It’s entirely possible to live like a local in Beijing and spend very little. Of course, you still want to hit up the best sights, eat fabulous food and have the occasional life-affirming experience along the way. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your trip.
Eating and drinking
- Chinese food in Beijing (OK, China generally) is a bit of a maze for the uninitiated. Never fear! A little knowledge goes a long way. To get the most out of Chinese food in the capital, do a little online research before you go. www.appetiteforchina.com is a good starting point for navigating the baffling variety of regional cuisines in China, with lots of recipes thrown in too. You’ll soon learn your Sichuan from your Shaanxi.
- Eat with others! Chinese meals are much better eaten in large groups. You can try a greater variety of dishes, and the price per person will end up lower.
- Dining alone, or worried that a whole Peking duck will be too much grub? In most restaurants you can also order duck by the half.
- The bill can mount up after a round of cocktails in Beijing’s swankier bars. Fortunately it’s a city of umpteen happy hours and other promotions like ladies’ nights. Check out www.beijingboyce.com, a seriously in-depth blog on the drinking scene that regularly lists the latest deals and new openings.
- Fake spirits occasionally blight some dive-y Beijing bars, as likely due to unscrupulous suppliers as the bars themselves. Avoid the ‘10 kuai cocktail’ – you’ll pay for it in the morning.
- Take a compass with you. Thanks to the Mongols, most of Beijing’s streets and alleys run north to south or east to west. Handy when you pop out of a subway station to get your bearings on the map.
- Taxi drivers generally don’t speak or read English, so try to have your destination written out in Chinese characters (at a decent size).
- When soliciting a taxi, don’t talk to the driver through the window like you would back home. This will probably cause them to make a face-saving dash for freedom. Just hop straight in.
Sights and attractions
- Avoid visiting key sights like the Summer Palace and Forbidden City on a Saturday or Sunday, especially in high season.
- Every tour to Beijing should begin by climbing the mound in Jingshan Park for a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the city. Then, if you leave from the park’s south exit, you can skip over the road and enter the Forbidden City from its quieter north gate.
- Beijing is a city that gets out of bed early. To see the best of it, you should too. Parks like Jingshan, Ditan, Ritan and Temple of Heaven Park are at their liveliest before 9am, with locals performing tai chi, line dancing, singing and more.
- Exercise polite caution if approached by friendly, English-speaking Chinese students at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Common scams include taking tourists to a traditional tea ceremony and leaving them with an eye-watering bill, or so-called “art students” dragging you somewhere to flog overpriced paintings.
- Save money on a trip on an organised Great Wall tour by getting there yourself. The 919 bus leaves regularly for Badaling from Deshengmen, costing less than 10 RMB for the fast bus. To visit Mutianyu or the more remote, beautiful Jiankou, take the 916 bus from Dongzhimen bus station to Huairou, then catch one of the many waiting taxis to your final destination. Taxi drivers all know the way – expect to pay in the region of RMB 50 (Mutianyu), RMB 100 (Jiankou)
- Chinese massage is popular and cheap in Beijing; the perfect therapy after a long day walking the watchtowers. Nanluogu Xiang has several English-speaking massage centres along the street – expect to pay about 80 RMB per hour.
Other useful tips
- Tipping – don’t do it. It’s not expected in Chinese restaurants or taxis. Posh hotels will generally add 15 per cent on for you.
- Bloggers and social networkers take note. Plan to tweet your trip highlights, or keep friends and family updated on a blog? Be aware that the Chinese government blocks Twitter, Facebook and free (non-hosted) blog sites like Google’s blogspot among others. A short-term fix would be purchasing a VPN, or virtual private network. I use Banana VPN and have no complaints. Expect to pay about £10 for a one month subscription.
- Carry tissues or a toilet roll with you. Don’t take it for granted that the Emperor will have any installed in the Forbidden City’s loos.
- The Chinese language will almost certainly cause you some headaches. You’d think if you told a taxi driver “Forbidden City” they’d know where to go, right? Not so. Short of learning Mandarin, technology may have the answer. Smartphone owners can utilize a wealth of useful “apps” to assist in communication. Google Translate is a marvellous utility, and free to boot. Speak English into your phone and it repeats it in Chinese. Simple sentences work best, but it should be more than adequate for taxis and restaurants. Pleco is the premier Chinese-English dictionary app (also free). Though most of its features are geared towards language scholars, it does offer a truly space-age paid add-on: its OCR reader. Using the phone’s camera, you simply point it at Chinese characters and it’ll translate them for you in real time. Great for timetables, menus and street signs. I couldn’t live without it.