Caochangdi, one of more than 300 urban villages in the city of Beijing, has a unique story to tell.
Still relatively unfamiliar territory to many Beijingers despite being founded by prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Caochangdi is a hipster's paradise. The contemporary galleries are scattered around an unassuming area outside Fifth Ring Road. It’s off the beaten path to say the least. When you get to the Caochangdi bus stop, it's not immediately apparent that you've managed to find Beijing's least commercial art district. Only in the past decade have galleries been opening up here, so it is far from touristy.
Instead, what you experience is everyday Chinese life in a quiet area on the city's outskirts, with some minimalist yet exquisite galleries here and there. It's a bit difficult to navigate, but certainly manageable if you know a little bit about the layout. If you're planning a trip, it's probably better to have a general idea of the area before you go: zones A, B and D are where you'll find most of the interesting venues.
Getting there: It's a lot faster to go by taxi than by public transportation (cab drivers generally know where Caochangdi is). A cheaper alternative is to take the bus. There are multiple buses from the city – the 402, 418, 688, 909, 955, and 973 all go there. Get off at either the Caochangdi (草场地) stop or the Nangao (南皋) stop.
1) Zone A: Platform China, F2 Gallery, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre
On the north side of Nangao Street you'll find Platform China, which shares a courtyard with a few other galleries and a coffee shop. Across from that is F2 Gallery and up the way is Three Shadows. The Three Shadows courtyard has outdoor tables outside its cafe and gift shop, offering a nice break from visiting galleries.
From the Nangao bus stop, keep walking along the road and turn right at the large blue signs indicating the galleries. Then follow the road around and you'll run into all the galleries.
From Caochangdi bus stop, go back the way you came to the Old Airport Side Road and turn right until you see the big blue signs.
2) Zone B: White Space, Art Mia, Galerie Urs-Meile, Chambers Fine Art, Pekin Fine Art
Finding Zone B is a bit more hectic, but well worth the effort. Here you'll find a lot more galleries in close proximity, including White Space, which is a visitor favorite. The giant bright iridescent purple egg outside is impossible to miss against the white walls surrounding it, and the contrast continues when you walk inside. The name is appropriate as the gallery has a large amount of white space around each piece. The exquisite lighting makes the space feel like the endless white used to portray the afterlife in movies. It's a fun way to draw the focus into each individual work.
After White Space, make sure to hit up Art Mia, and then go across the courtyard to Shanghart. Shanghart has comfortable couches ideal for relaxing or skimming through a book from the art library. Other places in the area include Chambers Fine Art, Pekin Fine Art, and Galerie Urs Meile. They are all worth seeing, depending on how much time and energy you're planning to spend.
From Nangao bus stop, go back the direction you came and turn left at Nangao Street, then follow it until you reach the Caochangdi bus stop. From Caochangdi bus stop, cross to the south side of Nangao Street and follow the little road around the bend and through the food street. Eventually you will find Galerie Urs Meile. After that, keep going down the same street until it ends at the back of Zone B. You can go right or left around the courtyard to its entrance and you'll find Pekin Fine Arts, Shanghart, Art Mia and White Space.
3) Zone D: Fodder Factory, Salt Horse Gang Café
If you’re hungry you can head over to one of the delicious foreigner-friendly restaurants around here. If you're looking for some good Chinese food, try Fodder Factory for some traditional food done right. You can wash down the meal with a coffee or an Erdinger. If it's Western food you're looking for, stop in to Salt Horse Gang Cafe. Getting there:
This part is easier to find. It is located just off the corner of the Airport Expressway and Fifth Ring Road. From the Caochangdi bus stop, walk down the food street, but instead of turning at Galerie Urs Meile, keep going straight.