Qianmen Street: Where New Meets New

Qianmen Street: Where New Meets New

Photo: travelpod.com

Remember that fabulous shot of the old Forbidden City in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Remember the Starbucks Café right in the middle? I don’t either but similar sensations await you at the (fairly) newly refurbished Qianmen Street.

As one of my coworkers told me, before 2006, one could walk down the avenue and get a sense of history. What is a sense of history? When you do find yourself in front of something truly ancient, centuries old, you’re most likely at a museum or other tourist attraction equipped with a gift shop. Qianmen has skipped all the stuffy pretensions of culture and art in cutting a much clearer path to commodities relevant to our time:  Air Jordan, UniQlo, Rolex, Zara. If your eyes jumped at any of these brands—because by all means they are in shortage—head down to Qianmen.

But perhaps a sense of history is that snap we get when reminded of something inherently anachronistic, that pull between traditional and contemporary. Just a stone throw away are Tiananmen Square and hutongs marked with the chài symbol on every conceivable surface. Qianmen may best represent the often, ironic project of China’s modernization, and thus, could clue you into our historical moment. Chinese tourists will be taking photos of the new, while foreigners will be trying to recreate an exotic dream of the past.

All pontifications aside, there is a 20 RMB trolley ride down the street, but don’t expect to use your travel card. Immersed in the digital age, this historical sight reserves some analog niceties.

For a complete list of shops you can pick up a tourists map at the entrance for free. A few old Beijing brands do still call Qianmen their stomping ground, so if you stop by, maybe pick up a pair of cloth shoes (100 RMB) from Nei Lian Sheng Shoe Shop or buy some dried fruit at Hong Luo Preserved Fruit Shop. Don’t expect any great deals.  For those of you looking for modern Chinese cuisine, definitely head over to Capital M.

Before you leave the Qianmen area, though, you might also be interested in cultural relics lying just off the main road, head over to Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant on Cao Chang San Tiao, just off Qianmen East Street. If you get confused, just follow the adorable ducks leading you to a delicious (expensive) meal. Several foreign emissaries take pilgrimage to this very restaurant, so don’t fret over whether they accept your Visa card. Also on Qianmen East Street is the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall—which has been eerily empty since the closing of the Olympics in 2008.

On Qianmen West Street, you’ll find Laoshe Teahouse, a multi-story restaurant gussied up to look like the Qing Dynasty era. While it was only founded in 1988, the restaurant hosts a range of classic cultural activities from puppet shows during lunch, to full on Peking Opera during the evening. They also keep an old communist style tradition just outside, offering a cup of tea for 2 fen to any passerby. You can definitely afford it, so go take a look. 

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