Fodor's Beijing (Full-color Travel Guide) (2015)
Main Table of Contents
Getting Here and Around
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Air Travel | Bus Travel | Car Travel | Subway Travel | Taxi Travel | Train Travel
Beijing has exploded over the past few decades, thanks to China’s economic boom. Whole neighborhoods have been demolished, constructed, or “renovated,” and the relentless march toward modernity has caused some controversy. Old neighborhoods such as Gulou’s much-loved hutongs (narrow lanes), near the Drum and Bell towers in north-central Beijing, are being eyed by developers. Old-timers can barely recognize many sections of the city, and maps go out of date almost overnight. It’s a good idea to get the latest bilingual version on arrival.
The city’s five concentric ring roads look like a target, with the Forbidden City in the bull’s-eye. Note that, oddly, there is no First Ring Road; this is commonly thought to have been the original tramline that circled the Forbidden City until it was disbanded in the 1950s. The Second Ring Road follows the line of the old city walls, and consequently many of the stops have the suffix “men” (meaning “gate”). The circular subway Line 2 runs below it. The Third Ring Road passes through part of Beijing’s Central Business District (CBD) and links up with the Airport Expressway.
The three remaining ring roads have equally unimaginative names (Fourth, Fifth, Sixth). Along the center of the north Fourth Ring Road is Olympic Park, where you’ll find the impressive National Stadium (the “Bird’s Nest”) and the National Aquatics Center (the “Water Cube”). If you’re sticking to central Beijing, these roads won’t be much use, though fare-hungry taxi drivers would love you to believe otherwise.
Beijing’s traffic can be a nightmare, especially at rush hour when the gridlock extends from the center of the city all the way out to the Fourth Ring Road. With the opening of a number of new subway lines and several more expected to follow by 2016, the subway is a good way to escape the bumper-to-bumper traffic. The Airport Express Line (20 minutes from the airport to the Dongzhimen subway stop northeast of the city center) has proven to be a boon. Also a great success is the city’s electronic fare system, where all rides cost a very reasonable Y2.
The city’s wide thoroughfares are laid out on a grid system, with roads running north-south or east-west. These compass points often make up part of the street name, so bei (north), dong (east), nan (south), xi (west), and zhong (middle) are useful words to know. Networks of ancient lanes and alleys known as hutongs run between these main streets.
Beijing’s most important thoroughfare runs east-west along the northern edge of Tiananmen Square. Generally known as Chang’an Jie, or the “Avenue of Heavenly Peace,” it actually changes names several times along its length (as do many other major streets).
Beijing is one of China’s three major international hubs, along with Shanghai and Hong Kong. The number of nonstop flights to Beijing has been steadily increasing, with a few new nonstop flights added every month. You can catch a nonstop flight here from New York (13¾ hours), Chicago (13½ hours), Washington, D.C. (14 hours), Los Angeles (13 hours), Sydney (11½ hours), and London (11 hours). Besides state-run stalwart Air China, carriers such as Hainan Airlines, China Southern, and China Eastern all have nonstop flights. Multiple-stop flights from other cities generally stop in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Vancouver.
Airlines and Airports
Airline and Airport Links.com. Airline and Airport Links.com has links to many of the world’s airlines and airports. | www.airlineandairportlinks.com.
Airline Security Issues
Transportation Security Administration. The TSA has answers for almost every question that might come up. | www.tsa.gov.
A number of Chinese cities are included in the One World Alliance’s Visit Asia Pass, including major destinations like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong as well as interior stops such as Xi’an, Chengdu, Xiamen, Nanjing, Kunming, and Wuhan. Cities are grouped into zones, and there is a flat rate for each zone. Inquire through American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, or any other One World member. It won’t be the cheapest way to get around, but you’ll be flying on some of the world’s best airlines.
If you are flying into Asia on a SkyTeam airline (Delta, for example) you’re eligible to purchase a Go Greater China Pass. It allows travel to nearly 150 destinations, and prices are based on a zone system. You’ll have to book directly with a Sky Team airlines (such as China Eastern or China Southern) to get the discounted fares.
The Star Alliance’s China Airpass is a good choice if you plan to stop in multiple destinations within China (including Macao and Hong Kong). With one ticket you can choose from more than 70 different locations, though the ticket is only good for three to 10 individual flights on Air China or Shenzhen Airlines. The catch? Chinese domestic flight schedules can be changed or canceled at a moment’s notice.
Air Pass Info
China Airpass. | 800/241-6522 | www.staralliance.com/en/fares/airpasses/china-airpass.
Go Greater China. | 800/221-1212 | www.skyteam.biz/en/travel-offers/go-china.
Visit Asia Pass. | 800/433-7300 | www.oneworld.com/flights/single-continent-fares/visit-asia.
The efficient Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is 27 km (17 miles) northeast of the city center. The three terminals are connected by walkways and a tram system: T1 serves mainly domestic flights, while T2 and T3 serve both domestic and international flights. If you can’t find your flight on the departure board, check that you’re in the correct terminal. The best advice is to check with the airport website before heading to the airport, as you’ll need to let your taxi driver know which terminal you need.
Clearing customs and immigration can take a while, depending on how busy the airport is. Make sure you arrive at least two hours before your scheduled flight time. Be sure to fill out the departure card before the immigration check or you’ll have to leave the line, fill out the card, and start all over.
There is an uninspiring transit lounge for T1 and T2 in which to while away the hours. T3’s waiting area is a bit more comfortable. Both Chinese and Western-style fast-food outlets are available if you hunt around, but they are expensive for what you get. If you’ve got a long stopover, consider buying a package from one of the Plaza Premium Traveler’s Lounges, near Gate 11 in T2 and Gate E13 in T3. Both have comfortable armchairs, Internet access, newspapers, and a buffet.
While wandering the airport, someone may approach you offering to carry your luggage, or even just to give you directions. Be aware that this “helpful” stranger will almost certainly expect payment.
Beijing Capital International Airport. | 010/96158 | www.bcia.com.cn.
The easiest way to get from the airport to Beijing is by taxi. Most major hotels have representatives at the airport who can arrange a car or minivan. When departing from Beijing, prebook airport transport through your hotel.
When you arrive in Beijing, head for the clearly labeled taxi line just outside the terminal, beyond a small covered parking area. The (usually long) line moves quickly. Ignore offers from touts trying to coax you away from the line—they’re privateers looking to rip you off. At the head of the line, a dispatcher will give you your taxi’s number, useful in case of complaints or forgotten luggage. Insist that your driver use the meters, and do not negotiate a fare. If the driver is unwilling to comply, feel free to change taxis.
The initial fare is Y13—good for 3 km (2 miles) —with Y2.3 for each additional kilometer. A trip to the center of Beijing costs around Y80. In light traffic it takes about 30 minutes to reach the city center; during rush hour expect the trip to take an hour. After 11 pm, taxis impose a 20% late-night surcharge. A Y10 toll is added to fares when you’re headed to the airport.
Another option for getting downtown is the Airport Express Subway Line, which departs from T2 and T3 and stops at Sanyuanqiao (northeast Third Ring Road) and Dongzhimen (northeast Second Ring Road) subway stations. The trip takes 20 minutes and costs Y25.
Air-conditioned airport shuttle buses are the cheapest way of getting into town. There are six numbered routes, all of which leave from outside the arrivals area. Tickets, which cost Y15 to Y24, are available from the ticket booth just inside the arrival halls. Departures are every 15 to 30 minutes. There’s a detailed route map on the airport website.
Air China, a member of the Star Alliance, is the country’s flagship carrier. It operates nonstop flights from Beijing to various North American and European cities. China Southern is the major carrier for domestic routes. Like all Chinese carriers, it’s a regional subsidiary of the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Buy tickets in the United States through airline websites or travel agencies. It’s worth contacting a Chinese travel agency like China International Travel Service (CITS) to compare prices, as these can vary substantially. If you’re in China and want to book flights to other cities in the country, the websites www.ctrip.com and www.elong.com are excellent options. Flights though this website are often much cheaper than if you book them through a foreign website.
The service on most Chinese airlines is more on par with low-cost American airlines than with big international carriers—be prepared for limited legroom, iffy food, and possibly no personal video monitors. More important, always arrive at least two hours before departure, as chronic overbooking means latecomers lose their seats.
TO AND FROM BEIJING
China has plenty of long-distance buses with air-conditioning and movies (whether you want them or not). Buying tickets can be complicated if you don’t speak Chinese, so it’s best to have your hotel concierge or a travel agent make arrangements. Better yet, consider taking a train or plane.
Buses depart from the city’s several long-distance bus stations. The main ones are: Dongzhimen (Northeast); Muxiyuan (at Haihutun in the south); Beijiao, also called Dewai (North); and Majuan or Guangqumen (East).
Beijiao. | A30 Huayan Beili, Chaoyang District | 010/8284-6760.
Dongzhimen. | 45 Dongzhimenwai Xiejie, Dongcheng District | 010/6467-1346.
Majuan. | 22 Guangqumenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District | 010/6771-7620.
Muxiyuan. | 16 Nanyuan, Fengtai District | 010/6726-7149.
Unless you know Beijing well, public buses aren’t the best choice for getting around. There are hundreds of routes, which are hot and crowded in summer and cold and crowded in winter. Just getting on and off can be, quite literally, a fight.
The Beijing Public Transportation Corporation is the city’s largest bus service provider. Routes 1 to 199 are regular city buses and cost a flat fare of Y1. Routes in the 200s only run at night, costing Y1. Routes 300 to 799 go from downtown Beijing to suburban areas, and fares (starting at Y1) depend on how far you’re going—have your destination written in Chinese. The newer air-conditioned buses in the 800s and 900s start at Y2 and increase depending on distance.
If you bought an IC card for the subway, you can use it on buses. Most buses allow you to scan your card as you board. On the suburban buses you’ll scan as you board and as you depart, calculating the fare. For buses that go even farther afield, there is a conductor onboard who will take your fare or scan your card.
Beijing Public Transportation Corporation. | 29 Lianhuachi Xili, Fengtai District | 010/6396-0008 | www.bjbus.com.
You won’t be able to rent a car in Beijing because neither U.S. nor international licenses are recognized in China. This restriction should be cause for relief, as city traffic is terrible. If you want to get around by car, put yourself in the experienced hands of a local driver and sit back and relax.
The quickest way to hire a car and driver is to flag down a taxi and hire it for the day. After some negotiating, expect to pay between around Y600 and Y700. Most hotels can make arrangements for you, though they often charge you double that rate—you can probably guess who gets the difference. Most drivers do not speak English, so it’s a good idea to have your destination and hotel name written down in Chinese.
Another alternative is American car-rental agency Avis, which includes mandatory chauffeurs as part of all rental packages—although this can also be very expensive, with chauffeurs alone costing Y235 per hour.
Avis. | 400/882-1119 | www.avis.cn.
Beijing’s quick and efficient subway system is an excellent way to get about town. After operating for years with only two lines, the network is growing exponentially, with eight lines servicing the inner city, a further eight heading out into the suburbs, and several more due to open over the next few years.
Lines 1 and the newly expanded Line 6 run east-west across the city, stopping at tourist destinations such as Tiananmen Square and Beihai Park. Line 2 runs under the Second Ring Road, making it a good way to circle the city center. North-south Line 5 gives access to the Lama Temple and Temple of Heaven. Line 8 runs through the Olympic Village all the way down to Gulou, and Line 10 loops past such destinations as Sanlitun and the antiques market at Panjiayuan. In the west and south, Line 4 stops at the Summer Palace and also Beijing South station. The Airport Line connects the Dongzhimen interchange with the airport—now a 20-minute jaunt for Y25. The remaining lines are mainly used by commuters and are less useful for sightseeing.
Subway stations are marked by blue signs with a “D” (for ditie, or subway) in a circle. Signs are not always obvious, so be prepared to hunt around for entrances or ask directions; Ditie zhan zai nar? (Where’s the subway station?) is a useful phrase, but sometimes simply saying ditie with an inquiring look may get you better results.
Stations are usually clean and safe, as are trains. Navigating the subway is very straightforward: station names are clearly displayed in Chinese and pinyin, and there are maps in each station. Once on board, each stop is clearly announced on a loudspeaker in Chinese and English.
Taxis are the most comfortable way to get around. Be aware that they tend to disappear during inclement weather, and rush-hour traffic can be infuriating. There’s a Y13 charge for the first 3 km (2 miles) and Y2.3 per kilometer thereafter. After 11 pm the initial charge rises to Y14 and there’s a 20% surcharge per additional kilometer.
Drivers usually know the terrain well, but most don’t speak English; make sure to have your destination written down in Chinese. (Keep a card with the name of your hotel on it for the return trip.) Hotel doormen can help you tell the driver where you’re going. It’s a good idea to study a map and have some idea where you are, as some drivers will take you for a ride—a much longer one—if they think they can get away with it.
Taxi Booking Service. | 010/96103 in English.
China’s enormous rail network is one of the world’s busiest. Trains are usually safe and run strictly to schedule. Although there are certain intricacies to buying tickets, once you’ve got one, trips are generally hassle-free. Beijing is a major rail hub. Services to the rest of China leave from its four huge stations. The Trans-Siberian Railway leaves from Beijing Zhan, the main station. Trains to Hong Kong and to areas in the west and south of China leave from Beijing Xi Zhan (West). Most Z-series trains (nonstop luxury service) use these two stations. Lesser lines headed north and east leave from Beijing Bei Zhan (North) and Beijing Dong Zhan (East). C- and D-series trains (intercity nonstop rail) mostly use Beijing Nan Zhan (South).
China’s high-speed rail network is rapidly becoming one of the longest in the world, and new routes are debuting every year. Journeys that used to be overnight affairs, such as Beijing to Xi’an or Shanghai, now take around five hours. Smooth rides and few delays make rail travel a tempting alternative to domestic flights. You can buy most tickets 10 days in advance (remember to bring your passport); two to three days ahead is usually enough time, except around the three national holidays—Chinese New Year (two days in mid-January to February, depending on the lunar calendar), Labor Day (May 1), and National Day (October 1)—when tickets sell out weeks in advance.
The cheapest tickets are found at the stations, and there are ticket offices for foreigners staffed with English speakers at Beijing Zhan (first floor) and Beijing Xi Zhan (second floor). Most travel agents, including CITS, can book tickets for a small surcharge (Y20 to Y50), saving you the hassle of going to the station. Tickets can be bought from ticket offices around the city for a Y5 fee. You can also buy tickets for slow trains through online retailers like China Train Ticket, and they’ll deliver the tickets to your hotel.
Trains are always crowded, but you are guaranteed your designated seat, though not always the overhead luggage rack. Note that theft on trains is increasing; on overnight trains, sleep with your valuables or else keep them on the inside of the bunk. Overpriced dining cars serve meals that are often inedible, so you’d do better to make use of the massive thermoses of boiled water in each compartment or the taps in the carriage section and take along your own noodles or instant soup, as the locals do.
You can find out just about everything about Chinese train travel at Seat 61’s fabulous website. China Highlights has a searchable online timetable for major train routes. The tour operator Travel China Guide has an English-language website that can help you figure out train schedules and fares.
Beijing Bei Zhan. | Xizhimen, Xicheng District | 010/5182-6623.
Beijing Nan Zhan. | 12 Yongdingmenwai Dajie, Chongwen District | 010/5183-6272.
Beijing Xi Zhan. | 118 Lianhuachi Donglu, Fengtai District | 010/6321-6253.
Beijing Zhan. | A13 Maojiawang Hutong, east side of Dongbianmen Gate, Dongcheng District | 010/5101-9999.
China Highlights. | 800/268-2918 | www.chinahighlights.com/china-trains/index.htm.
Seat 61. | www.seat61.com/china.htm.
Travel China Guide. | 800/315-3949 | www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/index.htm.
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Communications | Customs and Duties | Electricity | Emergencies | Health | Hours of Operation | Mail | Money | Packing | Restrooms | Safety | Taxes | Time | Tipping | Tours | Visitor Information
Beijing is a very Internet-friendly place for travelers with laptops. Most mid-range to high-end hotels have in-room Wi-Fi access, but you might have to pay extra for it. Most hotels have a computer with Internet access that you can use for a fee.
When you’re out and about, coffee chains like Starbucks are good places to find Wi-Fi connections. Internet cafés are ubiquitous; new ones open and close all the time, so ask your hotel for a recommendation. Prices vary considerably. Near the northern university districts you could pay as little as Y2 to Y3 per hour; slicker downtown places could cost 10 times that.
WARNING: Remember that there is strict government control of the Internet in China. Google and Gmail are accessible, if tooth-grindingly slow. It’s impossible to access some news sites and blogs without using a virtual private network (VPN), which circumnavigates the government’s attempts to block.
The country code for China is 86; the city code for Beijing is 010 (omit the first “0”), and the city code for Shanghai is 21. To call China from the United States or Canada, dial the international access code (011), followed by the country code (86), the area or city code, and the eight-digit phone number.
Numbers beginning with 800 within China are toll-free. Note that a call from China to a toll-free number in the United States or Hong Kong is a full-tariff international call.
Calling Within China
The Chinese phone system is cheap and efficient. You can make local and long-distance calls from your hotel or any public phone on the street. Some pay phones accept coins, but it’s easier to buy an IC calling card, available at convenience stores and newsstands. Local calls are generally free from landlines, though your hotel might charge a nominal rate. Long-distance rates in China are very low. Calling from your hotel room is a viable option, as hotels can only add a 15% service charge.
Beijing’s city code is 010, and Beijing phone numbers have eight digits. When calling within the city, you can drop the city code. In general, city codes appear written with a 0 in front of them; if not, you need to add this when calling another city within China.
For directory assistance, dial 114 (Chinese), or 2689-0114 (for help in English, though you may not get through). If you want information for other cities, dial the city code followed by 114 (note that this is considered a long-distance call). For example, if you’re in Beijing and need directory assistance for a Shanghai number, dial 021-114. The operators do not speak English, so if you don’t speak Chinese you’re best off asking your hotel for help.
Weather. | 400/6000-121.
Calling Outside China
To make an international call from within China, dial 00 (the international access code within China) and then the country code, area code, and phone number. The country code for the United States is 1.
International direct dialing is available at all hotels, post offices, shopping centers, and airports. By international standards the prices aren’t unreasonable, but it’s vastly cheaper to use a long-distance calling card, known as an IP card. The rates also beat AT&T, MCI, and Sprint hands down.
Calling cards are a key part of the Chinese phone system. There are two kinds: the IC card for local and domestic long-distance calls using a pay phone; and the IP card for international calls from any phone. You can buy both at post offices, convenience stores, and street vendors.
IC cards come in values of Y20, Y50, and Y100 and can be used in any pay phone with a card slot—most Beijing pay phones have them. Local calls using them cost around Y0.30 a minute, and less on weekends and after 6 pm.
To use IP cards, you first dial a local access number, then press 2 for English instructions. This is often free from hotels, however at public phones you need an IC card to dial the access number. You then enter a card number and PIN, and finally the phone number complete with international dial codes. Minutes from both cards are deducted at the same time. There are countless different card brands; China Unicom is one that’s usually reliable. IP cards come with values of Y20, Y30, Y50, and Y100; however, the going rate is much less, so bargain vendors down.
If you have a multiband phone and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, since text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
TIP If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old cell phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell-phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
If you have a GSM phone, pick up a local SIM card (sim ka) from any branch of China Mobile or China Unicom. You’ll be presented with a list of possible phone numbers, with varying prices—an “unlucky” phone number (one with lots of 4s) could be as cheap as Y50, whereas an auspicious one (full of 8s) could fetch Y300 or more. You then buy prepaid cards to charge minutes onto your SIM—do this straightaway, as you need credit to receive calls. Local calls to landlines cost Y0.25 a minute, and to cell phones, Y0.60. International calls from cell phones are very expensive. Remember to bring an adapter for your phone charger. You can also buy cheap handsets from China Mobile. If you’re planning to stay even a couple of days this is probably cheaper than renting a phone.
Beijing Limo rents cell phones, which they can deliver to your hotel or at the airport. Renting a handset starts at $5 a day, and you buy a prepaid package with a certain amount of call time; prices start at $49. Beijing Impression travel agency rents handsets at similar rates, and you buy a regular prepaid card for calls. For that money, you may as well buy your own pay-as-you-go cell phone once you arrive (the cheapest Nokia handset goes for around Y220). Cell phone shops are plentiful, though you may need an interpreter to help you deal with the people behind the counter and to reset the language.
Beijing Impression. | 010/6400-0300 | www.beijingimpression.cn.
Beijing Limo. | 010/6546-1588 | www.beijinglimo.com/english.
Cellular Abroad. | 800/287-5072 | www.cellularabroad.com.
China Mobile. | 10086 English-language assistance | www.chinamobileltd.com.
China Unicom. | 010/116-114 English-language assistance | www.chinaunicom.com.
Planet Fone. | 888/988-4777 | www.planetfone.com.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Except for the usual prohibitions against narcotics, explosives, plant and animal materials, firearms, and ammunition, you can bring anything into China that you plan to take away with you. GPS equipment, cameras, video recorders, laptops, and the like should pose no problems. However, China is very sensitive about printed matter deemed seditious, such as religious, pornographic, and political items, especially articles, books, and pictures on Tibet. All the same, small amounts of English-language reading matter aren’t generally a problem. Customs officials are for the most part easygoing, and visitors are rarely searched. It’s not necessary to fill in customs declaration forms, but if you carry in a large amount of cash, say several thousand dollars, you should declare it upon arrival.
On leaving, you’re not allowed to take out any antiquities dating to before 1795. Antiques from between 1795 and 1949 must have an official red seal attached.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection. | 877/227-5511 | www.cbp.gov.
The electrical current in China is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC), so most American appliances can’t be used without a transformer. A universal adapter is especially useful in China, as wall outlets come in a bewildering variety of configurations: two- and three-pronged round plugs, as well as two-pronged flat sockets.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and cell-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
Steve Kropla’s Help for World Traveler’s. Steve Kropla’s Help for World Traveler’s has information on electrical and telephone plugs around the world. | www.kropla.com.
Walkabout Travel Gear. Walkabout Travel Gear has a good coverage of electricity under “adapters.” | 800/852-7085 | www.walkabouttravelgear.com.
The best place to head in a medical emergency is the Beijing United Family Health Center, which has 24-hour emergency services. International SOS is another clinic with a good reputation; it can arrange Medivac. For over-the-counter medicines, Watsons pharmacies can be found all over the city, including in most large shopping centers.
Beijing has different numbers for each emergency service, though staff members often don’t speak English. If in doubt, call the U.S. embassy first: staff members are available 24 hours a day to help handle emergencies and facilitate communication with local agencies.
Fire. | 119.
Police. | 110.
Medical Emergency. | 120.
Traffic Accident. | 122.
U.S. Embassy. | 55 Anjialou Lu, Chaoyang District | 010/8531-4000 | Fax 010/8531-3300 | beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn.
Hospitals and Clinics
Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics. | 2 Jiangtai Lu, Chaoyang District | 010/5927-7000, 010/5927-7120 emergencies | www.ufh.com.cn/en.
China-Japan Friendship Hospital. | Ying Hua Dong Jie, Heping Li | 010/6422-2952, 010/6428-2297 | english.zryhyy.com.cn.
Hong Kong International Medical Clinic. | Hong Kong Macau Center-Swissotel,2 Chaoyangmen Bei Da Jie, 9th fl., Chaoyang District | 010/6553-2288 | www.hkclinic.com.
International Medical Center Beijing. | Beijing Lufthansa Center,50 Liangmaqiao Lu, Room 106, Chaoyang District | 010/6465-1561 | www.imcclinics.com.
International SOS. | Kunsha Building,16 Xinyuanli, Wing 1, Suite 105, Chaoyang District | 010/6462-9112 Clinic, 010/6462-9100 24-hour hotline | www.internationalsos.com.
Peking Union Medical College Hospital. | 1 Shui Fu Yuan, Dongcheng District | 010/6529-5284 | www.pumch.cn.
Watsons. | Holiday Inn Lido Hotel, Jichang Lu, Chaoyang District | Sanlitun Village South,19 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang District | www.watsons.com.cn.
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. Drink only bottled, boiled, or purified water; don’t drink from public fountains or beverages with ice. Tap water in Beijing is safe for brushing teeth, but you’re better off buying bottled water to drink. Make sure food has been thoroughly cooked and is served to you fresh and hot. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately.
Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. Condoms can help prevent most sexually transmitted diseases, but they aren’t absolutely reliable and their quality varies from country to country. China is notorious for fake condoms, so it might be best to bring your own from home or get them from a health clinic. Speak with your physician or check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
SPECIFIC ISSUES IN BEIJING
Pneumonia and influenza are common among travelers returning from China—talk to your doctor about inoculations before you leave. If you need to buy prescription drugs, use pharmacies of reputable private hospitals.
Most pharmacies carry over-the-counter Western medicines and traditional Chinese medicines. By and large, you need to ask for the generic name of the drug you’re looking for, not a brand name.
SHOTS AND MEDICATIONS
No immunizations are required for entry into China, but it’s a good idea to be immunized against typhoid and hepatitis A and B before traveling to Beijing; also a good idea is to get routine shots for tetanus-diphtheria and measles. In winter, a flu vaccination is also smart.
National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). | 800/232-4636 | www.cdc.gov/travel.
World Health Organization (WHO). | www.who.int.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Most offices are open between 9 and 6 on weekdays; most museums keep roughly the same hours six or seven days a week. Everything in China grinds to a halt for the first two or three days of Chinese New Year (sometime in mid-January through February, depending on the lunar calendar), and opening hours are often reduced for the rest of that season.
Banks and government offices are open weekdays 9 to 5, although some close for lunch (sometime between noon and 2). Bank branches and CTS tour desks in hotels often keep longer hours and are usually open Saturday (and occasionally even Sunday) mornings. Many hotel currency-exchange desks remain open 24 hours.
Pharmacies are open daily from 8:30 or 9 am to 6 or 7 pm. Some large pharmacies stay open until 9 pm or even later.
Shops and department stores are generally open daily 9 to 9; some stores in popular tourist areas stay open even later during peak season.
National holidays include New Year’s Day (January 1); Chinese New Year (mid-January/through February); Tomb-Sweeping Day (April 5); International Labor Day (May 1); Dragon Boat Festival (late May/early June); anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (July 1); anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (August 1); Mid-Autumn Festival (mid- to late September), and National Day (October 1).
International mail from China is reliable. Airmail letters to any place in the world should take five to 14 days. Express Mail Service (EMS) is available to many international destinations. Letters within Beijing arrive the next day, and mail to the rest of China takes a day or two longer. Domestic mail can be subject to search, so don’t send sensitive materials, such as religious or political literature, as you might cause the recipient trouble.
Service is more reliable if you mail letters from post offices rather than mailboxes. Buy envelopes here, too, as there are standardized sizes in China. You need to glue stamps onto envelopes, as they’re not self-adhesive. Most post offices are open daily between 8 and 7. Your hotel can usually send letters for you, too.
You can use the Roman alphabet to write an address. Do not use red ink, which has a negative connotation. You must also include a six-digit zip code for mail within China. The Beijing municipality is assigned the zip code 100000, and each neighboring county starts with 10. For example, the code for Fangshan, to the immediate southwest of Beijing proper, is 102400.
Sending airmail postcards costs Y4.20 and letters Y5.50 to Y6.50.
International Post and Telecommunications Office. | Jianguomenwai Dajie, Yabao Lu, Chaoyang District | 010/6512-8114 | vip.fesco.com.cn/bipto/en.htm.
It’s easy to ship packages home from China. Take what you want to send unpacked to the post office—everything will be sewn up officially into satisfying linen-bound packages, a service that costs a few yuan. You have to fill in lengthy forms, and enclosing a photocopy of receipts for the goods inside isn’t a bad idea, as they may be opened by customs along the line. Large antiques stores often offer reliable shipping services that take care of customs in China. Large international courier services like DHL, Federal Express, and UPS have offices around Beijing.
DHL. | 45 Xinyuan Jie, Chaoyang District | 800/810-8000, 010/5860-1076 | www.cn.dhl.com.
FedEx. | 3/F, Golden Land Building,32 Liangmaqiao Lu, Chaoyang District | 010/6464-8855, 800-/988-1888 | www.fedex.com/cn_english.
UPS. | China World Trade Center, Bldg. 1,1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District | 800/820-8388 | www.ups.com.
The best places to convert your dollars into yuan are at your hotel’s front desk or a branch of a major bank, such as Bank of China, CITIC, or HSBC. All these operate with standardized government rates—anything cheaper is illegal, and thus risky. You need to present your passport to change money.
Although credit cards are widespread in China, for day-to-day transactions cash is definitely king. Getting change for larger notes can be a problem in small shops and taxis, so try to stock up on 10s and 20s when you change money.
ATMS AND BANKS
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
Among the Chinese banks, your best bets for ATMs are Bank of China and ICBC. That said, machines frequently refuse to give cash for mysterious reasons. Move on and try another. Citibank and HSBC have lots of branches in Beijing, and accept all major cards. On-screen instructions appear automatically in English. Be sure to check all bills that you receive from the ATM; sometimes fake notes find their way into the system and it can be a nightmare to get the bank to exchange for real ones—especially if you leave the premises.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
TIP Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
In Beijing, American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted at most major hotels and a growing number of upmarket stores and restaurants. Diners Club is accepted at many hotels and some restaurants.
Reporting Lost Cards
American Express. | 800/528-4800 in the U.S., 336/393-1111 collect from abroad | www.americanexpress.com.
Diners Club. | 800/234-6377 in the U.S., 514/881-3735 collect from abroad | www.dinersclub.com.
MasterCard. | 800/627-8372 in the U.S., 636/722-7111 collect from abroad | www.mastercard.com.
Visa. | 800/847-2911 in the U.S., 410/581-9994 collect from abroad | www.visa.com.
CURRENCY AND EXCHANGE
The Chinese currency is officially called the yuan (Y), and is also known as renminbi (RMB), or “People’s Money.” You may also hear it called kuai, an informal expression like “buck.” After being pegged to the dollar at around Y8 for years, it was allowed to float within a small range starting in 2005. It was held firm again until mid-2010 when it was allowed to float again. As of this writing, the conversion was Y6.24 to $1.
Both old and new styles of bills circulate simultaneously in China, and many denominations have both coins and bills. The Bank of China issues bills in denominations of 1 (green), 5 (purple), 10 (turquoise), 20 (brown), 50 (blue-green), and 100 (red) yuan. There are Y1 coins, too. The yuan subdivides into 10-cent units called jiao or mao; these come in bills and coins of 1, 2, and 5. The smallest denomination is the fen, which comes in coins (and occasionally tiny notes) of 1, 2, and 5; these are largely useless in day-to-day exchanges. Counterfeiting is rife here, and even small stores inspect notes with ultraviolet lamps. Change can also be a problem—don’t expect much success paying for a Y3 purchase with a Y100 note, for example.
Exchange rates in China are fixed by the government daily, so they’re the same in banks, department stores, and at your hotel’s exchange desk, which often has the added advantage of being open 24 hours a day. A passport is required. Hold on to your exchange receipt, which you need to convert your extra yuan back into dollars.
Most Chinese people dress for comfort, and you can do the same. There’s little risk of offending people with your dress, no matter how casual. Sturdy, comfortable, closed-toe walking shoes are a must. Summers are dusty and hot, so lightweight slacks, shorts, and short-sleeve shirts are great options. A light raincoat is useful in spring and fall. Come winter, thermal long underwear is a lifesaver. An overcoat, scarf, hat, and gloves will help keep icy winds at bay. That said, in Beijing you can arrive unprepared: the city is a shopper’s paradise. If you can’t fit a bulky jacket in your suitcase, buy a cheap one upon arrival. Scarves, gloves, and hats are also cheap and easy to find.
Carry packets of tissues and antibacterial hand wipes with you—toilet paper isn’t common in Chinese public restrooms. A small flashlight with extra batteries is also useful. Chinese pharmacies can be limited, so take adequate stocks if you’re picky about lotions and potions. Beijing is quite dry, so moisturizer is a must. Choice is also limited for feminine-hygiene products, so bring along extra or pay outrageous prices in the expat supermarkets.
If you’re planning a longer trip or will be using local guides, bring a few items from your home country as gifts, such as candy, T-shirts, and small cosmetic items like lipstick and nail polish.
TIP If you’re a U.S. citizen traveling abroad, consider registering online with the State Department (step.state.gov), so the government will know to look for you should a crisis occur in the country you’re visiting.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
All U.S. citizens, even infants, need a valid passport with a tourist visa stamped in it to enter China (except for Hong Kong, where you only need a valid passport). Getting a tourist visa (known as an “L” visa) in the United States is straightforward, but be sure to check the Chinese embassy website to make sure you’re bringing the correct documents. Visa regulations sometimes change on short notice. Standard visas are for single-entry stays of up to 30 days and are valid for 90 days from the day of issue (not the day of entry), so don’t get your visa too far in advance. Costs range from $140 for a tourist visa issued within two to three working days to $170 for a same-day service. CIBT Visas is a fast, efficient processer of all types of China visa requests.
As of 2013, U.S. travelers (and those of 44 other countries) transiting through Beijing Capital Airport and Shanghai’s Hongqiao and Pudong airports can now stay for up to 72 hours visa-free, so long as you have proof of an onward ticket to a third country. Signs at the international arrivals area of the airport will direct you toward the appropriate channels.
Travel agents in Hong Kong can also issue visas to visit mainland China. TIP The visa application will ask your occupation. The Chinese authorities don’t look favorably upon those who work in publishing or the media. People in these professions routinely give their occupation as “teacher.”
Under no circumstances should you overstay your visa. To extend your visa, go to the Division of the Entry and Exit of Aliens of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau a week before your visa expires. The office is also known as the Foreigner’s Police; it’s open weekdays 8 am to noon and 1:30 pm to 4 pm. Under normal circumstances it’s generally no problem to get a month’s extension on a tourist visa, but the rules change often. Bring your passport and a registration of temporary residency from your hotel. Keep in mind that you’ll need to leave your passport there for five to seven days, so get a receipt and always keep a photocopy of your passport on you. If you’re trying to extend a business visa, you’ll need the above items as well as a letter from the business that originally invited you to China.
CIBT Visas. | 800/929-2428 | cibtvisas.com/china-visa.php.
In the U.S.
Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China. | 520 12th Ave., | New York, New York, USA | 212/244-9456, 212/244-9392 | www.nyconsulate.prchina.org.
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, Washington. | 2201 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Suite 110, | Washington, District of Columbia, USA | 202/337-1956 | www.china-embassy.org.
Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau Division of the Entry and Exit of Aliens. | 2 Andingmen Dong Dajie, Dongcheng District | 010/8401-5300, 010/8402-0101.
Public restrooms abound in Beijing—the street, parks, restaurants, department stores, and major tourist attractions are all likely locations. Some charge a small fee (usually less than Y1), and seldom provide Western-style facilities or private booths. Instead, expect squat toilets, open troughs, and rusty spigots; “wc” signs at intersections point the way to these facilities. Toilet paper or tissues and antibacterial hand wipes are good things to have in your day pack. The restrooms in the newest shopping plazas, fast-food outlets, and deluxe restaurants catering to foreigners are generally on a par with American restrooms.
Find a Loo
The Bathroom Diaries. The Bathroom Diaries is flush with unsanitized info on restrooms the world over—each one located, reviewed, and rated. | www.thebathroomdiaries.com.
There is little violent crime against tourists in China, partly because the penalties are severe for those who are caught—China’s yearly death-sentence tolls run into the thousands. Single women can move about Beijing without too much hassle. Handbag snatching and pickpocketing do occur in markets and on crowded buses or trains—keep an eye open and your money safe and you should have no problems. Use the lockbox in your hotel room to store any valuables. You should always carry either your passport or a photocopy of the information page and the visa page of your passport with you for identification purposes.
Beijing is full of people looking to make a quick buck. The most common scam involves people persuading you to go with them for a tea ceremony, which is often so pleasant that you don’t smell a rat until several hundred dollars appear on your credit-card bill. “Art students” who pressure you into buying work is another common scam. The same rules that apply to hostess bars worldwide are also true in Beijing. Avoiding such scams is as easy as refusing all unsolicited services—be it from taxi or pedicab drivers, tour guides, or potential “friends.”
Beijing traffic is as manic as it looks, and survival of the fittest (or the biggest) is the main rule. Crossing streets can be an extreme sport. Drivers rarely give pedestrians the right-of-way and don’t even look for pedestrians when making a right turn on a red light. Cyclists have less power but are just as aggressive.
Beijing’s severely polluted air can bring on, or aggravate, respiratory problems. If you’re a sufferer, take the cue from locals, who wear special pollution masks, or a scarf or bandanna as protection.
TIP Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA). | 866/289-9673 | www.tsa.gov.
There is no sales tax in China. All hotels charge a 5% tax, and larger international hotels also add a 10% to 15% service fee. Some restaurants charge a 10% service fee.
Beijing is 8 hours ahead of London, 13 hours ahead of New York, 14 hours ahead of Chicago, and 16 hours ahead of Los Angeles. There’s no daylight saving time, so subtract an hour in summer.
Timeanddate.com. Timeanddate.com can help you figure out the correct time anywhere in the world. | www.timeanddate.com/worldclock.
Tipping is a tricky issue in China. It’s officially forbidden by the government, and locals simply don’t do it. In general, follow their lead without qualms. Nevertheless, the practice is beginning to catch on, especially among tour guides, who often expect Y10 a day. You don’t need to tip in restaurants or in taxis—many drivers insist on handing over your change, however small.
Bespoke Beijing offers personalized tours, and WildChina leads distinctive, ecologically sensitive journeys all over China. Stretch-a-Leg Travel specializes in small group tours of Beijing’s side streets and off-the-beaten-track sights by expert guides.
Bespoke Beijing. | B510,107 Dongsi Bei Dajie, Dongcheng District | 010/6400-0133 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.bespoke-beijing.com | Daily 9-5.
Stretch-A-Leg Travel. | 2 Qian’gulouyuan, Jiaodaokou, Dongcheng District | 010/6401-8933 | email@example.com | www.stretchalegtravel.com | Weekdays 10-6.
WildChina. | Oriental Place,9 East Dongfang Lu, Room 803, Chaoyang District | 010/6465-6602, 888/902-8808 in the U.S. | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.wildchina.com | Weekdays 9-6.
Cycle China offers plenty of cycling trips in and around Beijing and beyond, such as the Great Wall. You can hire bikes from them, or take your own. Bike China Adventures organizes trips of varying length and difficulty all over China.
Adventure Center. | 800/228-8747 | www.adventurecenter.com.
Bike China Adventures. | 800/818-1778 | www.bikechina.com.
Cycle China. | 12 Jingshan Dong Jie, Dongcheng District | 139/1188-6524 | www.cyclechina.com | Daily 9-6.
Local guides are often creative when it comes to showing you history and culture, so having an expert with you can make a big difference. Learning is the focus of Smithsonian Journeys’ small-group tours, which are led by university professors. China experts also lead National Geographic Expeditions trips, but all that knowledge doesn’t come cheap. The China Culture Center is a wonderful resource for tours, classes, lectures, and other events in Beijing. The China Guide is a Beijing-based, American-managed travel agency offering tours that do not make shopping detours.
China Culture Center. | 21 Liangmaqiao Rd., inside the Drive-in Movie Theater Park, Chaoyang District | 010/6432-9341, 010/8420-0671 weekends | www.chinaculturecenter.org.
The China Guide. | Building 7-1, Jianguomenwai Waijiaogongyu Diplomatic Compound, 8th Floor, Room 81 | 010/8532-1860 | email@example.com | www.thechinaguide.com | Weekdays 10-6.
National Geographic Expeditions. | 888/966-8687 | www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.
Smithsonian Journeys. | 855/330-1542 in the U.S. | www.smithsonianjourneys.org.
Intrepid Travel is an Australian company offering foodie tours with market visits, cooking demonstrations, and plenty of good eats. Imperial Tours combines sightseeing with lectures, cooking demonstrations, and lots of five-star dining.
Imperial Tours. | 2-2004 Wanguocheng,1 Xiangheyuan Lu, Dongcheng District | 888/888-1970 in the U.S., 010/8440-7162 in China | www.imperialtours.net.
Intrepid Travel. | 800/970-7299 in the U.S. | www.intrepidtravel.com.
Beijing Hikers offer multiple hikes and camping stays on and around the Great Wall, They always make sure to leave no rubbish behind, unlike many other companies.
Beijing Hikers. | 10 Jiuxianqiao Zhong Lu, Building A, Suite 4012, Chaoyang District | 010/6432-2786 | www.beijinghikers.com | Weekdays 9-6.
For general information, including advice on tours, insurance, and safety, call, or visit China National Tourist Office’s website, as well as the website run by the Beijing Tourism Administration (BTA). TIP The BTA maintains a 24-hour hotline for tourist inquiries and complaints, with operators fluent in English. BTA also runs Beijing Tourist Information Centers, whose staff can help you with free maps and directions in Beijing.
The two best-known Chinese travel agencies are China International Travel Service (CITS) and China Travel Service (CTS), both under the same government ministry. Although they have some tourist information, they are businesses, so don’t expect endless resources if you’re not booking through them.
Beijing Tourism Administration. | 010/8353-1111 | firstname.lastname@example.org | english.visitbeijing.com.cn.
Beijing Travel Hotline. | 010/12301 | english.visitbeijing.com.cn.
BTG International Travel and Tours. | Beijing Tourism Building,28 Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District | 400-010-0808 | www.btgtravel.com.cn.
China International Travel Service. | 010/6522-2991 in China, 626/568-8993 in the U.S. | www.cits.net.
China Travel Service. | 400/811-6666 in China, 800/899-8618 in the U.S. | www.ctsho.com.
ONLINE TRAVEL TOOLS
All About Beijing
Beijing Expat. Beijing Expat has pages and pages of advice and listings from foreigners living in Beijing. | beijing.asiaxpat.com.
Beijing International. This is a comprehensive, if slightly dry, guide to the city. | www.ebeijing.gov.cn.
China Digital Times. This excellent Berkeley-run site tracks China-related news and culture. | www.chinadigitaltimes.net.
Caixin. This is the English-language website for the popular business and economic publication. | english.caixin.com.
China Daily. This popular newspaper’s website has a large business section. | www.chinadaily.com.cn.
Global Times. The best of the local newspapers has lots of business coverage. | www.globaltimes.cn.
Culture and Entertainment
The Beijinger. A weekly newsletter lets you know what’s going on in the city. | www.thebeijinger.com.
Chinese Culture. This detailed database has information on Chinese art, literature, film, and history. | www.chinaculture.org.
Smart Beijing. This website has extensive listings, reviews, and offbeat articles on life in the city. | www.smartbeijing.com.
Time Out Beijing. The popular magazine provides a great overview of all the major cultural events in the city. | www.timeoutbeijing.com.
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