Reporter's Notebook: Finding Beijing's Inner Geek

There's more to see in Beijing than the Forbidden City and Great Wall, especially if you are a geek or simply interested in China's growing high-technology industry.

The high-tech heart of Beijing lies in Zhongguancun, an area in the city's northwest corner that is home to some of the country's biggest technology companies. Sometimes called China's answer to Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun is wedged between three of Beijing's top schools: People's University, Beijing University and Tsinghua University.

This part of Beijing is home to some of the biggest electronics markets in the city. Dinghao Electronics Market, at No. 3 Zhongguancun Ave., is one of the biggest markets and remains open until 9 in the evening, making it convenient for visitors who find themselves tied up in meetings during the day.

Taxi is the best way to get here, but keep in mind that Beijing's traffic is famously bad. If you're coming from the central business district in eastern Beijing, expect to spend anywhere from 45 minutes to more than an hour getting to Zhongguancun, depending on traffic. While most taxi drivers will be familiar with the places listed below, it's a good idea to bring along the Chinese address, which can be written out for you by your hotel concierge or a friend.

Once you arrive at Dinghao, you'll find the first floor filled with stores set up by top Chinese brands, such as Lenovo, and the local distributors of multinational PC makers. There's a good selection of laptops and other products here, but you really need to head upstairs to find the best deals and widest selection of products.

Dinghao and other malls are packed with floor after floor of small shops selling every conceivable electronic component or device, as well as whitebox PC systems that can be built to your specific requirements.

Be prepared to bargain, hard. As a foreigner, the prices quoted for you will likely be significantly higher than those quoted for locals. So be sure to research prices online before heading out to buy a specific item. Also, having a local friend or colleague come with you can be a big help.

Overall, prices for electronics are not significantly lower than you will find elsewhere. The global nature of the IT industry and the commoditization of many products means prices remain relatively constant, wherever you are. Nevertheless, there are still good bargains to be found.

If you visit Dinghao during the day, there are a few interesting places nearby that are worth checking out, including two of China's top universities -- Beijing University and Tsinghua University.

Tsinghua, which has one of China's best engineering programs, has attracted the attention of top software companies, including Google and Microsoft, which have both invested heavily in China and set up offices in the Tsinghua Science Park next door. Nearbu Beijing University may not have Tsinghua's reputation as an engineering center but it's generally considered China's top university and has a nice campus that's perfect for an afternoon stroll.

A short taxi ride away from both universities, you can visit the two-room building where Chinese PC maker Lenovo, formerly Legend, was started in 1984. Originally a gatehouse at the Institute of Computing Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, 11 people crammed into this building to start a business that eventually became one of China's most successful technology companies and one of the world's top PC makers.

The small structure was moved to its present spot from its original location close by to make room for Raycom Infotech Park, a modern office complex that still counts Legend Holdings, Lenovo's parent company, among its many tenants. Located at No. 22 Kexueyuan South Rd., the restored -- but now empty -- building lies on the northern side of Tower A, where a stone marker details its history.

You can see just how far Lenovo and the rest of China's IT industry has come since 1984 by visiting the Shangdi Information Industry Base, an industrial park on the outskirts of northwestern Beijing. At No. 6 Chuangye Rd., you'll find Lenovo's Chinese headquarters building, which also houses one of two PC factories the company has in Beijing. You can also drive by Lenovo's new R&D center, at No. 6 Shangdi West Rd., where Lenovo's top global management has their offices -- part of a company strategy to maintain worldwide headquarters in Beijing and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Besides Lenovo, Shangdi's dusty avenues house operations of many top Chinese technology companies, such as PC makers Tongfang and Founder. Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei, which is actually based in the southern city of Shenzhen, also has an R&D center here.