If you were ever wondering how is to live as a foreign in the capital of China, Beijing, by reading this article you are on the good way to find it out.
First time I visited Beijing was for two weeks during winter time. I came to the airport, everything seemed so confusing, none was speaking English and I was afraid to exchange money. Later I realized that China is maybe the only country where exchange rate on the airport was similar to the one in the city. It was quite simple to find a place to stay by Couchsurfing – basically every request I sent was accepted. I choose to stay for a whole two weeks with the same people: Wonderful Chinese couple Dongmei and Jin.
Not only that Beijing is one of the best places in the world where you can learn acupuncture, but it was also very cheap. It effected my decision to apply for the acupuncture studies and come there few months after in spring for a longer period of time. And then the story starts…
Finding Accommodation in Beijing
It was literally nightmare. I took some, let’s call it, tours, with local agencies to check apartments around. I almost collapsed when I saw prices and what you get for that price. So, I am not picky. I can sleep on the floor on the towel even, but what I saw was terrible. For 2 bedrooms apartment, you will pay by person approximately 600 AUD. What you will find inside is: Dust, visible pipes, old furniture (if there is), sometimes not working fridge, oven or whatever. Beside monthly rent, take on mind that agency could ask you up to even 90% commission of one monthly rent. It might be okey if you are staying for a very long period, but if it is just a few months, better go to the hostel… And that is what I did at the end.
In the beginning I stayed in Lucky Family Hostel, where you can get a bed in the dormitory for about 9 AUD + free breakfast. I highly recommend you to stay there. Anyway it was bit expansive for me so I moved in another hostel nearby and shared a private bedroom with Panamanian roommate Yin for the similar price. Even thought I was there for just week or so, it didn’t surprise me that the restroom in our bedroom was surrounded by transparent glass instead of the wall. Luckily, there were two more sharing restrooms upstairs, but unluckily almost every day toilettes up were stuck.
P.S. If you decide on renting, please check every single corner in the apartment before signing any contract, even if the apartment seems perfectly new. Otherwise you could get in a problem after.
Getting around Beijing
I loved Beijing transportation system. For the second longest subway system in the world you will pay from only 3 CNY (1 CNY is about 0.6 AUD) for 6 km ride to 10 CNY for the ride up to 110 km. Price for the Airport Express is 25 CNY. To make it easier, you can buy Yikatong smart card for subway/bus transport (deposit 30 CNY) and refilled it when needed.
What I used to get around was – bicycle. It was the greatest decision ever. The roads for the bicycles are sometimes wider than roads for the cars. Daily I would ride it 20 to 100 km. I was never more sporty. I saw every hidden corner of Beijing with my pink monster on two wheels.
The second greatest decision was taking the train from Beijing to Xi’an or Shanghai for the price of 149 CNY and small hard seat for the next 15 or more hours. If you thing that was hard, try to imagine people who were standing all the way…
Meeting Chinese people
Oh, this is a special topic.
In steps it would be like this: You enter in the subway, if there is enough space for 10 people, there will be 100 of them. And 20 more is yet to come. Yep, get used on it. They will all play 2048 or some other game on their phone, while you will try to breath. Some of them will stare at you. Then you go out of the subway and you see more of them are staring at you… and more and more… and finally they start to ask you if they could take a photo together. You are very happy of that and you will take one photo with your camera as well, so you can show it to your friends. After one day you find out that you have more photos with Chinese people than with all your friends together. The reason why they like you is your white skin and rounded eyes. They crave to be whiter (for a difference from many European girls who crave to get carrot colored skin). Their shelves in supermarkets are filled with products for skin whitening. You are amazed how crazy they are about it.
While walking in the city constantly there is some noise, no matter if you go left or right. You are trying to distinguish what is that, where does it come from? Can it be…? Yes, it can. The noise around you is produced by young lady who just nonchalantly farted while keeping the hand of her boyfriend. The other one came from the middle age guy who looked at you and told you hello by burping. And the third one… oh, that is just an old man trying to take his throat out the moment before spitting on the road… or it just sounds so. You will get used to, don’t worry. Almost all people there do that, for them it is normal.
But wait! This lady who just farted, she is dressed same as her boyfriend: Same shirt, jeans, shoes! …as hundreds of them will be on your way home.
My experience with Chinese people includes only positive. They are very shy, still they will talk with you and try to help you if you have a problem. The only thing I didn’t like about them is they smoke a lot in public places, like restaurants. However, if you ask them to stop smoke, they will. One of the examples how nice they are was when my boyfriend sent me accidentally flowers on the address of the first hostel I was staying in, Lucky Family Hostel. They called my new hostel to tell me I got flowers. I have no idea how they found me. I never told them were exactly I will stay, but they did find me.
What to eat in Beijing
It was not my favorite topic during the first two weeks there. I was getting depressed by eating Chinese food. It tastes totally different than Chinese food out of China (actually, that is a good thing, hehe). The problem lies in that I didn’t like rice and the rice is the main thing to eat in China. Then we come to my third best decision: Buying portable hob. Cooking became pleasure. For food in supermarket I was spending about 10-15-20 CNY daily and for it I was able to prepare myself breakfast, lunch, dinner and something between (chocolate is must!). We are talking about meals which are consisted of fish, meat, fruit, vegetables. In the evening, many supermarkets are giving extra discounts on certain food.
Generally, if you eat in a local restaurants you will not be spending much more for a meal (3-20 CNY). If you go to the western food restaurants then you will be paying high amounts of money for much less food (15 AUD+). If you are brave enough and interested to try less usual menu, go to visit Dong Hua Men night food market and try some delicious scorpions, spiders, bugs, cockroaches, snakes and similar.
Don’t forget to try popular Beijing roast duck! Keep on mind that portions might be small.
By the way, after Beijing, no matter how much I was resisting, the rice became usual part of my daily meals. Beijing won!
Things to See & Do
Suggestions what you could do or visit while being inside of Beijing:
Forbidden city (40-60 CNY) + Tiananmen square – leave a day for it
Walk around the Summer Palace (20-60 CNY)
Go to the National Centre for the Performing Arts – I watched The legend of Marco Polo and it was incredibly good performance. Check events here.
Watch an acrobatic or kung fu show
Lose yourself in traditional streets, named hutongs
Lama Temple (25 CNY)
Find local who speaks in English and let him teach you how to play Xiangqi (Chinese chess)
Panjiayuan + Silk Market – bargaining is must! You will find everything there, from copies of popular phones to calligraphy pens
Bird Nest + Water Cube (80 CNY)
Beijing Zoo (10-20 CNY)
Beihai park – I enjoyed mostly there in the night time, when I could sit on the side and observe the lake in a peace
Join to locals in the evening hours in dancing in front of the subway stations
Temple of Heaven (10-35 CNY)
798 Art Zone – full of art galleries. Lovely.
Public restroom – go to the one as locals which doesn’t have any wall between toilets
There are plenty more informations about Beijing, little by little you will discover them all. What I hope is that on your way will not stand air pollution which can reach hazardous level. Bring with yourself one of the face masks (you can buy for example 3M N95).