Beijing: 5 Things I Love & Hate
Thinking about visiting Beijing? Before you go, heed these insider tips.
Beijing – you’ve heard about it. Great Walls, roast duck, and air pollution. A great place to visit, no doubt. But traveler, before you go: heed this warning: the place is jacked up. It’s all the good and all the bad wrapped up into one humongous package.
But still, you want it. You need it.
The food and the history…. the temptations are many and great. And after eating a record amount of Peking duck wraps on my first visit, I’m happy to say it was WAY worth it. Just be sure you are ready for security checkpoints, subway mazes and throngs of people everywhere.
I got hitched recently, and since my lady is a Beijing local, I had an excellent tour guide at my disposal. So we went, now we’re back, and after a brief rumination period, I have some thoughts.
For me, traveling in China requires a lot of Zen. So in hopes that it may boost your chi, I’ve put together a list of my 5 loves and hates about the city of Beijing.
Love #1: The Food
Very often, people think of Chinese food as one thing. A style of food coming from ‘the singular’ China. But that’s kind of silly. You’d never consider German and French food together as European food, would you?
Turns out Beijing has some local delicacies worth ramming down your throat:
Beijing (Peking) Duck
This is the kind of roast duck that will make you scoff at chicken for the rest of your life. Chicken might as well be bush-meat compared to this stuff. It’s crispy, delicious, and takes finger-licking good to dizzy new heights. Beijing duck franchise anyone? I’m gonna do it. McRoast Duck coming to a town near you.
Lamb hot pot
I hate hot pot. Too much water, too much work. Why am I cooking for myself at a restaurant? At least you don’t have to tip in China. My wife, The Brains, knows I’m not a fan of hot pot, but she was talking a big game on this Lamb version. So we checked it out, and all I can say is that this woman knows the shit out of me. Don’t skip this one unless you’re a vegetarian. The dipping sauces make all the difference.
Bean soup (Douzhi)
There’s this soup in Beijing called Douzhi. It’s a by-product of mung bean processing. Now, Wikipedia says this soup is usually “slightly sour, with an egg-like smell”. I can’t edit on Wikipedia, but if I could, I would adjust that to read, “it smells and tastes like cat vomit”. Avoid, unless you have an adventurous pallet.
Hate #1: The Throngs
You know when you go to Disneyland and there are huge lineups and suddenly you start hating Mickey Mouse? Beijing is like that almost all the time. It’s a city of 22 million people, so you can expect some congestion. To make matters worse, there are security checkpoints everywhere. Take the subway and you’ll be forced to go through a metal detector every time you enter any station. They even scan your bag and any water bottles you are carrying.
The dumbest thing about the endless security checkpoints? They don’t even really check you. They just force you to take off your bag and wave a little wand thing in your face.
That means the whole process is annoying brings no security benefit whatsoever. This kind of blind diligence is rampant in China. Sadly, I don’t see this changing any time soon. Oh well – consider it another good chance to practice your deep breathing technique.
Here are a couple more things to consider when it comes to the crowds in Beijing:
Avoid going to Beijing during Chinese holidays
We went to Beijing around the time of the National Holiday (October 1st to 7th). We went with the plan of spending time with family, so this was intentional. But if you are traveling there to see the sights, avoid holiday periods because it gets stupidly busy. We passed on the Great Wall because we feared the hordes.
Plan ahead and go early
As in, actually plan and actually go early. We went to the Beijing Zoo one day, leaving the house at around 8:00 am. We should have gone at 7:00 am because simply exiting the subway station took 30 minutes. Not such great fun. The zoo was so busy that we decided to skip the panda exhibit. Go early, or miss the panda – lesson learned.
Love #2: The People
This one is counterintuitive, but hear me out.
Here’s the deal: Chinese people don’t get the same training on manners that we get in the West. I mean they do, but… you can still expect doors to regularly slam in your face. Expect cars to narrowly miss hitting you as you cross the street. Because of this, there will be many more opportunities to practice your deep breathing technique.
So is everybody at their worst all the time in China? It can feel like that… But it does get better.
Once you’re welcomed into the fold, you’ll experience a whole new level of warmth and access. In my case, that meant being force-fed as much roast duck as I could stomach and having to fend off gifts at every turn.
There’s a side to Chinese people that we don’t see much of in the western media. Sure – many should be forcefully enrolled in finishing school. But they still have a lot of good eggs you can learn from.
Hate #2: The Firewall
Yep. The Chinese Firewall is real. And it sucks. So you had better come prepared with a VPN, or all the websites and apps you use every day will stop working as soon as you land in Beijing. Some people think that you should ditch the phone when you are traveling. Those people are known as the olds. If you want life to continue while you’re in China, get yourself ready with a service like ExpressVPN.
And by the way, it’s worth your while to get your VPN set up before you arrive in China. If you are an idiot like me, you’ll put it off until you disembark at the Beijing airport. That’s when the fun begins. This is because the Google Play store is completely blocked and the Apple App Store has almost all it’s VPN apps behind the firewall. Whoops.
It’s still possible to download ExpressVPN when you can’t access your app store, though. It’s just a major pain in the dink and requires some techno-smarts. So if you aren’t technically inclined, but still want to post photos of your huge ass on the Great Wall, be sure to think ahead.
Love #3: The History
When I was a kid, I loved reading books on ancient mythology – you know, way back when religion was still fun. Ancient China was drenched in myth and legend, so I was eager to dive in. And boy-oh-boy does it deliver. Parks, museums, monuments – the works. Turns out the Chinese have been cranking the hits out for a long while (5000-year history, yeah, yeah – we get it). I’ll let the photos do the talking:
The Forbidden City
Those lovely old streets (Hutong)
Hate #3: The Lawlessness
Do you know what I’ll never get used to in Beijing? I’m glad you asked, here’s a list:
- Scooters speeding on the sidewalk
- Roads where ambiguity creates a hazard
- Drivers who almost never obey traffic laws
- People pushing to get to the front of a line
- Being referred to as a “foreigner” every 5 minutes
- Zero police intervention, except at security checkpoints
- Bike-sharing programs that result in piles of discarded bikes
The list would continue, but I’m walking the line between being useful and being a curmudgeon, so I’ll just leave it there… Suffice to say, there is a lot going on that may ruffle the feathers. Mental preparation helps. Also, more deep breaths…
Love #4: The Culture
Beijing is much more of a melting pot than I was aware of being I went there. The population includes a fairly large group of Muslims (referred to as the Hui) and many other peoples from all over China. Sprinkle in a bunch of ex-pats from all over and you’ve got a pretty diverse place.
Beijing has been a major city in China for the last 3000 years. The Forbidden City feels new by that standard (it was built over 600 years ago). Over the years, a lot of interesting quirks specific to Beijing have emerged. Besides the food, there are many things worth investigating. You can visit parks and museums until you drop. Eat at a different restaurant every few hours. See the Beijing Opera. It’s a giant and ancient city so there is a lot to take in.
Hate #4: The Disrepair
China is sitting on a treasure trove of cash. They have so much money, that they are in the middle of the ocean building islands. Still, Beijing is pinching pennies with enough stinginess to rival Scrooge himself. Many sidewalks are in disrepair. Public areas are dirty. Streets are disorganized and in need of paving. Many of the people who live in the city are poor. In Beijing, you often feel as though you’re stumbling upon someone else’s mess.
Another thing that boggles the mind and the nose? The constant smell of poop. For whatever reason, they don’t use plumbing traps in Beijing. What’s a trap? It’s a little curvy pipe that ‘traps’ poop-smell but allows for water to flow. They went invented in 1775 and perfected in 1880 by a man named Thomas Crapper. No shit.
My man Thomas Crapper would certainly crap himself if caught a whiff of what Beijing smells like. Again, it boggles the mind. Even high-end shopping malls and restaurants are plagued by that awful smell. Even the rich cannot escape the stench of poop in Beijing. What the hell is going on?
It would be all good if the city of Beijing itself was poor. But it’s not. It’s loaded to the gills. So the disrepair doesn’t make sense. You should still go to Beijing, but I dunno… nose plugs?
Love #5: The Convenience
Hey – you want everything with the push of a button without having to move a muscle except for the muscles of your finger? In China, that’s possible.
You pay for everything through WeChat. You order everything online. And it all works. However, the hidden cost is pretty substantial depending on your point of view. For starters, delivery drivers are everywhere. And they don’t give a shit about anything except delivering.
They are tired and in a hurry, so don’t mind them as they cut you off in traffic, burn down sidewalks on their scooters and render themselves much-hated overall. Unless, of course, it’s your stuff they are delivering.
Hate #5: The Convenience
Remember that movie with the robot where the people turn into immobile eating machines? There’s a voice in my head that says if we keep going in this direction, our future looks like that – for realsies.
The automation is convenient, but I can’t help but wonder where this all leads. What happens when life is purely about acquiring more stuff? We aren’t safe from this reality in the West, but it seems a little closer to the edge over in China. Ironic, given their not-so-distant communist past.
Although I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, the city of Beijing has a lot to offer. And since my wife is from there, we’ll be going quite often in the years to come. If you can stomach the smells and the annoyances, you’ll be in for one hell of a trip. Be sure to leave us a comment with your thoughts if you’ve been to Beijing or if you are planning on going.