1. Learn Mandarin.
Even a little will go a long way. English is very uncommon here. All those tourist phrase books and Berlitz courses that did you absolutely no good in Europe because everyone spoke English? They actually help here. The most important phrase to know is “Boo-yao” which loosely translates as “No, I don’t want that cheap plastic souvenir/guide book/Rolex/Gucci bag you’re trying sell me, and I really mean it.”
China is a cash society. Credit cards are rarely accepted, not even in restaurants, large department stores, or major tourist destinations.
Change your money at the airport. It’s relatively hard to do afterwards.
3. Where to Stay
Stay within the 2nd Ring Road unless you have a specific reason to be elsewhere. (The Olympics are mostly outside the Fourth Ring Road.) Beijing is a large city with a lot of traffic. It can take a while to get around.
Chinese hotels (that is, ones that cater to natives instead of foreign tourists and businesspeople) are not the same as North American hotels. Worse in some ways, better in others; but most U.S. travelers will be uncomfortable.
Learn to eat with chopsticks; or, if you must, bring plastic forks.
I got conflicting advice about whether to drink the water, but I didn’t risk it. Bottled water is cheap and easy to find.
If you do drink the water, there are public toilets everywhere. Learn to squat. Bring toilet paper because most bathrooms don’t have any.
Cabs are plentiful and cheap, but the drivers don’t speak English. Write down your destination in Chinese characters, or ask someone at the hotel to do it for you. Many guide books list addresses in both English and Chinese characters so if necessary you can get by with pointing.
Make sure to take one of the Yellow cabs. (Really yellow and brown, yellow and green, or yellow and red). These are official cabs with meters. Other “cabs” are usually private cars out to make a few bucks from the tourists and will cost you a lot more (though still not as much as an equivalent ride in New York or London, I’m compelled to note.)
The subway is easy to navigate and by far the fastest way to get around town. Signs and announcements are in both Chinese and English. Choose a hotel within easy walking distance of a subway station.
At rush hour, if you’re not near a subway, it may well be faster to take a cab to the nearest subway station, take the subway across town, and then take another cab from there.
Buses are cheap, crowded, and Chinese. The driver does not speak English.
Parks and major destinations like the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven are walled. You must enter them at exactly the right place or you’ll have a long walk around.
There isn’t any, at least not of the low-level street crime that would inconvenience tourists. Hutongs are safe, even if they look otherwise.
7. Making Hello
The Asian girl approaching you with a camera wants to take her picture with you. They call this “making hello”. This is not a scam. Caucasians and other non-Orientals are still uncommon enough in most Beijing neighborhoods (with the possible exception of Sanlitun) that the locals are curious.
There’s very little green space within Beijing or close to it, compared to New York or many other Western cities. However, you can find some birds, trees, and animals at The Temple of Heaven Park, the Old and New Summer Palaces, and the Beijing Zoo.
The most common birds in the city are Rock Pigeon, European Tree Sparrow (one of the infamous 4 pests–they’re still here. Mao is gone.) and Black-billed Magpie.
Everything is cheap, cheap, cheap except for electronics which cost about the same in China as they do in the U.S. Clothing and food is especially cheap. Prices are usually well marked, and if they’re not, chances are pretty damn good you can afford it anyway. Outside the tourist shops, merchants seem honest and no one is trying to rip you off. Inside the tourist shops/areas, it’s a different story; but prices here are very much negotiable, even on small items like a soda.
The malls and a few tourist areas like the Great Wall can be somewhat pressured. Just keep saying Boo-yao, smile, and walk on. However the smaller shops in the less touristy areas are genuinely interested in seeing you; and welcome any opportunity to interact, language difficulties notwithstanding. If necessary, draw pictures and point.
10. Leaving town
Do not take any liquids, gels, pastes, waxes, soap, or makeup of any kind in your carry-on luggage when leaving China. Not even in 3 oz bottles in a quart sized ziploc bag. They will be confiscated.
Don’t get to the airport more than 3.5 hours before your flight leaves. You can’t check in.
Airport prices return to U.S. levels. This can be a bit of a shock after enjoying the bargain that is most of Beijing.