Help on Beijing Hol

Nov 1st, 2001, 11:20 PM
  #1  
phil
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Help on Beijing Hol

HELP!
My husband is leaving for a 2-3 week business trip next Tuesday week to Beijing, which has all sort of happened unexpectedly, and by great luck I am able to go with him, I will probably only go for 7-10 days. As I know nothing about Beijing, or China for that matter, I feel a bit lost... this isn't my usual neatly planned to the minute holiday, I have a few concerns the main one being if it will be safe for me to travel around Beijing during the day on my own photographing the sights, as I am a mad photographer who usually avoids tours? Any help on where to go and what to do during my days would be GREATLY appreciated.
Thanking you all in advance
Philisity
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 01:31 AM
  #2  
Andrea
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Wow! You will have a GREAT time if you are a photographer (you would have a great time anyway, but there is SO much to photograph in Beijing).

First of all, you will be absolutely, positively safe, I promise. Nothing to worry about whatsoever. I feel safer walking around in Beijing and Shanghai than I did in some sections of Boise, Idaho! No sinister looking groups of toughs, RARE pickpocketing (I've been here for 3 years and it hasn't happened to anyone I know).

I recommend you take a Hutong Tour one of your first days, and make a note of where you go - you'll love returning and wandering around on your own through the traditional neighborhoods. Alternatively, you can search for the Beijing walking tours someone has kindly posted here, but personally, I had SO much fun on the tour (it's by biycle rickshaw, and our guide was hilarious) - and I'm not even a fan of tours!

I think if you search even just for "Beijing" on this forum, you should find pages and pages of tips for what to see and do and where to eat.

Good luck!
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 06:09 AM
  #3  
Peter Neville-Hadley
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If you want to take pictures I'm sure you'll want to go around on foot. (With all due respect to Andrea, and noting that many visitors would rather have everything organised for them than have to fuss themselves, the organised hutong tours are so colossally overpriced for gullible visitors that makes them objectionable in principle. But chacun son got.)

I'm not a photography expert, but there are a few environmental points you'll want to consider in your choice of film speeds and lenses. Beijing is heavily polluted, and except for a windy period in the spring, and sometimes in early autumn, very hazy--a situation sometimes worsened by sand blown in from high level parched land to the northwest.

By the time you'll arrive the official date for the starting of heating will have gone by, and since the heating is mostly done by low-quality, high-sulphur coal (with a few other unpleasantnesses such as arsenic thrown in--try to keep out of the clouds of smoke arising from roadside barbecues) visibility can often drop to merely a block or so. In short, ISO 400 film (or a slower speed pushed a stop or two) would be a good idea for maximum flexibility, unless you are also planning to carry a tripod.

Carrying a longer lens for discreet portrait photography is a good idea, but unless it's very fast indeed, again be ready to play with film speeds.

If people interest you as subjects, and if you get a clear, sunny day, try going to the bridges over the second ring road mid-afternoon to see older people come out to fly colourful home-made kites. Jianguomen Qiao often has flyers; Guangqumen Qiao is very popular. Also try just inside the east gate of the Temple of Heaven, although the light and backgrounds are better on the bridges.

Also at this time of year you may still catch people flying jiaozui (crossbills) and wutong (masked grosbeaks)--small migratory birds which have been caught and train to do a trick called da danr, where they fly up to fetch tossed and blowpiped beads. Such performances, common in pre-communist China and now being revived can be stumbled upon in the hutong, or go to the Yuting Market opposite the south side of the Temple of Heaven, where you'll find training schools for these and other birds.

Hope this helps.

Peter N-H
http://members.axion.net/~pnh/China.html
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 06:38 AM
  #4  
kris
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Phil, we just returned from a week in Beijing. We never felt unsafe or bothered although lots of people stared at us, especially in the not so touristy areas.

Beijing is a large city so don't hesitate to use cabs or even the metro if you are in a central area (the buses looked really crowded so we avoided them). Cabs are cheap ($2-3 a ride) and although I had heard plenty about cabs that try to rip you off, none tried with us. Just make sure they are using the meter. And ask your hotel concierge for a card with the name of your hotel and the place you want to go. It was easy to get around when we had the card with us.

I thought that the markets were a lot of fun, I think we hit most of them. The ghost market (dirt market) was rather dead during the week but on the weekend it really picked up and I think it would be a great spot to get some photos along with some souvenirs. The people here seemed to be mostly locals. The silk market was more for clothing and catered more to tourists and the Hongqiao market was just about everything-pearls, jade, cloissonne, "antiques", clothes, bags, souvenirs. Lots of tourists here as well. The Russian market was a lot of food, cigarettes, cheap junk and was our least favorite. Don't hesitate to bargain, the prices are sometimes 10 times what the merchant is expecting to get.

You should also get out to see a section of the Great Wall. We were on a guided tour for the first two days so we went to Badaling with the guide but you can probably find someone to take you to a less touristed section through your hotel or to Badaling (bring good walking shoes, the climb we did was vertical). There were recently a couple of good threads about which section of the wall to go to.

We saw a couple of acrobat shows that were excellent. The tickets were 120 RMB ($15) for the middle priced seats. The one we preferred was near our hotel (Great Wall Sheraton) at the Chao Yang theater.

There's a thread about a Beijing trip report out there. It was an interesting read about Beijing. A great tip I got out of it was that McDonald's still deep fries their apple pies so we had to try several of them. McDonald's also has clean bathrooms in most of their restaurants if you're not up to trying the squatting variety.

We also visited the Beijing zoo, worth it to see the pandas but the rest of the zoo was a bit depressing. Benhai park was lovely, we rented a paddle boat to go out on the lake. The summer palace was worth a visit, the Forbidden city, Temple of Heaven, Tiannamen square as well.
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 07:23 AM
  #5  
kang
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Beijing is a very safe city to visit so there is absolutely nothing to worry about for the kind of activities you plan to take.

The air quality has been much improved in the past 2 years during the winter times, mainly due to the ban of using coal-burning furnaces. You may want to bring hi-speed films for quality pictures but air pollution is no longer as big a problem for tourist as it used to.

Films of all major brands are wildly available everywhere in Beijing, and cheapter.

As long as you use cabs with a clear "TAXI" sign(there are tons of such cabs everywhere you go), there is no chance you will be ripped off.

The recommendations on privious posts are all very good. Also, you may want to buy a tour guide book before you go, Lonely Planet's "Beijing" for instance, and make your itineraries base on your main interests.

Beijing could be cold at this time of year, so be prepared.
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 10:13 AM
  #6  
Peter Neville-Hadley
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I don't wish to be contentious, but there's a somewhat rosy tinge to the posting above.

'Bans' in China are no more effective than 'laws', and bricks made from pounded coal dust which throw off massive quantities of particulates are still the fuel most commonly used for heating and cooking, although there are moves to encourage natural gas. The pollution is bad enough in Beijing during the summer when less coal is burned, and still appalling in winter. To compare to a few years ago is to compare to a very low standard indeed. In general airborne particulate levels are some of the worst in the world, and many times the recommended maximum level. Nine of the ten most air polluted cities in the world are in China, and Beijing is a city which has to shut down its factories for a few days to clear the air before daring to let Olympic inspection committees arrive. Dust caused by continuous construction is another problem. Furthermore, the arrival of sand from the Gobi is well up and the last two years have seen the return of sandstorms due to the misuse of water resources and an increase in desertification.

Most of this is beside the point for the short term visitor, who is too thrilled and too busy to notice, and usually puts any sore throat and runny nose down to having picked up a cold. But denying that the terrible air pollution exists neither does any favours to visitors nor does much to encourage the government to find solutions.

Film is indeed widely available in China, but standards of care for it are often very low, and I've sometimes noted the prices for some brands to be higher than at home. There are a handful of shops with proper refrigeration or cool shelving for film stock, and these keep even professional formats. But it's still best to take what film stock you need with you.

And the incautious traveller is quite likely to be ripped off by taxi drivers unless following a few basic rules I've listed on this site before. The most important of these is never to take a waiting taxi from outside your hotel or any major tourist sight, but always to step into the road and flag a passing vehicle down. Otherwise attempts to haggle rather than start the meter, routes in the shape of 888, and other 'misunderstandings' are commonplace, although in many cases the visitor may not even realise they are taking place. With randomly flagged down vehicles problems are much less frequent.

Finally, I don't know how good Fodor's coverage of Beijing is, but it doesn't seem very courteous openly to recommend a competitor on the company's web site. Having said that, although the most recent edition is a bit of an improvement on earlier versions, LP Beijing would be my very last choice of guide to the city.

Peter N-H
http://members.axion.net/~pnh/China.html
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 10:56 AM
  #7  
kris
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I realize that this is just my experience over the course of a week in Beijing and that we were staying at one of the nicer hotels in Beijing, but we took taxis from in front of our hotel (Great Wall Sheraton) 1 or 2 times a day and were always charged the same rate as when we picked up a cab coming back. The meter was set to 10RMB (slightly over $1USD) to start and then at some point the meter kicked in on a km rate depending on what was in the window. I don't think we were ever charged more than $3USD for a ride. A hotel employee flagged down the cabs and on several instances wrote down the cab number on a card in case we had any trouble.

Another cautionary note-if you're trying to cross the street, traffic signals seem to be generally ignored and pedestrians seem to have virtually no rights. We got into the habit of following local people as we figured they knew "the rules". The larger the group, the more likely you'd eventually get across with all your limbs still attached. And watch out for the bike lanes, just because you've safely made it past the cars, it doesn't mean the bikes will stop.
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 11:30 AM
  #8  
Soong Mai ling
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I was in China last year for two weeks, staying 5 days in Beijing. I saw no air pollution at all. This is not to disparage Peter, for Im sure a large city like Beijing has very bad days. Maybe I was just lucky.

I also recommend, like the above posters, that you take the hotel business card with you wherever you go. No taxi driver I encounted spoke any English other than, "Hello." As for rip off taxis, you can encounter them anywhere, not just the ones you pick up in front of your hotel. And, yes, there are some that take the long way around. But, taxi rides being so ridiculously cheap, you may end up being ripped off $2. I wouldn't worry over it.

As for film, I would definitely take my own. As Peter stated, you don't know what you are getting when you buy it in China.

Also, look at your money. I was given counterfeit bills at a market. I didn't realize it was fake until the next day when my Chinese guide pointed it out.

Have a wonderful trip. China is a dream.
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 04:09 PM
  #9  
Andrea
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I can't believe I forgot one of my other favorite China photo tips! Be sure to leave your hotel several days around 6:30. China is a COMPLETELY different world at that time in the morning. In the HuTongs, you may find vegetable markets, or just see the little old ladies coming back home with their purchases. In the parks (esp. Beihai park), you'll see people doing their morning excersizes - Tai Chi, fan dancing, ballroom dancing, etc.

This is a wonderful time not only to see a different side to China, but also to get to know people. If you do it with a good spirit, people are more than happy to have you join their little group and exercise along with them. My parents and I joined in the ballroom dancing on the Bund and everyone had a great time!
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 04:38 PM
  #10  
Al, another mad photographer
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If you go to the Great Wall, set off early (6.30-7am) to beat the tour groups--- worth considering hiring a cab for the day (RMB600-700?) as that'll give you more flexibility on the amount of time you want to spend there. You might be able to stop over at one of the villages to take some photos of rural life.

Apart from the usual Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, it's worth visiting the Lama Temple in Beijing. For Summer Palace, consider walking round the site to include Suzhou Street (reconstruction of the old Suzhou canal scenary, hence a bit artificial but still an interesting subject for photos) and Harmonious Interest Garden, rather than just stick to the Marble Boat and Kunming Lake.

If you want to take night photos of Tianenman Square, go early as the police clears the square at about 10pm. Consider going to the north-eastern corner of Forbidden City in the evening also. By the way, if you use a tripod, you may find yourself surrounded by a lot of curious Chinese people, and they may even be pushing you a bit---- usually they just want to have a look through the lens, and once they've had a look, they'll just leave you alone.

Enjoy your stay in Beijing, and make sure you pack enough films! The last thing you want is running out of films and you can't get the ones you want out there!
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 05:28 PM
  #11  
kang
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I am really surprised by the tones of Mr. Neville-Hadley's comments. I had absolutely no intention of denying anything, or showing any disrepect to our host, Fodors, or misleading any fellow posters, or in any slightest way to offend anyone. I simply expressed my honest opinions based on my own experience.

I'd like to clarify a few points:

About winter air pollution:

Two years ago, the level of winter time air pollution in Beijing was very high, again, mainly due to thousands of coal burning furnaces. Last winter, the Beijing government banned the use of such furnace inside of the city, and strickly enforced the automobile inspection laws. As a result, the improvement of the air quality during the winter months was quite dramatic. I was in Beijing last 12/15 to 12/22 and had no problem at all with the air. In fact, I had 3 beautiful clear days out of the 7days of my stay. Of cource the pollution is still there but I do think it is not going to affect most tourists.

About cabs

Mr. Neville-Hadley's warnings could very well apply to some other cities in China, but not Beijing. To cheat customers is simply not the way that the vast majorty of Beijing's cab drivers do their business. I have talked to some drivers and got such impression that most of them do want to keep a good image of their business. Believe it or not, there are indeed such people in this world who cherish honor more than money. That being said, perhaps a more important factor is that cheating will get the driver into big trouble. Inside every cab, there is posted phone number for coustomers to report any possible wrongdoings, and customers will get their receipt for every ride. Nothing is 100%, but the chances to get ripped off in Beijing with taking cabs are so slim therefore one can simply assume that it won't happen.

About films

As an amature photographer, I took lots of pictures everywhere I go. I visit China once every 2 to 3 years, and in recent years while in China, I have started using films I bought in Chinese stores(not street hawkers)why? two reasons. First, I never had any quality problems with the films I bought locally, no difference whatsoever with the ones purchased in the States. The second reason is in fact more important to avoid the airport X rays as much as I can.

In terms of Kodak instructions, an ASA400 film could survive about 4 low dose X ray scanning without damage. After that, it is unpredictable. Two years ago, two rolls of my films with the best pictures I took in Antarctica was ruined after going through 7 or 8 X ray scannings. 2 out of about 25 was not a high percentage but they were very precious pictures. From then on, I always tried to avoid airport X rays either by requesting visual inspection or by using lead bags. These days, with the installation of new high power X ray machines and tightening airport securities, whenever I am travelling, I will try to buy films locally. Maybe I am over reacting, but the bad experience was just too painful.

Finally, about Lonely Planet

I apoligize to Fordes for "openly to recommend a competitor on the company's web site". I don't work for Lonely Planet. I just happened to read a LP's bookand felt it useful. It might be the worst tour book the world ever published but I mentioned it out of my poor taste, not out of any evil intention. I will from now on never mention any other travel agencies, any other on line hotel booking, any other car rental place, for they are all direct or indirect competitors of Fordes. If I do feel a book is worth (please forgave my awful taste recommending, I may do what Mr. Neville-Hadley always does - to provide a link to the products he wants us to pay attention:
http://members.axion.net/~pnh/China.html

Have a great time in Beijing, Phil, I am sure you will enjoy your trip.
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 10:23 PM
  #12  
Peter Neville-Hadley
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Pollution originally came up in response to a query about photography, since it can cause problems with low light levels, even in summer. That its effect on visitors will otherwise not be too great was already conceded, although various physical discomforts have been reported and discussed on this site this year.

That there can be good days has also not been denied--on two extended visits to the city this year (I've spent about 18 months living and working there over a little more than three years) I also thought I detected some improvement, but the air quality is in general still appalling, and worse in the winter than at any other time. I was in Beijing in November last year, and encountered eye-watering levels of pollution. Even the Chinese media occasionally complain, although in a famous recent case in the south, the paper in question was threatened with closure as a result, and its senior editors fired.

None of this should prevent visitors from going, but the current improvements (if any) are against a phenomenally low benchmark, internationally and independently attested by scientists, as well as by the noses, throats and eyes of millions.

Pollution in Beijing, both because the city is the capital, and because of the 2008 Olympics, is a political issue, and so a rosy picture of efficiently and impartially applied regulatory controls is painted.

Newspapers now publish air quality figures for various Chinese cities, and Beijing is not nearly so bad as some. But then Beijing took rather longer to appear in these statistics than the others, and the figures quoted are almost certainly falsified when convenient. It must be remembered that during a heat wave a couple of years ago, Beijing papers simply lied about the temperature so as to avoid workers at state-owned industries gaining the right to time off.

To suggest that 'laws' are changing things or that there is rigorous application of inspections is charming, but unrealistic. This is a country where polluting rivers is quite rightly illegal, but they are all dangerously polluted. Prostitution is illegal but omnipresent, and much of it is run by the police or local officials (see reports in the South China Morning Post and elsewhere). Stick balance scales have been illegal for years, but are still visible at almost every market and street stall. Regulations are neither here nor there.

More below...
 
Nov 2nd, 2001, 10:24 PM
  #13  
Peter Neville-Hadley
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And this also applies to taxis. There are dodgy taxi drivers in London, Tokyo, and New York, so why on earth should they be pure as the driven snow in Beijing, of all places, when there's so much other 'illegal' activity? As a former Beijing resident I can find my way round without a map, so I'm perfectly aware when I'm being taking for a ride in more than one sense, and I'm a Mandarin speaker who's therefore able to object about it (although I've also been in cabs with native Beijingers and there have still been attempts to cheat us). I've researched and published articles on the entertaining variety of taxi cheating, and I could name the five star hotels where the staff are taking kick-backs to allow cab drivers to join the rank outside leading to various shenanigans with passengers. Attempts to move off without zero-ing the meter or to push the one-way button for a return trip, thus adding 50% to the km cost after 15km, are legion. I particularly enjoyed the driver who pretended not to know where Wangfujing was and who headed south from Yongdingmen.

All of which only needs to be said because it's being claimed that the pollution is not bad--it is, but you'll survive, and even if it were worse still, Beijing is still worth it. Similarly, although maybe for me only one taxi trip in ten has any problem, for obviously non-Chinese people with no Mandarin who board taxis incautiously, the problem rate will be higher--although often not detected by the newcomer to the city. But as someone said, the resulting loss is likely to be only a few dollars, and you may take the view that it's not worth fretting about. Pointing to the complaint number posted in the cab is a useful way to resolve problems where you detect they are occurring, but you'd better not try calling it unless you speak Mandarin.

Although having to point out Beijing's deficiencies in such detail may make me sound sour about it, the city is one of the most interesting in the world, and improves with acquaintance. It would be a far greater pleasure to list its many attractive qualities (see the notes on kite flyers and bird markets above to begin with).

But nothing about it is in black and white. From polluted air to the enforcement of regulations, it's all shades of grey. Those who are led to believe otherwise may be disappointed.

Peter N-H
http://members.axion.net/~pnh/China.html
 
Nov 3rd, 2001, 12:51 AM
  #14  
phil
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A BIG THANKS TO EVERYONE

This is great I really feel more prepared about going now, quite excited actually, just a couple more questions if anyone reads this...

1. Just "how" cold is it going to be, I haven't done any background reading as yet, I know that the ? Lake is an Ice rink in winter, should I expect this & snow or is that only mid-winter? I'm an aussie you know!!

2. Thanks Al, the mad photographer, for your tip on the locals looking through my viewfinder (I carry a tripod everywhere!) I probably would of freaked at anyone coming near my Nikon! Are the locals happy to be photographed, if you smile at them and sort of ask in a fashion? (ps any other photo spots/secrets you can pass on would be incredible!)

3. Thanks Peter & everyone for the air pollution tip, I will definitely pack the anti-histamines... just in case.

4. Thanks everyone for the warnings about being ripped off in one of the cabs, I will take more notice, but honestly I think if that is the worst thing that could happen to me, I will consider myself lucky (I think they do it to me in Sydney anyway!)

Again thanks to everyone's posting, it really has been a great help
Philisity
 
Nov 3rd, 2001, 03:37 AM
  #15  
kang
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I agree with the general assessment of China's pollution problems but I don't agree with the assessment of the remarkable improvement regarding the winter time air pollution in Beijing. If one is interested on this issue, while in Beijing, try to talk to the locals, any locals, who have lived their lives in that city, about the air pollution, how it was, how it is, and how it will likely be. In any event, the current level of the problem will not affect either one's sightseeing as a tourist, or one's photographing.

Yes Beijing's cab drivers are far more honest than those in other places(I heard Shanghai's are good too, but I haven't been there for years). I personally got ripped off in some cities in China, but not in Beijing. In the unlike event of being wrongly treated, I encourage you to call the number to register your complaint. You are not only entitled to a fair treatment, you will actually help the tourist business to do a better job. The agency has English speaking staff to take foreigner's calls. I never tried, but I know they do.

Lat words before I quit this thread.

People may have different opinions based on different experiences, and people may have different opinions based on the same experience. All inputs are beneficial to all readers and posters. No personal attacks should ever appear on this forum, regardless what the reasons are.

 
Nov 4th, 2001, 02:17 AM
  #16  
Al
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With regard to films, it's not difficult to get the more common ones such as Kodak Gold or Fuji Superia, but if you are looking for the better print films (eg Fuji Reala) or the slide films, you may not be able to get hold of them in Beijing without a good search. I haven't had any problems with X-rays--- films went into the X-ray machines 7 times (far more than what I would have liked, as security didn't want to do a manual search) when I last travelled around China, but all photos came out fine.

Usually not a problem to take photos of locals if you smile and ask (or do the sign language)---- some of them may want you to send them a print. You may end up being asked yourself since you are not travelling with a tour group--- a British friend of mine was asked to be photographed by a group of Chinese schoolchildren and a few tourists from other parts of China at the Great Wall. Guards don't like being photographed and they will do all they can to avoid being in your viewfinder (they can spot your zoom lens from miles away!)! However, sometimes you may find two or three guards at Tianenman Square who are there specially to be photographed.

There are a few places where you are not supposed to take photos (eg airport, train stations etc) but I cannot confirm this since I haven't tried that... You are not supposed to take photos inside the Oriental Plaza in Wangfujing either when it first opened last year(I got stopped by a security guard)---- things may have changed by now.

Tour groups usually come in waves (esp in Forbidden City) and so if you are willing to spend more time at each place, you'll be able to have quieter short "photo sessions" without having other tourists being in the way.

Enjoy your time in Beijing--- and I hope you'll be able to go home with loads of good photos!
 

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