You arrive at Beijing Capital International Airport. It’s been a long flight – 12 or more hours from the US, UK, or Australia, double that with connections and/or delays. By the time you land, the sun is low in the sky, day nearly done. The wheels touch the tarmac, jarring you awake. There’s always a long taxi in Beijing- you can’t even see the terminal from the runway. No kidding, after you land, you might still be rolling slowly down the runway a half an hour later. By the time you’re at a gate, gone through immigration and customs, and found the taxi queue, it’s nearly midnight.
Perfect time for Ghost Street. Tell the driver to take you to Gui Jie / Dongzhimen Nei – and let your Beijing experience begin.
Gui Jie, or Ghost Street, is the section of Dongzhimen Nei Avenue that lies between the Beixinqiao and Dongzhimen subway stations. There is some debate as to where the street got its unusual name. Some say that excavations of the street a few decades ago unearthed grotesque statues of ghosts and demons – replicas of which appear in front of some of the restaurants here. Others say it’s because people are want to wander around here at all hours of the night – as ghosts do – seeking that which they may devour. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the few places in Beijing that’s open 24/7, and with nearly a hundred restaurants and pubs to choose from, it’s a great place to spend your first night in Beijing.
Book a night at the Star of City Hotel, a cheap but decent bed at the western end of the street, 50 metres from Beixinqiao subway station, right on the main road. After checking in and unloading your bags, head to the streets where the crowds are still going strong. Door-to-door restaurants and pubs are the main attractions here, as are the myriad Chinese paper lanterns that adorn the sidewalks. For the past few months, the main delicacy has been crawfish cooked in a spicy hot broth (huo guo), but sentiments can change rapidly. In the years since I’ve been going there, the street has been swept by a number of fashions, including Korean, Russian, and Brazilian cuisine. But hot pot and table-top barbecue definitely rule the roost.
If you don’t speak the language, it really doesn’t matter. Most restaurants have photo menus you can point at, and, although it’s not a particularly touristy area, staff will be able to understand a few basic words in English, such as ‘cold beer, please’ and ‘please bring me the check’. And really, just about everything you order here will be delicious. Every restaurant can do the Western faves – kung pao chicken (gong bao ji ding), sweet and sour pork (tang cu li ji), and hot and sour soup – which, in my opinion, is a real jet-lag killer. Branch out a bit and try anything that looks good – eggplant and potatoes (di san xian), cold cucumber and garlic salad (pai huang guar), tofu in a very spicy sauce (ma po do fu) – whatever. Fish will be served with the head still in place, and crustaceans still in the shell, so if that freaks you out, avoid them. Seafood tends to be considerably more expensive than chicken or pork anyway, so you might give it a pass. No, you won’t get dog or donkey by mistake – beef is half the price. But it’s available if you want it.
You pay a bit more for atmosphere here – tumbledown places tend to have food that is just as good as the fancier spots, but for a bit better value. It’s cliche but true – don’t pick a place because it looks nice, choose a place that’s super busy.
My favorite restaurant on the street is one that looks incredible AND is always super busy – Hua Jia Yi Yuan, Hua Family Garden. In fact, getting here after midnight will guarantee you don’t have to wait; arrive at 8 pm and expect to wait outside for at least an hour – probably worth it, as there are stage shows during proper dinner hours – Beijing opera, Chinese acrobats, and the like. The main dining area gives the appearance of being an outdoor courtyard, even though it’s indoors, complete with wandering minstrels, singing birds, and sweets vendors wandering the aisles. However, the Hua family have also spent decades buying out a number of siheyuan homes in the hutong behind the main road, which means you can dine the way wealthy Beijing families have dined for over 300 years, if you’re lucky enough to get a table in one of the meandering courtyards. The last time I was there (January 2017), they had an impressive midnight buffet for 250 rmb per person, which included Peking Duck and other Imperial specialties.
But you don’t have to spend a lot of cash on Gui Jie; in fact, if you’re adventurous, wander a couple of alleyways north, to hutong such as Beixinqiao Santiao. During the warm weather, you’ll barely be able to squeeze down the narrow alleys due to the plethora of metal tables set up to feed Beijing’s locals. Many a shirtless, beer-swigging local will invite you to share a table and a plate of spicy lamb kebabs (yangrou chuar), washed down with a half-a-dollar quart of Yangjing beer. In the cold weather, follow your nose – the smell of lamb over a charcoal fire will lead you to restaurants that serve whole, roasted kid. You might think you’d need a large group for this, but, trust me, when that lamb is turning slowly on a spit at your table, you can eat a lot more than you’d think.
The important thing is to go with the flow. Follow the crowds down the sidewalk. Embrace the noisy, smoke-filled restaurants. Try your language skills with the somewhat pirate-sounding Beijing dialect. Grill your own food at your table, drink too much beer, buy a round for the table next to you (it’s only a dollar a bottle after all). Stumble into the next place, eat and drink some more – all under the light of a thousand Chinese lanterns.
Welcome to Beijing.
Tomorrow, you’ll only be a ten-minute walk away from Yonghegong Lama Temple and the Confucius College. You can take it easy, explore the alleys that haven’t change in centuries. If you think you’ll have a hangover, send me a message and I’ll direct you to one of the best Bloody Mary’s in the city.
Take it from a guy who lived in the neighborhood for a decade – Beijing doesn’t get much better than this.
As of December 2017, Gui Jie was undergoing a facelift – all of the lanterns have been taken down, and the facades of the shops, pubs, and restaurants torn off. Rest assured, by May/June 2017, I would expect that everything is back to normal. I’ll post a status update when I get one – another reason to ‘like’ me on Facebook!