FAQs About Beijing

Do I need any special documents to get into the country?

Aside from a passport that's valid for at least six months after date of entry, and a valid visa, you don't need anything else to enter the country. In theory, you're required to have your passport with you at all times during your trip, but it's safer to carry a photocopy and store your passport in a safe at your hotel (if they have one).

How difficult is it to travel around the city?

It's extremely easy (traffic aside). Taxis are plentiful and cheap, and Beijing also has a good subway system that has expanded rapidly and now reaches more places. Stops are announced in both English and Chinese. Public buses can be a challenge because street signs are not often written in English and bus drivers are unlikely to be conversational in any foreign languages. Renting a car can be difficult and traffic and roads can be quite challenging, so driving on your own isn’t recommended. However, hiring a car and driver isn’t very expensive and is a good alternative for getting around. Beijing, with its many bike lanes, is a cycle lover's city, so consider renting some wheels for part of your stay.

Should I consider a package tour?

If the thought of traveling unescorted to Beijing absolutely terrifies you, then sign up for a tour. But Beijing is such an easy place to get around in that there's really no need. Discovery is a big part of the fun—exploring an ancient temple, walking down a narrow hutong or alleyway, stumbling upon a great craft shop or small restaurant—and that's just not going to happen on a tour. If you're more comfortable with a package tour, pick one with a specific focus, like a pedicab hutong ride or an afternoon of food shopping and cooking, so that you're less likely to get a generic package.

Do I need a local guide?

Guides are really not necessary in a city like Beijing, where it's easy to get around by taxi and public transportation, and where most of the important tourist destinations are easy to reach. An added plus is that the local people are friendly and always willing to give a hand. It's much more gratifying to tell the folks back home that you discovered that wonderful backstreet or interesting restaurant all by yourself.

Will I have trouble if I don't speak Chinese?

Not really. Most people in businesses catering to travelers speak at least a little English. If you encounter someone who doesn't speak English, they'll probably point you to a coworker who does. Even if you're in a far-flung destination, locals will go out of their way to find somebody who speaks your language. Or you can make use of travel services such as Bespoke Beijing, which will arm you with a mobile phone, plus a stylish and personalized guide to the best sights, restaurants, bars, and nightlife, as well as access to a Chinese translator or English-speaking expert (www.bespoke-beijing.com).

Can I drink the water?

No, you can't. All drinking water must be boiled. Bottled water is easily available all over the city and in outlying areas, such as the Great Wall. Most hotels provide two free bottles of drinking water each day. To be on the safe side, you may also want to avoid ice.

Are there any worries about the food?

China has suffered from some major national food scandals in recent years, from tainted milk to exploding watermelons, but there’s no need to be afraid in Beijing. Even the humblest roadside establishment is likely to be clean. If you have any doubts about a place, just move on to the next one. There's no problem enjoying fruit or other local products sold from street stands, but any fruit that can't be peeled should perhaps be cleaned with bottled water before eating.

Do I need to get any shots?

You probably don't have to get any special vaccinations or take any serious medications if you’re not planning on venturing outside the capital. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that there’s some concern about malaria in some of the rural provinces much farther south of Beijing, such as Anhui, Yunnan, and Hainan. Immunizations for hepatitis A and B are recommended for all visitors to China.

Should I bring any medications?

It can be difficult to readily find some medications in Beijing, and while the city has several international clinics, prices for even over-the-counter remedies can be quite expensive. So make sure you have all your medications with you.

Can I use my ATM card?

Most ATMs in Beijing accept both MasterCard and Visa cards, but each bank may charge a different fee for each transaction. There are Citibank ATM machines located at several places around the city. Check the exchange rate before you use an ATM for the first time so that you know exactly how much local currency you want to withdraw.

Do most places take credit cards?

Almost all traveler-oriented businesses accept credit cards. You may encounter smaller restaurants and hotels that don't accept them at all, but these are pretty rare. Some businesses don't like to accept credit cards because their banks charge them exorbitant fees for credit-card transactions. They will usually relent and charge you a small fee for the privilege.

What if I don't know how to use chopsticks?

Chopsticks are the utensils of choice, but cutlery is available in many restaurants. That said, it's a good idea to brush up on your chopstick chops. The standard eating procedure is to hold the bowl close to your mouth and eat the food. Noisily slurping up soup and noodles is also the norm. It's considered bad manners to point or play with your chopsticks, or to place them on top of your rice bowl when you're finished eating (place the chopsticks horizontally on the table or plate). Don't leave your chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice—it makes them look like the two incense sticks burned at funerals, and is seriously frowned upon.

How should I dress?

Most Chinese people dress for comfort and you can do the same. There's very little risk of offending people with your dress; Westerners tend to attract attention regardless of attire. Although miniskirts are best left at home, pretty much anything else goes.

Should I tip?

For a long time, tipping was officially forbidden by the government; as a result, locals simply don't do it. In general, you can follow their lead without any qualms. Nevertheless, the practice is now beginning to catch on, especially among tour guides. You don't need to tip in restaurants or in taxis.

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