Holidays aren’t only for relaxing; they’re also about immersing yourself in a new culture. Even if you’re preferred city break involves more long, lazy lunches than jam-packed days of sightseeing, these brilliant Beijing experiences are worth making time for.
China’s ancient capital and a buzzing modern metropolis rolled into one, Beijing is a city full of enriching experiences. While some visitors just like to wander the winding hutong lanes and absorb the city’s infectious atmosphere, others seek out cultural activities, either sitting back and watching the masters in action or rolling up their sleeves for some hands-on practice. Whether cooking up a feast of traditional Chinese dishes, trying your hand at calligraphy or eating in a former palace, you’ll return home with a deep impression, a fresh outlook and possibly a new skill.
If you’re a fan of Cirque du Soleil, don’t miss your chance to see the Chaoyang Theatre’s acrobatics show while in Beijing. While perhaps not quite as flashy as the aforementioned world-famous troop, the nightly antics on offer still involve a mind-boggling combination of contortion, juggling, spinning plates and high-wire acts. The tireless professionals of the 1957-founded Beijing Acrobatic Troupe perform flawless tricks that they’ve been honing since they were kids. Along with the outstanding feats of skills and courage, audiences will be treated to beautiful choreography, dazzling costumes and traditional music. Even the seats at the back have a great view, so don’t be tempted to spending extra on VIP seats.
This multi award-winning show is so much more than your standard kicking planks performance. Put on by China’s leading art production company, the Legend of Kung Fu show at Beijing’s Red Theatre brings the country’s best kung fu practitioners, designers, directors and choreographers together into one action-packed performance. Martial arts skills are mixed with modern dance and an engaging storyline explained with English subtitles above the stage. No spoilers, but this tale is worth your attention, so don’t spend your time taking photos and miss the twists.
Though somewhat of an acquired taste with its high-pitched nasal runs, Peking opera is a quintessential symbol of China. The origins of the highly stylised and disciplined genre date back to the 18th century, but there are fewer and fewer modern-day practitioners. The Liyuan Theatre, just a stone’s throw from Beijing’s Forbidden City, is no-frills, but the costumes, make-up, songs and dances are both authentic and mesmerising. English subtitles allow foreigners to follow the storylines, and tea and light snacks are provided. It’s worth arriving 30 minutes early to watch the steady development of a character as a performer applies his/her make-up on stage.
Take an hour out of the hustle and bustle of Beijing and learn the ancient ‘internal’ martial art of tai chi. Within the beautifully landscaped grounds of the storied Temple of Heaven, individuals and small groups can learn the foundation of tai chi, its roots in the philosophy of Taoism, the concepts of yin and yang and the power of a mysterious energy known as qi. Participants will take part in a demonstration from a master before learning breathing exercises and even a form of self-massage. You’ll leave the class with a routine of nine tai chi steps under your belt and a distinct feeling of serenity. For the best experience, ask for Eric as your teacher.
Certified foodies can roll up their sleeves and return home with a few new skills in their repertoire. The cooking classes at The Hutong – a well-run and inclusive cultural exchange centre nestled among Beijing’s ancient winding lanes – are engaging for all levels of skill and experience. Learn how to recreate the delicious carby dishes you’re bound to become addicted to during a stay in China’s capital; the choice of lessons includes hand-pulled noodles, xiao long bao (soup dumplings), jiaozi, dim sum and baozi (all variants of dumplings). Vegetarian options are available and all classes include free-flowing soft drinks and three printed recipe cards to take home. The building also has a nice rooftop area, so head on up for a celebratory beer after your dinner (weather permitting).
Also put on at The Hutong – a charming cultural exchange centre in Beijing – are cooking classes for those looking to explore the varied flavours of regional Chinese cuisine. With the Tastes of China series, foodies can choose whether to focus on fresh and zesty dishes from Yunnan Province, mala (spicy and numbing) dishes from Sichuan Province, classic Chinese street food or one of five sets incorporating one dish from three distinct areas. Vegetarian options can be provided with advanced notice. Classes start at 10.30am and finish around 1pm with students sitting down and sharing their creations for lunch. There will be a lot of food, so don’t go crazy at your hotel breakfast buffet.
Artistic types and those with good handwriting might want to try the ancient art of calligraphy during a trip to Beijing. Programmes at the calligraphy class studio run at various intervals throughout the day, including a sunrise session for the jet-lag sufferers among us. The small group classes start with a short meditation exercise that helps guests get into the calm and peaceful mindset needed for beautiful calligraphy. Participants will then be schooled in the history of the art form as well as the correct posture and brush techniques, before flexing their creative muscles with Qing Dynasty Chinese characters. Keep a steady hand, as all students can take their creations home as a self-made souvenir of their time in Beijing.
Try your hand at one of the world’s oldest continuously practised art forms. Within a traditionally decorated studio on Beijing’s Nanxincang Culture and Leisure Street, a master of Chinese ink and brush art will demonstrate the tricks of the trade. Enjoy a solid introduction to the art form and its history before you learn to use the traditional Chinese tools and get to grips with the different free-form brushstrokes. Visitors will then be let loose with the brushes, ink and rice paper and given space to create one-of-a-kind artworks to take home from their trip.
From within a traditional Chinese-style courtyard building in Beijing’s ancient hutong lanes, the team at Culture Yard have something special to teach — China’s most beloved game, mahjong. The tile-based game, which was invented during the Qing Dynasty and is still played in all corners of the country today, is quick to pick up and fun to play. Your guide will introduce you to the history of mahjong, before letting you in on some strategies for winning and ways to improve your skills. If you really get into this group game of skill, strategy and chance, sign up for the advanced class once you’ve mastered the basics.
For a whirlwind introduction to Chinese food and culture, a meal at Beijing’s Bai Jia Da Yuan restaurant should not be missed. Housed in a former Qing-era palace and grounds, complete with eight acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, the restaurant serves up cultural performances, such as Peking opera, alongside a huge menu of Chinese favourites. The interior is restored to its original glory, offset by traditional Chinese furniture and a fully costumed staff of Qing-era maids, concubines and eunuchs. A meal here doesn’t come cheap by Chinese standards, but the food is consistently good and you can’t go too wrong when ordering. For something a little different from your standard Chinese takeaway dishes, the Kangxi lamb hotplate and the kungpao prawns come highly recommended. Rock up at the restaurant yourself, or combine it with a tour of local landmarks, culminating at the loud and lively Houhai Lake.