During a visit to Bei Hai, writer John Blofeld chanced upon an elderly eunuch, and inquired as to how he was making a living. He touchily replied, "I manage well. I am a guide -- not one of those so-called guides who live by inventing history for foreigners and by making commissions on things they purchase. I have not fallen that far yet . . ." Little has changed. In a country where children are taught that South Korea and their American allies started the Korean War when they invaded innocent North Korea, many modern historical accounts are inventions. Many visitors assume locals have a unique insight into their own culture. In China, and Beijing in particular, all-pervasive censorship and a general lack of curiosity ensures this is rarely the case. You do not need the services of a local guide.

Several companies offer guided group tours of Beijing for English speakers, but these are almost always overpriced, often incomplete, and best thought of as an emergency measure when time is short. The most popular operator is BTG Travel (tel. 010/9609-6798; www.btgtravel.com), which has offices scattered through the four- and five-star hotels. City highlight tours by air-conditioned bus typically cost around ¥300 per person for a half-day and around ¥500 for a full day with a mediocre lunch. China International Travel Service (CITS) (tel. 010/6522-2991; www.cits.net), offers tours that are more customizable, but at a much higher fee. The options listed below are infinitely preferable.

The China Culture Center (tel. 010/8462-2081; www.chinaculturecenter.org) organizes outings, lectures, and film screenings for expatriates with an interest in Chinese culture. There's usually a weekend half-day or full-day tour. Events are often led by prominent lecturers, and discussions go well beyond the palaver you're subjected to at CITS. They are constantly on the lookout for new attractions, and multiday tours to sites far afield are now offered. A smaller operation with a similar philosophy is Cycle China (tel. 010/6402-5653; www.cyclechina.com). Many sights around Beijing, such as the Ming tombs, are more appealing on two wheels than on two feet. Hutong cycle tours are a specialty.

Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the environs of Beijing provide tremendous scope for 1- or 2-day walks taking in scenery, ancient villages, and, of course, the Great Wall. Beijing Hikers (contact Huijie at tel. 0/1391-002-5516 or Vicky at tel. 0/1381-016-5056; www.beijinghikers.com) organize day hikes for ¥200 for adults, ¥150 for children 11 and under departing from the Lido Hotel. Though popular with North American expatriates, groups are often too large. A cheaper and more interesting alternative is to join a hike organized by Sanfo Outdoors (tel. 010/6201-5550; www.sanfo.com.cn). Originally a small club at Peking University, they now have at least four hikes every weekend advertised (in Chinese) on their website. Visit one of their shops to obtain information on the weekend's activities, but take the grading system seriously -- difficult hikes are really tough, while outings with all luxuries provided are humorously referred to as "corrupt" (fubai).

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.