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China for beginners: 7 first-timer fails to avoid on your trip to Beijing

Beijing’s contradictions create a rip-roaring adventure for first-time visitors. Neon lights flash alongside swaying lanterns. Enormous squares yawn next to labyrinthine hútòng (alleyways). Catcalling market sellers and car horns provide a constant soundtrack.

Exploring a traditional hutong. Image by Matt Munro / Lonely PlanetExploring a traditional hutong. Image by Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

In a city as deafening as it is beguiling, it’s all too easy to get frazzled on your first visit. Avoiding these seven common pitfalls will enhance your first Beijing experience no end.

Fail #1: building a huge Beijing bucket list

We know, you want to see it all. But take it from a writer who nearly collapsed into her hotpot after trying to cram temples and palaces into a packed day of eating, drinking, shopping and hutong crawling. It sounds counterintuitive, but making the most of your time in China’scapital means paring it down.

With security checks, maze-like subway transfers and huge distances, Beijing has a way of eroding the hours if you’re unfamiliar with the city. You’ll test the limits of your sanity if you set your heart on lunch spots miles from your morning sightseeing or leave your most-coveted museums until the last day.

Sun setting over Tian'anmen Square. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely PlanetSun setting over Tian’anmen Square. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Tackle Beijing by neighbourhood. The Forbidden City and Tian’anmen Square are the classic pair; the Summer Palace needs a full day to do it justice; 798 Art District requires a hop by subway and then a bus, so allow a full afternoon. For day trips, set out early and come home early if you want to avoid the wrath of the real Chinese dragon: Beijing rush hour traffic.

Fail #2: ignoring the smog factor

In Beijing, you need to prepare for the air. The city’s pollution levels are notorious, and its air quality will have a bigger impact on your trip than you expect. We learned this the hard way, with our eyes streaming as we explored the Summer Palace, sneezing our way past elaborate boats and gardens.

A smoggy day at the Summer Palace. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely PlanetA smoggy day at the Summer Palace. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Air pollution affects your views (and your photos), not to mention your exhaustion levels. Planning your activities around the air quality will give you a much easier time; try Airpocalypse App (airpocalypseapp.com) for a humorous take on the day’s conditions. Bad air quality means museums and galleries. Good air quality makes temple grounds and palaces ripe for wandering.

If you can’t adapt your itinerary, build in some time to chill in a cafe when conditions are polluted; trust us, you’ll need it.

Fail #3: being shy at queues and crossings

Once the third, then fourth, person slips in front of you in that bathroom queue, you’ll realise it’s time to sharpen your elbows. In a city bursting with more than 11m people, it makes sense that Beijingers move with purpose. This metropolis brims with urbanites making their way, so first-time visitors can be disorientated by queue-jumping and chaotic roads.

Crowded Beijing subway station. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely PlanetCrowded Beijing subway station. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

Don’t take it personally when cars honk at you at crossings or edge irritatingly close. Resist the urge to tut and glare when fellow queuers sidle up beside you at a ticket counter. Simply stand your ground and march on to your destination. You’ll lose plenty of queue battles (hey, these Beijingers are practised). But above all, don’t be fazed by the seeming randomness – keep your body language confident and move forward.

Fail #4: faltering at security checks

Security checks are a way of life in many Chinese cities, but nowhere more so than Beijing. Your rucksack will be examined in train stations, X-rayed each time you go into the subway, and you may be frisked before you enter certain public spaces, like Tian’anmen Square.

Pat-downs often seem cursory and sometimes security guards will insist on seeing your passport and then barely look at it. Rules can seem infuriating (like being cross-examined about whether you have a camera by the guards at Mao’s Mausoleum). But embrace it all as part of your Beijing experience. Get ready to swing your bag through the X-ray in a subway station and nod compliantly; it’ll make your transit times much swifter than raising an eyebrow or trying to avoid the scanners altogether (which is a guaranteed strategy to get an extremely thorough kneading from a sulky guard).

Fail #5: trying to walk everywhere

It’s a travel writer’s cliché to describe a city as ‘compact, best explored on foot’. Well, Beijing is neither of those things so you need to hire wheels or school yourself on public transport to avoid wheezing your way between temples (they looked so close on the map…)

Exploring under your own steam is best done by bike. Hostels and bike hire shops around the city rent out bicycles. Bring your passport, prepare to pay a deposit, and be sure to examine the bike closely for damage before you take it for a spin.

Beijing Bike Share is the city's public bicycle scheme. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely PlanetCycling is a handy way to get around Beijing. Image by Anita Isalska / Lonely Planet

As for the subway, clear signposting in pinyin (Roman lettering) makes it a breeze for foreign visitors. There are even English-language announcements on board. Snap up a top-up metro card, known as an IC card (deposit ¥30), from a kiosk in the subway; they’re easily rechargeable in machines and also usable on public buses (remember to scan as you board, and scan again as you disembark). English-language announcements and signs fade away on buses beyond the city limits but helpful guards in Beijing’s bus stations will try to bundle you onto the right one.

Fail #6: assuming English will be spoken

A smattering of English-language signposting will ease your way around supermarkets and the subway, but English isn’t as widely spoken as you might think. Arm yourself with a language app (Learn Chinese Pro (play.google.com) is free and packed with essential vocab) or a phrasebook. Even a simple nĭhăo (hello) and xièxie (thank you) will ease interactions.

Sometimes things get lost in translation. Image by megoizzy / CC BA-SA 2.0Sometimes things get lost in translation. Image by megoizzy / CC BA-SA 2.0

In taxis, a guidebook or map with the Chinese characters will be indispensable to point at (and if you learn one phrase, make it dăo biăo– ‘turn on the metre’). You can also collect business cards from your hotel or bars to show to drivers, or ask a hotel concierge or hostel staff to jot down your destination in Chinese characters.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of a humble notepad and pen to make yourself understood. To hire some gear from non-English speaking staff in Nanshan Ski Village, we sketched skis and boots, jotting our heights and shoe sizes next to them.

Fail #7: fearing the food etiquette

There’s a terror among first-time travellers of causing offence at the table, but dining in Beijing is a casual affair. If you aren’t used to chopsticks, it’s worth practising before your trip (if only to avoid pitying stares). But barring one offensive gesture – planting your chopsticks upright in a bowl of food, which resembles an incense offering – slurp your noodles, openly pluck bones from your mouth, grab food with chopsticks or serving spoons, and enjoy.

Roast duck dinner: a Beijing must. Image by David Gordillo / CC BY-SA 2.0Roast duck dinner: a Beijing must. Image by David Gordillo / CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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