9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing

Beijing can be a daunting place to travel to. I should know – I live here. Even though I’ve now been here for three months, I’m still learning new things about this crazy city each and every day. Trust me, there’s always something new to discover in Beijing. But there’s also so much I wish I would have known before I got here. So I thought I’d share my wisdom (not really) with all of you. Here are a few things I wish I would have known before I got to Beijing.

9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing

1. People use sign language for numbers

Because I don’t speak a word of Mandarin I tend to use my fingers to communicate numbers to people. But when I first got here I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people would look at me like I was insane. It turns out that there is a special type of sign language here in Beijing to communicate numbers. For example, if you’re from California you might know the “hang loose” sign – that actually means six here (or 60…)! But if you hold up six fingers it means nothing (or maybe it does and I just have no idea). In case you’re traveling to Beijing here’s a great guide to the hand signs. It’s especially helpful if you don’t know the language!

2. Grocery stores charge for plastic bags

After living and traveling in Southeast Asia (and getting really frustrated with the overuse of plastic bags) I was really surprised to find that Beijing’s grocery stores commonly charge customers for plastic bags, sometimes up to RMB3 (about 50 cents). I’m not going to say that there isn’t a lot of waste going on in this city, because there is. But I really appreciate that people actually tote around their own reusable bags and that they don’t ask for plastic bags at stores. This also really surprised me because a law charging for plastic bags was only very recently passed in my hometown of San Diego. Who knew Beijing would be ahead of the game on this one? Certainly not me. If you’re headed to Beijing, bring a reusable bag!

3. Sichuan pepper is not what you think

9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing - Travel Lush

When most people think about Sichuan food they think spicy. Don’t get me wrong, Sichuan food can be mind-bogglingly spicy. But not because of Sichuan peppers. Sichuan peppers aren’t spicy chilies, they’re actually a spice. I found this out early on while eating a dry hot pot (a very common dish here in Beijing). There were a bunch of little things that looked like peppercorns mixed into the dish. I was munching away when all of a sudden my mouth was tingling to an almost uncomfortable degree and turning kind of numb. For a second I thought maybe I was going insane. Then I was told I was eating Sichuan peppers. Three months later and I’m starting to get kind of addicted to them.

4. People are really tall

Coming from Southeast Asia, this was another shocker for me. At 5’3” I’m considered fairly short back in the States, but in Southeast Asia some people thought I was tall! Aaron’s former students in Jakarta commonly told him that I was the “perfect” height, something I would never hear back in the States. For some reason I assumed people in Beijing would be of slight stature. Man was I wrong. I’ve never felt so short in my life. On the flipside, Aaron who is over six feet tall, fits right in. Go figure.

5. There are so many public restrooms

I realize this is a very odd thing to take note of, but it’s true. It feels like I am never more than one hundred paces from a public restroom in Beijing. Coming from three years in Southeast Asia, where a public restroom often consists of a hole in the ground or a sad squat toilet in the back of a restaurant, I find it odd that the Beijing government has seemingly gone public toilet crazy. To be fair, the restrooms exist for residents of the hutongs (traditional neighborhoods) because their homes don’t actually have toilets.

6. The air situation is not exactly what you think either

9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing - Travel Lush
There air can be really nice in Beijing. It can also be really bad…

Most of you are probably familiar with the term “airpocolypse.” But in case you’re not, Beijing is infamous for its air pollution that is caused by the billions of many coal-burning factories around the city. This was actually the number one reason I was hesitant to move to Beijing. But so far, aside from being downright disturbing, the air hasn’t really bothered me. I’ve only been here for a little over three months, but it seems like every week there is typically one really bad, mask-worthy day, followed by a few days that are “unhealthy,” and then the winds come and there will a couple of beautiful, blue-sky days. It hasn’t been all that bad. But then again, maybe certain times of the year are worse. I’m guessing that’s probably the case?

7. Nobody here has ever heard of orange chicken

As an American I grew up eating at Panda Express, home of the amazing Orange Chicken. Wait, is that okay for a vegetarian to say? Obviously I’ve changed my carnivorous ways, but I swear as a child orange chicken occupied two out of my five basic food groups. It turns out that orange chicken (or General Tso’s Chicken, as it’s called on the East Coast) isn’t authentic Chinese food, at all. It was actually dreamed up by Chinese immigrants in America as a way to make Chinese food more palatable to Americans. The funny part is that Beijingers seem repulsed at the idea of it, which is hilarious.

8. The subway rocks

9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing - Travel Lush
My commute…ugh.

The subway is the bane of my existence, but that’s only because I commute on it during rush hour every day. Otherwise I’m kind of in love with the fact that I live in a city where there’s actually a subway. Beijingers are always shocked when I tell them that I’ve never lived in a city with a subway. Well, I guess in San Diego we have the Coaster. But it literally has five stops so it’s pretty much useless. And Jakarta and Phnom Penh barely had any public transit systems, let alone subways. So while it sucks to live so far out of town here in Beijing, it’s great that I can hop on the subway and get anywhere in the city in about an hour for roughly a dollar. (A word to the wise, avoid the subway before 9am and between the hours of 6 and 7pm.)

9. It’s so dry

Again, coming from Southeast Asia the dryness is so weird. I’m so used to enduring the “rainy” or “monsoonal” season that hits Southeast Asia around this time of year. But here in Beijing we’ve only had about three rainy days where it just kind of drizzled all day. Part of me kind of misses those monsoonal downpours. It’s also starting to get pretty hot here; it’s around 82 degrees at the moment. But because the humidity is so low I’m not constantly dripping with sweat the way I would be in Jakarta and Phnom Penh. That being said I literally have to constantly lather myself in lotion because it is that dry. But at least I can line dry my clothes inside my apartment and have them dry in a couple of hours. So weird. Anyway, if you’re Beijing bound bring lotion!

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Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing - Travel Lush

Have you been to Beijing? Were you surprised by any of these things?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

13 thoughts on “9 Things to Know Before Traveling to Beijing

  1. This is the best! Conquering stereotypes one blogger at a time. I feel like people don’t even believe me anymore when I talk positively about China because I’ve been here so long. To answer your question about the pollution: it is WAY worse in the winter, but it comes and goes. It’ll be horrifying for about 5 days and then completely disappear in a matter of hours with the wind. It’s also WAY dryer in the winter to the point I feel like I need to lather my body in lotion every hour. I think I’m going to buy a humidifier for my office and apartment..
    Richelle recently posted…Five Indian Foods That Will Blow Your Taste Buds

    1. Yeah I’m still scared about the winter. Interesting that the air gets worse. Ha, I bought a humidifier when I first got here and it broke after a few days 🙁 I’ll need to buy a new one.

    1. Nope. No orange chicken. Oh no, I imagine that would fail in Myanmar. Southeast Asia is really bad when it comes to plastic bag usage! It always irked me so much…

  2. What a great post Justine!

    It’s funny that you should write this post at this time as I’m thinking of perhaps spending a few days, via the 72 hour visa adventure in China, sometime later in the year!

    However, in doing my research, I’ve realised that China is actually more modern and civilised than I originally thought!

    I mean, I’m originally from Manchester in England (the capital of the North!), and we don’t have an underground system.

    In fact, thinking about it, there are only three cities in the United Kingdom that have one at all!
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted…7 remarkable things to eat & drink in Portugal!

    1. Yes, come to China! I haven’t done any traveling outside of Beijing but I’ve been impressed with this city’s modern conveniences. Ha, coming from Southeast Asia makes Beijing look incredibly modern! There might be squat toilets in China but at least they flush!!

  3. Oh man, I forgot how dry it is there. After a year in Beijing I looked about 5 years older. SO DAMN DRY. I found a humidifier in my bedroom helped somewhat – at least I didn’t wake up feeling hung over from the dehydration.

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