While we were preparing our trip to China we read so many bad things about the place, that it seemed like everyone who went to China had had bad experiences, and that China was total chaos. I was honestly prepared for the worst. People would say that in China everyone will try to rip you off, that there are scams everywhere, that they look at Westerners as if they were the Grinch, that the crowds are unbearable to the point that you cannot even walk down the street because of the number of people. They would say that Chinese are very rude, that they do not line up, that they will push you all the time, that children poop on the street, that it is a dirty country, that the Subway is impossible to understand, that if you do not know Mandarin you can’t communicate, etc. It seemed like China was the least developed country in the world and I was preparing for a big culture shock. I thought I was going to enter a different world from the moment I get off the plane. I was very nervous and wondering why the hell was I going to such a jungle?
Since we are traveling without plans or itineraries, my plan B was to pass very quickly through the places I wanted to see and if it were to get really bad, I would take a plane to Singapore or Thailand to escape.
But the reality was totally different …
Arriving in Beijing
The airport in Beijing is very modern and large. I was nervous passing migrations because I didn’t have a reservation in a flight out of China, and I had read that without it we could have some issues. But oh surprise. First of all, the Chinese were indeed lining up, nobody looked at us weird and the migration officer let me through without even asking for my departure. To pick up our luggage we had to take a train for 10 min that took us to another part of the airport, that’s how big it is! After collecting our backpacks we needed to get money and then take a train to take us to the center. Again, people was lining up and nobody pushed us or looked at us like weirdos. The train was fairly easy to take, there are signs on the walls and on the floor in both Chinese and English. The ticket is bought on the machine that has the option to change the language to English, and next to each machine there is a person who helps you in case you have any problem. To enter each station there is a security check where you have to put your bags in a scanner and pass through a metal detector. We then had to make a connection with a Subway stop to get to our hotel. For this we needed to buy a subway ticket and since we didn’t have any change we had to buy it in the window. The person attending the window didn’t speak English and didn’t understand our attempt to say the name of our destination in Chinese, but if you show them in your cellphone the name of the stop you need, they understand easily. We use our fingers to say we need two tickets and that’s it, very easy.
The subway in Beijing
The subway in Beijing is quite easy to understand. The ticket machines always have the option to change the language to English. You need to know your exact destination, because you need to choose the line and then the station where you are getting off. Each stop has a different price. The tickets you buy only work from that station to the destination chosen on the day of purchase of the ticket. This means that you can’t buy many tickets at once to save time. There is a pre-payment “Yikatong” card that you can buy and put money on, this card has a 20 yuan deposit which is refundable at some stations.
The subway is efficient, clean and safe. Each entry has a security check point to scan bags and people, so there is no danger of attacks on subways. All lines are well marked and the names of the stops are in Mandarin and Pinyin: Mandarin Chinese phonetic transcription written in Latin characters that one can read. Inside the subway there is a map of the stops with a small light that shows you where you are and what stop is next, so there is no chance of getting lost. I expected the subway to be unbearable, and always so crowded that you could not even breathe. But if one doesn’t travel in rush hour, the subway is like anywhere else in the world. Actually many times I was able to sit down. They also have screens with shows on, so one can be entertained along the way. On the way out, look at maps of the stations to see which is the most appropriate exit. The stations are very large and if you exit by the wrong side you can end up walking a lot.
Bottom line: The subway is nothing to be afraid of. It is the best way to get around the city. It takes you everywhere quickly, it is easy to understand, very clean, modern and safe. And outside rush hour, it is very comfortable.
The city of Beijing
When we got off the subway, it was our first real contact with the city. I took a deep breath, I embraced my bag and prepared to enter a jungle as one prepares to jump off a cliff. And what would be our surprise when we left the station and found a completely different place from what we had imagined. First of all, it was very quiet, there were not many people on the street, there were modern buildings and cars, and the streets were spacious and clean. We walked a few meters looking for the infamous chaos, but we couldn’t find it. It seemed a fairly normal place with normal people with normal behavior. What I liked the most was to see the Chinese architecture with Chinese writing everywhere. We arrived at our hotel without any problems. The girl at the front desk spoke good English and check-in was easy. The hotel was clean and comfortable and we felt at home immediately. When we went for a walk, the first thing we noticed was that there were many public restrooms, at least one every two blocks, we then learned that the bathrooms are for people living in the Hutongs. They are actually public, but that’s why they are everywhere.
Walking around Beijing
We spent the following days walking around the city. The first two days around the Hutongs, which are the typical oldest neighborhoods in the city. Our hotel was in Mao’er which was quite interesting and we liked walking around it, looking at every interesting new thing and still looking for the bad side of the city, unable to find it. The Chinese hardly looked at us. I think we were more curios about them than they were about us.
The city of Beijing is fantastic! it is very modern with large buildings and wide streets, and it is very clean. There are workers all the time cleaning the streets. It is also very safe, and there’s a lot of police on the streets.
Traffic in Beijing
Traffic is indeed a bit chaotic, but the Chinese somehow understand each other and they don’t drive very fast. It’s like an organized mess. One must pay a lot of attention to cross the streets, because even if pedestrians have the green light, there are always tons of electric scooters going in any direction and they do not respect traffic lights. Pedestrians never have priority, so you have to look all ways before crossing. Keep in mind that vehicles can turn right on red light, and they do not stop for pedestrians. There is strength in numbers, so it’s better to wait for many people to cross with them, especially if they are locals. One must always be aware of electric scooters because they don’t make any noise and they can drive anywhere, including sidewalks and they go the wrong way. They don’t use lights at night in order to save power. It is best not to make sudden movements without looking behind you, although they usually honk insistently to warn you they are coming. Since traffic is not the best, taking the subway is always the best option. We never needed to use buses or taxis, the subway always took us everywhere.
People in Beijing
The Chinese in the city are generally easy going. They always smiled at us and although we did not understand each other, they were always friendly. In restaurants we were always treated well, they were patient when we were trying to translate the names of the dishes or looking for the words “water” or “not spicy” in Chinese. People say that Chinese always want to take advantage of the tourist, but it didn’t happen to us. We always bought things that had already the price on them, so they could not charge us more just for being Westerners. We read a lot about scams of people that take you to teahouses and charge you a lot of money for a couple of cups of tea, or variations of the same type, but the truth is that it never happened to us. Nobody approached us trying to be our friends and then deceived us. Some people would ask where were we from and smiled, and then went on their way. The truth is that we didn’t get much attention since we are not blond with blue eyes. Someone more European-looking probably gets more attention and people would ask them more for photos, but overall people seemed good and very nice, and we didn’t have any unpleasant experience. About the Chinese being dirty, it can be relative. People living in the Hutongs don’t have bathrooms in their homes and they have to pay for showering in public showers, which many don’t do every day. In fact we were told that old people shower once a month in winter and twice a week in summer… but people who live in modern places do have bathrooms and shower every day, or so it seems because they didn’t smell. We heard that children poop on the streets, but we never saw that. Also that women don’t close the door to go to the bathroom in public places, but I never saw that either. What it is very common and a little disturbing is the way they spit. Because of air pollution, it seems like they always have very congested airways, and to clear their throat, they gargle and spit the phlegm anytime, anywhere. They say it is better outside than inside the body …
Food in Beijing
Something that can be challenging when visiting China is the food. In the West they tell us that the Chinese eat cat, dog, rat, spider etc. and you’ll probably come afraid that they will serve that in your food. But it’s not like that at all! What they eat the most in China is pork and chicken. The hardest part about eating can be to find a restaurant that you trust and where one can understand the menu. Fortunately in Beijing, although the waiters don’t speak English, they have menus with the names of the dishes in English, so one can point their choice and that’s it. If they don’t have the names in English, they might have photos of the dishes. It is a little more difficult to know what is in the photo, but learning the characters for rice, noodles, chicken and pork can help you understand the base of the dish. Most importantly, always choose a location with the prices well marked to avoid surprises at the end. Although we never had any problem, it is better to be safe than sorry.
The food in China is very different from the Chinese food in our countries, and it also varies by region. We were surprised the first day when it was hard to find dishes with rice. Then we learned that in the north more wheat than rice is produced, so in Beijing it is easier to find dishes with noodles. It is very common to order noodles with chicken or pork and they are served in a soup. It is not very easy to find variety in vegetables or to eat healthy, because in China everything is cooked with a lot of oil.
Keep in mind that all vegetables need to be steamed and all meats cooked thoroughly to avoid getting sick. Do not eat raw vegetables. Water should always be bottled.
In Wangfujing, a market in Beijing there are lots of stands with street food and there you’ll find THE weird stuff. But honestly it seems more touristy than authentic. We saw no Chinese eating a scorpion or anything similar, and when we talked to a beijinger he told us that only few old people in the country side eat the weird stuff.
Beijing is an amazing, comfortable, and entertaining city, full of history and very easy to visit. We had planned to stay 4 days and extended our stay for a week because we liked it a lot and there is a lot to do. Do not believe the bad things you read, get out and see everything with your own eyes. If you come to China with the intention of criticizing everything that is different, you will have a very bad time, but if you come with an open mind and eager to learn and enjoy a different culture, the trip will be a discovery full of positive surprises.