[Travel Advice] Beijing

Random Observation/Comment #412: Smog is smoggy. Looking at the Earth as an organism, humans are definitely the worst disease the Earth has ever caught. You need to stop with those one night stands, Mother Nature.

see lemons in the forbidden city

Things China Does Great:

  • Great Wall. It’s pretty great and epic. Certainly worth every penny to go and see it with your own eyes if you can stand the touristy stuff around it. Once you’re up there though – Wow.
  • Inexpensive and delicious food. Definitely try the lamb hot pot, street baos, hand-pulled noodles, Peiking duck, and dumplings (nom nom nom all the momos). There’s food in Flushing that is on par, but there’s something about having it come from a local kitchen with local (probably polluted) water that makes me happy.
  • Clean, efficient, and incredible infrastructure. It’s not as clean as Japan, but the streets are swept nightly and the metro can get you almost anywhere.  I think they used the same metro designer as in Hong Kong, so I naturally love it. The roads are also very smoothly paved even into the smaller cities.
  • Quick day trips to peacefulness. I’m not really a big fan of over-populated cities with tourist traps. I like the local places, so it’s nice for me to see some small day trips to little towns like Chuandixia and the Great Wall to mix it up a bit.

Things that are Slightly Annoying:

  • Spitting and hocking louggies. It’s not the spitting, but more of the deep hocking sound that you occasionally hear in public. It universally makes people shiver, but old people still do it and I think it needs to stop.
  • Lack of Patience. I’ve found people to be a little rude when getting on subways and waiting for their time to do things. It’s these super aggressive selfish personalities that overall make me feel like people are very distrustful of the public.
  • Scamming. Although this never happened to me, I would beware of people in public who are too friendly. There have been a number of crazy scams for tourists, including:
  • Aggressive Haggling. The Chinese shop owners are actually really bad hagglers. They will give you a hard time in the beginning, but if you walk away and come back, you will most likely make the sale. Just know the value of what you’re buying and I think you should be fine.  I don’t like their haggling because sometimes they grab and set prices close to 20x the regular value. You can literally start at $1 and slowly work your way. Remember to just walk away because they are highly competitive with the 30 other stalls selling exactly the same thing down the line. I think it’s huge sport.
  • Smog. Smog is real and actually quite scary. Check this site for the day’s Air Quality Limit (AQI). Anything below 180 is considered reasonable. I don’t know why a safety limit even exists for the amount of arsenic in the air, but when the Chinese government says “You should probably stay at home today” because the 320 out of 500 pollution scale indicates there’s twenty (20) times the safety limit of arsenic in the air… I think there’s a problem.
  • Bureaucracy. You know how airport security is mostly just added process and security because people wind up sneaking through bottles of water and random things anyway? Well – these security checks happen often around tourist locations. Uniformed guards will randomly stop you and pat you down with a wand to prevent terrorist activity in crowded errors. This could have specifically been heightened for us due to recent events, but I honestly don’t see it doing anything.

Lessons learned:

  • Have a local bring you around. Besides the obvious language barrier for taxi rides and restaurants, it’s always good to have a local to bring you around China. I think they can spot deals a little bit easier and avoid scamming in general.
  • If you don’t have a guide, have someone write down the main places you want to go on separate pieces of paper in Chinese. At the very least, you will be able to hand them a piece of paper of the location.  The subways are very English friendly, so that’s always a route.
  • Learn the necessary vocabulary. I would focus on the main things you need to know on ordering food, giving taxi directions, some general yes/nos, and numbers.
  • Bring your passport. Due to the frequent checks, it’s important to have a form of identification on you at all times.
  • Rely less on credit cards. Most of Beijing (besides larger restaurants) do not accept credit cards. It’s important to have enough cash on hand to pay for train tickets, quick meals, tickets into tourist locations, and taxis.
  • Hire a driver. We hired Mark to bring us around for our day-trip to Mutianyu Great Wall and Chuandixi. A regular bus or even tour bus would have been cheaper, but with 4 people, the split cost was well worth the flexibility and nicer ride. Most importantly, there weren’t any stops to touristy shops and you get a lot of private advice from the driver.
  • Use face masks. As mentioned earlier, smog is real and I certainly felt the weight on my chest and lungs when I went out for a day of walking and wandering the streets while it was higher than 250 on the pollution scale. It’s certainly a good idea to bring your own face mask and wear it. I saw that most locals do not wear them unless they are sick themselves, but I would ebb on the side of caution. Check the AQI site for advice.

Itinerary (Beijing in 5 days):

  • Day 0 – Most flights land at night so just settle in and get some sleep to get over the jet lag
  • Day 1 – Tourism village, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, National museum, and dumplings. We woke up early to get to the tourist locations to avoid the touristy crowd, but alas they were all there soon enough. Go early and try not to go on weekends.
  • Day 2 – Rented a driver to Mutianyu Great Wall (first half of day), hand-pulled noodles, Nanlouguxiang, Hou Hai, lamb hotpot dinner. Mutianyu is clearly the less touristy spot to go. Definitely try the hot pot!
  • Day 3 – Lama temple, Summer Palace, Wangfujin for scorpion street food and buying goods, Peiking Duck, Slowboat for a beer. I love the Lama temple for its authentic Chinese feel. It has much more culture than the typically touristy things around the city. Peiking duck is definitely delicious, but it was hard to tell the difference between this one and the ones in Chinatown. I think I also like the steamed buns as an outside instead of the flatter wraps.
  • Day 4 – Rented a driver for ChuandixiaPanjiayuan market. It was very refreshing to get out of the city. Chuandixia is about 2 hours away and basically looks like a very old authentic town with some English signs nailed on. It’s clearly a new tourist location for buses, but if you can go on off season and walk around, it’s a really nice break from the fast city pace. The Dirt Market of Panjianyuan is crazy… I think it’s certainly a place to check out where locals barter.
  • Day 5 – morning return flight

There isn’t a shortage of places to go and things to do in Beijing, but the large number of tourists and overall unhealthy atmosphere left a bad taste in my mouth about the city. I certainly appreciate the nightlife and street food though. It seems to be a very lively city and an interesting place to visit.  That being said, I’m not so sure I’d put this high on my list of cities to revisit. I’ve personally found more temples in Kyoto/Tokyo and better food in Hong Kong.

~See Lemons Like Beijing