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Beijing is a city full of beauty, culture, history, and mystery. The city is home to the largest palace in the world Forbidden City. Our first international trip with our son (4.5 months at the time) was to Beijing, and to say we were surprised would be an understatement. If you are planning a trip to Beijing and have no idea what to expect, here are 15 things to know before traveling to Beijing.
1. Do Not Drink the Water in China
The tap water in China is not drinkable. Bottled water can be purchased very cheaply everywhere. Check with your hotel to see if they offer free bottled water. We were able to get up to 4 3L bottles of water a day from our hotel.
2. Language barrier in Beijing – Download translator before arriving
When traveling to China be prepared for a language barrier if you do not speak Mandarin or Cantonese. It is not common for many people in China to speak English. Before arriving print the name of your accommodation in Chinese characters. This is usually available when you book your accommodation and receive your confirmation. Booking.com and Agoda provide confirmations in English and Mandarin for you to provide upon your arrival. Please keep in mind Beijing is a large city with millions of people and thousands of hotels, be patient.
3. Transportation around Beijing
Transportation in China can be challenging, due to the language barrier. The easiest option is if you are staying at a hotel, it is to ask the front desk to arrange transportation. This could save you a lot of time and aggravation, you want to enjoy your time in Beijing. When we asked for a car it seemed as though the price was a little higher than expected but only by a few dollars. I would rather get to the right place and pay a little more than to risk going to the wrong place to save a dollar or two.
If you are looking to be more independent there is Didi, which is the Chinese version of Uber and it is available in English. The app works similar to other ridesharing applications. If you can get it to work properly the price is reasonable and the cars are safe and clean. I had a hard time getting my card to connect to request a car, customer service wasn’t much help.
Another option is public transportation, but this can be a little overwhelming. There are millions of people in Beijing and public transportation can become crowded very quickly. If you are traveling as a family, public transport is not the best due to the number of people. If you are traveling solo or with a friend the subway is a great way to explore. Just remember to give yourself plenty of time and to avoid rush hour 6 to 9 am and 5 to 7 pm.
4. Carry passport
I usually discourage people from carrying their passport due to the risk of losing it, but in Beijing passport checks are common. When visiting major tourist areas such as Tiananmen Square there are checkpoints that you to show proof of a valid Chinese visa. Your passport may also be required to purchase tickets for Lama Temple, Mao’s Tomb, and Forbidden City.
5. Photos and a lot of stares
China is a very homogenous country in that almost everyone is Chinese. A lot of tourists in Beijing are from the countryside, so they have not been exposed to other ethnicities. We could see people taking pictures of us as we walked down the street to the Forbidden City. There were many times where we were stopped and gestured to take a picture. It was a little weird at first but eventually, you get over it and just smile.
6. Air pollution in Beijing
Air pollution is a concern when traveling not only in Beijing but in China as a whole. The country experienced rapid industrial growth resulting in many environmental implications. The smog was noticeable but not as bad as it was made to seem from articles we found on Google. You could see a layer of gray in the sky and feel a difference when breathing. In the event the air quality was above the acceptable range we purchased protective masks for ourselves and our little one. It was difficult to find a baby mask because the smaller masks are designed for kids 3 and older. It was no fun trying to get a 4-month-old to wear a breathing mask. If air pollution is particularly bad opt-out of outdoor activities and enjoy the indoor activities that Beijing has to offer.
7. Smoking in Beijing
It was shocking to me when we arrived in Beijing and there were a lot of people smoking. We noticed that a lot of young adults and older men smoking. Although there is no smoking inside buildings we did see a large number of people smoking as we explored the city. If you are sensitive to cigarette smoke please be cautious as it was everywhere.
8. Personal space
There are over 20 million people in Beijing not including the annual tourist. Personal space is a luxury that does not exist in China. Expect to be pushed, shoved, or have your foot stepped on while waiting in line or trying to get somewhere. Do not take it personally it is part of the Chinese culture.
9. Beijing Traffic
Beijing is a major city and like other cities such as Los Angeles, or New York there is rush hour traffic. Have patience because the roads in Beijing are hectic. A simple 30-minute trip can easily turn into over an hour and a half if there is an accident.
10. Tipping in Beijing
Do not tip in China. Tipping can be considered rude so when in doubt do not tip. A tip may be requested from your tour guide but unless it is specifically outlined you do not need to tip.
11. Google and Social Media
Have you ever heard of the Great Firewall of China? This is what is used to block major websites in the People's Republic of China. Popular websites and applications such as YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat are all blocked. However, there is a way around, using a virtual private network (VPN) will allow you to use all of your applications. There are many different available but we use NordVPN, which is very well known and affordable. Download your VPN of choice before arriving in China, it may not work if you try to download after you arrive.
12. Tourists attractions are affordable
Tourist attractions in Beijing are very affordable and worth it. I was able to walk on the Great Wall of China with my family for $42. This price included transportation to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall (an hour and a half away from Beijing). This is a once and a lifetime experience for less than $50, you cannot put a monetary value on something that special.
There are tours available by going to the tour offices outside on the east gate of Forbidden City. It is easier to use a tour company because you do not have to worry about transportation, tickets, and lunch. Please be forewarned you may be taken to the Chinese school of medicine or pearl factory, but there was no pressure to purchase. This is a way for the tour guides to make extra money, but can you blame them? They are trying to make a decent living like everyone else. I got an amazing 20-minute foot massage for 20RMB ($3) at the Chinese school of medicine.
13. Public Restrooms in Beijing
Be prepared to use a squat toilet as opposed to a western-style toilet. There are western toilets available in the major tourist area but may not be available everywhere. Do not forget to pack toilet paper because it is not readily available in public restrooms. What about hand sanitizer? Soap is not provided to wash your hands, so be prepared.
14. How safe is Beijing?
We felt very safe in Beijing as two women walking around with a baby. There are different law enforcement authorities in Beijing. The main law enforcement that you will encounter is the People's Armed Police (PAP), who wears green uniforms and guard party and state organizations and foreign embassies and consulates. They will be located at all of the major tourist areas, and you can often watch the changing of guards and marching outside of Forbidden City.
15. Chinese Food
The food in China is nothing like Chinese food in America. You will not find beef and broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, orange chicken, or shrimp fried rice. Chinese food in China seemed to be a lot healthier than what we eat in America. There was not much chicken or shrimp available. The main protein at the restaurants we dined at was pork, fish, and beef. You cannot leave Beijing without trying Peking Duck. If you are a vegetarian ask your hotel to write “only vegetables” on a card for you. There were smaller family restaurants that do not have menus in English so you may need to just point at pictures.
Bonus: Cash is King
Beijing is a city that runs on cash since foreigners cannot use Wechat. Take a credit card and debit card for an emergency but you will need cash. It is a good idea to set up a travel bank account that does reimburse ATM fees so you can withdraw money from an ATM when you arrive. We use Charles Schwab (Use this link to open an eligible account and receive $100), because of their great customer service, exchange rates, and no additional fees.
Have more tips for visiting Beijing? Feel free to add them in the comments below.
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