Why go to Beijing?
The newly built cruise terminal is one of the largest and most modern in East Asia
Cruise ships dock at Tianjin, 150km from Beijing, with little to see in the immediate vicinity
It is far from Beijing, but offers day tours to the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace
Beijing Cruise Port Facilities?
The port associated with Beijing is about 105 miles (a two- to three-hour drive, depending on traffic) from the city center. International cruise departures and arrivals use the Tianjin International Cruise Home Port. Despite its name and address, this port is not actually in Tianjin city, which is 45 miles (a 60- to 90-minute drive) away. (South End of Asia Road, Dongjiang Bonded Port, Tianjin, +86 22 2570 5871)
For planning purposes, be aware that you will most likely have to go through customs and immigration clearance when going ashore, much as you would when entering the country at an airport. This process can easily take 30 to 45 minutes or more, depending on the number of passengers, and participants in the ship's shore excursions typically get to go first.
Be sure that you don't get this terminal confused with the Tianjin Xingang Port Passenger Terminal, which is 15 miles away. This terminal is mainly used for domestic ships, but may serve the rare international ship during peak season.
When our ship arrived at Tianjin International Cruise Home Port, the place was a vast ghost town. At 9:30 a.m., nothing was open, not even the tourist information window. The following afternoon, when another ship was embarking passengers, a small convenience store and a shop selling sunglasses plus a few souvenirs were open. The tourist information window was manned, but with limited English spoken -- enough to tell us that the nearby ATM was never functional. On the second floor of the modern structure (built in 2010), we saw a hall lined with closed duty-free shops, blocked off by a metal gate. A ground-floor cafe was also closed both days when we were there. The port is in an isolated area, with nothing else around.
Good to Know?
As a city with more than 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. Streets are sometimes 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.
At attractions which are popular with busloads of Chinese coming from the hinterlands -- particularly the Forbidden City and Badaling section of the Great Wall -- you may be of more interest than the scenery, since these folks often have never seen a real, live Westerner. Particularly if you have blond hair, you may be asked to pose for photos or find people wanting to touch your hair. Enjoy your celebrity!
The Chinese government blocks many websites, including Google (and Gmail), Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Dropbox, The New York Times and many more on a constantly changing list. To get around the blockage, you can download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) app before entering China. This essentially makes it seem like you're connecting to the internet from outside China. Be wary of any unsecured internet connection in China; colleagues report that their email accounts have been compromised when online there.
Squat-style toilets are ubiquitous throughout China. If you're in a public restroom that appears to have only squat toilets, look for the handicapped symbol on one door; that will likely be a Western-style toilet.
While individuals will have personal views on the rights and wrongs of fake products, anyone who buys them should be aware of the legal issues. According to Customs Directive No. 2310-011A dated January 24, 2000, "Customs officers shall permit any person arriving in the United States to import one article, which must accompany the person, bearing a counterfeit, confusingly similar or restricted gray market trademark, provided that the article is for personal use and not for sale." The Directive also states that, "Customs officers shall permit the arriving person to retain one article of each type accompanying the person." In other words, you can bring only one watch, one bag, etc., of any sort, provided they are for personal use and not for sale. It is illegal to sell counterfeit goods, and anyone caught bringing back several, or large numbers, of the same items will have them confiscated and could be subjected to a fine.
Be aware of this scam: 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 ploy where they lure you into a bar and end up sticking you with a ridiculously high bill.
On Foot: There's plenty of walking when you get to destinations like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. We don't recommend walking between sights, aside from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, which are adjacent (use the underground passage to cross the busy street dividing them). As a pedestrian, keep an eye out for darting scooters and bikes.
By Bicycle: 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.
By Bus: 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. We don't recommend tackling this mode of transportation.
By Subway: Beijing is home to the second-longest subway system in the world (bested only by Shanghai). Using the subway is easier than taking a bus; ticket machines have an English menu option, the lines are numbered and color-coded, and the stops and transfer points have Romanized signs for non-Chinese readers. Line 1 will take you to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, while Line 4 can get you to the Summer Palace. With Beijing's traffic situation, you can often travel much more efficiently using the subway system. If you're planning to take several subway rides, buying a pre-loaded subway card (which includes a refundable deposit) will save you time waiting in line. Subway service begins around 5 a.m. but ends fairly early, at around 11 p.m.
By Taxi: Taxis are an affordable option, as well. However, don't expect your taxi driver to know English. Have a guidebook, map or card with your destination written in Chinese that you can show to the driver. Make sure the driver is using the meter, and don't get in a cab whose driver quotes a (usually outrageous) flat price to take you somewhere. There's no need to tip. One thing to note: Taxis are getting scarcer due to the proliferation of a ride service app called Didi, so you may need to have a hotel or restaurant call a cab for you in some instances.
By Car Service: The "Chinese Uber," Didi, co-owned by internet mega-site Alibaba, is great -- if you know Chinese. Still, it may be a helpful app to have if you can get assistance from a local.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money?
China's currency is called the renminbi (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 Hong Kong dollar.) For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
There is an ATM at the port, but it wasn't operational when we visited; workers at a tourism desk there said that was always the case. You can obtain money at ATMs throughout Beijing. Money exchanging services can be found at some hotels, tourist-friendly areas and most banks.
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 that speak decent English, and there are a great number of restaurants and bars that offer English or picture menus.
Most establishments that cater to travelers have their address in Chinese characters displayed on their website. It's a great idea to print this out in advance if you have a hotel reservation; otherwise, be sure to pick up an address card before leaving your hotel. 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 so you can show a taxi driver. And if you're headed to an address in a hutong, be sure to note the nearest intersection as well. Don't expect any taxi driver or public transportation worker to speak English.
Few Chinese outside of the tourism industry speak English. You'll have a higher -- albeit slim -- chance of successfully striking up a conversation in English with a young person. At the least, they're more likely to have a translation app on their smartphone. Before entering China, you might want to consider downloading the Google Translate app, which includes Word Lens, to translate Chinese characters to English when you snap a photo of them using the app.
To say hello in Mandarin, say ni hao ("nee-how").
Thank you is xie xie ("shyay shyay").
Beer is pijiu ("pee-jo").