AsiaChinaBeijing

Living in Beijing

Beijing Travel Blog

 › entry 1 of 1 › view all entries
It's very easy to travel by underground. The signage is very good.

The best part about the trip to China was actually being able to live in a flat and not be tied to hotels and organised coach trips to all the sights. The worst part was, because we weren't tied to coach trips, we were subjected to the Chinese National Game of never queueing. Getting a ticket for the underground is such a laugh! And if you dare try to walk past the ladies at the top of the stairs who collect the ticket you have just bought literally 10 paces away, you get shouted at. And never, and I mean never, walk on the wrong side of the staircase because they will shout at you again!

When I was there, the city of Beijing was undergoing a bit of a change in preparation for the Olympics.

Tian'anmen Square outside Mao's Mausoleum. The Square is one of the few places by law where you cannot spit...
Even as far back as 2005, I suspected that some of the less photogenic parts of the city wouldn't last long. And I was right. I believe a lot of the houses in the Hutongs have been 'landscaped'. Also, the inhabitants of Beijing are being taught how to behave! The obsession with spitting is being curbed. This is really a repulsive habit. It's not just a little bit of spit, but a full-throated hawking up of phlegm... And there are now helpers at places like bus stops to show people to queue. And if you get it wrong, you have a little yellow flag waved at you to remind you not to push and shove.

Beijing is a dusty place. This is probably due to all the building taking place. In fact, the city is one huge building site. And the work carries on through the night.

It's true what they say about 7 million bicycles...
None of this going home at five. As soon as it gets dark, enormous arc lights are switched on so the work can continue 24hrs a day. The workers  hot-bed it, as they all live on the site in metal containers at the periphery of the building. The system of payment is very different as the workers get paid their wages only when the building is finished. They get board and lodging for the duration of their contract. You can see them arriving in lorries with bed rolls and cooking gear. Because of the work going on all night, it is difficult to get a decent night's sleep. But you do get used to it after a week or two and you don't hear the shouting and the welding and the concrete mixers . . .

Beijing is also prone to smog days. I was on the 23rd floor of an apartment building and it was five days before I saw the mountains, which are less than an hour away! On the worst of the smog days you can taste the pollution.

Twin girls . . .
It gets into your throat and eyes. It even seeps down the steps into the underground, making it really uncomfortable down there.

But take away the building noise, the smog, the unbelievably mad driving (taxi journeys are white-knuckle rides), the spitting, pushing and unwavering stares of the older members of the population as if you were an alien, Beijing has many things to offer. Go as a traveller and not as a tourist and things will be fine. But, be warned . . . everywhere is really crowded.

 

Shopping

Best Buys: silk, obviously; pearls, cashmere jumpers and cardigans, pashminas, jade, CDs and DVDs, table settings and runners, spices, and tea balls. (These are brilliant. You drop them into a glass jug and they open into a flower.

Silk evening dress . . . a bargain
Great present to take back home as they take up no room in backpacks. These can be bought at supermarkets. But DO NOT go to a tea ceremony. You will be told that certain ceremonies only take place at certain times and you are very lucky to be there at that time. Then you will be whisked off and, before you know it, you will have parted with an awful lot of money...)

Wangfujing Street is a good place to head for. There is a shopping plaza on either end of the street. Good toilets in both! There are food halls, and both have large supermarkets split into two distinct areas: Western imports and Chinese food. Be prepared to see live toads and spider crabs crawling around! Fresh food food is relatively cheap. Obviously if you want Kelloggs Cornflakes, you pay over the odds.

When you get to The Wall, turn left and take the more difficult, steep route. That way, you miss the crowds taking the easy way.
Imported wine is expensive in Beijing. You can pay the equivalent of £12- £15 for a bottle of wine. You will then be tempted to buy The Great Wall Vintage, but the growers need a few more years experience to make it quaffable... Chinese beer is drinkable and cheap. There are a couple of good Chinese restaurants in both malls but it's mainly Starbucks and Pizza places etc. The shops are mainly Western chains and the prices in the Oriental Plaza are pretty much the same as in Britain. So no bargain clothing. Same goes for Sun Dong An Plaza.

However, if you're looking for a made-to-measure suit or dress , try out the haberdashers on Wangfujing. Choose your material and get it made into a dress or suit. A beautiful heavy silk brocade evening/wedding dress costs around £90.

Where's my thing gone? Terracotta soldier with javelin missing.
A man's two-piece wool/cashmere suit about the same. They make them in 3 days. When asked, the tailor said the workers got good money...

Silk Alley Market (Jianguomen stop on underground) was once the main trading place for silk. Now it's a crowded tourist attraction with hundreds of stalls selling knock-off designer wear at bargain prices. But you MUST haggle. If you pay more than half the asking price, you have paid too much. Most traders speak a little English as in 'Good price here! Asda price!' so most transactions are with the aid of a calculator. The seller puts the amount into the calculator and holds it up. You then divide the amount by 10 and take it from there. If you stick to your guns, refuse to give in and walk away, they call you back and cut a little more off the price.

One area of Hutongs as seen from The Drum Tower
But Silk Alley is not for the faint hearted. You are constantly shouted at to 'Come buy' and, occasionally, you are even man-handled. It's not a pleasant shopping experience but you can come back with a suitcase full of presents. If you haven't got room in your suitcase/backpack, then you can always buy one in Silk Alley. They do a nice line in Huey Vuitton cases!!!!

At most of the tourists sites, there are people selling arts and crafts. If something comes in a box, always open it. Do not pay and walk away. Look first, pay second. Paper kites are lovely things, not to fly but as a decorative items.

 

Places to visit

If you can, go to The Hutongs before they are pulled down. This is the only chance you will get to see how life has been in Beijing for decades, if not for centuries.

The Imperial Wharf, just a walk from the Zoo, on the way to the Art Gallery
Lots of narrow back streets, canals, eating establishments (selling 'soup'... more of which later). Rickshaw bike tours abound. But it gets so crowded that you might as well walk around. You can get a really good look over the Hutongs from the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. The Drum Tower exhibition drumming takes place on the half hour from 9.30 -11.30 and 1.30-5.30. It's okay but not spectacular. And it's over within 5 minutes.

Lama Temple (Yong He Gong)** Closed Monday. You get a mini dvd with your entrance ticket.  Really peaceful. Probably one of the few place is Beijing that has birds flying free... Easy to get to on underground. Go in the afternoon when tourist coaches have already left. Be prepared for beggars in the residential streets outside.

Panda being cute in Beijing Zoo. Not all animals are this happy.
Have a few coins handy. Some of these guys are really needy...

Confucian Temple (Kong Miao)*** is 5mins walking distance from the Lama Temple. Carved tablets honouring students from the time of Kublai Khan. Confucian classic texts carved in stone under a canopy. Very few organised tours. One of the few places without hordes of tourists. Vegetarian restaurant opposite.

The Zoo  In need of modernisation. If you feel the need, pay your entrance fee and only see the pandas. They are the only animals that are kept in anything approaching a 'Western View' when it comes to captive animals. Pandas are well-looked after but the rest of the creatures look sad and disturbed. The approach roads to the zoo have vendors openly selling turtles, cats, dogs, birds and, occasionally endangered species.

The entrance to The Forbidden City
Stay blinkered. Stay tough! The pandas are the zoo's most precious creatures and, if you want to see a live one, Beijing is the place to do it unless you get the plane to the Panda sanctuary. It's just unfortunate that you have to run the gauntlet of vendors outside and the sight of many animals inside that are not kept in what we in The West would call a totally humane condition. DO NOT tarry in the big cat enclosure. It's really disturbing.

Tian'anmen Square. The best place to buy Mao watches and kites. Sellers disappear when  police cars drive past. Don't worry. Sellers will track you down to do a deal! Just off the Square is the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. This is all in Chinese with no English subtitles or explanations.

Coal Hill, before the smog rolled in... Behind is The Forbidden City
In the same building is the Museum of Chinese History.

DO NOT get waylaid by students 'wanting to speak English with you'. They are all on commission. 'Come see the art exhibition' or 'Can I practice my English with you?' means give me 40RMB and I will get the cloakroom attendant to take your coat and bag and get you to part with even more money. We feigned ignorance by saying we were Welsh and couldn't speak English, not so far from the truth. They left us alone when we spouted gobbledegook (i.e. throwing out Welsh town names like Caerphilly and Aberystwyth and Llanfair, and they lost heart). There are some interesting exhibits in the Museum and well worth the few RMB and an hour of your time. Even going to the Revolution Museum is ok even if you don't speak Chinese as you can probably guess what is being said.

A quiet spot at the Temple of Heaven
.. Tian'anmen Square comes into its own at night with the floodlighting and the pleasant cooler evenings. During both day and evening, kite flyers are out in force, the most popular kite being a MiG fighter.

At North End of the Square is The Forbidden City. Wear comfy shoes and forget your manners. Expect pushing and shoving. The place is packed all year round, not only with tourists but with hordes of Chinese nationals paying their respects to their history and to Mao. Don't go at the weekend. This is something I cannot stress enough. You need three or four hours if you want to see everything. (Including the Forbidden City Starbucks, which is there. Honest...) Save the walk around the perimeter wall for another day as it takes ages, but you have the constant traffic to keep you company.

A dance in the park on a Sunday afternoon in October
But it's quite interesting to see the corner towers from the outside. And you do stumble across a few interesting side streets and local shops.

North of the Forbidden City is Coal Hill (Meishan). There's a fifteen minute (very steep) uphill walk to the summit pagoda (The Pavilion of Everlasting Spring), and a really good view (smog permitting) of the Forbidden City. Many Chinese also trek up to the summit. Be prepared to be greeted by groups of locals wanting to have their photo taken with you. Especially if you are tall and blonde. Or small and brunette. Or just Western... It is known for Chinese men to manhandle a Western girl and hang on to her while his mates take a photo. Males in their thirties, as well as giggling gaggles of teenage females, want their photo taken with a six foot, blond boy.

Ephemeral calligraphy in the park
It's not considered rude by their standards. But it's bizarre by ours. Just hold out your hand and ask for renmimbi. They'll laugh but they'll soon get the message if you keep insisting. Also men want to have their photos taken with Western men. Just be prepared to have cameras thrust into your hand for you to take the photo of your husband or son with 'a new friend'. 

(To the right of the Forbidden City is Zhongnanhai where the Communist leaders  live. It's off limits to ALL visitors so don't stray.)

Temple of Heaven*****, directly south but a good half an hour's walk from Tian'anmen Square. Get a taxi if you are feeling brave! Taxis are really cheap; just a few renmimbi. Point to your destination on a map and you will probably end up where you want to be although this is not always certain as bad pronunciation of Chinese, which is a language that relies on inflexion, can cause an International Incident at worst and a scratching of heads at best.

The Marble Boat at the Summer Palace
 

This park is the best park in Beijing. Best visited at weekends as it is popular with families and locals doing what they do best: martial arts, ballroom dancing, pavement calligraphy in water with huge brushes, opera singing (both Chinese and Western), string quartets playing Mozart, traditional Chinese musicians playing on traditional Chinese instruments, brass musicians playing trumpets and trombones; kite flying, circus skills, acrobatics; and also walking backwards, coughing, and banging you head against trees... I jest not. Many medical ailments are 'cured' by such alternative therapies as walking backwards. Strange in our eyes, but who else has noticed an increase in traditional Chinese medicine outlets in our own shopping malls? And these remedies really do work.

The Summer Palace. One of the nicer spots in Beijing in the early evening.

This park is an absolute must. It gives you a real feeling for the Chinese way of life, both ancient and modern. Spend every weekend here if you can. It's amazing. Not only do you have all that zest for life going on all around you, you have the temples and astronomical calendars and the promise of always having a strong voice and the power of oratory if you stand on a particular stone and say your name. It's got everything. Definitely the best place to go in the whole of Beijing on a Saturday or Sunday. And it's so huge it can cope with the crowds.

White Cloud (Taoist) Temple **** (Bai Yun Guan) The Wind-Containing Bridge is where you throw metal discs at a huge facsimile of a Chinese coin. You have to pay for a voucher at one booth, and then walk 2 meters to cash in your voucher for a hundred metal discs at the neighbouring booth.

Get your coin through the hole, ring the bell, and you will be wealthy for life
Job creation scheme in action. If you get a disc to go through the slot and ring the bell on the other side, then you will be assured of wealth your whole life. Apart from this obvious money-spinner, which, it has to be said was great fun because I managed to ring the bell with my first throw, (yey, I'll be rich beyond my wildest dreams . . . I'll have enough money to buy all the money in the whole world just like Homer Simpson), this is a very peaceful place and is still a seminary for monks. You can see them walking through the grounds in black garb and flat pumps, heads immersed in books. Many newly-weds come here and make offerings at the shrines. It's beautiful.

Don't bother with the Ancient Observatory if you are on a tight schedule.

Prayer wheel

Summer Palace**** is another must, but it can get really crowded with organised coach trips. Try going late afternoon during the week. The Long Corridor and The Marble Boat have to be seen to be believed. And the views across the lake are spectacular with the evening sun low in the sky. But you have to know the history to be able to put these things in context. Read up before you go and everything falls into place.

Fragrant Hills Park* Crowded. At weekends it's a no go area as you have to queue to get anywhere. When you get to the summit, Incense Burner Peak, it is a little disappointing. And then you have to queue, sometimes for hours, for the chairlift to get back down. In each five hours, you have to spend three hours queuing.

Ming Tombs at 8 in the morning. Look.... No buses.
So be prepared.

Ming Tombs*** combine this with a trip to The Great Wall. Best way to do this is to get a driver and car for the day. There are few tourist information centres so ask at a hotel. You can book an interpreter for an extra cost. (About £20 and lunch.) Be prepared  to visit the Government Outlet on the way back, usually the cloisonne factory. But you can get a reasonably priced, if mass produced, meal here. (A bit like the works Christmas Dinner so don't expect Chinese haut-cuisine. And if you're vegetarian or have a dietary requirement, the interpretor comes into their own.) The Ming Tombs are best visited early, before the tourist coaches arrive. Most places open at 8.00, so aim to arrive just before and you will have at least an hour, if not more, virtually on your own.

Terracotta soldierrs in display case
But, regardless of what time you arrive at The Wall, it's always packed. Look out for the shopping outlets as they have good toilet facilities and a cafe. When on The Wall, choose the steepest climb as it is the least crowded... But, whichever way you go, ladies hide behind every battlement and 'invite' you to buy pashminas for your mother, your sister, your aunt etc. And they'll chase you down and wait until your lungs are bursting and your guard is down,and ty to do the deal. Just tell them you have no mother, no aunts, no sisters, actually no female relatives at all, and they'll end up feeling sorry for you and leave you alone.

Terracotta Army** Xian A short flight out of Beijing. Can be done in a (very long) day as part of an organised trip.

Ordering a meal
When travelling independently, go for an overnight stop. Xian has many hotels. Large site with some impressive artefacts. On his visit there, my husband met three farmers who all claimed to be the original discoverer of the site. It is cheaper to buy books and tourist memorabilia in the market by the mosque (and haggle) than it is to pay the fixed museum prices. But check the quality of the paper and ink. It's always a give-away. At the mosque market, you can buy everything from a pack of Saddam Hussein Most Wanted Playing Cards to boxed miniature genuine replica terracotta army figures and horses. But you get what you pay for!

 

Eating Out

When you ask for chicken, you get chicken: claws, beak and wattle... Beijing is not a vegetarian friendly city. Unless you are lucky enough to speak fluent Mandarin or you get a waitress who understands your needs, you're on your own. Most restaurants have a menu with pictures of each dish and you point to what you think you would like. But when the English translation is 'Three Treasures', you really have no idea what to expect. Well expect tripe and offal... There was a really good Chinese restaurant in Oriental Plaza. Excellent Sunday Lunch with Dim Sum and loads of side plates and main courses. Helpful staff. Lovely surroundings. A huge meal for four for £25 including Chinese beer and mineral water.  A real pleasure.

Soup, when offered, is a kind of everything thrown-in. And everything means everything. The Chinese eat what Westerners throw away, so innards are eaten regularly. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it's just that some people's sensibilities may be called into question.

There are many foreign restaurants: Italian, Indian, Thai, Greek, as well as the usual US suspects. And English/Irish/American bars serving steaks etc are to be found in most residential areas. There are also supermarkets and restaurants scattered throughout the new residential high-rise areas beyond the second and third ringroads.

China is changing. It's just the language barrier that stops us from making the most of Beijing.

 

travelman727 says:
This is a fantastic Beijing blog :-D I've been privileged to visit this wonderful city four times; I can't wait to add a couple of your recommendations on my next trip :-D
Posted on: Jun 24, 2007
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
Its very easy to travel by underg…
It's very easy to travel by under…
Tiananmen Square outside Maos Ma…
Tian'anmen Square outside Mao's M…
Its true what they say about 7 mi…
It's true what they say about 7 m…
Twin girls . . .
Twin girls . . .
Silk evening dress . . . a bargain
Silk evening dress . . . a bargain
When you get to The Wall, turn lef…
When you get to The Wall, turn le…
Wheres my thing gone? Terracotta …
Where's my thing gone? Terracotta…
One area of Hutongs as seen from T…
One area of Hutongs as seen from …
The Imperial Wharf, just a walk fr…
The Imperial Wharf, just a walk f…
Panda being cute in Beijing Zoo. N…
Panda being cute in Beijing Zoo. …
The entrance to The Forbidden City
The entrance to The Forbidden City
Coal Hill, before the smog rolled …
Coal Hill, before the smog rolled…
A quiet spot at the Temple of Heav…
A quiet spot at the Temple of Hea…
A dance in the park on a Sunday af…
A dance in the park on a Sunday a…
Ephemeral calligraphy in the park
Ephemeral calligraphy in the park
The Marble Boat at the Summer Pala…
The Marble Boat at the Summer Pal…
The Summer Palace. One of the nice…
The Summer Palace. One of the nic…
Get your coin through the hole, ri…
Get your coin through the hole, r…
Prayer wheel
Prayer wheel
Ming Tombs at 8 in the morning. Lo…
Ming Tombs at 8 in the morning. L…
Terracotta soldierrs in display ca…
Terracotta soldierrs in display c…
Ordering a meal
Ordering a meal
Sponsored Links
Beijing
photo by: Deats