I recently travelled to Beijing, China to see the sights, explore its history and learn more about its culture by people-watching and interacting with the locals. It was a great experience that I would not trade for anything else. Here are what I’ve observed:
1. Very few people spoke English
This made any form of communication very challenging for me, as I could not speak any Chinese. It should have been a no-brainer, but I forgot to learn a few key phrases before I travelled to this gorgeous place.
English signs on malls, tourist spots and even museums are almost non-existent. It will be a struggle for any person with little or no knowledge of their written language to fully enjoy the historic sites if they do not rent (expensive) audio guides.
I advise you to take pictures of what you may need (toilets, cutleries, food, your hotel, etc.) beforehand to help you in times of need. Locals will try to help you as much as they can, despite not being able to speak English. Most of them will also try to find someone who can communicate in your language when they become stuck.
2. The Food is Amazing
Chinese food in the West is nothing like the real authentic food that you will find in China. The flavours are exquisite and the ingredients are fresh. Never be afraid to try their delicacies such as Bullfrogs and Pig Intestines!!
Also note that if you ordered rice and would like to have it with your mains, you need to tell your waiter to bring it straight away. I’ve been told by a local that they eat rice at the end of a meal as it is a cheap way to fill you up if your mains did not do the trick. The phrase ‘rice now’ did the trick for me.
3. Be careful of tap water
In all of my travels in Beijing, I have not found any safe drinking water on taps. I may be wrong, but I advise you just to buy bottled water to be sure.
4. Squat toilets
Using squat toilets is challenging, particularly if the muscles in your lower body is weak. I don’t think I need to explain why. You’re lucky if you find the very few ‘Western’-style toilets in Beijing, so try practising your squat!!
If you find it impossible to use these toilets, look for the Disabled ones and use them instead.
5. Locals may not appear friendly, but they really are
I found that the locals’ voice, tone of voice and body language may appear unfriendly if you are used to most Western cultures. They rarely smiled and seemed to be shouting when they were talking. You must remember though, that their culture- especially their language- is different from yours, so try to keep an open mind. They really are friendly.
6. It is difficult to take clear pictures
Smog and air pollution are big problems in this gorgeous country. As a result, amateur photographers find it very difficult to capture a clear photograph during the day. The smog covers most of the sky, making a lovely sunny day look gloomy.
I found that the best time to go sight-seeing and take pictures is the day after it rains. The rain clears up the sky, which allows you to see most of the sights and take clearer pictures.
7. It’s hard to breathe
Again, as a result of the horrible air pollution, i found it difficult to breathe. Wearing masks did not help me, either. The air felt heavy and my lungs weren’t prepared for it.
8. Their notion of ‘personal space’ is VERY, VERY DIFFERENT
Most people will stand about 2 inches away from you when you’re conversing- even if you are the only two people in the room.
9. Queues exist but are not followed
Locals do not seem to respect queues. People will barge in front of you if you are not careful. This happens in shopping malls, subway, ticket booths, security checks and even in public toilets. Shouting won’t help you, but a strong body (to hold and protect your place) will.
10. People spit. EVERYWHERE
This is probably the strangest thing that I have observed. People of all ages and genders seem to exercise their free will through spitting. They clear their throats as loud as they can, then spit wherever they are. Nobody seems to care, either. Again, it could just be one of those unique things that are part of their culture.