cheap clothing and bric-a-brac. Take the first left into:

11. Langfang Er Tiao

During the Qing dynasty, this hutong was renowned for its jade and antiques vendors, but by the time you get here, it may all be bulldozed. Two- and three-story houses with beautifully carved wooden balconies hint at past wealth. To the south is Langfang San Tiao, the heart of the former banking district.

Head right (north) along Meishi Jie up to Langfang Tou Tiao, known as Lantern Street (Deng Jie) during the Qing dynasty. Turn right (east), then left (north) when the street ends. Ahead looms:

12. Qian Men (Front Gate)

North of Zhubaoshi Jie is the south end of Tian'an Men Square. To the northeast you'll see the old Front Gate (Qian Men, or more correctly Zhengyang Men), a towering remnant of the city wall through which the emperors passed on their annual procession from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven. Find the underground crossover and ascend the tower for excellent views of Tian'an Men Square to the north and Da Zhalan to the southwest. There's also a photographic exhibition of the streets and walls of old Beijing.

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.