When I first arrived in Beijing the first thing that struck me was the pollution and the haziness of the skies. My dad and I hailed a taxi at the airport - my first chance to practice my basic Chinese. Luckily the driver seemed to understand what I was I was saying however if you can't speak any of the language I advise you to get the hotel or a Chinese friend to write it down for you on paper because the taxi drivers know little or no English. Huge highways congested with trucks and cars waited in a long traffic jam heading towards the city centre. Our hotel was situated in an ideal location, only a five-minute walk to Tiananmen Square on a long busy road; you should pay around 120 yuan to go from the airport to central Beijing. There are many things you could say about Beijing but one thing you can't say is that it is boring - during the summer everyone stays out late, eating at small noodle bars and cafes.
Everyone there wakes up early and often jog before work or school while the older generation do tai chi in large leafy parks - there is a dominant habit of old men in Beijing to make a huge flemmy noise and then spit every few minutes. The streets and other public places are full of life and many people spend much of their day here because the majority of the population are crammed into small rooms in massive blocks of flats. Many of the tourist attractions in Beijing are overcrowded and overrated, however, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven are definitely worth your while. It is a good idea to visit the more touristy sites as early as possible as crowds become unbearable after 8 o'clock.
As I found out, if a taxi driver thinks you can speak Chinese they will speak quickly and they like to shout when they speak to foreigners, however most of them were extremely friendly and helpful. Walking from place to place is nearly impossible due to the size and the spread of the city - but you can quite easily walk if you want to find a restaurant or a park because there are restaurants on nearly every street. Good places to go for dinner or lunch are in the small hutongs (side roads) that can be found in the north of the city and in some parts of the centre. These more authentic slightly shabby narrow roads are what real Beijing is like - old men playing Chinese chess, young children playing out and very good street food without any illnesses to follow.
These areas date back hundreds of years and are far more traditional in architecture and daily life than any other part of Beijing, and are virtually tourist-free. A good place to go out after you eat is KTV, which is the Chinese version of karaoke. You hire a small room with a TV for as long as you want and you sing along to Korean and Taiwanese pop music. If, for some reason, you get bored of Chinese food - if you stay for a long period of time - go to a Hanguo kao rou restaurant where they give you a variety of very good quality meat and you roast it yourself over hot coals. It is also popular to go to one of the many tea houses in Beijing before or after a meal.
If you travel to anywhere in China take the opportunity to buy as many DVDs or any electrical things because it is far cheaper and their technology is far ahead of what we have in the West. Not just electrical equipment but everything in China, except things that they see as exotic such as coffee, are cheap, 15 renminbi to the pound.
If you don't want to take a taxi everywhere take a bus - it is the cheapest mode of transport and is efficient. However, like any vehicle in Beijing it will get caught up in traffic a lot of the time. Do take into account that the buses are usually ridiculously crowded, as is the small subway system which would be confusing enough even if it was in English. Beijing can sometimes be a confusing city but it isn't too hard to find your way around, however if you ask any of the locals a direction in Chinese they will always tell you North, South, East or West so be sure to ask what road to take.
Anyone who comes to Beijing almost always eats at a roast duck restaurant - there are huge duck farms outside Beijing where the animals are fattened up to be roasted until there is a perfectly crisp skin and succulent inner flesh. Beijing duck tastes completely different to the Cantonese version we have in London. If you want to go to a duck restaurant just wander around until you find one as there are restaurants everywhere - it is pretty obvious to tell a duck restaurant because they tend to have a picture of a cartoon bird.
In some restaurants they carve the duck in front of you and they are extremely hygiene conscious as they wear a plastic mask and gloves whilst touching food. When I was in Beijing I had noticed that in many restaurants they give a free bottle of mao tai which is a 53% bottle of rice-based alcohol. Drinking here is quite acceptable and many business men smoke or drink whilst chatting. The best way to take in Beijing life is to spend time in a school or college as I did, you get a completely different view of the city from the eyes of the local people but the main reason I did it was to improve my Chinese speech. But I recommend it to anyone, however the government can make it quite hard for you to do so.
Stanfords' recommendations for a trip to Beijing are the ITMB Beijing map and Lonely Planet's Beijing guide.
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Author: Angus Lee