Tips for a Westerner traveling to Beijing

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.

Getting around

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

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.

Finally, do take a good travel guide. I used Lonely Planet Beijing (there is a smaller pocket version too), and . . .

if you visit one major sight . . . it has to be the Forbidden City. There is so much to see and it is beautiful.

It was raining as we entered the Forbidden City

It was raining as we entered the Forbidden City

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.

Jade Islet from our boat on Beihai Lake

Jade Islet from our boat on Beihai Lake

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.

Celebrating festivals at the Capital Museum

Celebrating festivals at the Capital Museum

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.

Incense ceremony at the White Cloud Temple

Incense ceremony at the White Cloud Temple

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.

Post to Twitter

A July Weekend in Paris

Lanvin shop model at Musée Carnavalet

Lanvin shop model at Musée Carnavalet

I went to Paris last weekend with my mum and little sister, a lovely treat from my mum! I’d only been once before and that was for a couple of nights in February (yes for Valentine’s Day, with an ex), it was freezing and we spent one day in Disneyland making time to see the city very limited. So in many ways this felt like my first real experience of Paris, and I loved it.

We were staying on the edge of the business district, La Defense. We had a really good value hotel and were able to get the metro into the city each day. We didn’t go with much of a plan, I’d done the Eiffel Tower and The Louvre before but I had some shops I wanted to find and I was keen to do a gallery of some sort. We saw all the sites and ended up doing much more than I expected. We walked a lot!

Some of what we did:

• We went to the Musee Marmottan Monet, a small museum full of Monet and other impressionists. I love Monet, I remember studying him for months for my A-level art coursework, so it was wonderful to see some of his paintings up close. I love his prints but I went for the cheap option, I bought a pretty postcard and then back home bought an old photo frame from a charity shop for less than £1.

• The only thing my little sister couldn’t leave without seeing was Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise Cemetery on the edge of Paris. If, like me, you’re not rock ‘n roll enough to know Morrison’s biography, he was lead singer of The Doors and died in Paris in 1971 aged 27. Going to the cemetery was definitely a highlight of my trip. I’ve always found cemeteries interesting anyway, but this one was unlike any I’ve ever seen. It was full of huge tombstones and little chapel buildings almost. Oscar Wilde was there too, he had an odd Egyptian looking monument in his memory.

Jim Morrison's grave was tiny compared to others around it

Jim Morrison’s grave was tiny compared to others around it

• We nosed around the shops. I wanted to find Merci which had been heralded by Time Out as a cool shop full of clothing, jewellery, homeware, books and ethical bits and pieces. Well worth a visit, it had a cafe area too. Lots of things I could have bought but I managed to restrain myself.

The entrance to Merci from above, it's tucked away down a side alley

The entrance to Merci from above, it’s tucked away down a side alley

• We had the most amazing hot chocolate at Angelina’s tearooms. Housed opposite the Louvre, Angelina’s was founded in 1903 as a patisserie and tearooms in a beautiful old building. The hot chocolate tasted just like melted chocolate, with a pot of cream on the side. The management probably won’t be happy with me for sharing this but we were visited by three little mice while we sat at our table. They ran out from the skirting board looking for crumbs. We found it quite entering and oh-so very French.

Yum!

Yum!

Post to Twitter

The Importance of a Holiday: New Ideas, New Semester

In the last couple of years I’ve come to understand what my dad meant when he correlated holiday days to a specific loss of income. He’s self-employed and works 7 days a week (my work ethic looks positively lax next to him), so to him, time off costs. This feeling has been passed onto me since I’ve started doing freelance work and initiates a sense of panic if I foresee more than a couple of days when I won’t be able to blog. Last September was the last time I took a full week off and it was beautiful although I forgot how amazing it actually was until last week when I also took time off and went away. I’ll put my hands up, I still did a couple of blogs and tended to emails once or twice, but from my PhD at least, I took time off and had a whole 11 days out of the office.

I went home to Sussex for a couple of days, travelled up to Norfolk to see family for five days, came back down to London to rave at South West Four over the bank holiday weekend and took a day trip to Ipswich on Tuesday. Apart from the fact that I bought an Anthology of Human Geography in Norwich’s Oxfam bookshop, I didn’t think about PhD work at all. I did however think about fashion stuff a lot. My Norfolk reading, travelling up in the back of a 1987 camper van, was the September issue of Elle so I had much time to consider my perennial dilemma of fashion and ethics and I reformulated plans in my head for new projects – how I think we should be shopping. I found a great second-hand clothes shop specialising in kid’s clothes in Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast called Once Upon a Time. Interestingly they made a point about marketing with the slogan ‘choose to recycle’. A little chat with them all fed into my plans . . .

Anyway, I have a PhD to do first! The weeks prior to my holiday were if not stressful, then at least busy; writing my final proposal and trying to get my ethics cleared before people went on holiday in August so that I can start the field work. I’m now 14 months into the PhD and on track for data collection in second year, analysis and write up in third year. Literature review is written up, methodology chapter is coming along nicely; I’m where I want to be. Now I’m back it feels like the start of a new year and everyone is indeed gearing up for the new semester with the new intake of PhD candidates arriving in three weeks’ time. My data collection should start next month, if my ethics is cleared in time. September to January will involve ethnographic observation and interviewing – finally I can get out and start talking to people.

For the new academic year, I want to work consistently and efficiently (who doesn’t). Looking back to last winter there were many days when I just didn’t stop, and my eyes ached for days on end. Eye-whitening drops became my friend. I don’t want to work at weekends, you need that time to switch off. I’m blogging half as much now as I was six months ago, so I should be able to do it in the evenings and still not disrupt PhD time. This is the plan.

Post to Twitter