Firstly, don’t be afraid!
This summer I went to China for the first time, spending a few days in Qingdao and Nanjing and three weeks in Beijing. I was there for work (see this post) so I hadn’t chosen to go there for a holiday (mainly because I couldn’t afford it), but I still had plenty of time to be a tourist. More and more people will be travelling there for work of course; I have friends who’ve been flown over for less than 72 hours to ‘do business’, so whether you’re visiting for sightseeing or networking, I hope these tips will help a first-timer in China.
I flew into Beijing and got trains between Beijing, Qingdao and Nanjing. Their city train stations are bigger than our local airports. You need your passport to buy a train ticket. In fact, you need your passport for a lot of things. Check your train time online before you head to the station to make it easier to spot on the board and arrive at least 45 minutes before it leaves. You will queue to buy a ticket and queue to get through security – yes there is security.
The Beijing Subway is incredibly easy to use and works much like the UK tube. You can buy a top-up ‘smart’ card for CYN20 deposit from one of the ticket desks and top it up at a machine at any station (although the machines don’t always work). You have to go through security at every subway station but this never held me up, rush hour might be different. Journeys usually cost CYN4-7 depending on how far you’re travelling, so measured in pence rather than pounds. There are Subway maps at the stations and all announcements on the train are in English as well as Mandarin. You’ll find toilets at the end of every platform. Don’t expect people to wait for you to get off the train before they barge on.
Finding your way around when you get off the subway is a different matter. There are basic ‘you are here’ maps at the exit of every subway station but sometimes I found these entirely wrong! There are few signs to help you around the city, even for the main tourist attractions, so do take your own map. It can be difficult to find a taxi when you need one, but they’ll always be rickshaws outside the tourist spots.
Expect some attention
My little sister went to China years ago with school and describes how she was bombarded with folk wanting to take her picture. She was blonde (her hair now changes from pink to blue to purple, they’d probably think she’s from a different planet). I didn’t get this at all when I was with Chinese people, but it was a different story when I was on my own or with other Westerners. Generally I got teenage boys telling me I was beautiful and wanting to pose for a photo alongside me. It probably happened once at every main sight I visited and usually I didn’t mind apart from the day I had an awful cold and felt very unbeautiful. I had a cold because I got run down by not sleeping, which brings me to a brief point that I can’t help with because I failed to manage it – Don’t underestimate jet-lag.
Eating out is cheap and you will find something for all tastes but there isn’t quite as much diversity as other big cities. If you go to a local Chinese restaurant you can eat for £1 but you shouldn’t expect an English menu. I’m veggie and although it made it more difficult it wasn’t impossible. It helped that I’m not too fussy in that I was happy to pick meat out of noodle dishes. They have Starbucks, KFC etc, and they do have some good vegetarian restaurants if you search for them, many are in the University enclave of Haidian.
Using the facilities
On the plus side, you’ll find public toilets everywhere in Beijing. Unfortunately they vary greatly in what you get. More often than not they are squat toilets. You do get used to them, but you can also look out for disabled toilets if you want a seat. The public toilets in the Hutong are very basic – no cubicle doors, nowhere to wash your hands. Always carry tissue in with you because they rarely have any, and take hand sanitizer.
if you visit one major sight . . . it has to be the Forbidden City. There is so much to see and it is beautiful.
if you visit one park . . . go to Beihai Park and hire a boat to take to the lake circling Jade Islet. With 1000 years of history there are temples dotted around and places to grab a drink. You will pay a small amount to get in, as with most of the parks.
If you visit one museum . . . go to the Capital Museum. I didn’t visit many museums but the Capital and the National Museum of China are the big ones. They have very similar artefacts but the Capital is more modern and includes interesting installations such as a floor depicting Chinese festivals and folk traditions. The National is centrally situated, right near Tiananmen Square, so I’m sure that’s why I queued for half an hour to get it. There was no queue for the Capital at all.
If you visit one temple . . . you could visit the Lama Temple as all the guidebooks tell you to, it is the administrative centre of Buddhism. I really enjoyed visiting the White Cloud Temple though, once the Taoist centre of Northern China. The architecture is much the same, but the White Cloud temple was quieter, less shiny and more peaceful.
I’m lucky that I was able to spread out my time in the city because the summer heat was tiring. Some days I walked 12 miles. I’d definitely go back to China – Shanghai, some of the national parks, and Hong Kong are on my list.
If you’re traveling to Asia or beyond, Lonely Planet are offering 3 for 2 on all their guides.