10 Things to Know Before You Go To Beijing

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.”

2. Money

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.

4. Food

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.

5. Transport

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.

6. Crime

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 young Asian woman 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.

8. Nature

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.

9. Shopping

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.

10 Responses to “10 Things to Know Before You Go To Beijing”

  1. dbt Says:

    (I visited southern china, so some of this may be regional)

    “sheh-shya”. Thank you.

    First word I learned in chinese.

    When a waiter is refilling your drink, tap the table twice with your index and middle finger to say “thank you, that’s enough”.

    And while you should know how to use chopsticks, starting now is probably not long to learn properly… but it’s still a good idea.

    (And I would not drink tap water that hasn’t been boiled. People I knew who grew up there would rather drink hot water if they didn’t want tea.)

  2. dbt Says:

    Find the show “Ni-hao Kai Lan” on Nick Jr. for some help with pronunciation. 🙂

  3. Hamlet D'Arcy Says:

    Your hotel should have business cards with the name of the hotel in English and Mandarin along with a map to the hotel. Take one and put it in your wallet. When you get lost (which you should try to do, btw), you’ll always be able to quickly get back to your starting point without trouble by showing the cabbie the card.

    For food, I like to go order two entrees and eat the one I like. Wasteful? Sure. Expensive? Nope. You’ll usually enjoy one of the dishes but not both.

  4. Sandra Says:

    Great info – I’m not going to the Olympics but someday I will travel to China. And I will definitely speak Mandarin!

  5. tom Says:

    As a native Chinese, I would say this is one of the most objective advices by foreigners I’ve ever read.

    Almost all the facts are correct.

    About water, as one reader commented above, Chinese people usually boil water before drink. That’s a traditional cultural thing, even in the remote villages where the water is clean and by all means free from industrial pollution. So you can asked for free boiled water in “every” restaurant, including the western style cafes. Just say “Kai Shui”(boiled water). When we Chinese travel aboard, we often find it’s strange that some hotels do not provide boiled water.

    By the way, I am in Shanghai. Welcome here.

  6. Flüge Says:

    Thanks for the hints! Well, not hard to guess that I am not going to see the olympic games^^, I will stay in bejing for a whole year and am so excited of all the impressions I will expierence. I am really looking forward to make hello:D

  7. ramen Says:

    I’m going to beijing next summer, loved your article, very good info. Still have to learn a few more words and master the chopsticks, but i just can’t wait, i think it will be a whole new universe.. and i just can’t wait to try the food!

  8. Inga Says:

    We are going in two weeks. Hope August wont be too hot. Its 47 celcius in Beijing at the mo… Thank you for the hints!!! I will take toilet paper with me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 😀 xxx

  9. Poom Says:

    thanks, you just save my life 🙂

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