Ok so no one told me any of the pointers below – yes, Eyewitness, I’m looking at you – so I think it’s safe to say I got a few shocks when I went on holidays to Beijing earlier this year. Easily the most interesting and stunning place I’ve ever been to, Beijing also had a few…ahem, intriguing qualities about it that I really could have done with a heads up about. Here are my top 10…
1. The spitting Don’t gag…but the rumours of the relentless spitting are true. If you’re queasy at all about saliva flying through the air and just missing your sandaled foot, you might want to brace yourself. Everyone in Beijing spits. And not just normal spitting, but huge big gloopy spits that make you want to vom. Oh, and sometimes they chew it…yep, you can gag now.
2. The staring Ok, I understand that with the huge Chinese population in Beijing, glimpsing a white-skinned, red-haired, blue-eyed person randomly boarding a subway packed with Chinese people is quite unexpected (especially if that person is wearing white shorts without any ability to tan). If you’re someone who similarly radiates white light rather than absorbs it, then you’ve made it – you’re a celeb. Brace yourself for unashamed staring and in worst case scenarios, secret photographing.
3. No English Call me naive but I wandered over to Beijing under the impression that if I got lost, someone could speak English and help me. It turns out no one speaks English. Not one. NOT EVEN THE TOURIST OFFICE.
4. Transport Fancy a break from the crammed buses or the staring on the subway? Hop in a taxi, point vaguely at the picture in your guide-book and brace yourself. Sure who cares about silly things like road markings, red lights and seatbelts?
5. The food An entire holiday spent feasting on Chinese food? Jaysus, sign me up! Well unless you can read Mandarin, you’ll be relying completely on the menu pictures for help (beware, what looks like chicken may be cunningly revealed to be the tongue or the gizzards of a duck). Plus, there are no desserts. If you’re feeling frantic, just fling yourself into a McDonalds for a trusty cheeseburger and a McFlurry. We did and we’re not ashamed.
6. Need to pee? Then practise your squatting because you’ll be lucky to find a toilet you can actually sit on. A tourist we met from the Netherlands told us the only thing worse than the local people staring at you on the street, is them staring at you while you squat beside them in a room full of holes with no cubicles. Oh, and just to warn you, you’ll probably miss the hole (unless you’re a yoga buff) – so bring some Wet Wipes.
7. Superstitions Chinese people believe in the lucky number 3, or multiples of 3, so you’ll usually see 81 (9×9) golden knobs on doors around the city (kudos to Eyewitness here). I didn’t realise that the lucky number 3 applied to other things too and nearly caused an international incident when I lit just one incense stick and went to drop it into the burner. A monk nearly tackled me to the ground to force two more sticks on me and then to add insult to injury, I spent ten minutes trying to light the bottom of the incense sticks, before the monk took pity and turned them the right way up for me. Hopefully, you won’t do the same.
8. Hawkers We were warned that the Great Wall would be swarming with hawkers – people who try to carry your bags or guide you along the Wall in return for tips. Trust us to mistake a hawker for a tourist and ask her to take our picture. This sealed the deal in her eyes and she became our personal follower, holding my hand as I descended the Wall, posing us for more pictures, and offering us bottles of water. Best tip? Just buy the “I climbed the Great Wall” t-shirt and be done with it.
9. Haggling If you’re visiting the markets, roll up your sleeves and prepare for some haggling. Try not to do what the Boyf did and “feel bad” and pay the full price - they will expect you to haggle and you can usually buy things for less than half the asking price. Be warned – if you touch anything in the markets, or show any sign of interest in an object and then walk away, you will definitely be dragged back. At one point, a lady gripped my arm (I swear the circulation temporarily stopped in it) and literally hauled me back to her stall. Don’t do what I did and say “Oh I’ll be back!” because they will remember your face.
…and finally 10. The beauty of Beijing Above all, no one told me just how beautiful Beijing is. The Forbidden City, Lama Temple, the Summer Palace, Beihai Park – they all make you stop in your tracks to stare. No one will ever be able to relay to you what an amazing sight it is when you round the corner and see the Great Wall of China stretched out in front of you for miles and miles. Sure, the people in Beijing spit, and you have to pee in a hole in the ground, and no one understands what the hell you’re saying…
…but it’s well worth it.