Things to Know About the ‘Jing
|The Hall of Great Harmony :: The Forbidden City|
The three things not to miss are the Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall.
- If you have time, Simitai is the best section of the Wall to go to. It’s a three-hour drive from the city, but it can still get crowded when it’s nice out, so if you go, go early. The first time we left at 7:15 a.m. and almost had the Wall to ourselves when we arrived. It was also the low season though, which I think makes a big difference. It’s also the steepest section, however, so if you or anyone you are with has trouble getting around, you might want to skip it.
If you don’t have time for Simitai, go to Mutianyu, which is only about 90 minutes from Beijing and is also the most accessible section. Plus it has a slide, so that’s fun. Avoid Badaling if at all possible. It’s the closest section–only an hour, if that, from the city–so it’s also the most crowded (and the most poorly restored, meaning it was essentially rebuilt instead of restored.) That being said, if you only have time for Badaling, it’s still worth it to see the Wall.
- The other two big Beijing sites are the Temple of Heaven and Lama Temple (Yonghegong). Depending on how much you liked the other sites and how much time you have, you might be able to skip these. They are both cool in their own way–I like Lama Temple better, for the record–but some people I took to both sites were somewhat underwhelmed. Although if you are going to the Pearl Market (Hongqiao Market), you might as well hit Temple of Heaven too, since it’s nearby.
- If the weather is nice, you might want to check out the Houhai area, which is the generic name for the “Back Lakes,” three connected lakes that are just south of the North Second Ring Road. (If you look at a map of Beijing, they are a bit north of the Forbidden City and Bei Hai park/lake, which is the lake immediately north of the Forbidden City.) At any rate, Houhai has a lot of bars, restaurants, and stores, so it makes for a nice stroll. You can also take hutong tours there, which are fun and the only time I would recommend getting into a rickshaw. (Hutongs are the name for the old courtyard style alley houses that pretty much everyone in Beijing used to live in. There are a lot of them around the Houhai area.) It’s also one of the city’s big nightlife spots, if you’re looking for something to do in the evening. It’s a lot livelier when it’s warm outside; in the winter it seemed to be pretty dead.
- If you do go to Houhai during the day, “Prince Gong’s Mansion”–a big old courtyard house in the area–is actually pretty cool. Cooler than it has a right to be, at least.
- The ticket counter for the Forbidden City is not really obvious, so lots of people have trouble finding it because it’s so far into the complex. You have to walk through Tiananmen Gate–the one with the painting of Mao–through the next gate, and then about 2/3 of the way to gate after that to find it. (It’s the gate where you need a ticket to go through.) If you’re facing that gate, the ticket counter will be to the left. The first ticket booth you pass, right after going through Tiananmen Gate, is to go to the top of Tiananmen Gate and not to get into the Forbidden City. I don’t think going to the top is worth it since all you get is a slightly elevated view of Tiananmen Square. But it’s only 10 Yuan, so it’s cheap if you’re interested.
- You’ll get ripped off taking a taxi back from the Summer Palace. This is, as far as I know, unavoidable. (See “Getting Around.”)
- It’s not exactly a tourist attraction, but you should put aside some time for foot massage. Make sure it’s a reputable massage place–the sketchier/more hidden the place, the more likely you are to get more than you bargained for, if you know what I mean. Bodhi is my favorite place; it’s on Gongren Tiyuchang Beilu (Gongti Beilu for short!) across from the North Gate of Worker’s Stadium. (Depending on what guidebook you have, it’s near Morel’s and Alfa.) It’s around 100 RMB for an 80-minute massage–which includes neck, back, arms, legs, and feet–plus you get free drinks and snacks and you can’t beat that.
- The big Western hotel chains are all as nice as you’d expect.
- If you’re looking for a hostel, try the hostel finder on Bootsnall. I’ve never used it, but people on the boards have said it worked for them.
- Beijing is big and sprawling and not very pedestrian-friendly, so where you stay doesn’t matter as much as some other cities because you’ll probably end up in a cab anyway. As long as you are either on or inside the Third Ring, you’ll be fine. (The Sheraton and Hilton are on the Third Ring, for reference.)
- If you stay on Wangfujing–at the Grand Hyatt, for instance–you’ll be able to walk very easily to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but that’s it.
- If you are staying in a hotel that’s advertised as being near the Forbidden City, be sure to check out where it’s located. The front door is on the Tiananmen Square side; there is a back door, but you can’t get in through it so if you are on the backside you have to walk all the way around to the front, and it’s a long, long walk.
- For Beijing duck, I’d go to Li Qun–it’s in all the guidebooks, I think. It’s a very cool place hidden in the hutongs (alley houses) of Qianmen, south of Tiananmen Square. It’s hard to find when it’s light out (there are arrows painted on buildings, but you can easily walk by them without noticing) and almost impossible to find on your own in the dark. Just get the people at your hotel to teach you how to say it, and if you get lost ask any Chinese person around there about it (just say the name): all the locals will be able to point you in the right direction, since it’s basically the only reason foreigners show up around there. (The restaurant will likely have only foreigners in it, but it’s still good and not very expensive.) Also, you’ll definitely need a reservation.
- Da Dong is also a good duck place: it was probably the best duck I had. (Although everyone in town definitely has their own opinion on who has the best duck.) It’s on the east side of the Third Ring Road. It might be in travel books, otherwise it’s a bit south of Flo, a French Place that is probably in most travel books, and Gongren Tiyuchang Beilu, a large road that connects the second and third rings.
- Made in China, the Chinese restaurant in the Grand Hyatt on Wangfujing, also has really, really good duck, but you’ll pay US prices for it.
- For Sichuan, I’d go to a place called Feiteng Yuxian. It’s a bit hard to find, but it’s across from the Kunlun Hotel, which will probably be in a guidebooks. (Otherwise, the Kunlun is just west of the Beijing Hilton, which will definitely be in the books.) There’s a market across from the Kunlun called Jia Yi market, and the restaurant in the back on the left side of the market. (Left if you’re looking at the market; west if you prefer actual directions.) It’s a big building and is easier to find than I make it seem. You’ll have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a table, but they turn over fast. No one there speaks English, but they have a picture menu.
The specialty is worth getting: Shui zhu yu (fish in soup with red chili peppers). It’s not that spicy, but is very good. The only tricky thing, depending on what you’re used to, is the fish soup involves gutting the fish and then putting the entire thing in the pot at once. So it looks a little strange when it comes to your table (eyeballs!) but it tastes great. The small fish is more than enough for two–depending on what else you order, it’s enough for four or five–and if you want you can go see it before they cook it!
- A more English-friendly Sichuan place is South Beauty, which also has very, very good Sichuan food but will be more expensive. It’s a chain (which is not a bad thing here), so there’s locations all over, but one easy one to find is on the bottom floor of Oriental Plaza, the mall attached to the Grand Hyatt on Wangfujing.
- If you want Cantonese, I would recommend Bellagio. Again, it’s a chain, so there’s lots of locations. (We usually went to the one on Gongren Tiyuchang Xilu, the road on the west side of Worker’s stadium.) Also more English friendly than normal places, with good picture menus and English descriptions, since you definitely want to know when you’re getting when you order Cantonese.
- You might also want to try some Chinese Muslim food, which is pretty good. Any restaurant you see that has a picture of green fields and cows is probably a Muslim restaurant; most also say Xin Jiang somewhere, since that is the Muslim province. (It’s way out in the west above Tibet; the Muslim minority there are called Uighurs, which is pronounced something like we-grrr.) Xin Jiang Red Rose is a good, cheap place, and I believe the have a dancing show every night at 8 p.m. They also have picture menus. It’s just down a little alley, across the street from the north side of worker’s stadium. If you see a place called Bodhi (great foot massage) or Alfa (good Asian fusion food and a cool bar), you’re in the right place. It’s in some but not all of the guidebooks, I believe.
- Afunti is another good Uighur restaurant. You should be able to find it online or in any of the popular travel books. It’s pricier than the Red Rose, but features table dancing on an almost nightly basis.
- If you’ve been on the road for a while and just want some good familiar food, try The Tree, a pub that serves really good wood-fired pizzas and lots of Belgian beer. It’s in most guidebooks as The Hidden Tree, but has recently moved a bit north due to construction. It’s now in the Chaoyang District, off Sanlitun Lu and very close the the Yashow Market. It’s a bit hard to find, but the link above has an updated map and directions. If you have a guidebook with either Poachers or Poachers hostel, you’re in luck, because The Tree is right behind it.
- If possible, avoid the Silk Market. It’s by far the most obnoxious of the three big tourist markets. (Yashow and Hongqiao–the “Pearl Market”–are the other two.) I liked Yashow the best, but it was also the one I went to the most, so you who knows. Hongqiao isn’t bad, but it’s sort of out of the way.
- If you go to Yashow Market (actually Yaxiu in Chinese, but the sign says Yashow for foreigners), bring money. There are ATMs inside, but last time I was there only one took foreign ATM cards and it tends to run out of money, especially later in the day and on weekends.
- Despite what some may say, there isn’t much “real” merchandise in any of those markets, and certainly no real purses/handbags or anything. However, some of the fakes are of really good quality, so no worries. I did find some thing I thought were real (mostly obscure brands that aren’t worth counterfeiting, like GBX shoes) in Yashow, as well as some of the little stores around Yashow, but not consistently.
- The fake sunglasses are really, really cheap. Besides the fact that they probably don’t have UV protection, they generally last about a week before falling apart. Definitely buy at your own risk. And if you do, you can probably get them for 10 or 15 RMB, and never pay more than 20 RMB.
- The watches are mixed. I have one that has worked for over a year, but I know of some that have broken in a month or so.
- Jia Yi market, which is across from the Kunlun hotel (and by the Sichuan place I recommended) is a pretty good market. The selection is somewhat random and not as large as the bigger, better known markets, but the quality is generally higher. It’s also definitely off the tourist circuit, which helps: there are probably only four or five foreigners in there at any one time.
- Na Li market is also a pretty good one, although hard to find. It’s directly east of Yashow, off Sanlitun street. It’s also down an alley, but there should be a Nali market sign. (The alley starts on the right/east side of the street, not too far north of Gongren Tiyuchang Beilu.) There’s a shoe shop in the back of the building that seems to sell a lot of real shoes. The only problem is that what you see is what they have, so if the shoe doesn’t fit, you’re out of luck. (It happened to me before with a nice pair of sandals and I’m still bitter.)
- Hard bargaining is necessary and expected. The first price you hear will be at least double, sometimes triple or even more, what they’ll settle for. (I once bought a cheap Puma zip-up sweater for 60 RMB; the initial price they threw out was 360 RMB.) Don’t be afraid to “walk away” if they won’t meet your price. Unless you really have gone too low–it’s possible–they’ll give in before you get more than 10 feet away. If they don’t give in but give you a lower price than their last offer, keep walking and they will give you the price you want.
- Remember, bargain hard: they will take you for as much money as they can. Last time I was at the market I heard a guy saying “250 is my final offer!” for a small “Gucci” purse that even I, a crappy bargainer, could have had for 70. The worst part was that the women were trying to get him to go to up to 255. They are just that merciless in their bargaining.
- Whatever you do, don’t pay more than 100 RMB for a fake purse. You can get one for less than that–a lot less, possibly–but 100 is a really easy point to get to if you don’t like to bargain or just don’t want to bother.
- You should be able to get short-sleeve Polo/Izod shirt for 40 RMB or less.
- Don’t be afraid to take something out of the bag to make sure it’s a decent shirt or whatever. I didn’t do this at first, until I ended up with a shirt that had a big stain I couldn’t see when it was wrapped up. I’m sure the people selling it to me didn’t know either, but it was annoying. They don’t mind you unwrapping stuff.
- Don’t buy DVDs off the street. Movies that are really new in the US will generally be terrible copies, and we’ve been burned several times with DVDs that either don’t work or had the wrong movie in them. Movies that are already out on DVD in the US or current TV shows (recorded and then put on DVD) are a better bet for quality. If you do buy movies off the street, 7 RMB is the going rate.
- DVD shops are a better bet. DVDs in boxes are generally a bit better quality–sometimes they don’t stock the really bad copies, and may even tell you if a movie isn’t a great copy–and will cost 10 RMB. If you want DVDs you can play at home, get ones that are “DVD-9.” (The people in the shop will understand what you mean.) They will be more expensive, but will actually have all the right features on them. The other DVDs may play in the US, but will be bare bones–the movie and subtitles, maybe a good 5.1 sound mix but maybe not, and definitely no extras or anything like that.
- In general, I recommend just deciding how much something is worth to you before you start bargaining, then just try to get to that price. And remember at the big markets most of the stalls sell the same stuff, so if someone won’t give you the right price or annoys you, just go somewhere else to get it.
|The 17-Arch Bridge at Dusk :: The Summer Palace|
- You might want to have a little Chinese money (200 RMB, maybe) for a taxi if you fly into Beijing, but otherwise you can plan on using ATMs: they’re everywhere. Bank of China and ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) ATMs almost always take foreign cards, as to some Bank of Beijing and China Construction Bank ATMs. The ones that work usually have a Visa Electron sticker on them.
- Only “tourist” places or expensive restaurants generally take credit cards, so if you need to use it be sure to find out before eating if they’ll take it. (Note that a Visa or MC sign outside does not always mean that those cards, or at least the non-Chinese versions, will be accepted.)
- There are three different words for Chinese money you might hear, which can be confusing. The first is Renminbi. That’s the official name for Chinese currency, and is like saying US Dollars. The second is yuan (you-en). That’s more like saying “dollars.” Lots of the price tags you see will have a “Y” in front of the number, and you’ll hear it in conversation as well. The third, and most common, word is kuai (kwhy). It’s like saying “bucks” and will be the word you usually hear at markets.
- Bills come in 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, and 1 RMB denominations. Cash machines only give out 100s, so that’s the most common bill. (There is also a 1 RMB coin, although you don’t see it much in Beijing.)
- For amounts lower than 1 RMB, you get jiao (gee-yow), although everyone calls them Mao. There are 10 jiao to 1 RMB, and they come in 5 jiao and 1 jiao denominations. They also come in both paper and coin form just to confuse things more.
- If you fly in, there is an official cab line at the airport, which you should have no trouble finding because it’s usually long and pretty slow. There are of course tons of people trying to get you to come with them; they should just be ignored. We’ve taken them a few times, and while it works fine, they charge at least double what a cab would cost, whatever they might claim, and that’s for people who know Chinese. I’ve heard of people paying five or six times what it would have cost in a normal cab. And it might actually be slower than a cab, since some of them refuse to take the expressway because they don’t want to pay the toll.
- Cabs do have to go through a toll-gate on the way back from the airport. The toll is 10 RMB, which won’t show up on the meter but which the driver will add onto your fare in the end.
- Overall, cab drivers in Beijing seem to be pretty honest, so that’s not a big worry. In 7 months I don’t think I was taken for a ride. Even when I was worried about it and about to say something–if the cab has been zooming along strange streets–the cab usually turns a corner and I ended up, somehow, right where I wanted to go. And taxis are insanely cheap, so it’s not a big deal. (The other day my wife was in a cab for an hour and it cost 6 US dollars.)
- Almost no cab drivers speak English, so either learn how to say where you want to go, have the name/address in Chinese, or have a tourist map (available all over) that has names in both English and Chinese.
- The only time you’ll probably have to really hassle with a taxi driver is coming back from the Summer Palace. It’s out of the way, so it’s not really possible to just flag down a cab like you can do in most places in the city. Because of this, none of the drivers will want to use their meter and will ask for a set price. Remember how much it cost for you to get there, and try to keep the return price within 20 RMB or so of the price you paid on the way out.
- Try to avoid rickshaws (unless you are taking a Hutong tour in Houhai). And if you must get in one, be sure to agree on a price–in Chinese dollars–before hand. They like to assume you’ll be paying them in US dollars, which can lead to some ugly situations at the end of the ride. I’ve also heard that sometimes they’ll take you down an alley or something and mug you, but I don’t actually know anyone that happened to so you should take that with a grain of salt.
- The subway is dirty and doesn’t go too many places, but it’s cheap, easy to understand, and not too crowded so, depending on your destination, it might be an option. The big sites you can get to on the subway are Tiananmen Square/Forbidden City, Lama Temple, and the Silk Market, which doesn’t matter because you shouldn’t go there.
- It pays to know the directions: Bei is north, Nan is south, Xi is west, and Dong is east. Also, Lu is street. Streets with the same name are grouped together, so if you’re looking for Gongren Tiyuchang Xilu and you find Gongren Tiyuchang Beilu, you’ll know you’re nearby.
- Since Beijing is large and sprawling and doesn’t really have any tall, easily identifiable landmarks, places are often identified by where they are on the city’s ring roads. (If you look at a map, you’ll see Beijing is basically a big grid with a series of circular ring roads connecting everything. The first ring is small and hardly a ring, so the smallest ring you notice is probably the 2nd Ring road; the subway runs underneath it, so the ring with the subway stops is the second ring.) For example, to go to the Houhai area you would go to the central part of the north section of the third ring road. (It’s shorter in Chinese: North Third Ring, Center Street.) I’m not sure whether or not this will ever come up, but it can’t hurt to know.
- The summer is very hot and pretty humid. Last July temperatures were in the 100s, so bring a hat if you are going out and about. Luckily, bottled water is cheap and available everywhere.
- If you can manage it, spring and fall are the best times to visit Beijing. The weather is comfortable and the crowds aren’t so bad, although the closer you are to summer, the worse they’ll be.
- The winter is very cold, and, in December/January, it might not get above freezing for days at a time. (My parents came for Christmas for 10 days or so and it didn’t get above freezing the entire time they were here.) The lows are in the low teens. Add to this the fact that there’s generally a decent wind, and you will get very cold, very fast.
- If you come in winter, the weather will definitely have an impact on tourist-type stuff. Tiananmen Square is always very windy, which makes it colder than normal (although once you’re inside the Forbidden City things are better); the Summer Palace is okay unless you are by the lake, which will be frozen so the wind coming over it is even colder than normal; and the Great Wall, besides being windy, will also be colder than Beijing because it’s in the mountains, although I normally think of them more as hills. On the plus side, nothing will be crowded, so that’s something.
- If you come in winter, the temperature will probably have an impact on which section of the Great Wall you should go to. I was at Badaling in late December and the temperate was around 10 F, not counting a significant wind chill. I could only take it for about 45 minutes before I had to leave. (It wasn’t too crowded though, which was nice.) Badaling is only an hour from the city so it’s not so bad, but it might not be worth it to go to Simitai–a three-hour drive–if you can’t stand to be outside for more than an hour.
- There’s a chance of snow in the winter, but it only snowed four times this winter – never more than a day, usually just a few hours – so that’s probably not a big deal. And the snow doesn’t really affect anything–it actually makes most things nicer looking–so it should be okay. (It might affect a Great Wall trip though–I’m not sure.)
- As you’ve probably heard, Beijing is incredibly polluted, so if you have asthma make sure to bring your inhaler. And possibly an extra one, since pretty much every big Chinese city is incredibly polluted.
|The Great Wall :: Simitai|
- Lots of people will say “Hello” to you, especially around tourist places. They can be ignored–it’s the only English word they know, and all they want is for you to repeat it, sort of like a parrot. Really.
- Every tourist attraction will have “art students” who want to show you their art show. Some may be art students, but the rest is a lie: they will just take you to a store full of overpriced knock-offs of famous Chinese paintings. Generally the “art students” will start with “Hello, where are you from?” and ask about your trip a little before telling you about their exhibition. Sometimes if you say “Are you an art student?” as soon as they start talking, you can get rid of them. (They giggle and go away.)
- Steamed potstickers are called jiaozi (gee-ow-tzuh). You can buy them on the streets–look for places with wicker steamers–and they are really, really good.
- Needless to say, don’t drink the water. The locals don’t drink it either, so you should be okay, and the ice at most places is okay. (Generally they don’t use it, so if you get it it’s probably okay, although you should consider what sort of place you’re in before you eat it!)
There are a couple of free English magazines around that you should pick up if you see them: That’s Beijing, City Weekend, and Time Out-Beijing. They’ll have current information on what’s going on in the city.
Frommer’s also has a pretty good online section for Beijing.
My blog: Me and Chairman Mao