If you’re planning your first trip to Beijing and aren’t quite sure what to expect, here’s my top tips for the things you really should know before you go!
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1. Be prepared when it comes to getting around
Unless you can speak and/or write Mandarin, you’re going to need to have the name of your hotel and its address printed out in Chinese characters. Your hotel booking should come with this, it did for us and we booked through Agoda. I also really strongly recommend you get Google maps screenshots of where the hotel is and also the route from the airport to your hotel if you plan on catching a taxi. Get a good understanding of where you’re going too, we were able to give our driver instructions thanks to Matt’s awesome map reading skills. Beijing is HUGE and there are thousands of hotels, so it’s not unreasonable for taxi drivers not to know the name of your hotel.
2. It’s hard to get lost
We walked around a lot, venturing down tiny alleyways and streets with a vague idea of where we were going. It was pretty hard to get lost, seeing as the streets are all laid out in a big grid. Even in the backstreets, we felt safe and nobody took much notice of us. Even if you do get lost, you’ll find a subway station eventually and be able to find your way home.
3. Don’t underestimate walking distance
Just because something looks close on the map, doesn’t mean it is. Never underestimate walking distance, things are always further away than you think they are.
4. Spitting and slurping aren’t as bad as you imagine they may be
I thought there would be a lot of spitting and slurping going on, but it wasn’t as full-on as I expected. There’s still a fair amount of it, but it’s part of the culture and you just deal with it and move on.
5. Pollution isn’t as bad as you imagine
I also thought the pollution in Beijing would be really, really bad, but it wasn’t. We’ve been told we were really lucky with the weather, so I can’t say for sure that the pollution levels are always fine. I used antihistamine tablets and my Ventolin while we were there, though I think that had more to do with cigarette smoke than anything else.
6. It’s very laid back
There’s a very chilled-out, Zen-like vibe to Beijing and everything just works in harmony. This includes the traffic and subway systems. Don’t fight it, just keep moving with the flow and everything will be okay.
7. Everyone’s really friendly
The people are really friendly and if you say hello and smile, they’ll give you a smile and a hello right back. I didn’t have a moment where I felt unsafe, even in the back streets.
8. People may stare at you
I suddenly have a better understanding of Britney Spears 2007 meltdown. Because of my bright blonde hair and how tall I am, I really stood out and had a lot of people stare at me constantly. It’s harmless, but there were a few occasions where it really got too much for me and I freaked out a bit. Particularly when it was big groups of men staring and talking about me.
9. Close-standing is normal
If you’re in a queue for anything, the person behind you will stand so close to you that they may even be pressing up against you. It’s not what I’m used to so it felt really weird and uncomfortable, but it’s just the done thing, so you gotta deal with it.
10. Don’t wait for all your food to arrive
Just because you order an entree, doesn’t mean it’s coming out first. Dishes you order will come out when they’re ready and you may not get all your plates of food at the same time. So, when one plate arrives, just start eating it. It could be a while before the next one shows up.
11. You should screenshot key phrases.
I would suggest screen-shotting and saving key phrases and saving them on your phone. Make sure you have the English word, Chinese characters and pinyin (Chinese words spelt out using English letters). This is particularly handy if, like me, you need to communicate at a restaurant that you’re vegetarian or need soy milk etc. It’s also a really great way to start to be able to practice your language skills and try out words in conversation with people. I always get a big smile when I ask for something in Mandarin.
12. Hutongs are the place to stay
You could stay at a big hotel in the middle of touristy areas with the swarms of other tourists (boring) or you could get yourself out to the Hutongs. We stayed in a great hotel to the north of all the tourist areas and had a real locals experience. It was so chilled out, welcoming and such a fun place to be. I really recommend staying away from the tourist traps, if you can.
13. Peak hour on the subway is crazy
Avoid catching the subway during peak hour. There are a lot of people squeezing onto trains to get to work and it is not the time for a tourist to be caught up in all of it. Trust me.
14. The subway is easy to navigate and very cheap
It’s really easy to get around on the subway and so affordable too, so don’t feel scared about wandering down there to give it a go.
15. Security is tight
They take security very seriously in Beijing and your bags will be scanned at every train station and large tourist spots too. At the airport, you will be frisked and everything thoroughly scanned and checked. We had our luggage cracked open too, just before it got on the plane.
16. The parks are amazing
I had been hanging out to see Beijing’s big tourist attractions, like the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen. But the things that took my breath away were the incredibly beautiful parks, places like Jingshan Park and the Temple of Heaven. I’d recommend spending more time in places like these than visiting the really over-crowded tourist spots. To me, they weren’t representative of what Beijing really is.
17. Google Maps isn’t gospel
Beijing is a BIG place with LOTS of little streets and Hutongs running every which way. Google maps have done their absolute best, I’m sure, but there may be times when you go to exactly where Google maps says something is, only to find it isn’t there. That’s okay, it’s probably nearby, don’t panic. Just keep in mind that things may not be where Google maps say they are. Just ask a local or carry a paper map for cross-reference.
18. Cabs can be tough to get
If you’re walking around and have sore feet and decide to hop a cab back to your hotel, you may find it hard to get someone to take you. Cab drivers can and will say no to you if they don’t want to take you. You’re better off just catching the subway, amigos.
19. Warm water is served at restaurants and cafes
If you ask for a glass of water it will be served to you warm, don’t freak out. This is done for a few reasons, I believe. Firstly, it’s boiled so you know it’s hygienic and secondly, because it’s better for your tummy and helping you digest your meal.
20. Look for restaurants packed with locals
This isn’t exactly a revolutionary travel tip, but it netted us some great food in Beijing. The restaurants packed with locals are usually packed out for a reason…. if possible, stop in and give it a try.
21. Visiting the great wall by public transport is hard
I’ll be writing a full blog post about this soon, so stay tuned. But, basically, catching the train or bus to visit the Great Wall may seem like a great, money-saving idea but the truth is, it’s harder to do than you think and getting a private tour or driver is far easier.