Forbidden City, Beijing
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It would take many lifetimes to fully explore and understand Beijing, the undulating metropolis located in remote northeastern China. The city's history is epic, with human fossil records dating back more than 230,000 years and evidence of cities in the vicinity of modern-day Beijing as early as the first millennium B.C.
So to make it digestible, let's focus on the Beijing now -- the noisy, dense, beating-heart center that has kept China dominating the headlines -- playing host to iconic revolution, the country's first-ever Olympic games and more delectable Peking ducks than you can shake a chopstick at.
Home to scores of monuments of great cultural or historic merit -- including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven -- Beijing is a must-visit city on any Asia cruise. Plus, maybe you've heard of that big old wall they made a few millennia ago in an attempt to keep invading Mongols at bay. Beijing is also the most convenient jumping-off point for tours to the famous Great Wall of China. As Beijing is often an embarkation or debarkation destination for cruise ships, it's easy to tack on extra time there in order to see and do as much as possible.
For any first-time visitors to east Asia, China -- and Beijing in particular -- may come off as overcrowded and dirty, but visitors who can get past Beijing's no-apologies grittiness will find the city has much to offer. From the Old World hutongs (historic neighborhoods), which line the alleyways in a testament to what once was, to the innumerable eateries and great bargain shops and endless seas of people that define what is now, Beijing will surely keep you busy taking it all in.
For Beijing's best weather, visit in September and October, when you'll encounter warm, sunny days with clear skies and cool evenings. Springtime is also a great season to visit, unless you're super unlucky and get stuck in a sandstorm blowing down from the Gobi Desert in the north. Beijing is oppressively cold in winter and predictably hot in summer. Consider avoiding China's major extended public holidays (Chinese New Year in winter, National Day in October and Labor Day in May), as huge swaths of domestic travelers will be moving in all conceivable directions.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) • Hong Kong • Kelang (Kuala Lumpur) • Kobe • Koh Samui • Langkawi • Mumbai (Bombay) • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
Jade trinkets and mahjong sets are fine souvenirs and are hawked in a number of places in Beijing, but the city's catalogue of counterfeit merchandise is staggering and takes the prize for the best souvenir. Counterfeit DVD's are sold openly and legally throughout the city. The prices are humble, and the quality is high. Most titles will have English audio and/or subtitle options.
Beijing has an ever-growing retail sector, with the highest of the high-end shopping to be found in the Wangfujing area in the city center. And, while the goods are authentic, the prices are the same as you would pay back home. But, for every piece of authentic merchandise on the market, there will be a much better priced -- albeit fake -- product available at any of the shopping centers most Beijingers frequent. The quality of Chinese fakes can range from passable to outstanding, and unless you're buying from an official, licensed retailer (i.e., buying a North Face jacket from the North Face store), rest assured, you're buying a knock-off.
Have no shame in offering any seller of counterfeit wares a tenth of her asking price. This is the game you must play when shopping for almost anything in Beijing. Unless it has a barcode and gets scanned by a uniformed employee behind a cash register, the price is negotiable. (The exception here is DVD's, where prices are virtually non-negotiable.)
While haggling can grow frustrating, as long as you can maintain a sense of levity about it, the whole experience can turn out to be fun for both you and the shopkeeper. An effective way to bargain successfully is to think about what an item is worth to you. Set a maximum in your head. Open the bidding at a tenth of what you want to pay, and work your way from there. And when things start to get difficult, just walk away. This will almost always get the price to drop in your favor.
The official language is Mandarin. While knowing Mandarin (or traveling with a fluent companion) will undoubtedly enhance your experience in Beijing, speaking only English need not preclude you from getting a healthy taste of the city. Any hotelier who makes business of Western travelers will have staff who speak decent English, and there are a great number of restaurants and bars that offer English or picture menus. With a kind smile and a pen in hand, don't be shy to ask hotel staff to write down the name and address of places you'd like to go on a card you can show a taxi driver.
Common Chinese have no English education. You'll have a higher -- albeit slim -- chance of successfully striking up a conversation in English with a student. Don't expect any taxi driver or public transportation worker to know a lick of English.
To say thank you in Mandarin, say xiexie (she/yay she/yay).
To say beer say pijiu (pee-jo).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
China's currency is called the Renmenbi (RMB), which means "The People's Currency." RMB is legal tender throughout Beijing and mainland China. (Be mindful if you're also cruising to Hong Kong, as it operates on a different currency.)
The RMB has a base unit called a yuan, which can be broken down into jiao and fen. (Fen are essentially out of existence.)
Ten jiao are one yuan. Commonly used denominations of RMB banknotes are 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 yuan. There is also a half-yuan note. Coins are in circulation, but most transactions will end in round numbers, and you will only need banknotes. RMB notes vary in size and color; the bigger it is, the more it is worth. A slang word for yuan is kuai.
You can obtain money at ATM's throughout the city. Money exchanging services can be found at some hotels, tourist-friendly areas and most banks.
Where You're Docked
The port associated with Beijing is actually in the city of Tianjin, about 150 kilometers away from the city. (This site offers a useful map to calculate distances for key attractions: http://www.tour-beijing.com/xingang_beijing/.)
International cruise departures and arrivals utilize the Tianjin International Ferry Port (South End of Asia Road, Dongjiang Bonded Port, Tianjin, +86 22 25705871).
This facility, built in 2010, handles passenger cruise liners. There are two passenger cruise terminals in Tianjin.
Travelers making their own way to the pier should ensure they arrive at the Tianjin International Ferry Port Terminal, not the Xingang Passenger Terminal, which is used for domestic travel. Driving time to/from Beijing is approximately 2 to 3 hours, depending on traffic and the deftness of your driver. For directions from Beijing Airport to the port in both English and Chinese, see Princess' Web site.
Be aware that porters hanging around the ship are likely not employees of your cruise operation.
The second floor of the port building is a leisure area with plenty of dining and shopping options. An art gallery is a recent addition. The port area also features a museum, a manmade peninsula and a manmade beach.
From Beijing to the Cruise Port: Although driving time between Beijing and the port should be a couple of hours, traffic is common and can delay your arrival by hours. If taking a cab, bus or private driver to your ship (especially back after a day in port), leave plenty of extra time.
There is a train station in Tianjin with a high-speed train into Beijing (30 minutes). The train may be the fastest and least expensive method of getting to/from Beijing, but you'll have to navigate buying tickets and getting to the right train platform on your own; station employees typically don't speak English. You will also need to take a cab between the port and the station.
In Beijing: Although all sorts of motorized craft rule the roads these days, flat-as-a-pancake Beijing was made for bicycling. If you can afford the time to rent a bike, you'll be able to experience Beijing in a truly authentic way. For the rest of the time, there are plenty of taxis, subway cars and buses to make your way upon.
City buses are shockingly inexpensive, but, to ride them successfully, you will need to be at least adept in deciphering Chinese pictographs, as most buses do not offer English instruction. Using the subway is easier; ticket machines have an English menu option, the lines are numbered and color-coded, and the stops and transfer points are Romanized for non-Chinese readers. Taxis are an affordable option, as well -- you can take a metered cab virtually anywhere in Beijing without spending more than you'd pay for a packet of cigarettes in New York City.
Don't expect your taxi driver to know English. Have a guide book or something else with your destination written in Chinese that you can show to the driver.
Watch Out For
As a city with nearly 20 million people, Beijing can claim a higher population than some countries. What does this mean for you? People, people. Everywhere. At all hours of the day and in even the most remote corners of the metropolis, Beijing is teeming with people.
Traffic can gridlock at a moment's notice. You will witness old men hawking great mouthfuls of spit onto the sidewalk without a grain of consideration for anyone walking by. Streets are generally littered with discarded packaging. Riding a bus or subway car crammed with so many people that you begin to question the health and safety of the operation is a common event. People will push you out of their way without thinking it's rude. In fact they probably don't even mean to be rude, they're just trying to get by. Don't be afraid to push back. This might all hark back to the days when China was operating under a more oppressive political regime and food and resources were scarce -- people had to fight their way through the crowds to survive then -- and the sentiment may long be ingrained in the psyche of the Beijinger today.
Also, be aware of a scam around the Wangfujing area. If you are approached out-of-the-blue by good-looking, English-speaking Chinese women asking you to go drinking with them, do not take their offer as genuine. This is a common scam where they lure you into a bar and end up sticking you with ridiculously high bill. One way to avoid the scam but still maintain face is to insist that you go to a bar of your choosing.
Missing out on Tiananmen Square while touring Beijing would be like not drinking Chianti when in Tuscany. The iconic square bustles with activity while exuding an air of old Soviet grandeur and that still-unshakable memory of Man vs. Tank.
The Forbidden City is to famous Beijing monuments as fried rice is to a Chinese menu. Lying just beyond Tiananmen Square, the sprawling, walled encampment once housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties and is so huge that many erstwhile residents are said to have gone their whole lives without leaving the 30-foot-high walls of the city. To see every corner of the UNESCO World Heritage site would surely take an entire day -- and to be honest, it may all start to look the same after a while -- so make sure you hit the impressive (and free to enter) Palace Museum within the city walls before you wear yourself too thin.
The Bird's Nest and the Water Cube may be the most memorable venues of any Olympic Games in recent history. Though probably the kind of thing you can appreciate just as well from a postcard, the monuments are worthy of closer inspection if you find yourself in the Olympic Park area in east Beijing.
If you can only visit one of Beiing's parks, consider the vast public park that surrounds the Temple of Heaven. The temple complex was built under the command of the same emperor who ordered the construction of the Forbidden City. Dating back to 1420, the temple (which was visited by emperors to pray to the heavens for a good annual harvest) is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The surrounding park is the greenest place in Beijing.
An old Chinese proverb says, "Not been to the Great Wall, not a great man." And indeed, no trip to China is complete without viewing the countryside's raw, rolling hills from the Great Wall. Most tours to the wall will visit the Badaling section. This is convenient because it's very close to Beijing, and the site is outfitted to cater to the masses. (Think cable cars, newly paved steps, handrails and even a toboggan slide to take you back to ground level.) But Badaling is markedly touristy, replete with shops and food vendors and numerous touts hanging out on the wall itself. A quieter, more peaceful option is traveling to the Jinshanling section. Its distance from the metropolis (some three hours by bus) makes it a less popular option, but one still worth considering. There will be fewer tourists (and even fewer touts!), and you'll be face-to-face with scenic beauty without parking lots or handrails sullying the view.
Almost every hotel in Beijing will sell trips to the Great Wall. Be aware that most organized tours to the Great Wall will include lengthy stopovers at gem, ceramic or other craft wholesalers where all parties involved will try and make a commission off your tourist dollar. Some tour operators go out of their way to advertise "no stops" trips to the wall. Booking one of those is advisable.
Been There, Done That
In the Dongcheng area, near Houhai Lake, you can get a glimpse of everyday life in the hutongs, the centuries-old dwellings of Beijing of yore. Many hutongs have been demolished and replaced with the skyscraping apartment buildings that dominate Beijing's skyline. But current hutong residents (and critics of overdevelopment) have fought for the remaining hutongs to be preserved. The city government has recognized the hutong's tourist appeal and has labeled them protected areas. Get a map, find Nan Luo Gu Xiang Street, and use it as a starting point.
The aforementioned Houhai Lake makes a lovely spot for a stroll in the warmer months. Visitors can paddle around in rented boats or go fishing. The lake is popular with foreign visitors and has become famous in recent years because of a surge in restaurants, cafes and nightlife in the area.
If you're overnighting, taking a stroll through one of Beijing's parks in the morning hours is a great way to start a day in the city. Watch old men ponder over board games, admire groups of people practicing tai chi, and get a taste of (sometimes contrived) Chinese landscaping. Beihai Park, Chaoyang Park and the Purple Bamboo Park are all good choices.
A staggering array of counterfeit shoes, luggage, apparel and handbags can be found at the Sanlitun Yashow Clothing Market and in the Silk Market near Yong'anli station on Line One of the metro. These markets cater almost exclusively to foreigners. The prices will be higher there, but the workers all speak English and are pretty fun to engage. If you know Mandarin or are shopping with someone who does, you will get much better deals.
For international brand-name (legitimate) goods, visit the Wangfujing shopping street, the Malls at Oriental Plaza or the Sanlitun Village Shopping Center. Lots of high-end shopping can be found at the Dawang Lu subway station in the Xinkong Tiandi Center. For more brand-name shopping and dining (including Beijing's newly opened Nobu restaurant), check out the Guomao area.
Stop by the Pearl Market near the Temple of Heaven for a chance to buy coral, amber, tourquoise and, of course, pearls. This multistory market has several high-end jewelers on the top floors, and lower floors have the usual array of trinkets and handicrafts.
Panjiayuan, also called the "dirt market" or "weekend market," is the largest (and maybe most entertaining) flea market in China. It's open every day and gets started early, at 7 a.m. (4 a.m. on weekends). There you can shop for antiques (beware of fakes), porcelain, jade and wood carvings, as well as paintings, decorations, knickknacks and just about everything else you could imagine. Don't forget to bargain hard and shop around, too, because many of the stalls will be selling the same merchandise.
After a long day on your feet, a traditional Chinese massage may be in order to get some much-needed relaxation. Reflexology and pressure-point-based massages are particular specialties of the Chinese. Massage parlors are practically ubiquitous throughout Beijing. Ignore touts offering massages. Just walk into a place that seems suitable to your tastes, and check it out on your own. Prices are reasonable and often negotiable.
As an increasingly cosmopolitan city, Beijing is a real treat for foodies. From the highest end of fine dining down to the dirtiest vendor selling delicious baked yams from a cart on the street, there is no shortage of eating options in the capital city. Traditional Beijing-style food is known to be rather salty. But, like anyone else, Beijingers like to mix it up a bit, and the city responds with a vast array of restaurants that showcase not only international cuisine, but regional delicacies from throughout China, as well.
And the best part of it is the price! In Beijing, for the money you'd normally spend on a dinner at Applebee's, you can eat like you're at Nobu. But the real fun comes with the opposite: finding an obscure hole-in-the-wall and treating yourself to obscene amounts of goodness for merely dollars a person. (While undoubtedly worth experiencing, many of the best local joints offer no English menus. Don't forget -- there is no shame in pointing to the happiest-looking guy in the dining room and gesturing that you'd like what he's having.)
What follows is merely a taste of the countless culinary choices at your fingertips in Beijing:
Another name for Beijing is Peking, and another name for delicious is Peking duck. (For the uninitiated, think of a whole duck, roasted for an entire day and then carved apart before your eyes by the waitstaff. The best part is the skin, which should be crisp and also succulent from the fatty tissue.) And, indeed, when in the capital city, it would behoove you to sit down for a full-course menu of the city's namesake dish. Quanjude and Da Dong are two popular chains. Bianyifang is another old and reputable roast duck establishment. Duck de Chine is a comparative newcomer (Bianyifang has been in business since 1416!) but very modern and also worth patronizing. Reservations are essential at Duck de Chine and recommended elsewhere.
Each of China's 22 provinces has an official government office in the capital city, and adjacent to many of these offices are eateries representing the provincial cuisine. For an authentic taste of peppery Sichuan-style cooking, head to the Sichuan Provincial Government Office. The restaurant itself doesn't have an official name, but most locals know it as Chuan Ban. Another good Sichuan choice is Meizhou Dongpo, a chain that operates several restaurants throughout the city.
Dumplings, or jiaozi, come in countless varieties. Receiving consistently strong reviews for their colorful, innovative take on dumplings, Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu is a scrumptious delight that's very kind to the pocketbook. Soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) are more of a specialty of Shanghai to the south, but for classic southern taste all the way up in Beijing, check out Din Tai Fung, which was voted "Outstanding Chinese Restaurant of the Year" by reputable expat magazine "The Beijinger."
At some point on your tour of Beijing, you'll inevitably wind up in the bustling embassy district of Sanlitun. There you'll see not only plenty of foreigners, but also just as many bars and restaurants catering to the masses with every sort of international flavor you can imagine. Dining options in Sanlitun are too plentiful to list, but if you're longing for a juicy steak or a cheeseburger so big you'll need two hands to eat it, then head to Flamme. They offer great deals every day of the week, but the lunch specials are when Flamme really gets hot.
A great way to end the day is to take in the setting sun and the spectacle of city lights that come with the night from Atmosphere, the bar on the top floor of the new Shangri-La Hotel. It's the tallest building (and bar) in Beijing. There's a full drink menu and a good selection of wines and cigars, as well as light meals and desserts.
You don't have to stay at a five-star hotel to enjoy the decadent comforts that lie within. Many of the city's finer hotels offer all-you-can-eat-AND-drink brunches on Sundays. You'll surely gain a few pounds before you leave, but what a treat to have lobster and foie gras and Champagne brought to you on demand from waiters darting beneath countless crystal chandeliers. Good Sunday brunches can be found at the Westin Chaoyang, the Hilton Wangfujing, the Kempinski and Capital M (this one is not all-you-can-drink).
And for a taste of the bizarre, head to the Donghuamen Night Market at the north entrance of Wangfujing Street in the Dongcheng district. There you can satisfy your late-night munchies with goodies like deep-fried scorpions, lizards or crickets. Or you can just order some spring rolls and watch everyone else eat bugs.
Ever since Beijing was confirmed to be the host city for the 2008 Olympic Games, the city's accommodation options have proliferated, with dozens of luxury hotels opening up and many older properties getting facelifts. There are plentiful options at all price ranges, and you can often negotiate for large discounts -- especially during nonpeak seasons. The Dongcheng district of central Beijing is the closest to major attractions like the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. You'll find better shopping, dining and nightlife in east Beijing, or the Chaoyang district. Chaoyang also contains the 798 art district and the Sunlitun Village, a mecca of international fare.
A unique accommodation option in Dongcheng is the Red Capital Residence, which used to be a residence of Mao's defense minister. Courtyard hotels -- which are a collection of rooms built around a square -- tend to be more of an experience, not a luxury option (old buildings can be drafty), but a stay at the Red Capital Residence will surely be memorable for its distinct Chinese charm (No.9 Dongsi Liutiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100007).
A traditional (and affordable) courtyard hotel in the Dongcheng area, the Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel is popular among Western tourists and receives consistently positive reviews for its service and friendly staff (No.37 Dongsi Sitiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100010).
A basic, affordable hotel in Dongcheng, very near the attractions and plenty of dining options, is Tangyue Hotel. The amenities and quality of service may have room to improve -- the rooms are basic, and the staff could use a few more English lessons -- but the location cannot be beat (No.50-54 Donghuamen Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100006).
For the utmost luxury in the heart of the city, consider Hilton Wangfujing. You'll have all the creature comforts and amenities of a five-star hotel, with the plus of being only a few minutes' walk from the major attractions in the center of Beijing (8 Wangfujing East Street, Dongcheng, Beijing, China 100006).
The Opposite House Beijing is located in the bustling center of Chaoyang's Sunlitun Village. Close to scores of restaurants and nightlife options, this hip, luxury boutique hotel, with spacious studio-style rooms, is a fun choice in a happening part of the city (Building 1, No.11 Sanlitun Road, Beijing 100027).
The Kempinski Beijing Lufthansa Center in Chaoyang is a solid choice for a place to rest your head at night. It features wonderfully relaxed check-in/check-out times, a decadent Sunday brunch and the Pauliner Brauhaus, which serves German food and beer (No.50 Liangmaqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100125).
The Beijing Oriental Peace Hotel may not be the brightest star in the city's galaxy of accommodation options, but with humble rates (that include breakfast) and a location in Wangfujing that's walkable to the major attractions in the city center, it's a budget option worth considering. Do not expect much English proficiency from the staff, but do expect finer amenities than you'd find at a hostel (No.33A Dongdan Third Tiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing 100005).
A decent mid-range hotel in Tianjin is Tianjin First Hotel. It is housed in a historic building amidst a sea of skyscrapers. The rooms are spacious, and rates are often negotiable in person. It has a Chinese and a Japanese restaurant (No.158 Jiefang North Road, Heping District, Tianjin 300042).
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are pretty ubiquitous in China, so finding one around the port shouldn't be a problem. Be on the watch for signs that say ? ? -- this means "Internet cafe". Or just look for a room with lots of people in front of computers.
In Beijing proper, you will definitely be able to find Internet access in any area that sees a lot of foreigners. Sanlitun and the Dongcheng areas are sure bets. Hotels and hostels will typically have access to the Internet, as well.
Best for Culture Vultures: To learn about China's history and culture, take the full-day "Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square" tour. The excursion starts with a three-hour drive via motorcoach to Beijing. A guide will take you on a 90-minute tour of the Forbidden City, followed by a visit to the Temple of Heaven. After a photo stop in Tiananmen Square, you'll head to a local restaurant for a traditional Chinese lunch.
Best for Walkers: First-timers who don't mind a climb can't miss the all-day Great Wall tour. It's also a three-hour coach ride each way, but when you reach the entrance at Huangyaguan, you'll be able to stretch your legs on a restored section of the wall. Enjoy a family-style Chinese lunch at a local restaurant before returning to the ship.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've already seen the Beijing highlights, try the all-day Tianjin City Tour to explore the area around the cruise port. Learn about local art and history at the Tianjin Museum, and view Chinese porcelain at the China House. After lunch at a local hotel, you'll visit the Confucius Temple, the third largest in the country, and finish your tour on Ancient Culture Street.
For More Information
Beijing Tourism Administration
Tianjin Tourism Administration
China National Tourist Office: 888-760-8218
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
Independent Traveler Forums: China
--by James A. Foley, Cruise Critic Contributor