4 Jul 2008

Navigating the Beijing Olympics

Heading to Beijing to enjoy the sport-filled three weeks or so of frenzy? Fridae's Beijing correspondent Dinah Gardner shows you where to eat, sleep, shop and party.

China's been getting jittery before the Olympic Games this summer, tightening visa restrictions, shutting downs bars, snatching magazine licenses, raiding saunas and generally spoiling a lot of fun, all on security concerns. But don't let that stop you from heading to Beijing to enjoy the sport-filled three weeks or so of frenzy. The Chinese Communist Party is not worried about gays per se; it knows the western world is watching and approves its growing tolerance. It just wants to tame the wilder sides for reasons of face - so prostitutes - and that includes the city's army of money boys - are personae non grata along with, of course, the Free Tibetan posse, restive Uighurs (a Muslim minority from the northwestern Xinjiang region) and, well, protesters of any kind. It's One World, One Dream, after all, with the emphasis on the "one."

The capital's sole gay club Destination has just shut down for a renovation and hopes to reopen by Aug 8 to allow for a larger patron capacity, Beijing DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant is fast becoming one of the hippest places to try the golden-brown slices of roasted bird, and the 80,000-seat Beijing's Olympic stadium.
First off, getting inside. Beijing's made it a lot more difficult in recent months to get a visa. Here's what you need: a passport that's valid for at least six months from the date of application, a return ticket (proving you will be leaving China at the end of your trip) and proof of hotel bookings for the entire duration of your stay. Roomrates have also gone up.

At least the tighter visa restrictions mean it's now possible to get a room. Before the security crackdown everyone was predicting hotels would be jam-packed. The government was so panicked it roped in 1,000 Beijing households to offer to be host families for Olympic tourists. It now looks like there's going to be surplus of empty rooms because of China's stricter rules. It's now early July, the peak holiday season, yet five-star hotels which are usually full at about this time are reporting about 60 percent occupancy. Beijing's Tourism Bureau revealed in a report that among five-star hotels, only 77 percent of rooms have been booked during Aug 8-24.

While you would need to contact the hotels yourself to see if there is still availability, we have picked out what we think are the three sexiest places to stay. If five star's your thing, the Park Hyatt at the top of the Yintai Centre in Guomao (in the central business district) is not only one of Beijing's highest hotels - the lobby is on the 61st floor - it will also be one of its plushest. Hotel G (for Glitzy, Gracious & Glamour, according to its web site), a five-minute stagger from the capital's sole gay club Destination, has just opened its doors earlier this month. The funky boutique hotel, which is said to be infused with Austin Powers chic features free wireless, a Tibetan themed night club and outdoor Jacuzzis. If you want more of a taste of old Beijing, kip down at Lusongyuan Hotel, a beautiful courtyard bed and breakfast in a little lane near Houhai Lake.

Now you've got a comfy bed for the night, you'll want to know where to eat. There's no shortage of fabulous restaurants. As well as some classic places to scoff the city's signature dish, Beijing Duck, the whole slew of regional Chinese cuisine is also well represented along with everything from Ethiopian spongy flat breads to hunks of Norwegian salmon.

Pick up a copy of one of the free entertainment magazines - The Beijinger, Timeout Beijing (its license was removed by the government last month but it's expected to be back on the shelves in August), or City Weekend - at your hotel for comprehensive listings and reviews. We have a few suggestions here. Beijing DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant is fast becoming one of the hippest places to try the golden-brown slices of roasted bird, smeared in plum sauce and then wrapped into pancakes. They also teach you how to do it right. If it's romance that you are looking for try a candlelit nibble at Brasserie Flo, an art deco palace with arguably the best French cuisine in the capital.

While police are threatening to cap the city's nightlife with a 2am curfew during the Games, up until now Beijing's bars and clubs are still vibrating until all hours. The only gay club in town is Destination, affectionately known as Desperations. It's in the centre of the city near the Worker's Stadium and is jam-packed with hot men Friday and Saturday nights. Pre-Olympics security and a renovation plan has shut down Destination's dance floor for now. Owner Edmund hopes that by August 8 the newly enlarged club will be open and ready - complete with police-approved dance floor. Big-name international DJs tend to play at CoCo Banana, across the road. Pepper near the infamous World of Suzie Wong nightclub is much better than Suzie's if you're in this neck of the woods. The hot (although probably straight) waiters make magic cocktails and perform bottle spinning tricks - sometimes with their shirts off - on the rooftop terrace.

The government which has already announced a crack team of 100,000 security personnel will be deployed to ensure safety during the Games says it will launch a crackdown against drugs so play it safe when you're in town. The public security ministry said it will target nightclubs and clubs in particular. Destination, as well as other clubs, is periodically raided by the police who often make patrons take urine tests.

Daytime is shopping time and Beijing's been smartening itself up on that front in recent years, although luxury goods and electronics are still much more expensive here than say Hong Kong and Singapore. Several shopping malls to please are Shin Kong Place just east of the central business district in Dawanglu with almost 1,000 brands, Oriental Plaza, at the far end of the Wangfujing shopping street which has Tiffany's and Shanghai Tang and 3.3, a boutique-style shopping mall packed with the work of local designers in the Sanlitun bar area. If you want the flash without all cash, Silk Street and Yashow Market has the full repertoire of fake brands. For souvenirs, Mao kitsch and antiques head to the mother of all markets, Panjiayuan in the southeast of the city, which has over 3,000 stalls selling everything from wooden bird cages to chunky chains of Tibetan turquoise.

Despite a recent fuel hike rise, public transport costs shouldn't be going up which means it will still be very cheap to get around the city. New subway lines mean that you will be able to jump off at all the Olympic venues, and nip between downtown and the airport. The new Olympic branch line, or line 8, is a bit tricky to get to - you'd have to make four changes, say, if you're coming from the central business district - but, hey, it's just US30 cents for the whole trip! Taxis are also inexpensive - average cost of a trip around town is usually less than US$5 - flagfall is just over US$1.50.

Finally a quick word on what you can and can't do. China released a nine-page rulebook in June listing activities it said foreigners were banned from doing during the Games. These include sleeping under bridges and bringing in materials harmful to national security. Those with sexually transmitted diseases or mental problems will not be allowed to enter the country - although it's not clear how they are going to check. Spectators at the Games can wave their country's flag provided it's not too big but all other banners are strictly prohibited. Even groups of people wearing the same clothes may be told to go home and change, media reports say.

Journalists love to sex things up and many of the security crackdowns probably won't affect most visitors. Keep it clean and you should enjoy a "harmonious" Olympics.

For addresses and other details, visit the newly updated Beijing cityguide.