Jan 31, 2017
It’s easy to be overwhelmed on a first-time visit to China’s enormous, frenetic capital. Beijing is a city of 11.5 million people and as many contradictions. A non-stop cacophony of car horns and street vendors fill the air while skyscrapers and labyrinthine alleyways nestle side-by-side. Since the “open door” economic policy reforms in the 1970s, Beijing has modernised drastically – but its incredible history remains on display all over the city in the form of palaces, pagodas and temples. Before you disembark in the megacity, read our guide to Beijing.
Qantas flies directly to Beijing; the flight takes 11 hours and 50 minutes.
Australian passport holders will need to apply for a visa for trips longer than 72 hours. Apply via mail or in person at a Chinese visa application centre. Go to the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Australia for details and up-to-date information. The visa can take up to 10 weekdays to process via mail or four working days if you’re picking it up in person. A regular single entry visa currently costs $109.50 ($131.50 for a mail application).
Flying in to Beijing Capital International Airport
Beijing Capital International Airport is 32 kilometres northeast of the downtown area. Despite its proximity, the journey to town could take up to an hour in a taxi, depending on traffic. The Airport Express train is much quicker; departing from terminals 2 and 3, it stops at two downtown stations. The trip, depending on which terminal you depart from and which station you’re headed to, will take between 16 and 35 minutes.
- Tourists must register with the Public Security Bureau (PSB) within 24 hours of touching down in China. If you’re staying at a large hotel, they’ll organise this for you, otherwise report to a local police station.
- Carry your passport on your person at all times – visitors are often required to present identification in order to buy bus tickets and gain access to tourist sites.
- There are laws restricting freedom of speech in China and tourists could face issues for speaking out against the government. Demonstrations without the prior approval of the Chinese government are illegal. According to Smart Traveller, visitors should avoid photographing, videoing or participating in protests or risk penalties.
- Gambling is illegal on mainland China and to violate this law could result in arrest and jail or deportation.
The language barrier
Many Chinese people in Beijing speak some English, especially in tourist areas, and most tourist sites and train stations are signposted in Chinese and English. Still, it pays to learn a few basic phrases in Mandarin such as hello (nihao), thank you (xie xie, pronounced sheh-sheh), please (qǐng, pronounced ching) and goodbye (zai jian pronounced ZYE jeeyen) A language app will be useful to help you communicate.
Make sure your basic vaccinations are up to date. Travel Doctor recommends being vaccinated against hepatitis A, which can be transmitted via contaminated food or water. There are several other recommendations for consideration, including hepatitis B and typhoid. Visit Travel Doctor for more information.
- Taxis are metred and licensed so beware of any drivers without a metre and check that the metre is running. Make sure you have the name and address of your accommodation written out in Chinese characters.
- Public buses are plentiful and the subway is extensive and clearly signposted; many stations even have English-language announcements. Buy a rechargeable ticket, called an IC card from kiosks at subway stations, bus stations, supermarkets or post offices.
- Bike-hire stations are located throughout the city and cycling is a great way to get around. There are many bike lanes around the city and in 2016 the city announced it would add a further 3200 kilometres of bike lanes to city streets. Car-hire isn’t possible for most tourists because a Chinese license is required.
- At the time of writing the Australian dollar was buying 5.2 Chinese yuan renminbi (RMB) – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date exchange rates. In China, the government sets the official rate. Avoid anyone offering to undercut the exchange rate – it’s illegal and they could lump you with fake notes.
- Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in China. Your Australian bank and Chinese ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away. In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
- Tipping is not part of the culture in China but there are some circumstances in which it’s becoming more common. In restaurants, it’s not necessary but you can leave a little cash if you have had excellent food and service. There’s no need to tip taxi drivers or hotel staff, though in high-end hotels it’s possible to give the bellhop a few yuan. The one exception is tour guides, who often depend on tips for their income.
- While big hotels and department stores accept credit cards, smaller shops and restaurants don’t so make sure you have cash on you at all times.
- Haggling is de rigeur in Beijing (and quite enjoyable) so feel free to have a little back-and-forth at the market. It’s important to remain respectful; if you feel you’re being ripped off, don’t become angry – simply walk away.
- Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking upright out of your rice bowl – it’s considered extremely inauspicious and connotes death. Use the chopstick stand provided or lay them across the top of your bowl.
- If you are being hosted for dinner, make sure you try a little bit of everything offered – but always leave a little food on your plate or your host will think you’re still hungry!
- Lining up in an orderly fashion isn’t really a thing here – if there’s a crowd of people, you’re probably going to find yourself at the back of it unless you learn to be a little pushy.
- You will notice people in Beijing give you things with both hands – you should accept them with both hands too. It’s considered polite and respectful, whether you’re accepting a business card or change.
- Finally, Chinese people are generally more conservative than Australians, so if you’re travelling with a loved one keep the public displays of affection private.
Violent crime is extremely low in China but there are plenty of scams to trick the guileless foreigner, such as the so-called “tea scam”. It involves young Chinese “students” approaching tourists and striking up a conversation. In order to practice their English further and show you a Chinese cultural custom, they suggest taking you to a traditional tea ceremony. After tea, though, they disappear and you’ll find yourself stuck with a very large bill. Don’t close yourself off to interactions with locals, but be wary.
Many Westerners just can’t bring themselves to use a traditional Chinese squat toilet – probably because we don’t have the thigh muscles for it. Fortunately, many of Beijing’s public toilets were updated for the Olympics in 2008 and locating one isn’t hard. It’s wise to always carry a packet of tissues with you, though – many facilities don’t have toilet paper.
Beijing is extremely cold in winter, with the average temperature in winter often below freezing. Spring is short and windy with frequent sandstorms; summer is long and hot. Autumn provides sunshine and cooler evenings.
Smog is a big issue in Beijing and the air quality can vary dramatically. Good air quality is necessary if you’re planning a day wandering outside at the Forbidden City. If the quality is bad, make plans for some indoor museums or at least frequent time-outs in cafes or restaurants.
Smart Traveller advises that children, the elderly and those with cardiac or respiratory conditions may be affected by the air quality. In 2015, the Chinese government began issuing red alerts for smog. When a red alert has been announced, it’s recommended you stay indoors. The Ministry of Environmental Protection provides data on air quality for cities throughout China.
When to go
The autumnal months between September and October are recommended because the weather is less extreme that at other times of the year. Expect warm, sunny days and cooler nights.
Beijing is a cosmopolitan city and luxury fashion labels from the West are plentiful. It’s fine to wear the same outfits you’d wear at home with one notable difference: even if it’s Australian-summer hot, avoid wearing revealing clothing in China. Clothing that’s too tight, low-cut or short is considered inappropriate. Also pack comfy walking shoes – you’re going to need them.
Tap water in Beijing is not drinkable. Many hotels will provide filtered water and bottled water is available everywhere. Any water provided at a restaurant will have been boiled and cooled.
Smart Traveller recommends all visitors to China take out comprehensive travel insurance to cover overseas medical costs, including evacuation.
Where to stay
Wangfujing is a busy shopping district that’s close to some of Beijing’s big drawcards including Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City as well as the fantastic Donghuamen Snack Night Market, which is the place to taste the flavours of old Beijing.
Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, is also central and great for traditional architecture, venerable restaurants and shopping.
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important, or buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card. If you opt for the latter, ask the shop staff to set it up for you because the directions will be in Chinese. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier. China Mobile is the main carrier and is compatible with Australian handsets.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
China has the same electricity frequency as Australia and a similar voltage so all gadgets and chargers should work without a problem. You will need a universal adapter because there are various sockets in use.
Wifi is readily available in Beijing but many international news and social media sites are blocked. Visitors won’t be able to post snaps to Facebook until their return home unless they download a VPN (virtual private network) to get through the “Great Firewall of China”. Ensure your chosen app works for China – many free ones don’t.
Handy apps and websites
Australian Embassy Beijing for emergencies.
Learn Chinese Pro is crammed with useful phrases for visitors to Beijing.
Beijing Capital International Airport provides flight information.
XE for currency conversion.
Beijing Airport Express Train for the train timetable from the airport.
Travel Doctor for pre-travel health advice.
China Metro for public transport schedules and information
Smart Traveller for up-to-date safety information.
Flush Toilet Finder for toilet locations and reviews.