1. Immigration control at Beijing Capital airport is busy. When we arrived, there were no designated lines – just a large herd of people. Eventually, some airport officials began directing people into a long “line” that was five people wide, snaking around the entire immigration area. Plan to be on your feet for a while.
2. You need to get/have cash for the Airport Express into the city. Getting cash, though, was a bit of a pain and a scavenger hunt. We were not alone, as many other U.S. travelers were having difficulty using their debit cards. After trying numerous ATMs, the ICBC one finally gave us some cash. These were fairly prevalent in the city, and they always worked with our card. (We use the Charles Schwab Investor Checking Visa Debit Card.)
3. The subway is easy to use and is an efficient (and necessary) way to get around. Ticket kiosks have a button for English, and you simply need to know where you are going ahead of time (take a screenshot of the subway route to your destination from Google Maps). Enter your final destination on the screen (you need to know your line number and stop name), and then put in money.
Have some small bills and/or change available (be aware, though, that the subway kiosks do not take 1 Yuan bills, but do take 1 Yuan coins).
If you don’t have any change, go buy a ticket from the service counter (again, know your destination – or just show the attendant the stop on your phone). Tap your ticket on the pad on top of the entrance gate, keep your ticket, then insert it at the exit gate at your final stop.
4. Subways are always crowded, and seats are a hot commodity. Don’t expect to sit unless you are ready to get competitive with the locals. Also, subway stations are very hot and humid.
5. A forecast of sunny weather is irrelevant if the air quality is poor. Don’t get too excited about having a nice, clear day based solely on the forecast before you actually look outside or check the air quality index. We had several “sunny” days where we could barely see out of our hotel room due to the pollution. In contrast, the city itself is very clean – there is always someone picking up trash and sweeping the streets and sidewalks.
6. Safety checks and cameras are everywhere. Expect to place your belongings through a x-ray machine at almost all major attractions, as well as all subway stations (when entering). It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly.
7. You will stick out if you’re a western tourist. Many people will stare at you (some more obvious than others), which can be off-putting at first; however, they mean no harm. Tourists from mainland China visiting Beijing (perhaps for the first time) will be very curious, as it is possible it is the first time they have seen a western person in real life.
At many of the main sights in Beijing, teenagers, schoolchildren, and even a few adults will want to take a picture with you.
Some may not speak any English and simply grab you with excitement and start taking pictures. Don’t be alarmed, but always be vigilant. We were happy to oblige for a few pictures, but it’s okay to say no if you’re uncomfortable.
8. Few places accept credit cards. Always have some cash on you.
9. Bring your own toilet paper in your purse, bag, etc., as most public restrooms do not have any available. Also, do not flush the toilet paper – put it in the trashcan next to the toilet (which makes the restroom a bit smelly). Restrooms at main tourist sights usually have at least one “western” toilet, although you might have to wait for it to be available. All others are squatting toilets.
10. Tiananmen Square is very crowded, even early in the morning (after the flag raising). However, it is huge, and you will be able to walk around freely. If you want to visit Mao’s Mausoleum, be aware that this was by far the longest line we have ever seen. Most people seemed like they were part of a tour group and had prebooked their visiting time.
11. The Forbidden City is expansive. Again, while there are many, many visitors here, it feels a little less crowded than you’d expect due to its size. Allow at least half a day to wander around. Be aware that you will need your passport at the ticket counter.
12. The Lama Temple is worth visiting. If you take the subway, be aware that the only entrance to the temple is on the south side, so you will have to walk south alongside it to enter. As you progress through the temple complex, each successive building is more impressive than the last. Be sure you don’t miss the very large Buddha in the last building (northernmost). You exit on the north side and turn left to go back to the subway.
13. The Confucius Temple is close to the Lama Temple and is also worth a visit. This complex is more spread out and is comprised of two main areas. The first area is open. The second area is a little hidden – you have to almost walk outside of the first area. Proceed to the west, which opens into a small car park. The entrance is to the right (north). This second area is very pretty, with a large temple on an island in the middle, with tons of fish in the surrounding water.
14. The Temple of Heaven and surrounding park area was a unique experience. Walking through the park on the way to the various attractions within is an attraction in and of itself. Here, you’ll see locals in their element, playing card games, exercising, dancing, playing the recorder, or playing “jianzi,” a hackeysack game with feathers on the shuttlecock.
15. The first time you walk through a hutong might make you feel a little uncomfortable, but they are fun to explore and a great way to see the daily life of ordinary Beijingers. When school gets out, parents pick up their kids on motorbikes or walk home with them. On their way home from work, people stop by the market to get groceries, the pub for a drink and to gather with friends/colleagues, or by the local noodle shop for a quick and cheap dinner. Well-known restaurants (Temple Restaurant Beijing TRB & Grandma’s) and breweries (Great Leap & Slow Boat) alike are located in the middle of nowhere in these hutongs. Go explore.
16. The Summer Palace is worth going to, but try to plan your route in advance, as the grounds are expansive. Signage within the complex is not the best, and it is very easy to get off track or lost.
If you choose to walk around the large lake at the Summer Palace (or accidentally begin to), be aware that it is a very long walk all the way around it.
However, there are several boats that will take you to various points around the lake. This place is very busy – be prepared. Our favorite part was actually at the very beginning (go to the left just before crossing the large bridge at the entrance) – Suzhou Street.
17. The Wuta Temple is hard to find. It’s just north of the zoo, but it’s not clearly marked – it’s actually inside the Stone Carving Museum. There are numerous stone carvings around the main temple, which is very pretty. While we are glad we went, we felt like this was not a “must see” place, given its location.
18. The Wangfujing night market is extremely crowded and you should not expect to eat dinner there. The relatively narrow alley of street vendors is essentially one slowly-moving mass of people snapping pictures of live scorpions on skewers, among other creepy crawlers.
A few bold souls were making purchases at the Wangfujing night market, but most were there to gawk and take pictures.
After the novelty of the first few stalls, it seemed to be the same foods over and over again. Fun to see, though.
19. The Houhai lakes area was disappointing. It is extremely touristy and is full of clubs and unappealing (at least to us) lakeside bars and restaurants for the party crowd. The setting is pretty, but the commercialization seemed to kill what would otherwise have been a great ambiance and peaceful stroll along the lakes.
20. Do not buy a bottle of water for the plane ride home (to the U.S. or Australia). For some reason, regulations prohibit passengers from taking water onto the plane. Security agents will search your bag as you board the plane, and they will make you throw any water away you have. Goodbye, unopened Fiji water…
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