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Beijing Dispatch, Part 2: China Travel Tips

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beijing china1. Get your visa and any other entry or exit documents together well ahead of time. My first day in Red China was great; getting through the red tape on my last day back home was not. The brawling and confusion that is part of life at a Chinese consulate in the U.S. (such as the one I had to visit on 12th Avenue in New York, whew) is not something you want to encounter at the last minute, if you can help it.

2. Arrange for transportation from the airport. The most confusing and confounding time I spent in China was the first 20 minutes beyond baggage check in the Beijing airport. Signs were no help, maps were no help, the hordes of volunteers were no help and I felt entirely stranded for those 20 minutes. It turned out that I was only about 150 yards from a bus that was set up to take me directly to my hotel, but those 150 yards might as well have been 150 miles for that brief period, as there was no way to figure out how or why to get from where I was to where I needed to be.

3. Underpack. Chinese laundries are abundant, fast and extremely affordable, despite charging by the piece, which is an intimidating way to price laundry: X yuan for each sock, Y for each T-shirt, XYZ for each pressed shirt, etc. The reason for the pricing scheme is that each item is cleaned individually by hand -- another example of the tendency to solve problems with people, not machines. This was one of the best expenditures I made during my trip.

4. Be prepared for massive jet lag, both coming and going, and use all your best tactics to beat it.

5. As noted above, rent a cell phone from local vendors; your hotel front desk should be able to help direct you here.

6. Use your feet. Beijing and Shunyi revealed themselves to me both as pieces of a a massive urban jungle and as a huge collection of intimate, fascinating and distinct neighborhoods. You can't get a sense of the place without getting out and around on your feet. Look up Beijing walking tours both on the Web and in guidebooks; if you can sketch your way around a bit, the city will reveal itself to you in countless ways.

7. Expect to fill out a lot of paperwork. Each time I took a taxi, I had to fill out a full sheet of information at the front desk of my hotel. This was due in part to the "official Olympics" aspect of the transaction, but still, a lot of stuff we Westerners have ceded to the swiping of cards and flashing of ID's will require paperwork in China; old habits die hard.

Chinese man8. Have cash on hand in a variety of denominations. This will assist considerably with your haggling success; if you get a vendor at the Silk Market who starts at 100 yuan all the way down to 5 yuan for an item, and then ask them to break a 100 yuan note, you'll look a little silly. Also, in the same way that the vendors will try to put watches on your wrist, and jackets on your shoulders, and hats on your head, having multiple denominations that you can in return extend to put in their hands is only fair.

9. A note on tipping: On the whole, it's not expected in China, and in some cases it will be actively refused. One restaurant proprietor chased a colleague of mine into the street to return his money, stating "You and I do not need money to be friends." That said, in some of the places frequented by Westerners, service employees have become at least accustomed to occasional tips. Use your best judgment in these cases.

My formula for getting by in China went thusly: If you are a member of the Party, you can do what you need to do to get things done. More pointedly, if you can figure out and work within the rules, you will find China a very easy place to visit. In Communist capitalist China, the Communist bureaucracy still operates by the old rules, while most everyone else is just trying to get things done -- and you should be able to do the same.

Go Anyway,
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler


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