Seeking out Beijing city's most romantic spots
For pure atmosphere, nothing beats the southeastern and southwestern outer corners of the Forbidden City. These two locations are open to all yet appreciated by few. Between the broad moat and the imposing wall of the City itself is a little strip with marble walkways and benches, massive old willows and preternatural calm. One theory explaining the ambience is that local Beijingers, out of respect, avoid loitering around the Imperial Palace; the quiet has been attributed to three-metre-thick walls blocking the sound of traffic. The two spots are entered by means of Donghuamen and Xihuaman (the side gates of the Forbidden City), respectively, and let out onto the east and west wings of Wumen (the second gate in after the main Tiananmen gate, where entrance tickets are sold). They are best experienced at night, when subtle floodlights illuminate the ruddy walls, the trees rustle and the moats seem to widen out into the darkness on the other side.
A Steamy Affair
Relationship on the tracks? Passion running out of steam? There's just something about trains that strokes the flames of passion. Perhaps it's the private cabins ... the passing vistas ... or the rhythmic to-and-fro swaying of the cars ... Now add an element of spontaneity to the experience, et voila! Guaranteed romance. Hop a train to nowhere in particular from the Beijing Railway Station (Beijing Zhan, near Chongwenmen) - book a luxury sleeper for two (complete with cable TV, electrical outlets and private toilets), bring a bottle of champagne and a picnic basket (candles optional), and you're in for a most bump-alicious ride. Goodies (RMB 25 delivery charge, 6416 7676, www.bejingggoodies.com) will deliver both the wine and the meal directly to the station. We also suggest getting takeout from Assaggi (see Rest. Directory under Italian), Tandoor (see Rest. Directory under Indian), Mare (see Rest. Directory under Spanish & Portugese) and Hatsune (see Rest. Directory under Japanese). As for the destination, take your pick - China is full of fantastically romantic spots - but here's our recommendation: a romantic weekend in Shanghai. The T103, leaves at 8pm and arrives at 10am the next day; the T21, leaves at 6pm and arrives at 8am the next day; and the T13, leaves at 6.08pm and arrives at 8.08am the next day. All the rides cost RMB 911 for one-way. For more information, call 962585. There is an RMB 3 toll an hour charge for this call. Bon voyage!
A Novel Idea
It's a little nerdy, but there is a type of romance that is best conducted amongst books, pots of coffee or tea and endless afternoons. Beijing has a few cafe/teahouse/bookstores of note, some with a traditional teahouse feel and others a little more modern. The Thinker's Cafe, despite the silly name, is an excellent spot attached to an excellent bookstore: the All Sages Bookstore (6276 8749). Window booths are a good place for a couple cups of coffee. The H20 cafe and bookstore (8286 3033), opposite Lush in the Huaqing Jiayuan, is all about comfort and tranquility, especially compared to what's going on next door. Sanlian Bookstore (6400 1122), outlet of the renowned Sanlian Press, contains a small cafe with very reasonable tea prices, though due to the small size, awkward arrangement of tables and the popularity of the bookstore, this is not the most peaceful choice. Your best bet for sweeping 'em off their feet are at the Sanwei Bookstore (6601 3204) - though the store itself is small, the upstairs teahouse is spacious with high-ceilings and full of light. The owners don't mind if you park it for an entire day over a book and a pot of tea, and are discreet enough to give couples engrossed in conversation (and each other) a little room to breathe.
Who wouldn't want to relive, just for one day, those spontaneous moments that made youth so thrilling? To this end, we recommend the classic game of 'sardines,' a variation on hide-and-go-seek, in which the hider hides and the seekers seek, as usual, but as each seeker finds her prey she hides with them. By the time the last seeker reaches his goal, she finds not a single cowering target, but the entire gang, ideally crammed into a space only big enough for one, affording all sorts of opportunities for mischief and merrymaking.
Such a truly indecorous sport is best played out in the most decorous of locations - and no spot is more decorous than the Forbidden City. For a mere RMB 60 per head, a pack of six or eight friends (ideally couples ... or potential couples) can while away an entire day in the one-time seat of the Dragon Emperor's power - frolicking, giggling, and getting in trouble with the guards. Sneak into a concubine's curtained bed in the Changchun Palace, vanish behind the Nine Dragon Wall or retreat to the top of the Mountain of Accumulated Refinement. Imagine the pleasure of seven friends squeezed in breathy intimacy beneath the royal throne of Qianqing Palace, while the last wanders through the galleries, moaning like the forsaken spirit of some Ming Dynasty eunuch, searching for his lost love.
Drum Roll, Please...
Timing, in all things, is important, and nowhere is this truer than in love. Kublai Khan, a man who knew his pleasure domes, had due regard for the proper apportionment of time. He built Beijing's Drum (Gulou) and Bell (Zhonglou) Towers, near modern-day Houhai to keep time. In the Qing Dynasty, the drum and bell were sounded at dawn and dusk, signalling Beijing's daily retreat and rise from the bedroom, thereby keeping the rhythm of the city's love life, day by day, month by month, for centuries after Khan's rule.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Gulou and Zhonglou have been turned over from timekeeping to tourism, but the area retains some of its romance. In the off-season, it's a maze of quiet hutongs and cooing pigeon lofts. Young lovers give way to idle pedicab drivers and wheelchair-bound septuagenarians sunning themselves in the filtered midwinter light. Come Chinese New Year, however, and it's drum roll pleeease ... as the clock strikes midnight, the bell peals and drums thunder and fit young men in red tunics pound away into the night. Then comes the crowd's turn to make someone's bell ring. As the signage points out, it's the one night of the year you can "send the heart-shaking drumming sound and your personal feelings to the world.'' For the rest of the year, you have to be content to let others - like the fit, young men with the big sticks - do the drumming for you.
Icy blasts of winter cold can chill the libido, but it's the potential for indoor cosiness afterwards that makes it all worth it. Ice-skating and romance go hand-in-hand and although Beijing has nothing like the Rockefeller Centre, it has its own modest selection of frozen bodies of water this time of year. If you're looking for romance, perhaps the Liangma River isn't the best choice, unless your date enjoys the explosive smell of methane. Qianhai, on the other hand, is a popular spot for skating. You can rent skates for RMB 10, but bringing your own may be a more comfortable option. And if skating isn't your thing, you can rent plastic ducks and 'ice chairs' to slide around on for a mere RMB 15. If safety is your concern, don't worry too much. The lake isn't very deep as it is drained for the winter, and the safe spots are marked off. The Qianhai/Houhai area also offers plenty of cafes and bars and hutongs to take a romantic stroll through after you're done skating. Another romantic spot to skate at is Weiminghu on the campus of Peking University. Smaller and more intimate than Qianhai, Weiminghu may be a better choice for a date if you're looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the centre of the city. The campus of Peking University is also one of the most picturesque campuses in the city, and is an excellent place to take a long walk after a bit of skating.
Highs and Lows
The nerves, that churning feeling in your stomach, the exhilarating highs and disappointing lows: dating and riding roller coasters have a lot in common. A rendezvous at Chaoyang's Sun Park, whose entrance is located at the park is at the crossing of Dongsihuan Beilu and Nongzhanguan Nanlu, may not at first seem like the place to impress, but a date here could be your first ride on the journey to luuuv.
To be frank, Sun Park doesn't exactly rank in the world's top rides. Jungle Mouse, the park's newest ride, which opened last year hits 22 mph where Top Thrill Dragster in Ohio is the world's fastest at 120 mph. But Ohio is a long ways away, the queues here are non-existent and Jungle Mouse costs a mere RMB 25.
So why is riding the Jungle Mouse a good idea? If the date is going well - and the object of your affection is not turning pale as you casually mention the British woman recently decapitated at a funfair - you can cuddle up to them in mock fear as you enjoy the 1 min 20 second ride without being accused of suffering a severe attack of wandering hands.
Take My Breath Away
A few years ago Beijing's skyline was nothing to sneeze at, but with buildings springing up all around town, the view is looking a lot better from the top. The CCTV Tower on Xisanhuan (the west Third Ring Road, 6845 0715) offers the best vista in the city - RMB 50 gets you a ticket to the top where you can take in Chaoyang's growing opulence to the east and the hills to the west of the city. Just remember: sunset is at 5.51pm on February 14th.
For a more cerebral experience, the Astronomical Observatory (Tianwentai, tickets cost RMB 15 - order in advance if you want to be there at night, 6255 2268) on Jianguomenwai Dajie offers its own cultured view. Bask in Chaoyang's grandiose modernity in a setting that dates back to 1442 - the observatory's antique spheres, armillas and alzumiths will take you to the heavens.