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Drinking in Beijing, the Forbidden City
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For Adriaa, a South African tourist, a few sips of tea in a bar featuring Chinese horticulture and framed windows means more than just an evening's pastime; instead it gives him a real feeling of being in the right place to taste the country's culture.

"In Beijing, the Forbidden City and Summer Palace are not the only attractions for foreigners to get to know China. I like it here where I can see Chinese people really close," he says, while leaning on the bar's wooden window adorned with classic Chinese designs.

The Nanluoguxiang bar, teahouse and caf area, an old Beijing hutong (an alleyway or lane typical of the ancient city) community with a history of over 800 years, is renowned for its vibrant bars and cafes. The area has evolved into a favorite destination for local hipsters, musicians and freelancers, among others.

This destination, where local residents with cattail-leaf fans meet young people with trendy clothes, has also turned into a paradise for backpackers and foreigners who prefer Chinese folk culture.

"There's no skyscrapers and modern buildings, all the structures fit so well with the alley," Adriaa says. "This is the place where I like to hang out with my friends, to see how Beijing locals spend their leisure."

Adriaa's colleague Leslie, lounging on a couch featuring a red cover with big flower petals, a design popular in the country's northwest Shaanxi Province, says "I like to see how normal life goes on here, and it's so cozy to have a lot of Chinese furniture around."

"Compared with Sanlitun and Houhai (Rear Lake), two other famous bar districts in Beijing, I like Nanluoguxiang most. It has a peaceful environment and makes people feel relaxed."

The area's restaurants offer different prices, but on average they are acceptable, ranging from approximately 200 yuan to less than 50 yuan per meal.

Zhang Xin (not his true name) of Lian Yunnan (Missing Yunnan), a small Yunnan style bar, says quite a few foreign and Chinese people come to his bar everyday to enjoy true Yunnan dishes like mint leaves salad, a popular dish during hot summer days.

Liu Ying, a Beijinger who owns the Three Trees bar in the area, says Nanluoguxiang reminds her of childhood memories of running through the alley and playing hide and seek.

"The decorations are casual but with one aim - to restore its original appearance, which can remind old Beijingers of the place they used to live and the old times they had."

Pivot doors with lion-head handles, wooden grid windows, grey and reddish wooden floors - many of the establishments in Nanluoguxiang have similar decor that hasn't changed for hundreds of years, she adds.

Only yards away lies another bar Hutong (alleyway). On its second-floor terrace, where customers have a bird's eye view of the area, two Macedonians were attracted by the bar's red lanterns.

"Those made us think of the movie Raise the Red Lantern by Chinese director Zhang Yimou," says Alexander, stressing it was "very special and traditional."

Alexander was not alone in the metropolis among those seeking a place to accommodate their curiosity for Chinese culture. For 41-year-old Brian, who came from England on business, The World of Suzie Wong bar in the city's eastern Chaoyang Park West Gate attracted him more with its fancy Chinese dcor and Western-style entertainment.

The bar's furniture follows the style of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) with giant Chinese paintings of royal families, a classic gramophone, Tiffany lamps and lotus plants, all of which seemed to tell an Oriental story, he says.

The businessmen had traveled to Shanghai, Urumqi and other places in China, but was fascinated with the bars in Beijing.

"I often miss the bars in Beijing. There's my favorite black beer and of course, the amazing stories behind the city and bars," he says.

However, for 25-year-old Luke, a beverage in Suzie Wong is too expensive. What the Brit prefers are bars with distinctive artistic design and a cheaper prices.

In Zhangwanghutong, a place near Guloudajie, the pioneering Bed Bar, carved out of an old siheyuan (a compound normally occupied by several families of Beijingers) has proved a great conversation piece.

Its warren of rooms, kang-style bed seating (a sleeping platform made of bricks or other forms of fired clay) and artistic design enables customers to have a nice conversation, says Moling, a Canadian-born Chinese.

The owner of the bar, a Malaysian artist, initiated the idea of bed-themed bar and had it updated to include a collection of 16 beds of different styles, manager Lulu says.

With a Chinese name of Liu Ye, Lulu had been in China for 12 years. Her father was a Russian and mother Shanghainese.

"It was Chinese culture that united us here," she says.

(China Business Weekly July 30, 2008)

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