Welcome to the capital of the People’s Republic of China, whose story goes back at least 3,000 years! It surely is one of the few megacities in the world which is exceptionally difficult to capture at once. It is bustling yet indulgent, and it has a great deal to offer.
As some of you might already know, I went to Beijing to spend almost six days of my week-long vacation in celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year/Spring Festival, and BAM! THERE GOES MY HEART.
Oh, how anti-beaten path I had always been. But somehow, I always end up exploring these major metropoles each time.
- My Story: A Life Worth Writing About
- PARIS: Weekend Backpacking (Day 1)
- PARIS: Weekend Backpacking (Day 2)
- Visit Brussels: Things you shouldn’t miss in Brussels, Belgium!
I mean, who wants to spend tons of money on flight tickets, accommodation, guided tours, entrance tickets, and so on? NOT THIS BUDGET BACKPACKER A.K.A. ME.
And I bet you’re here because of that.
Well, I gotchu! Throw your worries out the window, sit back and relax, because I’m about to spill the tea. 😉
VISAS AND ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
As a Filipino expat in China, I applied for a Z (Work) Visa to legally enter China as a foreign worker. Upon arrival, I had 30 days to obtain my Foreigner Residence Permit, which now allows me to leave the country and return without an additional visa as long as the it remains valid (even if my original visa has already expired).
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN VISITING BEIJING
A visit to Beijing, like any other big cities, can involve a large investment. But also, as with most countries nowadays, China offers plenty of easy ways and options for every type of traveler.
If you’re planning to go to Beijing to celebrate legit Chinese New Year—also known as the Spring Festival—in China, or just because, do take note that most establishments are closed during holidays. So expect to have a strenuous time just to find a restaurant that is open or isn’t packed. Better plan that ahead!
WHY TRAVEL TO BEIJING IN WINTER
China’s winter low travel season is from November to early March. Aside from the many traditional festivals celebrated in winter — such as the Laba Festival, Chinese New Year, and Lantern Festival, travel expenses are greatly reduced in winter apart from during public holidays.
In the low season, although the weather is colder, you can save money on accommodation, flights, and entry tickets. Scenic spots are less crowded, so you will definitely have a much better experience.
Winter average temperature
Winter in Beijing is tremendously cold, so a trip during November to March may be a shock to visitors from tropical countries. It is the longest season in Beijing, generally starting from mid-November and ending March.
The average temperature in December, January and February would be lower than 0°C (32 F).
What to Wear
Wear thermal underwear, a woolen sweater and a down coat to protect you from the chilly Beijing climate of December. Warm gloves, a scarf, hat and mask are indispensable.
If visiting the Great Wall in suburban Beijing after a snowfall, you may have to wear additional layers to keep you warm. Prepare a pair of warm shoes or boots with a sturdy grip on the soles.
The official currency in China is the Renminbi (RMB or CNY) or in Chinese “Ren-min-bi”. The basic unit is the yuan (also known as “kuai”), which equals 10 jiao (or “mao”), which is then divided into 10 fen.
Paper currency comes in 1, 2, 5, 10, 50 and 100 yuan notes.
Compared to Airport Shuttle Bus, the Airport Express is faster and more frequent.
Passengers can purchase a card ticket by cash from the manual ticket office or the ticket vending machines which have Chinese and English services.
Please keep the ticket safe since it will be reclaimed when exiting from the express train station. The ticket fare could also be paid using the Beijing transportation smart card with a balance of more than RMB 25.
PRICE: 25 RMB
Beijing Subway is the fastest and most convenient transportation in downtown and it is a good way to avoid frequent traffic jams. I loved it so much! Thank me later.
1. It is suggested to prepare loose change beforehand to take the metro. At most stations, passengers can buy the ticket either at the Customer Service Center or self-service ticket vending machine, but some stations are only equipped with ticket vending machines which accept 1 RMB coins, 5 RMB and 10 RMB banknotes.
2. The self-service ticket vending machine can be used in English； Basically, just press the subway station of where you’re headed to, insert your payment, and get your ticket.
3. Tickets are issued for one-day use only.
4. The stops are announced in both Chinese and English.
5. The trains are available from 5:00AM to 11:00PM.
TIP: Download Explore Beijing subway map
PRICE: The price is charged according to the distance. It is 3 RMB for the first 6km (3.7 miles), 4 RMB for 6 to 12km ( 3.7 to 7.5 miles), 5 RMB for 12 to 22km (7.5 to 13.7 miles), 6 RMB for 22 to 32km (13.7 to 20 miles), extra 2 RMB for every additional 20km (12.4 miles) if distance over 32km (20 miles).
BEIJING CITY BUSES
Most of the buses in the downtown areas of Beijing start to run around 05:00AM and stop at 11:00PM, while those running to the suburban areas usually operate for a shorter time between 06:00AM and 07:00PM.
The night routes in Beijing are in operation from 11:00PM to about 04:30AM of the next morning.
You may either pay for it by cash or by Beijing Transportation Card. If you pay the fare by the IC Card, you may enjoy 60% discount. Please note that over payment by cash into the coin machine will not be refunded.
If taking a bus with three gates, you should get on from the middle gate and get off from the other two gates.
If you pay the fare with Beijing Transportation Card, you have to swipe the card to the reader machine both when you get on and get off the bus.
PRICE: Beijing bus ticket is mainly divided into flat fare that is 1 RMB per person for the whole way, and fare charged by distance that is 1 RMB per person for the first 12 kilometers and additional 0.5 RMB every 5 kilometers for the latter way.
In case you decide to take a taxi from and to the airport, it will cost 100 RMB and more, depending on where in the city you go. The expressway toll is added to the bill and is paid by the customer.
Usually Beijing taxi drivers follow the law to charge by the meter. However, some drivers try to “negotiate” a price that is certainly higher than the metered fare especially on holidays.
Taxis do not accept credit cards but you can pay with WeChat.
TIP: No matter which form of public transportation you use, always take the address of your destination with you, e.g. on a business card printed in Chinese characters. Even in Beijing, many taxi drivers do not speak English. As a foreigner, you probably won’t get the pronunciation of the Chinese place name right, either.
ACCOMMODATIONS IN BEIJING
When it comes to accommodation, Beijing has it all — luxury hotels, AirBnb, long-term apartments for rent, and lucky for us, cheap backpacker hostels.
Many hostels have adopted the courtyard setting, which has a central courtyard where guests can hang out. Hostels are affordable options that can vary in quality and style.
Address: No. 52 West Dazhalan Street, Qianmen, Xicheng, 100051 Beijing
A month prior my trip, I made an online reservation here for 4 nights via booking.com. Then, two Couchsurfing hosts invited me to stay at their place for the whole duration of my vacation for free, so I cancelled my booking.
After a while, I realized that it would be fun to experience staying at one of the most sought-after hostels in Beijing, which luckily has a prime location, so I booked a bed again online for two nights, and it was seriously one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Well, frankly, it isn’t the cheapest hostel there is, but come on. It’s 10 minutes away from Qianmen subway station, it’s close to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Bell & Drum Towers, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, and McDonald’s.
It is a fun and social place, but it is also quiet enough that you can enjoy a good night’s sleep. And truth be told, it was one of the finest hostels I have ever stayed in — and I have stayed in a fair amount of hostels!
PRICE: Bed in 10-Bed Mixed Dormitory Room for 2 nights (15% service charge included) – 198 RMB
* I booked a bed in a 10-bed mixed dorm room, but surprisingly, I got a bed in a 6-bed mixed dorm room. Thanks, Leo Hostel!
FOOD AND DRINKS
Ok, I admit that I did splurge on nice food and big meals and beers and vodka (hey, it was Chinese New Year’s Eve anyway!), which could have been avoided, but I believe that a vital part of travel is tasting the local culture (even though I did eat a KFC Set Meal that one lazy day) and sometimes indulging in social activities like group dinners (I shamelessly had two freakin’ dinners at one point).
Not once, in my entire time traveling, did I cook for myself or eat instant noodles! Every meal, then, was spent in a small Chinese eatery, or restaurant (I once single-handedly ate in a semi-fancy Chinese diner and ordered a 100 RMB meal which consisted of spicy pork and lamb and mixed vegetables that could have fed a whole town).
In that regard, my cost of food could have been significantly lower, but it wasn’t something I was particularly concerned about. For this reason, then, food and drinks were my highest expenditure.
PRICE: Cost of Living in China
Where Food/Drink Costs More
You will usually find higher prices for the same food/drink at:
- Train stations or airports (3–5 RMB higher)
- Higher price bandcities (5–10 RMB higher)
- Classy or hotel restaurants (10–15 RMB higher)
- Tourist Areas (2–5 RMB higher)
PRICES IN WINTER/NOVEMBER TO MARCH:
• Great Wall of China, Mutianyu (entrance fee + roundtrip shuttle bus + roundtrip cable car)
PRICE: 170 RMB
Opening hours: 8:00AM to 5:00PM
READ: Jaclynn Seah’s very insightful guide on How to visit Mutianyu Great Wall of China on your own for S$60
• Beijing Zoo (combo ticket: Zoo + Panda Hall)
PRICE: 14 RMB
Opening hours: 7:30AM to 5:00PM
• Jingshan Park (entrance fee)
PRICE: 2 RMB
Opening hours: 6:30AM to 8:00PM
• Lama Temple/Yonghegong (admission fee)
PRICE: 25 RMB
Opening hours: 9:00AM to 4:00PM
• The Forbidden City
PRICE: 40 RMB admission fee
10 RMB for the Treasure Gallery; 10 RMB for the Clock and Watch Gallery
Opening hours: 8:30AM to 4:30PM; tickets not available after 3:30PM and last entry at 3:40PM
• Summer Palace (admission fee)
PRICE: 20 RMB
Opening hours: 7:00AM to 5:00PM
• Ming Tombs (admission fee)
PRICE: 30 RMB for Changling; 40 RMB for Dingling; 20 RMB for Sacred Way
Opening hours: 8:00AM to 6:00PM
Note: In low season (November 1 to the next March 31), the opening time is half an hour later and the ticket stopping time and closing time are half an hour ahead of the above schedule.
• Temple of Heaven (admission fee)
PRICE: 30 RMB
Opening hours: 6:00AM to 10:00 PM
• Beihai Park (admission fee)
PRICE: 5 RMB
Hours: 6:00AM to 8:00PM
• Bell and Drum Towers (admission fee)
PRICE: 15 RMB for Bell Tower; 20 RMB Drum Tower
Opening hours: 9:10AM to 5:00PM
THE INTERNET SITUATION
The Internet is available all over China, but not all of the Internet is available. Sites like Google’s and social media like Facebook and Instagram are censored and blocked by the GFW, needing technology like VPNs for access.
Wi-Fi connections are quite common, and you can connect to them often in the same way as in the West.
VPN (VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORK)
VPN is so useful in China because you can circumvent the so-called geo-blocking with it, which is regional restrictions on certain websites. While using a VPN/proxy, your computer looks like it is located in the country where the VPN server is because your internet traffic routes through that server.
Tip: Download ExpressVPN prior your trip to China. Also, it’s offering new users a 30 day risk-free VPN trial.
CHINESE PHONE CARD/SIM CARD
Free Wi-Fi is only available for Chinese phone cards. So I recommend that you purchase a Chinese phone card in China.
Alternatively, if you have a tour guide in China, you can ask him/her to help you prepare one.
Additional Apps That May Improve Your China Experience
• WeChat, one of the world’s most popular mobile messaging and social networking platform. You can send text, voice messages, photos, make phone and video call to friends no matter where they are, and pay for stuff in China using this Chinese developed app — for free.
• ConvertPad, which, deep within its settings, permits you to convert even obscure units, such as Chinese weights and measures;
• XE Currency, enabling you to keep track of the Chinese yuan and others while you are there so you know how much you are really spending and what exchange rate you may expect;
• Mobogenie, permitting you to download Google apps without using Google Play, which is blocked in China;
• WiFi Master Key, using which you can locate open networks in your vicinity should any be available;
• A translator app (Pleco is #1 for Chinese). For lengthier texts you may use online services like Bing Translate;
• Dear Translate, which can help you translate from Chinese to English and vice versa via voice, text, and AR translation (translate upon scanning with a camera, with no need of shooting);
• Didi Chuxing, which is widely available with bigger market share. They acquired Uber in 2016 and became stronger. It is integrated in WeChat and you can use WeChat payment to use the app.
MONEY SAVING TIPS
This is a great place to try couchsurfing. If you find a CS host who speaks English and is eager to show you around, or to teach you basic Mandarin, you’ll gain an insider’s perspective and be able to sample food at restaurants you may otherwise have missed.
Currently writing: Why I love Couchsurfing
• VISIT THE FREE ATTRACTIONS
Activities are fairly cheap anywhere in China. You’re not going to be bungee jumping, skydiving, or doing other crazy stuff that costs a lot of money.
With countless museums, shrines, temples, historic neighborhoods, street art and parks, Beijing is filled with opportunities to become immersed in its culture.
Many of the parks and museums are FREE, such as:
• Tiananmen Square
• Chairman Memorial Hall
• Qianmen Street
• Wangfujing Street
• Shichahai Area, Hutong (narrow lanes)
• 798 Art zone (Address: No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District)
• New Silk Alley Market (Address: North of Dong Chang An Avenue, Jianguimenwai Street, Chaoyang District)
• Panjiayuan Market (No. 18, Huaweili Road)
• Wander around and see some of Beijing’s modern buildings (Galaxy SOHO, National Grand Theatre, CCTV Headquarters, Water Cube, Birds Nest, Modern Universal Town, China Millennium Monument, China World Trade Center, etc.)
• GET A YIKATONG/BEIJING TRANSPORTATION SMART CARD
It is used for all forms of Beijing public transit, plus a few more reasons that might surprise you: subways, city buses, airport express trains, public phones, long distance bus tickets, and even a few supermarkets all utilize the Yikatong for payments.
You can get your Yikatong at ticket offices in any Beijing metro station, certain bus stations and supermarkets, or any post offices in the city.
PRICE: The cards are lent and require a deposit of 20 RMB. You must also add a minimum value of 20 RMB for the credit to be used.
Note: You’ll need to return it once you’re done. Make sure there’s less than 100 RMB on the card prior to returning, and your deposit and balance can be refunded on the spot.
• EAT AT 7-ELEVEN/SUPERMARKETS
7-Eleven, and other convenience stores have numerous pre-set meals (including sandwiches, soups, fruits, and more traditional Chinese and international options) that make for a cheap lunch option.
Additionally, supermarkets also have many set meals at similar prices.
• DON’T EXCHANGE MONEY AT THE AIRPORT
This goes for anywhere around the world, and China is no different. It’s tempting to exchange money here but it’s best to avoid it if at all possible. The exchange rates are terrible. At the very least, exchange just enough to get a taxi to your hotel.
• BRING YOUR CREDIT CARD AND ATM CARD
Cash is still a necessity in Beijing, so you’ll need to bring your ATM card with you. Thankfully, ATMs in China often offer the best exchange rates, comparable to many traveler’s cheques. Again, some banks have partnerships with Chinese banks, so check with your bank before you leave and use those ATMs to avoid fees.
- As a solo female traveler, you do have to watch out for lude behavior. As usual.
- Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there.
- Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
- The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong.
- Eat Carefully: Street food doesn’t have to be a health hazard. If you’re eating street food, always ask them to cook your order fresh in front of you rather than serve you something that could have been sitting in the sun for some time.
- Choose a busy cart and stay away from salads and fruits, as these could have been washed in unclean water — a main cause of food poisoning.
- Avoid raw vegetables and water that isn’t bottled. In fact, if you buy bottled water from a street vendor, be certain the seal is unbroken.
- Protect your cash: Don’t leave your cash in your hotel/hostel. This seems common sense, but so many people I know have lost money this way. When carrying your cash on you, be smarter than the pick pocket. Don’t keep all of the cash in one place on you and keep it hidden.
Have you been to Beijing? How was your experience? Any more travel tips? Don’t be shy — let me know in the comments!