Some Chinese people might hate me for bringing this up, and to be fair, this is unlikely to be at the top of your Beijing sightseeing list. However, if you want to see something genuinely unique, then this place is for you.
Despite the turbulence and tragedy of the China’s 10-year Cultural Revolution, some have turned this agony into gimmick. “The East is Red” is exactly that, being a restaurant full of Cultural Revolution memorabilia and mystique. You’ll see revolution-era murals on the walls, waiters dressed as red guards, and replicas of old trucks and tanks. Upon entering, you’ll also be handed a little red flag to wave as your meal goes on.
The meal itself is unremarkable, being average, yet filling, Northeastern cuisine. Honestly, though, you’re not going to “The East is Red” for the food. You go for the dinner entertainment, which is a jaunty reenactment of struggle sessions, skits about evil capitalist Japanese and Americans, and dance routines with fake bayonets. Performances run twice daily, from 12:15-1pm, and from 7:15-8:30pm.
The restaurant is located a bit out of the way, in Chaoyang District. Chinese address:红色经典主题餐厅, 朝阳区东五环外白家楼266号. Believe it or not, there’s more than one Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant, and to read more about others, check out this link.
I tend to recommend more unusual places or things to see, since I think it makes for a more memorable trip. However, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention some of the main things that attract travelers. Of all the things in Beijing, here’s what I found the most worthwhile:
1) Boppin’ around Tiananmen Square
This is a no-brainer, and should be your first stop if it’s your first time in Beijing. This is because this is a great area to explore, because several historical spots are linked together: The Forbidden City, the National Museum of China, The Great Hall of the People, and even Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. Obviously the most chilling part was the mausoleum, because visitors are not allowed to stop and take pictures, and must remove hats as a sign of respect. The end result is a brisk walk through a tomb, where most of the body is covered in a blanket (not that I’d want to see the whole body).
2) Seeing the Summer Palace
Another place on most “Top 5” lists, the Summer Palace is worth a stroll. As the name suggests, this is a place to visit in the summer. Many of the buildings are propped up on a hill, and there’s a nice collection of lotus flowers in the summer. If you’re lucky, you’ll also meet the erhu/violin/calligraphy street performer I met, who taught me a couple bars of Chinese opera.
3) Wandering in the Hutongs
Hutongs are the traditional neighborhoods of old Beijing, and though most of the areas have been renovated for tourism, they’re still fun to explore. Nanluoguxiang is a nice compromise between tourism and hutong life. The ACTUAL hutongs of Beijing are much less open to public, and are such twisted labyrinths, that if you find them, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a minotaur sipping tea with some of the locals.
4) The Temple of Heaven
The temple as a whole features pretty impressive architecture, much of which is restored due to previous wear and tear. My favorite parts were the “Circular Echo Wall,” “Three Echo Stones,” and “Celestial Heart Stone,” because when you stand on/near them, you can experience very unique acoustics. I won’t say any more. Just check it out!
5) Admiring graffiti in the 798 Art Space
This area is known for its explosion of art, which can be found everywhere, especially the walls! Though there are several museums in the area and boutique shops to enjoy art, I liked the spontaneous work spray-painted on buildings the best, which are very detailed and something I don’t often see in China.
6) The Bookworm Beijing
Okay, so if you’re only visiting Beijing, or even China, for a short while, this probably wouldn’t be high on your list, but for someone living in China, this well-stocked and active English bookstore is like a gorgeous oasis. Not only does it have many of the latest releases, but it also hosts events and activities for the literary world. I always make time for it on my Beijing itineraries. Check out their website here.
I wasn’t going to write a post about the Great Wall of China, because duh, everyone already knows about it, so it almost goes without saying that it’s a worthy sight to see. But, what many travelers might not know, is that there are many ways to do the Great Wall, and several different sections worth considering. For a more comprehensive list, check out this link, but for now, let me talk about the highlights, and also more unique ways to see this Wonder of the World.
Badaling — Only go here if you’re in a time crunch, want to see the Great Wall, and basically only want a selfie of you on the wall to prove you were there.
I have to mention this, because in the words of Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!” True, it’s the closest section to Beijing City, and there’s even a convenient train that will take you there, so you can even skip over a tour group (and thus skip over some pointless trips to souvenir shops). However, it is basically Disneyland Great Wall, by which I mean it’s so renovated, it doesn’t even look real. To add to this, there are swarms of crowds, making it nigh impossible to get a good panoramic photo of the wall without tons of people in the background.
Mutianyu — Come here if you want to see great scenery, but also don’t want to literally scale a wall to find it.
Image courtesy of Happy Dragon Hostels
Image Courtesy of Top China Travel
This is probably the best compromise between accessibility, natural beauty, and being family friendly. It’s a couple of hours out of Beijing, so you would need to either buddy up with a tour group (hostels offer this service), or get a bus. Mutianyu is much flatter than, say, Jinshanling, less overtly renovated than Badaling, less wild than Jiankou, but still has gorgeous mountain scenery. What makes it stand out: you have the option of riding a toboggan down the Great Wall.
Jinshanling-Simatai — Come here if you want a wilder, but still solid, wall.
Jinshanling-Simatai is much more rugged than Mutianyu, but is also not death-defyingly steep like Jiankou. Same as Mutianyu, it’s a couple of hours out ot Beijing, so you’d need to get some sort of transportation. The perk of this area is that it feels wilder, and so it’s easier to imagine what it must have been like in ancient times. When I went there, I liked that it felt more remote because of how it got slightly less traffic than other more renovated places.
Jiankou — Come here if you want to really CLIMB the Great Wall, and like adventures.
Here’s where it starts to get really wild. This part of the wall gets very little traffic, and that’s becuase it requires a lot more work to enjoy. Loose rocks, crumbling steps, steep cliffs, and trecherous climbs make this a truly adventurous trek. I was lucky enough to go with two boys who a) really liked to climb, and b) had no qualms about hoisting me up over the edges because I have weak noodle arms. To get here, you’ll have to get a small van to take you to the wall (and pick you up afterward!) Bargain liberally.
Scuba Diving the Great Wall — Come here to channel your inner mermaid/merman.
I had to include this one because it’s so cool. Due to the construction of Panjiakou Resevoir, part of the Great Wall is now underwater. While it’s not technically in Beijing, but rather in Chengde, Hebei Province, Beijing-based organizations lead underwater expeditions to see the Submerged Great Wall. You can’t go here with only an Open Water diving certificate, though. It’s 30 meters deep, meaning you have to know what you’re doing. Still, this would probably be the most unusual way to experience the Great Wall.
As I said, this is just an overview of the Great Wall coming out of Beijing, and even only the main culprits. The Great Wall is HUGE, so consider seeing it in other provinces like: Hebei, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and even Tianjin to get even more unique experiences. Just, for my sake, PLEASE don’t just give up and go to Badaling. For me?