Beijing for all budgets

By | Category: Travel destinations

The National Stadium, BeijingOne year on, Beijing is still buzzing from the Olympic Games; indeed it’s estimated that 85.4 million tourists visited the Chinese capital in the first half of this year alone – despite the downturn in the economic market and the outbreak of swine flu. CD Traveller spoke to Sarah Keenlyside – a former Time Out Beijing  journalist and founder of Bespoke Beijing, a Beijing based travel service offering travellers up to date insider information about Beijing’s best sights and bites – to get the lowdown on what to see and do in one of the 21st century’s most exciting destinations

CDT: When did you see the need for the service and why?

SK: Working for Time Out meant that I knew better than most where all of Beijing’s best bars and restaurants were and it would make me cringe to see tourists eating greasy chips at the tacky, overpriced places on Beijing’s infamous bar street when literally hidden just around the corner was one of the coolest, best value restaurants I’ve come across in the world, let alone China! On other occasions I’d be regaled with stories of how so and so had got a ‘great’ bargain on a pair of glasses. They’d paid £68 when they should have paid £20. Also in Beijing, taxi is the main mode of transport – but none of the taxi drivers speak English. After getting endless phone calls from visiting friends and family asking me to give their taxi driver directions, I decided something needed to be done to help tourists make the most of their holiday. After all, when you’re paying all that money to get here you want every moment to be special don’t you? The best way to do that, I believe, is to give them a local phone with access to translation and expert help whenever they need it.


CDT: What differentiates Bespoke Beijing from other travel companies?

SK: We live and breathe the city on a daily basis, which means we are one of the only companies, if not the only company, that can truly say they have their finger on the pulse of a city like Beijing, which changes at an alarming rate. Huge numbers of the places listed in guidebooks (including major tourist sites) have long since boarded up their doors and better places open all the time. How can someone sitting at a desk in the UK give you advice on the best hotel to stay at or which tour guide to use? We’re also the only travel company to offer a completely personalised phone for customers on arrival (we pre-programme all the numbers you’ll need into your phone beforehand, including your embassy’s number, those of the bars and restaurants we’ve chosen for you etc).


CDT: What is your first memory of Beijing?

SK: I first came to Beijing in February 2005 and frankly had no idea what to expect. I distinctly remember huddling on the Great Wall in a puffa jacket looking out across the mountains which was amazing. I also recall all the great smells that would waft out of the restaurants; initially I was afraid of the food but by the end of the trip, I couldn’t get enough of it!


CDT: How do you stay on top of all the latest openings?

SK: By being well connected after four years here and knowing what the city looked like last week, so I can notice when a new place appears! Plus I never pass up an invite to an opening party or the chance to pop into an old temple I’ve not seen before.


CDT: What is your favourite thing about Beijing?

SK: Probably the food. Before I came to China I had absolutely no idea how incredibly diverse Chinese food was, or how unbelievably tasty it can be. In the UK, we’re used to a bastardised version of the food from Hong Kong, which is more than a thousand miles away from Beijing and completely different. Because Beijing’s the capital you get everything from expertly made Peking duck and dumplings with a precise number of pastry folds, to lamb skewers from Muslim west China and spicy Sichuan food from the south. And it’s all delicious.


CDT: And favourite shop?

SK: It’s not a shop per se, but a market. It’s called Panjiayuan and has just got so much character. It starts at 4am in the morning and that’s when the real antique hunters go to get the best deals. Some of it’s a bit suspect – porcelain and curios from recently ransacked graves and Buddha statues stolen from ancient temples do feature – but so do rows and rows of more accessible, above board souvenirs. You can get everything from Cultural Revolution posters to Mao alarm clocks, Tibetan-style embroidered pashminas, jewellery, oversized table lanterns… It’s great fun.


CDT: What are ‘must buys’ while in Beijing?

SK: Hmm. A Plastered T-shirt has become a bit of a must buy; they capture the essence of the city perfectly and make great souvenirs. I also love Spin – a porcelain store selling quirky modern Chinese pieces by Shanghainese designers. Everyone I’ve taken there has ended up buying up half the store!


CDT: What is the biggest challenge your clients face in Beijing?

SK: The fact that 95 per cent of the people they come across won’t speak English! That and getting ripped off. Beijing is also enormous and the places most worth visiting are almost always hidden away or off the beaten track – which is why some insider knowledge is essential.


CDT: The best people watching spot?

SK: Probably one of Beijing’s mega clubs. They have great names like ‘Babyface’ or ‘Cutie Club’ and they’re where Beijing’s nouveau riche and party kids hang out, singing karaoke in private rooms, drinking Chivas whisky with green tea and playing dice games. These clubs pull in some big international DJs too and the dance-floors can get pretty hedonistic. Mao would turn in his grave!


CDT: What has been your biggest mishap in Beijing?

SK: Where do I start? Beijing is the sort of place where mishaps happen on a daily basis and there’s not a lot you can do about it, except learn to roll with it. I’ve often thought becoming a Buddhist would help…


CDT: How has Beijing changed in the aftermath of the Olympic Games?

SK: Actually not much has changed. The biggest changes happened in the lead up to the Olympics. The city became a lot more internationally savvy and there’s more choice in the way of high end restaurants and boutique hotels. Certain areas of the city have also been embraced by the government where they weren’t before – the 798 art district and some of the old hutongs for example.


CDT: Any plans for the company to expand and cover other cities?

SK: Absolutely. We’re already in talks about setting up a Shanghai office and soon you’ll be able to pick up your survival kit from other Chinese cities such as Xian and Hong Kong if you need to as well. Then it’s full steam ahead to bring the bespoke concept to the rest of the world!

To find out more about Bespoke Beijing email or log onto

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