I visited Beijing with my family back in 2005. 13 years later, Jim and I travelled to Beijing together during China’s lunar new year in 2018. It was intriguing for me to see how the city has changed and evolved, and we had a lot of fun. Of course, as a native Mandarin speaker, travel in Beijing is undoubtedly easier than for those who don’t speak the language. In fact, if I was visiting Beijing alone, I most likely wouldn’t notice many obstacles non-Mandarin-speaking tourists would experience. That being said, since most of my readers don’t speak Mandarin, combining my insights and Jim’s experiences, here are some useful Beijing travel tips for you.
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How’s the air quality?
We were lucky because the government was doing some major “cleanup” and has closed all the factories in the city’s surrounding area until March 2018. We experienced one day of apocalypse level smog, but all the other days were bearable, and we even got some blue sky! I can’t tell you how long this is going to last, but in the meantime, you don’t need to hide your face behind a mask.
How crowded is Beijing?
Face it, it’s Beijing. Not to mention that China covers 18% of the World’s population. It’s also a major travel destination for Chinese themselves and in Asia. We thought travelling during the Spring Festival would be a good way to avoid a large number of tourists, and true, Beijing was quite empty on lunar new year’s eve. However, frankly, getting yourself stuck in a big crowd in Beijing is inevitable.
In general, if you want to avoid the crowd, don’t use the subway during their rush hours. According to a friend who works in Beijing, rush hour is hell time – sometimes she can’t even get herself on the train after 3 rides have gone by. Also, avoid taking the bus or taxi to Badaling Great Wall or its general direction during the holidays. Otherwise, you will spend some good hours in the traffic (and that was exactly what happened to us.) Holiday events also generate the most visitors. We went to the Di Tan Temple Fair and the Lama Temple on the first day of the lunar new year. I’d say experiencing that level of zero personal space once in your life is enough.
Do I need to know Mandarin?
Knowing a few words ALWAYS helps. I try to learn a few simple words of the local language wherever I travel to. At least, learn how to say “hello (ni hao)” and “thank you (xie xie)” in Mandarin. It’s a bit different for us to travel in China that although Jim’s Mandarin is at the kindergarten level, I am a native Mandarin speaker. That’s also the fun part – people sometimes assume I don’t understand Mandarin because I was walking with Jim and began to make ignorant comments. Also, Don’t expect your hotel front desk or tellers at the attraction ticket offices speak a word of English. Your best bet is to download your VPN and Google translate before you arrive in China. It’s super handy.
Taxi might not stop for you, and it’s mostly not your problem.
You see a taxi with a green light on, you wave, and it drives right past you – don’t worry, it’s not your problem, or maybe it is, especially if you don’t look Asian. Many Chinese cab drivers are scared of dealing with foreigners who might not be able to speak Mandarin. Also, calling a cab on Didi (the Chinese Uber) in China is the most popular thing to do. The empty cabs are usually driving to pick up a passenger. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a phone number and bank account in China, you won’t be able to use Didi. At one point, you might feel desperate and the closest subway is 30 minutes walk away, but please keep calm and don’t take a black cab as they will scam the hell out of you.
Get an audio guide at attractions, Seriously.
Even if they charge double for languages other than Mandarin, get one when you can, especially if you are not travelling with someone who knows the history of China and can somehow explain it to you. The city of Beijing itself is a giant museum of national history. However, Jim and I both agreed that most of the signs don’t explain the background of the historical objects or places very well. An audio guide will benefit you to learn about China more in-depth.
How much cash should I bring?
For the average travellers, the average cost for a day in Beijing would be somewhere around 500 RMB (80 USD), and that includes accommodations, food, tickets to attractions, and transportation. I also include our 1.5 days skiing outside of Beijing in the expense. We took a lot of taxis, and in my opinion, we ate pretty well! (All our hotels provided free breakfast.) If you are a budget traveller, I am pretty sure you can spend even less.
However, as the title of this section suggests, I recommend you to bring cash and don’t rely on your Visa/MasterCard here in China. Many attractions ONLY take cash while there usually isn’t an ATM nearby. Always make sure you have cash on you while in Beijing! I’m writing a separate post on this topic for travelling to Beijing. Meanwhile, you can read my most popular post on whether to use cash or credit card in Shanghai as similar principles apply.
At last… Enjoy being a superstar!
If you don’t look Asian, people are going to stare at you. They might even ask you to take a photo with them! (Jim was asked twice on the Great Wall.) You’ll also get special treatment when going through security at some attractions. The Chinese guards metal-detected me so thoroughly when we entered Tiananmen Square, but they just let Jim pass without laying a finger on him. The same thing happened to an American friend of ours!
However, allow me to complain a bit here. It was actually pretty annoying for me because I kept hearing Chinese parents asking their children to practice English with us. The kids often followed us around and yelled “wai-guo-ren (foreigners)” when they see Jim. Of course, they’re completely innocent (and ignorant), but frankly, we’re in Beijing not for your personal amusement! On the other hand, going back to the language issue – if you don’t understand a word of Mandarin, this is probably not going to affect you much, but I guess I just ruined that for you by teaching you what “wai-guo-ren” means.
Have you been to Beijing? Do you have any Beijing travel tips to share with us? Leave a reply below!
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Also published on Medium.