China is a vast and daunting country to visit, and Beijing, its capital, is no picnic either for a first-time visitor. The city is so large, the streets are so crowded, and the culture is so foreign that it is easy to get disoriented at any given time. If you are planning your first trip to Beijing, this article will help you make the most of your epic journey.
Traveling around China without knowing any Mandarin can be hard. Even Beijing, where it is more probable to find people who speak some English, can present some serious language barriers for any basic daily tasks like eating or just finding a destination or hotel.
While it is not expected of you to learn Mandarin for your trip, it's nice to know at least a few basic words and how to recognize them.
Pick any essential travel guide to China or Google around and you'll find lists of words and phrases commonly use by travelers. Make sure to carry that list with you all the time while in China.
Alternatively, if you find it too hard to learn or pronounce the words in Mandarin, try speaking to younger folks since it is more likely they will speak or understand some English. Make sure you talk slowly and enunciate the words correctly, so they understand you (if they have a limited knowledge of the English language).
Understand that Beijing is an enormous city with seemingly countless interesting things to see and do. If your time is limited one or two days then it is recommended to go to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and taste the delicious Beijing Roast Duck for dinner. Speaking of food, be open but cautious when it comes to eating. Different from Western countries, not all restaurants in China receive a sanitation score for cleanliness and food preparation. Make sure to be prepared with probiotics, antibiotics and stomach relief medicines.
But, back to sightseeing. If you have more time to sightsee, add the Ming Tombs, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, and even the traditional hutongs to your trip. Finally, if you need a taste of the West, go to Sanlitun, where you'll find bars and restaurants more in line with western standards and flavors. There is, of course, much more to be seen, but it all depends on your interests and time, so it is suggested you do your research beforehand to know where to go.
Unless you want to participate in the celebrations, it is best to avoid Chinese holidays due to the amount of locals traveling around the country during those days. During these days, public transportation, finding a hotel, and eating out become a nightmare since you will either have to queue for longer periods or find that booking a hotel is nearly impossible since all of them get fully booked or priced double the normal rate.
Among the holidays to avoid are the two weeks on either side of Chinese New Year (February), Labor Day week (May), and National Day week (October).
It is so common to find vendors selling souvenirs or food almost anywhere in the city. It is part of their culture, but so is bargaining. A tip you should know is that if you're not planning on buying anything, do not ask about the price. Vendors tend to get quite sticky and persistent if they see any interest.
Bargaining in English works but bargaining in Chinese (Mandarin) goes a long way. They appreciate it much more, especially if you bargain with a smile. Start your bargaining at 1/3 the price and go from there. Meet somewhere around 50% of the price if they are insistent.
Again, pick a travel guide with basic translations and practice them beforehand. While bargaining, pretend the goods are dispensable to you, so the vendor doesn't see any attachment, and if they don't accept your price after some haggling, walk away. It is possible they might call you back and sell at your price.
Beijing is infamous for its pollution issues. One day you can have clear blue skies and the next day it is so smoggy you cant even see clearly the buildings across the street. Carrying lotion and eye drops is good (especially if you wear contacts) to reduce any irritation caused on the eyes and skin by all the pollution.
The U.S. embassy posts a pollution report on its website. If you see the air classified between Very unhealthy and hazardous, it is best to stay inside.
If you do not speak Mandarin, it is recommended you print or write the address of your destination in Chinese characters. Like mentioned before, Mandarin pronunciation is hard, so do not assume they will understand you clearly. Also, make sure the taxi meter is on, as sometimes drivers will try to bargain especially late at night. Be aware that 2 to 3 yuan will be added to the final meter amount for gas expenses.
While all hotels will offer toilet paper, the vast majority of public toilets will not provide any of the Western amenities we are used to including toilet paper. If toilet paper is offered, it will probably be hanging somewhere next to the bathroom entrance, so make sure to grab what you need before going to the stall. But, even if they offer, it is best always to carry your own toilet roll. As expected, bring hand sanitizer to clean your hands after any bathroom visit or before eating.
Note: Available plans and coverages may have changed since this blog was published.
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Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.
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