I got to spend, literally, one full day back in Beijing before heading home at midnight. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and the pollution was low, so we could enjoy the sights and soak in the sun.
My niece Morgen decided that I should see the site of the Beijing Olympics as well as the middle of the city, which includes the Bell and Drum Towers. Although these are popular tourist spots, they host nowhere near the volume that the Great Wall or Forbidden City does. Even the tree-lined streets in the surrounding area were pretty mellow, which gave us the opportunity to really soak in the vibe of the city.
That being said — now that I’ve seen more than just the touristy parts of two popular Chinese cities — I’d highly recommend you do more than the most popular tourist attractions. even at the expense of skipping them. Don’t get me wrong, seeing the Great Wall of China is awe-inspiring and The Forbidden City is grand. But They are now at the point where hundreds of thousands of tourists shuffle through them each day, and the typical unsavory elements with them. I came away feeling that if those are the only things tourists see when they go to Beijing, it’s no wonder China gets a bad rap. Nowadays, travel is more than just punching your card on the list of places to see. Go off the beaten path and experience the destination. Travel not just to see the world, but understand your place in it.
Morgen spent her entire high school junior year in China, most of which was in Beijing with a host family in a “study abroad” program. She contacted the family to let them know she’d be in Beijing, and they took us out to dinner at a typical Beijing restaurant. This was the perfect way to end the trip, as the meal (and company) was amazing. Walking down the street to the car after dinner, I looked at the lively crowds waiting on “cooking pot street” and wished I could stay at least a couple more days.
Dinner at Hua's Courtyard
These were just the highlights. For more photos, click here.
One last thing — in some parts of Beijing, you’ll find the kids dress in hip-hop gear or have colored hair. We stopped by Yashow Market and they had a hip-hop event going on. Here’s video of B-boys in training:
Mahalo to Hawaiian Airlines for providing this trip on their inaugural flight!
Travel tips for Beijing
Getting there: Hawaiian Airlines, of course. They have direct flights to and from Beijing three times a week and you get two bags free. Pack one suitcase and leave a second bag free for your counterfeit luxury goods. I mean souvenirs.
Currency: I took some U.S. dollars and cashed them at the airport for pocket money, but the rest of the time used a credit card or ATM. You get the best rate of the day when you use a card. I don’t recommend taking traveler’s checks, because these are a pain to cash at the bank.
Packing: Check the weather reports on the internet. In this case, it was spring, so the temperatures fluctuated wildly from day to day. It could be a low of 46 one day, and a high of 88 the next. Other items to pack are
- Pollution mask. If you don’t have one, you can buy it in China.
- Anti-bacterial gel, spray or towelettes
- Ginger or ginger pills (I got a little motion sickness one day)
- Unlike Japan, you don’t need to pack extra plastic bags for your trash. Trash cans are everywhere.
Connectivity: I asked all the social media geeks I know about getting a wifi device like the one I rent in Japan, and no one seemed to know. Your hotel will have wifi (usually for a charge) and some sights and restaurants may have free wifi. Be aware that social media (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and sometimes Instagram) is banned in China, so if you are as active as I am, you need to get a Virtual Personal Network (VPN) before you go to enable you to access these sites. We used Strong VPN, but you may find others that suit your needs as well. As with any destination, turn your smartphone on Airplane Mode and turn on Wifi when you get there. This turns off your phone as a calling device and turns it into a little computer.
Omiyage: You can get souvenirs in Wang Fu Jing, which is like a Chinese version of International Marketplace. I bought coin purses with Chingrish sayings on them, while other people bought satin coin purses. You can find tea at Yashow Market. I also like to bring home supermarket souvenirs, like weird snacks. You will also find Pocky crackers at the airport (which I missed) in Peking duck and other Chinese flavors. (This is near the Hawaiian Airlines gate, after security and immigration.)
Eating and drinking: Don’t drink tap water — only consume bottled water (any brand), bottled/canned soda, and hot drinks. We drank fruit juices at the hotel and in restaurants, which was fine. I was told not to eat any raw vegetables, so we didn’t, but we did eat oranges and imported apples. For street food, it’s not recommended you eat fried items because of the dangers of Chinese cooking oil (although Morgen ate at a greasy spoon diner for a year, loved it, and never got sick, despite finding out the place uses filtered oil). Otherwise, we found the food safe to eat and had no problems. Oh, and a Beijinger said that the jokes about how the Chinese cook cats into manapua are highly exaggerated. If they cook a domesticated animal, it’s usually dog.
Losing your departure card: When you land, you are given a landing and departure card. They give you the stub back, which you have to turn in at the airport immigration counter when you leave. If you lose it, no problem, just fill out a new one. There are piles of departure cards at immigration.
Getting around: Taxis are extremely cheap by American standards; for example, you can get to the airport for just $10. But find out from your hotel where the nearest subway is, and get a map to figure out how to use it to get where you’re going. (See my short gallery, below, on catching the subway.) Above-ground traffic can get hairy, and just because a taxi is available, doesn’t mean they want to pick you up. For fun, you can catch a rickshaw or an auto-rickshaw (which looks like a tin can), but you need to negotiate for the fare, and I’m not sure how Morgen did it.
Beijing: Getting around
When you first land (or when you leave), you will see information kiosks around the airport. Just ask, "Can I get free wifi?" and the clerk will scan your passport, then give you a code to use. As soon as you step outside the airport, your wifi connection will terminate.