FIRST TIME IN BEIJING?
This is what you have to know.
– Guest blog by @Harper Haye for NomadApp
With a population of over 1.3 billion, it’s not surprising that visiting China can be a daunting prospect. It’s less surprising that most people visit Beijing for the first time as part of an escorted tour.
Relax. There is really no need to worry. OK, most taxi drivers speak very little, if any, English. There are signs in languages other than Chinese, but very often the provided translation into English will, at best, entertain; especially when it comes to menus and notices providing information. Chinglish is alive and well in Beijing, However, these are problems that can be overcome with a little prior thought, a little imagination, good humour and a willingness to ask for assistance from local people who will be all too ready to help. Remember, Westerners are still something of a novelty and a curiosity and many young Chinese will be happy to practise their English and giggle their way through conversations with you.
At the airport, show your taxi driver where you want to go and relax in preparation for a long drive at very little cost. Taxis are cheap and plentiful. They’re not particularly plush and your driver may well be conducting his social life on the phone as he negotiates an awful lot of traffic, but he’ll get you there, eventually. A taxi from the airport into the city is likely to cost little more than $10 – $15 (£10).
Sanlitun is a good suburb of Beijing to use as a base. It’s well provided for with Western-style restaurants, bars, coffee shops and stores as well as being close enough to the Metro for all the major sightseeing you’re likely to do. The vast majority of hotels are modern, clean and welcoming. Be sure to ask if you want a room with windows, especially if you are claustrophobic. They are slightly more expensive, but one advantage of not having a window is that you are guaranteed a good night’s sleep if you’re feeling the effects of a long flight. The in-room TV is likely to inform you that, in the event of a fire, the best way to attract attention is by waving a bed sheet out of – yes, you’ve guessed it – the window! But, this is China!
First night in Sanlitun? It’s a short taxi ride to the Heaven Supermarket on the Dawang Road where you can buy chilled beer and chill out. It’s not actually a bar, in reality it is a supermarket that serves beer. However, it’s quirky and very popular. If you’re hungry, head to the nearby Home Plate Smokers for smoked brisket, pulled chicken, rib tips and salad. You’ll find it on the web. It’s excellent value for money and comfortingly recognisable while you get your bearings and prepare to be a little more adventurous.
Beijing is an impossible city to negotiate by walking. It’s just too big. It’s much quicker to become a travel gopher. Drop into the ground, travel by Metro and then pop up at the sights you want to see. The Metro experience is part of the holiday. Download one of the many apps that will provide you with the Chinese characters for where you are going. Show this to the ticket office and they’ll provide you with the ticket that you need. Be prepared for the Metros. Rush hour lasts all day. A battalion of train officials wait to push as many people as possible into each carriage while the station guard, invariably female and resplendent in a crimson greatcoat and military-style cap, salutes the train as it leaves on its journey. Personal space is impossible when the trains are full. You will be on nearly intimate terms with your fellow travellers. Be prepared for people to stand very, very close indeed. It can be an aromatic experience.
The French have a saying, vive la difference. Beijing does its own thing, in its own way. The government are aware that Westerners find some of the social habits strange but even in this international metropolis you’ll be aware that old habits still exist. The smog levels can be high and you’ll notice that the vast majority of young women wear face masks. Strangely, the habit doesn’t seem to have extended to men or children. A significant number of older people still spit, and frequently. They spit out of car windows, along the pavement, in the gutter; it doesn’t really matter where, or when. In addition, public conveniences are places to avoid if at all possible. At best, they are basic. At worst, they can be desperate places. It explains why mothers often make use of anywhere else rather than take their children into public toilets. Mind you, I think everybody should experience them, if only once. If nothing else, it’ll provide a colourful anecdote for you when you return home!
So, you’re settled in. You have negotiated the public transport system and are ready to sight see. Top choices will probably have already been identified through reading guidebooks prior to departure. You won’t go far wrong, but there are some places that are ‘must sees’.
You’ll probably want to head for the Great Wall. Take a tip. Avoid the organised trips laid on by your hotel. The popular sections of the Wall can be horrendously busy. It’ll seem as though the whole of China has decided to join you on the outing. Find a private driver or a recommended taxi and head for Mutianyu. It’s about a 40 minute drive out of Beijing and your driver will stay with you for the whole day and return you to your hotel for about $40 (£30). Mutianyu is quieter and once you’ve been taken up to the top by cable car, you’ll have sections of the Wall more or less to yourself. You can walk as far as you wish and then pick up the cable car back to your original arrival point. The views are spectacular and if the cherry trees are in blossom you’ll find it staggeringly beautiful. However, you may have to contend with mists that drop on a regular basis, creating an ethereal effect and reducing visibility.
Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) is excellent preparation for a day at the Summer Palace. It will take you at least a day to do it justice. It dates from 1192 but has been rebuilt twice following destruction; the last time by the British in 1886. By the time you’ve walked through to the far side and climbed to take in the magnitude of the whole panorama, you’ll appreciate the power and privilege of the Emperors who lived here over the centuries with their Royal families and concubines in splendid isolation away from the reality of normal existence beyond the high stone walls.
The nearby hutongs provide an interesting contrast to the Summer Palace. Although they have become commercialised and something of a tourist trap, the back streets of their areas still provide a brief insight into the poverty and living conditions for the ordinary Beijing family. While you’re there, you must try the green tea ice-cream and the toffee apples on sticks. Spit the pips out, everybody else does!
The Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Hall of the People, Mao’s Mausoleum, the Monument of the Heroes, the Imperial Gardens, Bai Hain Park, the Lama Temple and the National Museum – they are all ‘must sees’ and all easily accessed by Metro or taxi. Guide books will provide you will all you need to know and directions are easily found. Put them on your list.
Wangfujing Street is the home of Night Food. Idle your way through the streets and have your senses assaulted by myriad sights and sounds. If the stall holders can put it on a stick and deep fry it, they will do: spiders, scorpions, bats, small chickens and snakes, star fish and sea horses. We wandered the lanes for an hour or so watching, tasting and grimacing! It’s an experience you won’t forget.
Finally, don’t forget that you must find time for shopping. There are two main ‘markets’. The Silk Market stocks better quality ‘genuine fakes’ than you’ll find at the Pearl Market and of the two, I far prefer the former to the latter. However, at both, make sure you have your bartering head on. Be determined and practise your best poker-face. You’ll be offered a price. Offer to pay 10% and no more. They’ll offer you a better deal. At the Pearl Market you should stick to your guns. Walk away if they won’t let it go for 80% off their original price. There are plenty of other stalls and chances are they’ll come after you and meet your price. At the Silk Market you’ll need to compromise. 60% of the original price is reasonable. You’ll find the stock of a much higher quality and you’ll need to meet them half-way. If you walk away at the Silk Market, they’re not likely to follow you!
There is so much to see and experience in Beijing. For an international city it still retains that sense of being ‘somewhere foreign’. It has its own identity, it’s certainly different and it leaves an indelible mark on you.
If you have time, why not fly down to Xi’an and see the terracotta warriors at the end of the ancient Silk Road. You can read about my trip there at www.manc-holidays.co.uk.
Hometown: Manchester, UK
Born in Manchester, Harper Haye spent his working life in education. Having retired, he has now turned his hand to travel writing and regularly sets off to explore pastures new. Harper travels with his wife and companion, to whom he has been married for many a year. He has two grown-up children and enjoys amateur photography, old films, cheap wine, thrillers and, of course, travelling. In between jaunts, Harper Haye lives in rural Wales.
Visit his blog https://manc-holidays.co.uk