Particularly when compared with the rest of the country (not including Shanghai), Beijing is mind-boggling expensive. A bed in a 12-person dorm costs 90RMB (about $15), which is astronomical considering I didn’t pay more than 25RMB (about $4) in the south.
Food is also more expensive, unless you want to eat off the street for three meals a day. Which might suit some, but personally I prefer toast and a coffee rather than noodles for breakfast.
The prices of drinks and snacks also fluctuate depending on where you buy them – which is pretty typical no matter where you are in the world. However, you can buy a Tsingtao beer in a supermarket for 2.50 – 5RMB, at the hostel for 10RMB or in a bar for 20RMB. That’s crazy!
According to my trusty sidekick (Lonely Planet), admission prices in China are increasing year on year well ahead of inflation. In fact, it’s difficult to find a park or building, museum or gallery where you can get in for free, even if it’s a nominal 2RMB.
Beijing and its surrounds is roughly the same size of Belgium. And just walking a block can feel like you’re walking from one side of Belgium to the other.
As I’ve discovered, all maps lie – even if it looks like it’s just around the corner, chances are you have to walk for forty minutes along endless concrete and cross several multi-lane highways masquerading as roads before you can even begin to make eye contact with your destination.
It’s not always smoggy
I emerged from the subway on my first afternoon in Beijing to a putrid yellow light. The smog was so thick my eyes began to water, and walking a kilometre to the hostel felt like running a marathon.
Happily, the last few days have been visible-smog-free. This afternoon, I even saw some blue sky!
Compared to many of the other cities I’ve visited in Asia, Beijing positively sparkles. This is probably thanks to the army of cleaners the city has employed – you can’t walk a few hundred metres without encountering someone sweeping the sidewalk, or, in the case of this man in Tiananmen Square, blasting dirt away with a fine-tipped pressure hose.
There are toilets everywhere
Seriously. On every street corner (and often in between street corners) are public toilet blocks. If you’re not adverse to the shaky-kneed variety of toilets that smell like they haven’t been cleaned since the Ming dynasty, you’ll never have a bathroom emergency in Beijing.
I assume this is largely because many old buildings might not have inside toilets, and the proliferation of public bathrooms is to avoid the same problem India has, whereby you can go to the toilet on any bit of road, street, laneway or train track that takes your fancy.
English is not that common
Currently, my knowledge of Chinese begins and ends with Ni hao.
Despite the Olympics and everything else, just like the rest of China, English speakers are few and far between in Beijing. It’s more common for young people and those working in tourism or finance to be able to speak some English, but those who are middle-aged and older seem to speak barely any.
A week is not enough
With so much to see in and around the city, you can stay here a week like I have and still only scratch the surface.
Sure, you could get through the big sights like the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall in three days or even less if you’ve got the motivation, but that would mean missing out on some great corners of the city and, my favourite, all the atmospheric temples and markets.