Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tips on travelling to Beijing

My tips are kind of limited to only my experience, so this post should rightly be entitled "Tips on travelling to Beijing in early winter with kids while staying with family." As you can see, the tips would be slightly skewed! But there are some general tips about Beijing that are valid no matter what season, where you stay or who you go with. Here are some of them:


You may think that you wouldn't have a problem in Beijing if you're Chinese and speak Mandarin. Sure, it's less foreign than being in say, Japan, but shamefully, we still struggled quite a bit. The Beijing-ers roll their tongues a lot when they speak and that makes them hard to understand to the untrained ear. Taxi drivers are the worst. Many of them come from provinces and have very heavy accents, plus they're not the most communicative lot to begin with. Often, we couldn't be sure if the driver really knew where he was going or we were just going on a scenic tour. So we ended up having to write the name and address of each place we were going to, so we could flash the card at the driver and trust that his grunt or silence meant he knew the destination. (Funnily enough though, we never have communication problems with savvy shopkeepers at Silk Market!)

As typical English-speaking Singaporeans, our written Chinese is even worse than our spoken. This makes reading signs problematic, especially when you're in a restaurant where the entire menu is in Chinese with no pictures (remember the cuisine tends to be different from back home so we sometimes can't even hazard a guess what the dish is).

Oh and to add to the confusion, many of the Chinese phrases are different in Singapore than in China (and you thought it was just plain ole Chinese!) Eg. in Singapore, supermarket is 超级市场 but in Beijing, it's just 超市. Taxi is not 德士, it's 出租车. If you want the driver to go left, you don't say "转左", you say "左拐".

On my last trip to Beijing, the driver told me a funny story of an ang moh who tried to display his Chinese prowess by speaking Mandarin. He wanted to say "右拐!" (turn right) but because of his inability to pronounce the correct tone, he ended up saying "有鬼!" (got ghost), prompting the driver to ask bemused, "哪里有鬼?" (where's the ghost?) So his advice? If you can't handle the Mandarin, just speak simple English. They'll know you are an ignorant foreigner and treat you with kid gloves.


Taxis are by far, the most convenient way to get around. They're cheap and abundant. Starting fare is RMB 10 (S$2.20) and it gets you a long way. When we were travelling in the city, even with the usually horrendous traffic, a 45-minute ride generally only came up to about RMB 30-40 (S$6.50-8.80). But be warned, the taxi drivers we encountered were mostly surly and sometimes incomprehensible. Although they usually soften up a little when you talk about how wonderful the Beijing Olympics was. They really are very proud of it, as they should be.

But if you're planning to go further out of the city, like to the Great Wall, it's preferable to hire a driver and car. It costs more but for RMB 500 (S$110), you can usually get wheels for the whole day, giving you the freedom to make multiple stops. Also at the Great Wall, it's not that easy to find a cab when you're done so having a driver waiting for you is very convenient. By the way, you can't "call" for a cab in Beijing. When we ask the concierge at my cousin's apartment to call us a cab, she actually intercoms the guard at the external gate of the estate, who directs a taxi outside to enter the compound! That's right, it's manual. No fancy fleet management systems here... yet. We didn't realise this until we asked a waitress at a restaurant to call us a cab and she went outside to try to hail one. Doh!


There are cuisines galore in Beijing, so you'll never starve. There's also street food everywhere but we gave most of this a miss as China is not particularly known for its hygiene standards in food preparation. But some, like this cart on the right, sells steaming hot sweet potatoes which are so good on a cold, wintry day.

What with the melamine scare, fake eggs and so on, you really want to be careful, especially when you're travelling with kids. I would recommend eating at respectable restaurants. The food tends to be cheap anyway, compared to Singapore, even the upmarket ones.

Don't think that Chinese food is Chinese food. Beijing food tends to be terribly greasy and salty. Even when my cousin's 阿姨 cooked for us, the food was delicious but oilier than we were accustomed to (and it seems this is already an improvement!) Maybe because of the harsh weather, the locals have to top up the fuel (literally) to stay warm. My cousin's colleague was mentioning that when she first came, she was startled to find out that it is not uncommon for the average Chinese to consume some three litres of cooking oil EACH MONTH.

The Beijing-ers, being northern Chinese, don't as a rule, have rice at every meal, so if you want some, you have to ask for it. And it may not even be available on the menu. The Chinese eat early, so try to have your lunch before 2pm and dinner before 8.30pm, otherwise you'll find your choices sorely diminished as many places would be closed.


I'm giving this a separate mention because they left such an impression and for the wrong reasons. I thought the public toilets would have been spruced up for the Olympics but apparently, not enough. At many of the major tourist attractions, the toilets are still filthy (although as a general rule, they are better once after the paid entrance area) and most of them are still squat toilets, not Western ones. I nearly died when I saw the one at the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

And forget about the ones in bargain shopping areas like Panjiayuan and Silk Market. They are revolting and many don't even have doors that go all the way up. In fact, my cousin says that if she needs to visit the ladies while she's at Silk Market, she takes a short cab ride to the nearest 5-star hotel! Lesley-Anne was so put off by the toilets she usually waited till we were back at the apartment.

But if you really have to go, the ones in the larger and newer shopping malls are pretty decent. So are the ones at upmarket restaurants. So plan your visits!

Packing for winter

We were there only in early winter, where the temperature ranged from 2 to 12 degrees celcius, yet many days, it was freezing. For kids, you should pack a down feather jacket, long johns, a woollen sweater, woollen gloves and socks, and a hat that covers the ears and cuts out the wind. That's the basic. If you're going to be there mid or late winter (why???) where the mercury can plunge to -20 degrees, pack like an Eskimo. There's something about the winds in Beijing that's just relentlessly cruel.

Apart from cold, it's also desert dry. Within a day of arrival, Lesley-Anne's skin starting itching - it's a sign of the skin flaking and breaking up from dryness. Pack loads of body moisturiser, especially the thick gooey types that are too sticky in humid Singapore, you'll be glad you have them in Beijing. Lesley-Anne practically finished a full size tube on her own for this one-week trip. Also pack lip balm and hair conditioner. On the bright side, Lesley-Anne's teen acne disappeared while we were in Beijing - everything dries to a crisp here!

Other than keeping you moist, the lotion also helps stave off static. We kept zapping each other throughout the trip, it was painful and not funny. At one point, I even refused to hold on to the camera, I kept getting shocked even through my gloves. Only Andre was spared so he became our doorman, opening all cab doors for us.

Oh and if your kid has a sensitive respiratory tract (like Andre), I strongly recommend you bring a Ventolin inhaler, just in case. I brought this as advised by my doctor and it proved to be a life-saver. Even though Andre doesn't have asthma, the combination of smog and cold, dry air would irritate his throat and hinder his breathing - the inhaler helped open up the airways almost instantly and made him much more comfortable.

That's all I can think of for now, so I'll just end by saying Beijing is not as child-unfriendly as you might imagine. It's a terrific mix of the old and new, often right next to each other. If you want a rich dose of culture and history with a tinge of fun and without breaking the bank, Beijing is the place to visit.


Lilian said...

Now I remember the main reason why China is never on my want-to list of travel destination; TOILETS!

Eddie and I can't read Chinese so we'll have a tougher time than you guys.

Your holiday definitely looked like a lot of fun but having a generous cousin sister with a swanky apartment is a HUGE plus factor. If I had that going for me, may actually try to see past the toilet problem. But since I don't, nope, don't think I'll be making my way as a tourist there anytime soon.

monlim said...

I know what you mean, it's such a basic necessity that this one minus point can be such a put-off. Aiyah, your Brian probably can read Chinese quite ok, right? And it's probably not too expensive to stay in quite a nice service apartment. Anyway, do consider lah, I think it's a trip all Chinese have to make at some point in their lives. Maybe when your boys are slightly older?

foodbin said...

fake eggs? how do they do it?

Elan said...

Dear Mon,
I was going to plan a trip to Beijing late Nov to early December (to answer your question why - it's the only time since we have to wait for PSLE results and we can't go next year as we have to prepare for next PSLE). Do you think it will be suicidally cold?
I was trying to decide on a bus tour (hate those things but was worried about language barriers and being cheated or conned by Beijingers) or our usual book everything on the Internet including local tours - as I did want to have a guide who could speak both Chinese and English (for my peranakan husband). Did you take any local tours while you were there or did you just have the hired car and driver? Can you recommend one?
What do you think, any other tips? I would be so grateful if you could share your thoughts as you have so often shown to think just like me!


monlim said...

Elan: That was about the time we were in Beijing last year. To answer your question, yes it's cold! I guess you'll have to wrap up really well. Get down feather jackets, they're lightweight and warm.

You're talking to someone who hates package tours, and I can't imagine a bus tour with local Chinese! That's my nightmare I think, so I'm the wrong person to ask for that :P

Not sure if you read the rest of my Beijing posts, I stayed with my cousin so we didn't need a local guide or go on tours. Personally, I don't think they're necessary as at most of the main attractions, you can get an English audio guide, I think some even have English guided tours, eg at Forbidden City.

If you have any other specific questions, perhaps you'd like to email me - probably easier than on the comments page :)