|Subject: Beijing China lessons learned|
Greetings, Fellow Ziners,
The following are some observations from the trip we took that went to Beijing over a Thanksgiving holiday using Gate 1 Tours. Our group consisted of 13 friends and family aged 7 to 75 years old. My wife and I and our two children were the only ones that traveled Beijing on our own during the day. The other members of the group used the "optional" daily tour available with Gate 1. Gate 1 was a good company for our diverse group, because you only paid for the tours you wanted to take. Gate 1 lived up to everything they promised.
Round trip from San Francisco to Beijing, China and staying in the Best Western for 6 nights (on the third ring road) was around $400.00 US per person. The Best Western was an excellent hotel. Full breakfast daily, (omelets, eggs to order, breakfast meats, breads and a full compliment of Chinese entrées). Clean large rooms with in room safe.
• Use small bills. $1, $5 and $10 yuan work best. Except in hotels and larger restaurants, there is a reluctance to accept $100 yuan bills. Use the local currency. The Chinese government is trying to crack down on the use of USA money. Some tour groups encourage USA dollars for tips.....but the Chinese government says NO!
• There are pickpockets. Use a money belt or keep your wallet in the front pocket of your pants or a money belt. When the vendors "mobbed us," I kept my hand over my wallet. Keep some 1 and 5 yuan bills in your pocket to buy stuff; avoid thumbing through your wallet. Outside the Summer Palace I caught a vendor with his hand in my jacket pocket. I grabbed his arm and looked in his eyes. He twisted free and disappeared into the crowd. If one of the travelers in your group is wearing a day pack, make sure another of your group is following this person with their eyes on the day pack. Another option is to take the day pack off and carry it in front of you. One scam we saw was the "squirt and clean" Someone would squirt sweet and sour or mustard on you. Another "friendly bystander" would offer to remove the offending liquid from you. While your attention was diverted, they would sneak away the contents of your purse/day pack/wallet. If you encounter this ploy, get your guard up! Back away and take care of the messy problem your self.
• The travel books all talk about using ATM machines and credit cards. We found that only larger restaurants/stores take credit cards. From what we observed, the only ATM machines that accepted an ATM card was the Bank of China. They are also in larger hotels, don't be shy about going into another Hotel to use their ATM machine. All of the larger hotels have staff that speak English.
• Your Hotel will exchange money for you. (Rates are Government controlled so you don't need to shop around for the best exchange rate). Save your money exchange receipts when converting dollars to yuan. You can only cash in 50% of what you have receipts for when you are ready to leave. The Bank of China seems to be the only place to exchange yuan back into dollars. There is a Bank of China at the departure gate in Beijing, but it opens at 0930 hrs. They do not exchange yuan for dollars in Tokyo.
• Each person should always carry several Hotel cards. Hotel cards are not only valuable for getting to your destination....but if one of your group gets separated, they can get them back to the hotel, (make sure everyone carries some yuan for emergency transportation back to the hotel). If using a taxi, have the front desk write your destination on the hotel card in Chinese. Organize and mark these cards for your day of sight seeing. Because our hotel was new, we had to check with a couple of cabs for the return trip . . . lots of cabs no problem. Another problem is that some taxi drivers may be illiterate and unable to read your hotel card. The longest taxi we had ride was 42 yuan (but he was not sure of the hotels location and we had heavy traffic).
• With 4 people, use the 1.60 yuan cabs or larger. None of the drivers we used could speak ANY English.
• Carry a map of the city with the hotel marked on it.
We used United airlines from San Francisco to Beijing with a stop over in Tokyo.
• There were two meals served on the flight to Tokyo and one meal on the flight from Tokyo to Beijing and visa versa.
• Make your flight reservations ASAP to get a good seat. On the B747-400, try for rows 32-44 as the seats are a little larger. We had row 32 D/E/F/G on the flight over which was facing the bulkhead, good leg room. The emergency exits also have good leg room. If you can't get the seats you want upon initial check-in, contact the airline about 48 to 24 hours before your flight as they often open additional seating. If that does not work....talk with the ticket agent at check in, they often can find you better seats.
• We stayed at the Travelodge in San Francisco, (326 South Airport Blvd, phone: 650.583.9600) the night before for $79, (Coupon on line) this cost about the same as parking for a week and you can leave your car in a secure area. They have a shuttle bus to take you to, and pick you up from SFO. Rooms were minimal but acceptable.
• The hotels are at least 4 times as expensive as a small restaurant for feeding. If the restaurant looks clean and is full of people,(we looked for restaurants filled with Chinese rather than "tourists") try it! We fed 4 people 4 dishes with 3 beers for 40 yuan. Tipping at local restaurants was not expected. In fact, at a couple of restaurants the wait staff chased us into the street to return our tip. We tried to get them to keep it, but they would not.
• Use your China Tour Book. Open to the food section and show the wait staff what you want by pointing at your selection. Most menus we saw were in Chinese, (or pictures) not Pinyin. Occasionally we saw a menu in English. At times we even pointed to a dish on another table or one passing by to order.
• Recommendation: Across the street from the Silk Market is a restaurant called "Gourmet Sichuan Restaurant," (1/2 order Shrimp boiled/fried, Hot Spicy Chicken, Snow Peas w/ garlic, LARGE fried rice 4 beers $180 yuan) They had at least 1 menu in English. Cantonese food. To get there, use the under crossing. There is an under crossing just a short walk in either direction from the Silk Market.
• Don’t drink the tap water. They sell bottled water on the bus on the way to the hotel for 2 for 1 dollar, (at the local store, bottle water was 0.75 jiao, 8 yuan to the dollar and 10 jiao to the yuan). There is a water boiler in the room we used to boil water each night and refill the water bottles for drinking and brushing teeth.
• Carry toilet paper and lots of hand disinfectant with you, (Prell had a good product that had small bottles, evaporated quickly and left a clean feeling). Most of the toilets were "squatty-potties." Usually no toilet paper in the restrooms. There are few public restrooms available, and restrooms are in the restaurants. Look for the Handicapped stall, it may have a Western style toilet.
Tours vs Exploring On Your Own
Those in our group that took the Gate 1 Tours told us that the tour guides were very knowledgeable and made you feel comfortable and safe. I did the pre-work before our trip, so I was comfortable with striking off on our own with my wife and our two children. By doing the sightseeing on our own, we were able to avoid the crowds. With the tour group; you walked around with your own crowd everywhere you went, (about 45 people) and did not have the freedom to see what you want on your own schedule. Striking off on your own is also quite a bit cheaper.
The tour for the first day, ($59 US per person w/lunch) with GATE 1 was Tiananmien Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and the Confucius Temple would have been $236 US for four persons. We took a taxi for 22 yuan, (less than $3 US for 4) to Tiananmien Square, entrance to the Forbidden City for 40 yuan, ($5 US per person) and an audio guide for 40 yuan, ($5 US per person). Taxi back 42 yuan because of traffic and the driver not being sure where the hotel was, (about $5 US). Total cost for 4 on your own: About $50 US Total
The tour with GATE 1 to the Great Wall at Badaling and Ming Tombs was $69 US per person. For 4 persons the cost would have been $276 US.
We rented a nice car with driver for 8 hours from the Hotel for 800 yuan, (about $100 US) to Mutainyu and the Ming Tombs. We paid 56 yuan per person for admission to the Wall that included the cable car ride up and toboggan ride down. Lunch was 40 yuan for the four of us. This was $112.00 US for the four of us compared to the $276 with Gate 1.
A side thought regarding Mutainyu......This section of the wall is not as visited as Badaling although Mutainyu has all of the necessary amenities for the tourist. To me, the lack of people enhanced our experience. They have a chair lift up to the wall, (or you can hike the tail) and a toboggan ride down. The tobaggon ride back down is a must do! You sit on a low wheeled devise, (with the ability to brake and control your speed) that follows a steel curved "half pipe" from the top of the wall to the town of Mutainyu, (about 1 mile below). If the ride is too "spicy" for you, you can always take the cable car back down.
SAMPLE TAXI FARES: (8 yuan to the dollar) Best Western Hotel to Tiananmien Square 22 yuan Best Western Hotel to the Silk Market 16 yuan Best Western to the Temple of Heaven $17 yuan Private Hotel car with driver, (8 hours) to Mutainyu, (Great Wall), Ming Tombs 800 yuan
Those in our group that did take the Gate 1 tours told us of the strong "push" to tip the drivers and tour guides. If one wants to tip of course you may . . . but in general tipping is not an accepted practice in China. They also complained of unwanted "shopping stops" at predetermined locations and often at highly inflated prices. Barter for everything. It's expected. You cannot pay too little. These merchants know what they can sell their products for and will still make money. They know what they're doing. But paying the asking price leaves the impression that Westerners are foolish. Even if it's true, try not to let them know. :)
You don’t need an organized tour to visit China. All that you need is a sense of adventure, tour book and an open mind. Don’t be afraid to strike out on your own . . . life is an adventure . . . ENJOY!!
Frank in sunny California