Like most people who have some background knowledge of China, I have also joined the Beijing vs. Shanghai debate. The two cities are pretty different, and there’s a large online community who constantly debate which city is better. I can’t choose a side, although I lean towards Shanghai.
I like to compare Shanghai and Beijing to different parts of New York City:
- Shanghai is like Midtown Manhattan; it’s fast, shiny, and pretty classy. I’m pretty sure there are Shanghainese counterparts to the Sex and the City girls (I hope to never meet them, as I hate the show with the intensity of a thousand suns).
- Beijing is like downtown Manhattan (above the Financial District) or one of the outer boroughs (not Staten Island though). It’s grittier, down-to-earth, and has more character.
Back in 2007, I stayed in Beijing for about 2 months, in an attempt to learn more Chinese so I wouldn’t shame my parents (haha). What I’ve learned is that Beijingers are incredibly friendly, although if you mispronounce words they might be slightly rude in correcting you. Fewer people speak English in Beijing than in Shanghai, but ever since the Olympics English speakers are getting more and more common.
Since this is the capital of China and the home of the Communist Party, the city has a larger “communist” color than Shanghai. You’ll still find Mao memorabilia in marketplaces, young soldiers standing guard next to important (or not so important, one guarded the hotel I stayed at) buildings, and colorful locals who legitimately think of Chairman Mao as the “Glorious Leader” (the woman who I bought ice cream from every day is one such example).
I have to say though, that Beijing has a better music scene than Shanghai. I’m a huge fan of rock music, and Beijing was the only city I’ve been able to find Chinese rock, punk, and metal. On this trip in particular, I was on a quest to find Brain Failure’s new album Downtown Production.
The band has gained some notoriety for being one of the pre-eminent leaders of Chinese punk rock; they’ve even toured with Dropkick Murphys (a band that I enjoy a lot).
Anyway, I searched in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei for this album, and I could only find it at the Xidan Bookstore, located in the Xidan Shopping District (which is worth a visit in its own right). This bookstore is the largest one in Beijing, with 5 floors of books and 30,000 titles. Most of the selection is in Chinese, although they have a reasonably large English collection in the basement. They also sell Chinese rock CDs, which made me incredibly happy.
Thus, Beijing’s music gives it a hearty plus against Shanghai.
On this trip though, I was only there for a day to look at a couple of hotels for our tour groups. We ultimately decided on using the Radegast Lake View Hotel (which is such an epic name) for our longer tours, such as our:
- 12 Day Classic Highlights Tour (G12E) to Wuxi, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai
- 16 Day Classic Highlights and Yangtze River Tour (D16E) to Shanghai, Wuxi, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Beijing, Xi’an, Chongqing, Yangtze River Cruise (Downstream), and Wuhan.
- 12 Day China and Mongolia Highlights (U12E) to Beijing, Ulaanbator, and Shanghai. This is our newest tour; I am so excited about it. You get to stay in a yurt! How amazing will that be?
The Radegast is a 5 star hotel, and it seriously looks like one:
They only offered king sized beds when I visited, but I think they can switch beds accordingly. It’s also very close to the Bird’s Nest; if you get a high enough room you can even see it out your window.
For our lone short tour, a 9 day journey (code G9E) through China’s best known cities (Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai) we stay in the equally lovely Pullman Hotel, also a 5 star hotel located in a more local neighborhood of Beijing:
I did get some time to see the sights, though the only sight that I haven’t seen was the completed Olympic Park. Sincethe Radegast was literally a stone’s throw from the Bird’s Nest, I got to look around.
I think the most depressing part of the experience was the hawkers in the park. They’re usually migrants from outside of Beijing, and they hover around the park, trying to sell either legitimate Beijing Olympics memorabilia or fake memorabilia. The Beijing Olympics was 2 years ago, and yet so many Chinese people still depend on it for a living, selling yesterday’s news to tourists who only come to take a couple pictures and leave.
On a lighter note, I got to eat Peking Duck at Quanjude, which first opened in 1864 and has the cutest Peking Duck mascot I’ve seen.
The restaurant’s gone through some remodeling, so the interior is very new. The staff is incredibly helpful, our waitress (number 22, they don’t like to give names for some reason) was incredibly accommodating and helped to recommend accompanying dishes to our duck. She was happy to answer our food questions (one of the people I ate with was Chinese Muslim, so no pork) and was overall extremely friendly.
I couldn’t get a photo of the actual duck we ate, as my group inhaled that duck faster than you can say “om nom nom.”
P.S. I think our tours use this restaurant for our Peking Duck banquet dinner in Beijing. If not, well, you get a Peking Duck Banquet in Beijing. 🙂
I also got to check out the Capital Museum, which we we’re thinking of including on our tours (we are by the way). The museum is 7 stories and houses over 200,000 artifacts, most of which were found in Beijing. The architecture of the museum is pretty interesting; sometimes it’s more interesting than the exhibits. My favorite floor is actually the top floor, which recreates what pre-to-early-20th century Beijing would have looked like.
On my drive to the airport, I went past Tiananmen Square. It’s the largest square in the world, and remains notorious for being where the 1989 Student Protests occurred. I wish the wider public remembers the square for itself instead of what happened there, but you can’t have everything.
Fun fact: My dad led the one of the first foreign tour groups a few months after the protests happened. He remembers taking the group around armed soldiers standing guard at the square. One of our Beijing employee’s brother was actually witness to the events, and he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Anyway, once I got back to Shanghai, I got to be a World Expo tour tester!