Beijing Feature

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Free (or Almost Free)

Although Beijing isn't as inexpensive as it once was, it's still a fabulous bargain compared to travel in Europe, North America, and more developed Asian nations like Japan and South Korea. While expats have complained of rising prices—especially during the run-up to the Olympics—visitors from Western countries are often overwhelmed by a feeling that life in the city is practically free. Bottled water, snacks, subway and bus rides, or a steaming bowl of dumpling soup all cost well under the equivalent of 50 cents. Average length cab rides, a dish at a decent restaurant, or museum admission tickets will set you back only two or three dollars. And the capital is filled with acceptable hotels for about 50 bucks per night. Little is free in Beijing, but there's also very little to make much of a dent in your wallet.

ART

The modern art scene in China has exploded onto the world stage over the past decade. Beijing's 798 Art District, located northeast of the city center along the road to the airport, is the country's artistic nucleus. The complex was built under East German supervision in the 1950s to house sprawling electronics factories, but artists took over after state subsidies dried up in the late 1990s. The district is now home to at least 100 top-notch galleries, and almost all of them are free.

* 798 Space * Art Bridge Gallery * Asia Art Center * Beyond Art Space * CO2 United Creative Space * Contrasts Gallery * Mulpa Space * PaceWildenstein Beijing * Red Gate Gallery * Red T Gallery * Taikang Top Space * Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (Y20)

MUSEUMS

The city's most famous museums aren't exactly charging an arm and a leg for admission, but the smaller and quirkier museums listed here ask only for donations or charge less than Y10.

* Arthur M. Sackler Museum * Beijing Ancient Coins Exhibition Hall * Beijing Tap Water Museum * Beijing Police Museum * Cao Xueqin Former Residence * China Honey Bee Museum * Xu Beihong Museum * Song Tang Zhai Museum of Traditional Chinese Folk Carving

OFFBEAT EXPERIENCES

Beijing's urban sprawl is interrupted by a number of lovely parks designed in traditional Chinese style. Of particular historical significance are the four parks built around altars used for imperial sacrifice—the Altar of the Sun (Ritan), Altar of Heaven (Tiantan), Altar of the Earth (Ditan), and Altar of the Moon (Yuetan).

If you happen to be in Beijing for Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), you literally won't be able to avoid the party atmosphere that overtakes the city. You may have seen a display of fireworks before, but have you ever been inside a fireworks show? Just remember to bring earplugs, as the explosions go on at all hours for days on end.

Set aside some time for random wandering, especially through the hutong neighborhoods inside the Second Ring Road. Much of what makes Beijing special happens on a very small scale. Listen for the call of the local knife sharpener who rides by daily on his bicycle. See the old folks walking the dog in their pajamas.

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