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There's an ancient Chinese proverb that says, "The dragon teaches you that if you want to climb high you have to do it against the wind." Yes, we know, the lesson here is that all great achievements require surmounting adversity, but the Beijing airport seems to take this bit of dragon wisdom more literally. As your flight arrives safely after scaling high altitudes and zooming against headwinds, you'll find that the slick new airport (updated for the 2008 Olympics) is shaped like–what else?–a dragon. It's hard not to marvel at the clever incorporation of this ancient imperial symbol, but don't gape too long before heading into the modern megalopolis.
Compared to the headwinds you've just endured, making it from the airport to the city is a snap. The speediest way in is to hop on the flashy Airport Express train, but if you’re not up for navigating the trip post-flight, try a taxi instead (comfy and impressively cheap, but stick to the official taxi stands so you don't get lost in translation). And for a completely hassle-free and swanky entrance, go with your hotel’s car service; oftentimes, the driver will meet you at your gate (rock star style!) and escort you through the airport–quite a warm welcome, wouldn't you say?
Once in the city, you’ll find that Beijing is overwhelmingly big–walking one city block can take you about 15 minutes, so don't expect to hoof your way around. If you want to roll with the cool kids, try out the über-modern subway system. Beware though–the walk from station to destination can be quite a hike, so don’t be afraid to ask for directions. As they say in Chinese proverb-ese, “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who doesn’t remains a fool forever,”…or at least will be walking forever if he heads the wrong way down one of Beijing’s massive boulevards.
And if modern conveniences aren’t your style, grab a Beijing bicycle! Chinese wisdom of the ages aside, we beg to differ with the traditional saying, “A paved road is good for 10 years and bad for 1,000.” The millennia-old hutong alleyways are perfect for exploring on two wheels, but we would NEVER strike out on the new highway-style roads (like in the Central Business District). By and large, though, taxis are the most abundant and mainstream mode of tourist transport.
No matter how you get to where you need to go, you'll want to brush up on minding your manners, traditional Chinese style. The concept of “face” is a really big deal. (As they say, “A person needs a face like a tree needs bark.”) In practical terms, this means always being respectful of your Chinese hosts and even being willing to go over the top with your compliments. And if you don’t know your “ni hao” (hello) from your “zai jian” (goodbye), it might be a good idea to bone up on basics like please and thank you–your hosts will be very impressed.
Of course, “Only he that has traveled the road knows where the holes are deep.” For all that Beijing is an alluring destination, there’s one major pitfall to avoid: coming at the peak of the smoggy, sweltering summer. Weather-wise, blue-sky autumn is best, but spring (provided there’re no dust storms gusting down from the Gobi Desert) and chilly winter have their charms too. After all, “A single day of freezing temperatures is not enough to create three feet of ice!”
Photo courtesy of poeloq on Flickr Creative Commons
There is no culture of tipping in China. Some top hotels and restaurants now include a service charge in the bill, but anything beyond that is really not expected. In fact, in many restaurants the staff will actually chase you out the door with the money you’ve “forgotten” if you try to leave a tip on the table.
Beijing is an incredibly safe city. Petty theft is common in tourist hotspots and crowded places like markets, but violent crime is extremely rare. Nightlife areas like Sanlitun and the Workers’ Stadium West Gate are especially well policed. When in markets or crowded areas, though, just keep an eye on your wallet (see Beggars section below). While Beijing is really not dangerous for tourists, keep in mind that it is a city, and general urban safety practices should be minded (e.g., don’t walk alone down a dark, empty street at 4:00am).
Etiquette, Customs, and Culture
For over a millennium, Beijing has been renowned across China for its cosmopolitan blend of cultures. In imperial times, intellectuals from around the country flooded the capital in hopes of landing an official post, creating a melting pot of China’s many different regional cultures. Alongside this, dignitaries from across Asia came to pay tribute to the emperor, while traders, travelers, and missionaries from India, Europe, and the Middle East followed the sinuous Silk Road to the capital in search of riches or spiritual fulfillment. These days, Beijing’s booming economy continues to pull in migrants from all parts of the country in search of jobs and opportunities. At the same time, an incredibly diverse population of international expats has settled here, drawn by everything from diplomatic postings to business opportunities.
That said, despite all the diversity, Beijing does have its own unique culture. Particularly noticeable for visitors is the fact that Beijingers often prefer a rambunctious (or renao) ambiance–expect places like restaurants and some teahouses to be incredibly boisterous. Oftentimes in restaurants, you’ll see locals shouting for waitstaff (Fuwuyuan!); you may have to do so as well to get service, but be respectful when doing so. Volume in Beijing is not an indicator of politeness (attitude is), so you will notice many people, especially men, speaking in loud voices–to the uninitiated, it can sound like you’re being rudely shouted at, but in fact you’re probably being offered an enthusiastic greeting. Additionally, personal space is still a new concept, so be ready for close-talkers, especially when negotiating in the markets, where vendors might even grab your arm simply to get your attention.
Another important cultural point is the concept of face. For visitors, you may notice this particularly at times when you encounter problems, such as travel delays. In order for the person assisting you to not lose face, you may be given information that doesn’t quite match the reality of the situation (i.e. “The car will be here soon,”…when in fact the car will not arrive for another few hours). The best way to deal with this is to remain calm and pleasant (you don’t want to personally embarrass the person you are dealing with, as this would cause them to further lose face, making them feel extremely uncomfortable and ashamed), but it’s ok to remain firm and persistent. You can pleasantly ask, “Will it really be here that soon? I need to know because…”
There are a few other points of etiquette to familiarize yourself with as well. Firstly, standing patiently in line is just not done (they’re getting better at it though after the government’s concerted effort leading up to the 2008 Olympics). Don’t be rude, but you will have to be considerably more aggressive and assertive in China (particularly during rush hour on the subway), or you will quickly find yourself at the back of the line. When shoved, try to simply stand your ground, but be prepared to push back if need be. Another major etiquette point is that it’s common to ask rather personal questions about age, salary, and marital situation. This is not considered rude, just normal chitchat. If you don’t want to answer a question, politely deflect it or vaguely answer. Also, though the government launched a half-hearted drive to ban it before the Olympics, spitting on the street is common practice. Everyone spits and spits with gusto. Lastly, business cards are a big deal here. When you are handed a business card, make a show of treating it with respect and politely putting it somewhere safe, like your wallet or a card case (if you want to be uber formal, accept/give the business cards with two hands). It’s also a good idea to carry a large stack of your own business cards with you so that you can exchange them with others.
Running: Running options are fairly limited in Beijing. Sidewalks are crowded and dangerous (don’t be surprised when drivers suddenly decide to use them as a speedy way of skipping out on traffic snarl-ups), and parks are generally more for contemplative reflection than serious aerobic workouts. Ritan Park is the most popular with expat joggers, but it only offers a one-mile loop. Beihai Park is also a decent running spot, and it’s slightly larger than Ritan, but it’s unfortunately not a loop (it’s a U-shape), meaning to get back to where you came in, you’ll have to run all the way back around the park. If you’re really keen to go for a long run through the streets of Beijing and are interested in getting to know some sporty local expats, try joining up with the Hash Hound Harriers (www.hash.cn) who organize weekly group runs followed by a raucous (and real boozy) meal in a pub on Sunday afternoons.
Yoga: Local studio Yoga Yard (www.yogayard.com) offers classes at all levels and welcomes drop-in students. A 75-minute class costs RMB 100. Aman at Summer Palace (www.amanresorts.com) also has an excellent in-house yoga studio, though it’s only open to guests. If you’re looking for something really exotic, the Commune by the Great Wall (www.communebythegreatwall.com) runs wellness retreats that include yoga sessions on the Great Wall.
Other Key Information
Banking and Currency: The official name of China’s currency, Renminbi (commonly shortened in writing to “RMB”) is quite a mouthful. Fortunately for the tongue-tied, it’s commonly referred to with the much-easier-to-say word kuai (pronounced: kw-eye), as in: “These socks cost 10 kuai.” Money comes in bills from RMB 1-100, and change under RMB 1 is either in bills or coins. Because the value of the currency has inflated quite quickly over the past couple of decades, the smallest change (RMB 0.01, called fen) is virtually useless and is commonly taped or folded together into bundles to make up the more reasonable sum of RMB 0.10–so don’t be surprised if your small change looks like it was part of an arts and crafts project.
Almost all ATMs in Beijing now accept foreign cards. The easiest way to check is to look for international logos like Cirrus, Visa, MasterCard, etc. on the machine. As long as the logo on your card is on the machine, you’re set. Though they are incredibly rare these days, if you do manage to stumble upon an ATM without international logos, avoid it. These have a nasty habit of swallowing bank cards; the only way to get your card back in this case is to get the manager of the bank to open the machine.
International credit cards are now accepted at a wide range of venues around town, especially restaurants and shops. Be wary of using your card in sketchier venues (market stalls are a big no-no), but otherwise you should be fine paying with plastic.
Most banks and hotels around the city provide currency exchange services. Do note however that while it is very easy to change money into RMB, it is much more difficult to change it back from RMB into your home country’s currency. To change money back, you will need the receipt from your original exchange (or an ATM receipt plus the card you used to make the withdrawal). You are only allowed to change back a maximum of 50% of the amount shown on the receipt. Once you’ve left the country, changing RMB is even more difficult, and exchange rates are abysmal. Basically, be extremely conservative in changing and withdrawing money, or you may find yourself stuck with a wad of RMB you can’t change.
Beggars: Beggars are an increasingly common site in tourist areas and expat hangouts like Sanlitun, and they often target Westerners aggressively. Some beggars have even started using extreme tactics including forcing you to hold a baby and refusing to take it back until you give them money. Although it can be difficult, the best thing to do if you are confronted with a beggar is to avoid eye contact and walk away quickly. If you would like to make a charitable donation, the best way to do so is through a reputable international aid organization or established local charity. This will ensure that your donation is used appropriately and effectively. (Most of Beijing’s beggars work for a professional begging organization, so the money you give won’t necessarily go to that person anyway.)
Hello: Ni hao!
Goodbye/See you!: Zai jian!
How are you?: Ni hao ma?
How much (does this cost)?: Duo shao?
Thank you: Xie xie
If you’d like to bone up on a bit more Mandarin before you arrive in Beijing, check out the offerings at www.Chinesepod.com. Their lessons (available from levels “newbie” to “advanced”) are done via snappy 15-minute podcasts that cover useful topics like directing a taxi the airport or ordering food in a restaurant.
Dining Culture: If you’re not already a wizard with chopsticks, it’s a good idea to study up before you come (or pack your own fork), because most local restaurants can’t offer an alternative. If you are dining out with local hosts, it is very common for the host to serve you food. This is considered polite hospitality. You may need to be rather insistent if you would like to refuse something, although you will likely still be served anyway (just leave on your plate if you really dislike it). It is also common for the host to fill your glass and then toast you with “gan bei” (which translates as “bottoms up”). If you don’t feel comfortable draining your glass, it’s ok to only take a sip (double standard alert: men are less apt to get away with sipping). Beijing is an increasingly cosmopolitan city, and most hosts are sensitive to the cultural differences between Western and Chinese diners, so as long as you are polite, no one will be offended if you would like to refuse to eat or drink something.
Vegetarians, all hope is not lost, although you will have to be diligent about your efforts. Your safest bets are the Buddhist restaurants, which are surprisingly delightful and delicious. Many Chinese don’t understand simple vegetarianism (unless you couch it in Buddhist terms); even if you order a “vegetable” dish, you may find ground pork that was used for flavoring but this does not a meat dish make. (A meat dish in China is one in which meat was used as a primary ingredient and not just for flavoring or in small quantities.)
English-Language Magazines: We HIGHLY RECOMMEND picking up one of the expat magazines upon arrival because they have invaluable names, addresses, and telephone numbers for most key restaurants and nightlife spots in both English AND Chinese. These mags are available for free in most hotels and popular expat hangouts around the city. The most popular titles are The Beijinger, City Weekend, and Time Out. Newcomer Agenda is great if you’re only in town for a short visit, as it gives a quick overview of events that are on that particular week. Armed with one of these mags, you can always get to your destination, as you can just point to the venue’s Chinese address for your taxi driver or the random local you’ve cornered for directions. If he or she doesn’t know the address, feel free to call the venue and have the venue explain the location to the driver/local on your behalf.
Health Matters and Medical Insurance: Beijing has a desert climate, which fortunately means it doesn’t harbor tropical diseases (like malaria) that are common in the hotter, rainier south of the China. Nonetheless, before you travel, it’s a good idea to have a chat with your doctor about any health concerns you have and to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date, especially for hepatitis A. Beijing has several private Western-style hospitals and clinics, the most popular being Beijing United Hospital and the SOS Clinic. These hospitals are staffed with English-speaking doctors from North America and Europe, and their onsite pharmacies stock imported prescription drugs from the US and the EU. These locations will accept out-of-pocket payments (cash or credit card), as well as some travel insurance plans. Buying travel insurance before you arrive is recommended. Make sure you select coverage that provides you access to the aforementioned locations. If you’re planning on traveling elsewhere in China as well, it may be worthwhile for you to purchase insurance that covers medical evacuation from remote areas of the country back to Beijing. The SOS Clinic (www.internationalsos.com) is the leading provider of such coverage, and they can also be found around the world.
Internet: Wireless internet access is available in most hotels, restaurants, and cafés around town. A select number of websites are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall.” The list of blocked sites changes regularly, but the usual suspects are Twitter, Facebook, and most blogging sites (like WordPress, Blogspot, etc.) so you may have to forget about tweeting your China insights till you get home.
Language: Chinese, with its thousands of complex characters and confusing system of tones (which change the meaning of a word depending on how it is pronounced), is one of the most difficult languages in the world. On top of that, though the official language of China is standardized Mandarin, there are actually hundreds of different (and mutually unintelligible) dialects spoken throughout the country. In places where Mandarin has not yet taken hold, the differences between dialects can be so great that people are dependent on written characters to communicate with speakers from other parts of China. If your Chinese skills are not up to snuff (or non-existent), it’s a good idea to use texts written in Chinese to communicate rather than trying to speak the language, since tones are tough for beginners to navigate. Your hotel’s concierge or front desk will be extremely helpful in providing “Take me to…” and “I would like…” cards written out in Chinese which you can present to non-English speakers.
Also, though China’s official written language is characters, there is also a writing system called pinyin which converts characters into the Roman alphabet and numbers (signifying the tone). For example, the character for food (饭) is written in pinyin as “fan.” Most Beijingers can read pinyin but don’t necessarily understand it, since it strips words of their meaning which is conveyed in the tone and character. For instance, there are over 40 different meanings of “fan,” depending on how it is written and pronounced. Nevertheless, knowing the pinyin of place names is very useful, since pinyin is often used on maps and street signs.
Of course, increasing numbers of Beijingers now speak English as well. At tourist sites and markets, English speakers should really have no problem communicating. Even in areas of the city where English is less common, residents will often enthusiastically try out the few English phrases that they know, like “Hello, how are you?”
See above for Common Phrases.
Phones: To avoid costly hotel fees on international calls, the cheapest way to call abroad is to use an IP phone card. These can be purchased from convenience stores and many small kiosks around town–most places selling them have helpful advertisements for IP cards in English–and should cost about 30-40% of their face value. (For example, an RMB 100 card usually costs RMB 35 and lasts for one hour.) As for cell phones, you can have your home provider enable your phone for international travel at exorbitant rates. You can, however, also purchase SIM cards to insert into your phones, although most American phones need to be unlocked. Just ask your cell phone provider before you leave home to unlock–oftentimes they will.
Shopping and Bargaining: Except for in established grocery stores, convenience stores, and international chains, bargaining is expected in Beijing’s shops and markets. When bargaining, be tough and pull out all the stops. In most markets, you should be aiming to pay around 30% of the vendor’s initial price but be proud of a 50% discount. Don’t be put off by theatrics on the part of the salespeople (“You’re insulting me with that price!”, “I will lose money at that price!”, etc.)–they are seasoned professionals who know how to manipulate to get the prices they want, and they will never sell their goods below cost. If you’re not satisfied with the way the negotiations are going, simply walk away. Usually, you will be called back immediately and the price will drop enormously–otherwise, there’s bound to be another vendor selling exactly the same thing nearby. Don’t be afraid to play one stall off another as in, “Your price is 40 RMB? Over there, they’re selling it for 20 RMB–but I’d rather buy from you if you give it to me for 15RMB.”
When purchasing DVDs, it’s generally a good idea to avoid buying films that have not yet been released in cinemas in your home country. These are generally crummy quality and dubbed in another language. You should never pay more than RMB 10 for a DVD and RMB 15 for a DVD9 or Blu-Ray. Box sets of television shows are usually priced by the disc–these are the best deals in our opinion. But keep in mind, this is an illegal practice for many countries (including the US), and there are penalties if you are caught entering your home country with DVDs.
Toilets: General rule of thumb, bring tissues with you everywhere, because toilet paper is not always guaranteed. In increasingly rarer instances, women may encounter an “Eastern” toilet, which consists of a porcelain bowl in the floor rather than a “Western” seat-based toilet. Rather self-explanatory, but it can be a bit tricky to successfully navigate. Also, when possible, avoid the public toilets. As many Beijing residents, especially in the hutongs (traditional courtyard neighborhoods), still don’t have indoor plumbing, free public toilets are plentiful. They are often very basic (in some there are not even walls dividing the toilets), and you usually need to bring your own toilet paper. Again, our recommendation is: stay away!
Visas: Visas are required for all foreign nationals visiting China. Your visa must be purchased in advance and in person from your local consulate. If you can’t go yourself, there are courier services available that will drop off and collect your visa for you. A standard 30-day tourist visa costs ~USD 130 for American citizens (citizens of other countries should refer to the website of their local Chinese consulate for pricing information). For application forms and more information, visit: www.china-embassy.org.
Visa services are also available at the airport in Beijing for those transiting in Beijing (no visa is required for transits of under 24 hours, but you will need to pick up an exit pass if you'd like to leave the airport), for those with expired or otherwise incorrect visas, and for those who require visa extensions due to flight delays. Prices for these services vary by nationality, but generally tend to be pricey.
Winter: The highlight of winter in Beijing is Chinese New Year (also called Spring Festival). As it’s determined by the lunar calendar, the date changes every year, but it generally falls in late January or early February, and the New Year period lasts for two weeks. Most Chinese return to their hometowns to visit their families, eat traditional dumplings (called jiaozi), and watch the annual Spring Festival Gala on TV, so Beijing can feel rather empty at this time–but there is still plenty of excitement in the city. First and foremost, after a 20-year ban, fireworks are now allowed within the city limits during the New Year period. Everyone (and we mean everyone) buys a pile of them, and they start setting them off from midnight on New Year’s Eve, continuing (day and night!) until the end of the two-week New Year period. The most spectacular displays are New Year’s Eve–a good spot to watch the action is at the Drum Tower, where you can see the lights going off all over the hutong neighborhoods. Also worth checking out during the New Year period are temple fairs, which are held at parks (not temples) around the city. These are crowded, lively festivals offering everything from traditional opera performances and local snacks to trinket vendors and puppet shows. The most popular temple fairs are held at Ditan Park and the Old Summer Palace. Fifteen days after the New Year comes the Lantern Festival, when pretty colored paper lanterns are hung around the city’s parks and locals indulge in the final meal of the festival period, with sweet dumplings called yuan xiao.
Spring: There’s always a quiet lull after the excesses of Chinese New Year, but spring starts to pick up at the end of March with the Beijing International Book Festival hosted by local lending library The Bookworm. Famous for snagging international literary stars and giving an excellent overview of upcoming books by local authors, the book festival is a good way to put a finger on the pulse of Beijing’s cosmopolitan literary scene. Around the same time, on April 5th, comes the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Qing Ming Jie). Many locals head to their hometowns, spending the day clearing the tombs of their ancestors and paying respect to them. Those who can’t leave the city burn small piles of offerings on the sidewalk–these are usually paper copies of items they would like to send to their ancestors, such as cars, food, and clothing. Finally, May 1st is Labor Day and the start of a five-day “Golden Week.” Golden Week is a national holiday and one of the most popular times for tourist travel, so expect tourist sites to be jam-packed and flights and trains to be fully booked.
Summer: Summer brings the poetically named Dragon Boat Festival (Duan Wu Jie) in mid-June. As the story goes, around 300 BC a wise and honest official named Qu Yuan was banished by the corrupt King of Chu for his attempts to improve his country’s flagging fortunes. Heartbroken, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in a river. The locals in the town where he had been banished greatly respected him and valiantly paddled the river in their boats trying to rescue him. Unfortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful, so to protect his body from being eaten by the fish, they tossed sticky rice triangles into the water. In the south of China, the Dragon Boast Festival is celebrated with boat races, but in northern cities like Beijing, the main focus is on eating sticky rice triangles (called zongzi). These are typically wrapped in banana leaves and can be either savory or sweet, filled with meat and mushrooms for the former or red bean paste/red dates for the latter, and are widely available across the city.
Autumn: Autumn in Beijing is a busy time. October 1st is National Day, which is usually celebrated with lavish military parades running past Tiananmen Square. It’s also the start of the second five-day “Golden Week,” so expect tourist destinations to be crowded. Also in October is the Beijing Marathon. Although certainly not the world’s most scenic course, Beijing’s flat terrain makes it a speedy one. Finally, the Mid-Autumn Festival, a lunar festival celebrating the harvest moon, usually falls in early October. This festival is primarily celebrated by eating moon cakes (yue bing), which are sweet, heavy cakes that traditionally have an egg-yolk (representing the moon) in the center–though these days trendy Beijing bakeries offer fillings as diverse as green tea, strawberry jello, and crushed Oreos.
Photo courtesy of scary toy clown on Flickr Creative Commons
Best Way in from the Airport
• Airport Express: The newly opened Airport Express (RMB 25), a fast train which connects the airport with the subway system at the Sanyuanqiao and Dongzhimen stations, is by far the fastest and cheapest way into the city. Trains run every 15 minutes 6:30am-11:00pm, and the trip to the city center only takes about 25 minutes. When buying tickets, don’t bother trying to pick up an extra one for your return journey–tickets are non-refundable and only work from the station of purchase and on the date of purchase.
• Taxi: The price of a taxi from the airport to the city varies by destination, but it should usually be somewhere around RMB 85-100 (plus a mandatory RMB 10 toll). There’s an English language assistant working at the airport taxi standard who can help you tell your driver where you want to go, but it’s a good idea to have the address printed out in Chinese just in case they’re not familiar with the hotel (you can print this off the hotel’s website). Always ensure that the driver uses the meter, since a common scam with visitors is to claim the meter is broken and then charge an arbitrary amount (often over RMB 100) upon arrival at your destination. Ignore the touts for “black taxi” services who hang out in the arrivals lounge–their services are illegal, overpriced, and uncomfortable.
• Airport Bus: The Airport Bus (RMB 16) is a good alternative to the Airport Express if you’re staying in the Central Business District, since the train drops you a lengthy subway ride away from your destination but the bus will take you directly there. Take Bus No. 1 to the third stop on the line (Dabeiyao), which is at the China World Center, a swish office and mall complex at the heart of the CBD. Hotels like the Park Plaza and the St. Regis are within 5-10 minutes walking distance.
• Hotel Shuttle: Most high-end hotels around town offer airport transfers. This is definitely the easiest way to get into town, since you won’t have to worry about directing a taxi to the hotel, and some hotels will even meet you as soon as you deplane and walk you through customs/immigration/baggage claim. Rates vary by hotel. Don’t forget to make arrangements for this with your hotel before arriving.
Comfy, easy to nab, and cheap as chips, taxis are by far the easiest ways to get around town. The only sticking point (for non-Chinese speakers anyway) is that very few taxi drivers speak English. The best strategy for dealing with this is to get your concierge to whip up a stack of “Take me to…” cards for you before you head out for your day’s adventures. Make sure they have both Chinese and English or you won’t know where you’re asking your driver to take you. For restaurants and nightlife venues, many English-language expat magazines have a bilingual listings section, which drivers should be able to read (see MUST KNOWS). Also, for places you visit that you’d like to return to (your hotel being top among those!), make sure to grab a complimentary address card that you can show to your cab driver (most places have them conveniently placed by the door).
If you’re traveling inside the city, always make sure that the driver is using the meter. (A common scam with tourists is to pretend that it’s broken and then charge an arbitrary rate on arrival.) If you’re going to be traveling some distance (for instance, to the Great Wall), you should negotiate a set price with your driver. Most drivers only accept cash, though a few now take credit cards or transport cards (the same ones you use for the subway). If you want to pay using your transport card, you’ll need to tell the driver before he starts his meter. The standard rate for a taxi in Beijing is RMB 10 for the first three kilometers and RMB 2 for every kilometer after that. Between 11:00pm and 6:00am, the meter starts at RMB 11 and goes up by RMB 3 per kilometer. Also, there is now an RMB 1-2 petrol fee for most journeys.
PRICE: RMB 10 for first three kilometers, then RMB 2 per kilometer; petrol surcharge RMB 1-2
Once upon a time (for most of the 20th century), Beijing’s subway (or di tie as it’s called in Chinese) only had one line, a single city center loop built more to impress visitors than to transport locals. Times have changed though; these days, it’s one of the fastest expanding subway systems in the world and set to be the world’s longest in under a decade. Newly built stations are clean, modern, and easy to navigate, and even old lines have had a recent facelift. Also, without the above-ground traffic jams to contend with, the speedy trains can often transport you across the city in half the time that a car could. Even better, at RMB 2 per ride, it’s excellent value for money. Trains run every 3-5 minutes 5:00am-11:00pm daily. All stations and trains are signposted in both Chinese and English, and all announcements are bilingual.
Tickets can be purchased from automatic kiosks at all stations. Each ticket is only valid from the station of purchase and for the day of purchase, so don’t bother buying in bulk. If you’re going to be using the subway station frequently, your best bet is to buy a transport card (yi ka tong). These blue plastic swipe cards are available from the ticket windows at all stations for an RMB 20 deposit fee and can be recharged in amounts up to RMB 1000 at electronic kiosks in most stations, as well as at post offices and Wal-Mart supermarkets. They can also be used on Beijing’s buses and in some taxis. Rides still cost the same (RMB 2) with a transport card, but you won’t have to stand in line to buy a ticket every time you want to take the subway.
The Beijing subway system is extremely safe. You should feel secure traveling alone, even at night, though as in any major city it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your belongings since petty theft is common. All passengers must put their bags through an x-ray scanner before going through the ticket barriers. If you are carrying something that you don’t want to put through (like a delicate souvenir), bring your bag to the security attendant and they will check your bag manually. Disabled passengers should be aware that many older stations are not yet handicap accessible. Escalators often only go up, elevators are rare, and there is little seating on the platform.
Finally, a word of caution. Beijing is an ENORMOUS city, so even though a site may look quite close to the subway on a map, it may actually take 30 minutes or more to walk there from the station. (Blocks often take a good 10-15 minutes/block to walk at a quick pace.) It’s a good idea to ask someone in the know, like a concierge, about the distances from the station before setting out. Also, when possible, avoid the subway during rush hour (weekdays, 7:00am-9:00am and 5:00pm-7:00pm).
PRICE: RMB 2
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.ebeijing.gov.cn
For non-Chinese speakers, Beijing’s buses are notoriously tricky. Signs at bus stops are generally in Chinese only, and, as if that doesn’t make it hard enough to figure out which bus to take, there’s also a bewildering array of follow-up choices, like with or without air conditioning, express service or slow service, long-distance or local…Frankly, it’s often easier to just hop in a cab. For more info on bus routes, check out the helpful bus website (www.bjbus.com), which now offers an English language guide. Also, although English-language signage at bus stops is basically non-existent, once on the bus, all stops are announced in Chinese and English, and the name of the stop is also shown in pinyin as well as in characters.
If you have a transport card (yi ka tong)–these are the same ones that you use for the subway–you can simply swipe the card when you get on the bus. Some buses also require you to swipe when you get off, but there are helpful signs in English if this is the case. If you don’t have a transport card, you can buy your ticket from the conductor, who is usually seated in a small booth next to the door. If you use your transport card, the fare is RMB 0.40. If you buy a ticket on board, the fare is usually RMB 1-2. Make sure you have small change for buying your ticket (RMB 10 or less), as the conductors can rarely make change for big bills like RMB 100.
PRICE: RMB 0.40-RMB 2
CLICK HERE FOR MAP: www.bjbus.com
Many top hotels around the city provide chauffeured car services for their guests. Often such services are complimentary for short hops around the neighborhood and then offered for a set hourly or daily fee for longer jaunts or extended usage.
If you’d prefer to have a devoted car and driver of your own rather than depend on the hotel’s resources, it’s also quite easy to hire a chauffeured car on a daily basis. The simplest way to do this is to ask your concierge–most hotels have a list of reliable partners. If you’d like to arrange it on your own, the most reputable local service is Beijing Limo (www.beijinglimo.com/english/), offering a fleet of luxury vehicles and English-speaking drivers. Their rates range from USD 85-700/day. Otherwise, if you’re feeling really adventurous, freelance drivers often congregate at the Dongzhimen subway station and popular tourist spots. Rates are (as always) negotiable, but a trip to the Great Wall should cost around RMB 300-700, depending on how nice the car is, how many people are going, and whether the driver speaks English.
In general, for short hops around town, taxis or hotel car services are the easiest way to go. For longer treks, like going to the Great Wall, it’s worth arranging a driver.
PRICE: Negotiable; RMB 300-4500/day
CLICK HERE FOR TOWN CAR WEBSITE: www.beijinglimo.com/english/
Unless you have nerves of steel to deal with Beijing's notoriously chaotic traffic and near-eternal patience to wait out some of the world's worst traffic jams (they've been known to last for days on end!), we’d advise either hiring a chauffeured car or relying on Beijing’s abundant taxis. If you absolutely must rent a car, international rental companies Avis (www.avis.com) and Payless Car Rental (www.paylesscar.com) both have outlets at the Beijing airport, and several local companies also offer car rentals. However, even if you have made rental arrangements in advance, you will need to obtain a temporary Chinese drivers license at the airport before you can pick up your car, since China does not recognize foreign drivers licenses or International Driving Permits as valid qualifications. Temporary Chinese licenses, which are available for a nominal fee for those staying in the country for less than 90 days, permit visitors to drive sedans and other small vehicles. To apply, you will need to bring a valid drivers license from your home country and one color passport photo along with your passport and visa. Those staying for more than 90 days will need to take a written drivers examination before they can apply for a license.
With an estimated 10 million bikers on the road, Beijing is certainly a fitting capital of the “Bicycle Kingdom.” Though cars have made up considerable ground, biking remains incredibly popular in Beijing due to the fact that the city is extremely flat, bike lanes are abundant, and–especially in the city center–biking is generally faster than driving. For visitors, biking around the quaint hutong alleyways around the Imperial City area is a great way to see the sights and get a feel for the local culture. The ancient narrow lanes in these parts of town are generally too narrow for cars, making them safe as well as fun to explore. That said, by all means avoid cycling through the concrete jungle of Beijing’s newer and farther-flung districts like the Central Business District–it’s dangerous, noisy, dusty, and sweaty work. Skip it!
Your best bet for getting your hands on a bike is to try out the rental stands in hutong neighborhoods like Nan Luo Gu Xiang and Houhai, which offer everything from basic one-speeds to flashy mountain bikes and even tandems. Rates usually range from RMB 20-100/day, plus an RMB 100-500 deposit (depending on the quality of the bike). Another good option is to use the rental stands outside of all subway stations along Line 2 (which runs in a loop encircling the former Imperial City). These bikes are usually cheaper (RMB 5/hr, RMB 10/half day, RMB 20/day) and can be conveniently returned to any station with a rental stand. The Gulou subway station, which is very close to attractions like Houhai, is a good place to start.
If you’re looking for a more serious bike expedition than just poking around the hutong, it’s a good idea to join an organized tour. Bicycle Kingdom (www.bicyclekingdom.com) offer tours of the city center as well as cycle trips to the Great Wall. They also offer up-market bike rental service, for those looking for jazzier wheels.
Once you’ve snagged a bike, there are a few other basics to deal with. Bike helmets are very hard to come by in Beijing. Bicycle Kingdom rents them (RMB 20/day), but otherwise your best bet is to bring one from home. If you need your bike serviced–flat tires are a common problem–never fear! Small roadside repair stands abound in Beijing. Basic repairs, like pumping up a tire or adjusting a bike seat, are generally less than RMB 1, while major adjustments like replacing a punctured inner tube are around RMB 20. Another major issue is theft–one dedicated Purple Passport researcher lost two bikes in two days while Emily lost two bikes in five months! Luckily, there are a few steps you can take to avoid this problem. Although Beijingers tend to be pretty relaxed about parking their bikes just about anywhere, it’s a good idea to leave your bike in a guarded bike lot whenever possible. For a rock-bottom RMB 0.30, your bike will be watched by a uniformed attendant for as long as you want. (Note that sometimes “guarded” lots don’t really look like a formal parking area. Don’t be surprised if you leave your bike on what you assume is an unattended sidewalk only to find an attendant asking you for payment when you leave.) Another way to avoid theft is to have a strong lock. Up-market rental operations like Bicycle Kingdom provide sturdy locks, but roadside rental stands often just give chintzy, easily breakable ones. If you’re going to be cycling a lot, it may be worth picking up your own lock (RMB 15-30) from a supermarket or bike repair stand. Finally, the best way to keep your bike safe is to pick an ugly one. Shiny new bikes disappear quickly, but a beat-up banger or one with unmistakable markings from a popular rental agent (like the subway station stands) will be less likely to go missing.
If you’re not keen on biking, but would like a wheeled tour of the hutong neighborhoods, try a rickshaw. Drivers congregate at touristy spots like Houhai, Nan Luo Gu Xiang, and the Forbidden City, and generally offer either transport between two tourist destinations or full guided tours of the neighborhood. Prices are negotiable, but for a short hop between two tourist spots, fares should be RMB 5-20, while for an extended tour of the neighborhood, expect to pay around RMB 100.
Best Time to Go
When declaring the People’s Republic of China from the Tiananmen Gate in 1949, Mao reportedly decreed that his most fervent desire was to be able to look out from his vantage point in the center of Beijing’s Imperial City and see not a forest of ancient pines but one of belching smokestacks indicating the birth of industry in China. To the dismay of environmentalists and city planners alike, his myopic vision soon became reality, and 20th century Beijing was a city as famous for its historic buildings as its choking clouds of smog. Fortunately, since the dawn of the 21st century (largely spurred on by the 2008 Olympic Games), Beijing’s officials have worked tirelessly to scrub their skies, doing everything from dismantling the offending chimneys to planting billions (we’re not kidding!) of trees around the city. Their efforts have paid off, and the sapphire skies for which the city was famous in imperial times have returned–Beijing now has around 300 “blue sky days” a year, compared with a measly 100 in 1998. There is, however, a tradeoff: this “blue sky” business is also partly own to the fact that Beijing is in a desert, so even “natural” clouds rarely form overhead. While the continually clear skies are great for those out sightseeing, it also means the city suffers the extremes that come with a desert climate, with the seasons radically yo-yoing between swelteringly hot summers and painfully frigid winters.
Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spring is something of a gamble in Beijing. If you’re lucky, you can catch the heavenly three-week window when the city’s fruit trees burst into fragrant bloom, the skies are achingly azure, and the temperatures comfortably in the low 70s. The picturesque showers of blossoms, however, are usually matched with some decidedly less endearing dust storms gusting through from the northern Gobi Desert. Not only do these gritty winds make it nearly impossible to go outdoors, but the thick coating of yellow sand that they leave around the city also makes open-air pursuits a grimy affair for days afterwards. Temperatures in spring range widely, with the mercury hovering around a chilly 30F for most of March but rocketing up to the mid-80s by early May–come prepared with everything from a winter jacket to shorts and sandals if you’re here for more than a week.
Despite its scorching temperatures, violent thunderstorms, and marked increase in smoggy skies, summer is Beijing’s peak tourist season. Wise locals spend their summer days sheltered in shady courtyards or air-conditioned offices, only venturing out when afternoon thunderstorms have cleared and cooled the air. Unfortunately, tourists who are pressed for time have no such luxury and must spend their days hiking around boilingly hot and infuriatingly crowded attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Daytime temperatures are usually in the 90s, though thankfully after the evening storms they generally dip down to the 70s. Besides a suitcase full of sundresses and tank tops, be sure to pack plenty of mosquito repellent and sunblock (most sun creams available in China have skin bleaching agents in them, so it’s best to bring a bottle from home if that’s not your thing), a hat, a sturdy umbrella, and sunglasses.
Autumn is by far the best time of the year to visit. The skies are gorgeously blue, the air is refreshingly cool and crisp, and the summer tourist crowds magically evaporate. September temperatures are usually in the mid-70s, though by November they drop to between 40-50F, and there’s even an occasional dusting of snow. Make sure to pack a few sweaters, a scarf, and maybe even some gloves, but leave your heavy winter jacket at home.
Bitterly cold temperatures, harsh winds, and extreme drought mean winter in Beijing is not for the faint of heart. Temperatures generally range between 15F-40F (though the wind chill often makes it feel much colder), and the arid conditions give the air a constant static crackle. Nonetheless, if you’re tough enough to brave it, a wintertime visit can be rewarding. Photography aficionados are particularly well-served by this season’s charms, since drought leaves the skies reliably clear and the wintry frost makes Beijing’s temples, pavilions, and hutongs even more picturesque. Also, trying out winter outdoor activities like ice skating at Houhai and Beihai Park and skiing in the Olympic Stadium can be a fun way to experience the city. You’ll definitely need to pack warm clothes, including a thick winter jacket and boots, as well as plenty of lotion and lip balm to deal with the dry air. While all major hotels and restaurants have toasty heating, many tourist spots and quaint hutong hangouts only have lukewarm government-issued radiators, so it’s a good idea to dress in layers.
Photo courtesy of Francisco Diez on Flickr Creative Commons