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Why Go to Beijing

"That is a sleeping dragon," Napoleon once said. "Let him sleep! If he wakes, he will shake the world." In 1803, the future French emperor recognized China's potential. Presiding over the greatest military and economic power of his day, Napoleon had an eye for opponents. Less than two centuries later, China's GDP surpassed that of both Britain and France and continues to steadily climb. If he arrived in Beijing today, Napoleon would undoubtedly say, "I told you so."

Nowhere is China's influence more apparent than Beijing. As China's political and cultural hub, Beijing offers a glimpse into the nation's expansive history and its rapid modernization. You'll find preserved palaces rubbing elbows with new subway stations and tranquil lamaseries sharing space with world-class stadiums. Many of the city's historical sites, like the Forbidden City and the Tiananmen Square, are well-known to the world. Yet, the most popular attraction is located outside Beijing: The Great Wall of China serpentines through the hills north of the city. When you witness this astounding accomplishment of ancient China, you too will sense the immeasurable potential of this modern country.

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What You Need to Know

  • Cleanliness is relative The acceptable standards of sanitation in Beijing can sometimes offend Western travelers. This specific concern arises most when trying to find a place to eat. Brace yourself for dirt, bugs, even rodents in cheaper establishments.
  • Weather is crucial Beijing's weather can make or break your trip. Summer can be unbearably hot and humid, while winter can be freezing cold and gray. All the more reason, you should visit in spring and fall.
  • Cost is minimal Beijing is incredibly affordable compared to Western cities of similar size. Museum admissions, local cuisine, transportation, and hotels rooms cost noticeably less than they do back home.

How to Save Money in Beijing

  • Bargain, bargain, bargain! When you approach a vendor (or vice versa), know that all prices are negotiable. Never take the first offer, and throw out ridiculously low prices to start. And don't forget that smiling goes a long way.
  • Take the subway Not only will you save money by taking the subway, but also you'll probably reach your destinations in less time. Beijing's street traffic is awful, so go underground.
  • Get the museum pass If you're going to be in Beijing for awhile and plan to hit up numerous museums, purchase the Beijing Museum Pass for 80 CNY (about $12.50 USD). This card will get you free or discounted admission to most of the museums. 

Culture & Customs

Even for locals, Beijing has a confusing medley of languages. The official language is Mandarin; however, Chinese citizens from across the country arrive with their own regional dialects (and sometimes entirely different languages). That said, Chinese visitors will probably have an easier time getting around than you will. Combined with culture shock, the language barrier can get in the way of Western travelers. If you are traveling with a group, consider hiring a bilingual guide. He or she will be particularly useful on excursions outside of Beijing where it's more difficult to find English-speakers. In the city, you'll find that only some hospitality-industry workers will speak some English. Be patient when you communicate with locals and bring a Mandarin phrase book.

For Western travelers, culture shock hits the hardest in restaurants. The Chinese have very different expectations of sanitation. There are some culinary spots that observe Western customs, but the local hot spot around the corner from your hotel probably will not. You may see food sitting out in the open, bugs patrolling the floors, or even a rodent scurrying past. To indulge in the local cuisine, you're going to need a tough stomach. If you don't have one, stick with bland food, avoid meats, and consume packaged goods. Also, only drink bottled or boiled water. When eating out, this means you can drink hot tea but order bottled water.

China's official currency is the Renminbi; however, amounts are often referred to in terms of "yuan." Yuan is the primary unit of the Renminbi, like the "dollar" in the U.S. Vendors may announce prices in RMBs (the unofficial abbreviation for Renminbi) or yuan, but they are actually referring to the same thing. (Please note: We will be referring to all prices in CNY, the official currency abbreviation, for the sake of uniformity.) While the current exchange rate is about $1 USD for 6.30 CNY, the value of the Renminbi has been steadily climbing against the U.S. dollar. 

Getting Around Beijing

The best ways to get around Beijing are on foot and by subway. As one of the largest, most populous cities in the world, Beijing has its fair share of traffic problems. During morning and evening rush hours, the roads are clogged with a mix of cars and bikes. Therefore, the only ways to get around efficiently are on your own two feet and the subterranean route. Most of the top attractions are clustered together, so walking to each one is your best option. If you're traveling long distances, hop on the subway, get off at the station closest to your destination, and then flag a taxi. Whichever mode of transit you decide to use, be sure to purchase the newest possible map. Beijing's thoroughfares and transportation system are evolving at an incredible rate.

Most visitors arrive through Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK), located about a 30-minute drive (sans traffic) from downtown. While visitors find taking a cab into the city very easy, others avoid the extra cost by using the Airport Express train to reach subway lines 2, 10, and 13. 

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Entry & Exit Requirements

As well as a U.S. passport that's valid for at least six months from entry date, Chinese authorities require you to have a government-issued visa indicating the length of your stay. Visas are only available at Chinese embassies and consulates. Appointments are not required, and you do not need to show up in person. However, you must have someone hand-deliver your materials. Several regions, like Tibet, are restricted to tourists and demand special travel permits, which add additional costs. For more information, check out both the U.S. Department of State's website as well as the Embassy of the People's Republic of China's website .

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