The funny thing about China is that even when you know you’re getting completely ripped off, you still feel like you’re getting a good deal.
In terms of thrifty traveling, there’s not much you can do to make Beijing cheaper than it already is.
A ride on the subway is 2 yuan (about 32¢).
Most attractions cost less than $2.
The Forbidden City is ~$10 but would be double that if it were anywhere else.
You can eat a good meal for 25 yuan (about $4) and a decent meal for even less than that.
Even the bottled water is cheap (2 yuan is average).
The truth is, if I tried to make this blog post about budget travel in Beijing, I’d be pushing the limits, even for me.
So here are my recommendations for the 5 things you must do when you’re in Beijing:
#1. Stay in a hutong
A “hutong” is a neighborhood of narrow alleys, flanked on each side by courtyard homes dating back eight hundred years. Hutongs were the signature architecture of old Beijing that once dominated the city, but the vast majority of them have been leveled to make way for modernization in the years leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Staying in a hutong affords you one of the few chances you’ll get to really interact with the locals. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest cities in the world, the hutong atmosphere is like a scene from another world. Your neighbors, most of whom don’t speak a word of English, will be sitting on plastic chairs, cracking sunflower seeds between their teeth while they play a game mahjong. Their children might ask to take pictures of you since you are a “laowai” (Mandarin for foreigner), an object of curiosity, and a useful instrument for practicing all the English they’ve been learning in school. Every morning and evening, you’ll walk past the rickshaw parked next door. Occasionally you’ll see the owner and wave at him. He may even offer you a ride to one of the local temples so that you can burn an incense stick.
Before I stir up a romantic image of life in the hutong (or Beijing for that matter), I should point out that hutongs aren’t for everyone. They’re poor and rundown. The stench coming from the communal squatter bathrooms can be nauseating at times. There’s litter everywhere. And the noises of your neighbors’ barking dogs and caged pet birds will keep you awake at night. There are elements of hutong living that can be outright disgusting. But you’re never going to be able to have this experience anywhere else.
I stayed in two hutongs on my trip. The first was close to The Forbidden City and Jingshan Park but far from the nearest subway station. The second was in a more central location, close to a subway station, away from the more touristy areas but not far from the Lama Temple (Yonghegong). I recommend staying close to a subway station. Distances can be very deceiving in Beijing, and if you stay far from a subway station, you’ll be spending a lot more time walking than you budgeted for.
These days, many hostels operate out of hutongs so you won’t have trouble finding one. And an added bonus is that you won’t have to use the communal (squatter) bathrooms as the hostels provide you with modern facilities.
You may love it or you may hate it but you certainly won’t forget it.
Tip: If you are going to stay in a hutong, print out a map and detailed directions before you get to Beijing. Hutongs can be extremely difficult to navigate.
#2. Eat bugs
To be honest, eating bugs in China is quite touristy.
The Chinese don’t actually eat bugs, at least not intentionally. But you’re in China so you have to do it once.
The best place to eat bugs in Beijing is at the night market on Dong’anmen Street off of Wangfujing Street. The name is a bit misleading since it’s open during the day.
You will pass by several stalls that sell chicken skewers. Leave those for the locals. You want bugs. Onward.
You will then pass by a wide assortment of delicacies you never thought were edible – everything from frogs, to lizards, to snakes, to starfish, to seahorses, and other pets and aquarium fixtures – most of which are served on wooden sticks. If you’d like to stop here and try these you may do so, but the bugs are only a couple of stalls down.
When you finally get to the bug stall, you will have a variety of insects to choose from. Most of them are served on sticks. The fried scorpions are the most popular I believe. I haven’t tried the scorpions personally but I’ve been told that they’re crunchy and salty.
Give it a shot.
#3. Toboggon down the Great Wall at Mutianyu
Whatever you do, don’t visit the Great Wall at Badaling.
This may seem like a great idea because it’s so close to the city, but that’s exactly why it isn’t a great idea. Badaling is by far the most crowded part of the wall.
Instead, head out to Mutianyu – it never gets crowded and it’s much more scenic. You’ll be hiking the stone steps surrounded by shades of green and blue.
Mutianyu is around 1 1/2 to two hours away from Beijing but you will probably hit traffic either in the city or on the one-lane country roads so you should leave an entire day for this. Don’t try to do this by yourself with public transportation. While I’m always up for a good challenge, even I wouldn’t consider this one because once you get out of the city center, English ceases to exist. English L-E-T-T-E-R-S cease to exist. So unless you can read highway signs in Chinese and explain to the locals where you intend on going, you’re best off taking an organized tour. Your hostel or a tourist information center can arrange this for you. The going rate is 280 yuan (about $45) and includes pick up from your hostel, round trip transfer in an air-conditioned minivan, an English-speaking guide, admission fees, and lunch at a restaurant.
It doesn’t include the ski lift to the wall but I highly recommend it as it’s a steep climb (straight up a mountain) and you’ll get to the top with your legs shaking and too tired to do anything else. The ski-lift costs another 60 or 80 yuan for a round trip ticket.
There are actually two ski-lift operating companies and they hate each other with a passion, so if you book the ticket through one company, you won’t be able to use the other company’s ski-lifts to get down.
Which brings me to my next point…
You basically have two choices: 1) ski-lift up and ski-lift down, or 2) ski-lift up and toboggan down.
I strongly recommend the second option.
When you finish trekking the wall, you’ll need to return to your starting point. This is where the fun begins.
You’ll notice something that looks like a metal water slide (only without water) and you’ll be placed on something that looks like a skateboard, only it has a lever that you will pull or push in order to accelerate or decelerate as you skid your way down the slide. On your way down there will be signs that say “slow down,” “speed up,” “keep pace” or “no stopping” (in English and Chinese).
Chinese safety standards aside, this was one of the coolest rides of my life. There was something surreal about the whole experience of doing something so “amusement park-y” at the Great Wall of China. Actually, the word “surreal” is going to come to mind a number of times while you’re in Beijing. There are times when you will seriously feel like you’re in Disney World.
- Beijing has a massive smog problem but if you go the day after it rains, there’s a greater chance you’ll see a blue sky.
- Bring snacks for the minivan ride. There is a market at the foot of the wall where you can get an excellent variety of unique Chinese fruit but it’s geared for tourists and therefore, overpriced even by Western standards. I bought a sweet, juicy peach for more than I would pay for it in London. It was delicious though. Perhaps because it’s been irrigated by acid rain.
#4. Climb to the top of the hill at Jingshan Park
While Beihai Park is my favorite park in Beijing, nothing beats the panoramic views from Jingshan Park.
It’s best to come here at sunset (right after the Forbidden City) and linger until it gets dark.
The hill is steep and it’s quite a hike to the top, but when you finally reach the summit, you are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the entire city. And not just the entire Forbidden City, which is directly south of you. You can actually see from one end of Beijing to the other. And the fusion of ancient and modern is striking.
I spent the better part of two hours walking around the circumference and snapping pictures.
And so did everyone else…
Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, it’s touristy…
But you’ll be glad you did it.
- Don’t go on a smoggy day or you won’t understand a word you just read.
- Stick around for a bit after the sun goes down. You won’t get another chance to see the Forbidden City at night (at least not from this angle)
- Bring a flashlight (or make sure your mobile phone has one) as you’ll be climbing down the hill with very little lighting.
#5. Stroll around the Shichahai/Huhai Lakes at night
Shichahai Lakes comprises of three lakes (Huhai is the largest one) dotted with hundreds of restaurants, bars, and tea/coffee houses alongside cobblestone hutongs filled with boutique shops. The food and drinks here are generally overpriced but it’s worthwhile to go inside some of the restaurants/bars as they each have unique and interesting vibes. With its colorful lights and music, Shichahai Lakes easily has one of the coolest nightlife scenes I’ve ever seen and it’s quite mellow by Western standards.
If you’re not exhausted from your long day, plan to spend at least a couple of hours here. Close to the Forbidden City and just north of Beihai Park’s north gate, this area used to be part of the emperors’ pleasure gardens. If you enter from the Lotus Market (on the left side of the lake when coming from Beihai Park or the Forbidden City), you will first pass by a Starbucks housed in a Yuan style building on Lotus Lane. Walk in a clockwise direction until you feel like your feet are going to fall off.
Like everywhere else in Beijing, you will be asked at least a thousand times if you want a rickshaw ride around the lakes. If you decide to take up one of their offers, make sure to agree on a price in advance and in writing, as scams are known to happen.
For a full list of scams in Beijing, click here:
Tips for visiting Beijing:
- It’s always going to be crowded, no matter where or when you go.
- If you have a student ID card, bring it with you. You can get discounted admission at the Forbidden City and several other attractions.
- Plan to spend a full day at the Forbidden City. I’m usually a whirlwind traveler but even I needed to slow down and admire this one.
- Distances are deceiving. Use the subway or you’ll be spending most of your day walking and not enjoying the city.
- Like everywhere in China, crossing the street means taking your life into your own hands. Be careful and don’t assume that just because the light is green, that automatically means you aren’t going to get run over. China has some of the craziest and most aggressive drivers I’ve ever seen. If you’re standing in the middle of the road, there’s a very small chance that that car will stop for you. Remember: You are Tank Man. Stay strong.
- http://djcadchina.wordpress.com/module-outline/block-one-rise-of-the-middle-kingdom/%E4%BA%8C-the-modernisation-of-beijing/week-2-hutong-life/ (University of Dundee)
- the Best Hutong in Beijing (beijingismyhome.wordpress.com)
- Wudaoying Hutong, close to Yonghegong Lama Temple, the gentrified Hutong (beijingismyhome.wordpress.com)
- Rent a courtyard or an apartment in a courtyard in Beijing Hutongs (beijingismyhome.wordpress.com)
- Beijing Itinerary – Best of Beijing (alwaystravelicious.com)
- Beijing: An Introduction to China (lonecaravan.com)