Using Guides in Beijing

Jan 20th, 2003, 12:52 AM
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Using Guides in Beijing

Hi, we'll be in Beijing for the first time for 6 nights. Should we or should we not get a guide for the first 3 days? If so, what price bracket should we expect?
We're not keen on the idea, but if everything's in Mandarin (or otherwise) time could be wasted getting lost.
Thanks in advance!
Jan 20th, 2003, 02:34 AM
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I've been a tourist in Beijing several times, sometimes with guides and sometimes without. My personal opinion is that much of the touring can be done on your own, you would just need to arrange for transportation. Hiring a car and driver or taking taxis is not expensive. There is generally always signage in English, at some places it may be minimal, ie., just entrance directions and fees.

Tiananmen Square/Forbidden City - You can easily do these on your own. The Square is pretty obvious, you can walk around and gawk as much as you want. There is a flag raising at dawn with goose-stepping soldiers which in interesting and actually worth getting up pre-dawn for. You can go into Mao's mausoleum as well, just follow the long line. In the Forbidden City, there is an excellent audio tour which you can rent in English that I think is better than the two guided tours I have had of the palace.

Great Wall - again, easily doable by yourself. If you want to avoid the huge crowds that are always at Badaling access point to the Wall (the closest access point to Beijing), I would suggest you go to the Mitianyu access area, about 1½ hours by car from Beijing. You can arrange with your hotel for a car and driver, there may also be day-tours by bus to this section, although the car/driver is really not expensive. You can also then use the car/driver to tour around this area by car if you want, it is quite and deserted. There is a cable car, you can walk up or down if you want, a very steep climb either way! There are lots of obnoxious souvenir sellers at the bottom near the cable car, but once you get passed them, it is quiet and serene. There are recent postings on this site about taking a bus or mini-van to various access points on the Wall, run a search.

Temple of Heaven/Summer Palace - I think it is worthwhile to have a guide here. A guide is helpful in explaining the various parts and uses of both places, especially the Temple of Heaven which is purely ceremonial and was not lived in like the Summer Palace. However, there are signs in English and maps available at the Summer Palace, so you could do this on your own. I cannot recall if there are English signs at the Temple of Heaven, but with a good guidebook, you should be able to get around.

Hutong Tour - I have done this several times as part of a guided group going on bicycle rickshaws. It is a lot of fun. The tour is in English. This is run by a company, your hotel can give you information. The tours are in the morning or the afternoon. I believe you can also do walking tours, there was a recent thread on this site about it, run a search.

Ming Tombs - my personal opinion is that this is not worth a visit. Others on this site have the same opinion. If you do go, I would take a tour as the site is very large and not well-marked. A guide would also be helpful in explaining burial customs, etc. The tombs are quite a way outside of Beijing (1 hour or so), so that may be another reason not to bother with this trip.

You would also not need a guide for shopping. There have been several recent threads on shopping here, run a search for suggestions of places and items.

I have not used a guide in more than 4 years, so can't speak to current prices. Others on this site may have more recent experience.
Jan 20th, 2003, 03:03 AM
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I would highly recommend getting a guide. We were there for 5 days last June and spend 3 full days with our guide seeing all the sights listed above, plus Lama Temple. We booked our trip for 6 people through, and spend about $2000 for 5 nights (two rooms), all our meals, all transportation (including airport pickup/drop off) all tours and one night of Chinese Acrobatics. We had a driver and a seperate guide, who was Chinese and spoke excellent English. He was patient and really nice to our young kids, they loved him. I felt we saved a lot of time with a guide. When you see so many sights in a few days, it gets was nice to walk around and listen to him tell us about the sights instead of trying to locate a sign to read. Definitely work a day or 2 of your own in to your schedule for shopping and relaxing. Ditto the Ming tomb reference above, very disappointing and easily skipped. Also, FYI, the food included with the tour was ok, not great. If I did it again, I would get my breakfast and lunch included, then go on our own for dinner. All we ate for 5 days was mysterious Chinese dishes on a lazy susan...had it not been for the rice and sliced watermelon, I think my kids would have starved!
Jan 20th, 2003, 04:53 AM
Peter N-H
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If you are the kind of person who likes a guide, take a guide. If you are not, then don't. If you think you can get around Paris by yourself, then you can certainly get round Beijing by yourself, except that Beijing has rather simpler geography and transport is a great deal cheaper. Five days is plenty of time to do rather a lot.

All major and most minor roads have their names in our familiar alphabet as well as Chinese ones. So does the metro system, which also has brief announcements in English. Cab drivers rarely speak English, but showing them the characters for your destination is sufficient. All sights have English signs, although any historical or cultural information they contain is usually wildly inaccurate, and may differ even from the Chinese version, right down to having different dates.

Tour guides have very little true knowledge of their country's history, and they have a tendency to tell you whatever makes China seem greater and more impressive, and which will please you. Chinese culture gets a thousand years older every decade or so; the number of people involved in building the Forbidden City goes from 100,000 to one million; the Great Wall can be seen from space, etc. etc. You are no worse off reading the signs, but better to bring your own sources of cultural and historical information with you.

With guides there is also the problem of kick-backs. You will not be taken to the best restaurant, or the best value restaurant, but only the one which provides the guide with a kick-back. Shopping expeditions are hazardous for the same reason. Most of the guide's income is made this way, and any service you choose to book through them or with their assistance will turn out more expensive.

This may seem strange, but guides cannot (or will not) get you under the skin of the city--they just trot you round the tour sites. They can't tell you about newly opened trendy little bars around Hou Hai (the 'back' lakes)--they don't know and anyway there's no kick-back in it. They don't know about visiting the Summer Palace by boat for the same reason, although you'd almost certainly enjoy that more than taking a taxi. As far as nightlife, new trendy restaurants and bars go (Chinese food or otherwise), and even booking information for mainstream tourist events, there are several English-language expat-produced magazines available at your hotel, in branch of Starbucks, and other foreigner hang-outs. These tell you times, prices, directions, and phone numbers which you can ask your hotel reception to call for you if you need greater clarity. They also usually give you the Chinese characters to wave at a taxi driver, and some also publish maps. Beijing also has a tourism hotline in English (although again very mainstream, and not always very bright).

Jan 20th, 2003, 04:54 AM
Peter N-H
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Booking a car and driver through a hotel will typically cost you triple what it will cost to make your own arrangements, and so is not a terribly good idea unless convenience is the sole object. There are plenty of taxis in the streets happy to negotiate with you, and with the help of the characters for your destination and a pen and paper, you can certainly do this.

Never book services in China from Chinese companies over Web sites. Even if you want a car and driver, or a guide, get to China first and look around. This is not an honest business environment, and every negotiation is a barter negotiation, and thus the price paid is dependent upon how much of an outsider you are, how ignorant of prices you are, and how willing you are to walk away. Booking from abroad via the Internet puts you at a complete disadvantage right from the beginning, and guarantees that you will be overcharged. Nor should you believe claims that hotel rooms, transport, tickets, etc. can be purchased more cheaply in this way. They most certainly cannot, and the only possible reason to do so would be convenience, and a complete indifference to how much convenience costs.

Many sights outside Beijing can easily be reached by public transport, and getting there that way can be half the fun, rather than being sealed away in a private car. But Beijing's taxis are so cheap that using those to go almost anywhere is also an option. Simply avoid picking up one waiting outside your hotel, outside major tourist sites, or railway stations, etc. Instead, walk away into the street and flag down a passing vehicle. The complaints mechanism has teeth and nine times in ten, common language or no, you'll have no problems.

The posting on hutong walks mentioned above does *not* recommend organised walking tours, but merely points out that walking around by yourself is better than paying the equivalent of a local *monthly* salary for a sanitized *half-day* pedicab tour, and suggests a couple of possible routes--there are many more options (although these are disappearing daily as the hutong are felled for new contruction).

The Forbidden City audio tour (narrated by Roger Moore, oddly enough) takes you straight up the main axis and kicks you out of the north side in double quick time. Most of the complex is not visited. If you take it, be sure to leave the headset at the north exit and return to see the more human scale of the side halls at your own pace, including several exhibitions the audio tour overlooks, and some of the complex's finer architecture. There are also sections, such as Ci Xi's theatre which have opened to the public since the tour was recorded.

Go on. Do it yourself. You can, you know.

Peter N-H
Jan 20th, 2003, 09:48 PM
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if you need a tour guide, please contact this Beijing local travel agency at [email protected]

I think the price for hiring an English speaking tour guide is not more than 20 USD per day. and you can save a lot of time
Jan 20th, 2003, 09:55 PM
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Why hire spammers?
Jan 21st, 2003, 10:38 PM
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Thanks for the informative responses everyone!
Peter ... I think we'll opt for both - guide and doing our own thing (we did Paris with only the DK Eyewitness guidebook and survived!).
Thanks again ... *she clicks off to purchase some hefty guidebooks*
Jan 22nd, 2003, 06:33 AM
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I think the previous postings give you all of the information that you need. I would just like to add that the guided tour shopping trips are mandatory. We just returned from a trip to Beijing - we did half and half (with a guide and without). We used DragonAir tours for the guide and found him to be nice enough, however, we found that we could do much more sightseeing on our own. For every sight of significance we were taken for a shopping stop. The correlation was one to one, but on the worst day we saw two shopping stops for every significant site! We begged not to be taken to these places but quickly found that we had no control over the situation and that a sense of humor was all we had! I felt like we could have seen more had we not been in a store. On a more positive note, it was nice on our more lazy days to have someone take us places and explain what they were.

I agree with Nancy - do Tiananmen, Forbidden City and Great Wall on your own. Guide for Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven. You will have a great time!
Mar 8th, 2003, 08:36 AM
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Topping for maggiep
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Mar 8th, 2003, 10:25 AM
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One thing that isn't addressed here. I have often heard how annoying it is to go to any major site without a guide because no one will leave you alone -- all begging to be your guide. I believe it is here that I've seen posts from people who actually ended up paying a guide just so they could keep all the other guides away. Firm "no" don't seem to work so far as I've heard. Is this true everywhere or just at the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and major sites?
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Mar 8th, 2003, 01:17 PM
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Perhaps this is a reference to discussion of peasant souvenir vendors at one particular Great Wall site? I don't think it's generally true of China. In all my Forbidden City visits I think I've only ever been approached by 'guides' twice, and a simple 'no' was enough, although it may have been said twice. Some people simply answer in something other than English, which usually does the job straight away. The only other place I can recall being approached by 'guides' recently was at Putuo Shan, and at Shuang Ta Shan outside Chengde, but that was only because they heard me speak Mandarin. Usually there's no one around who speaks English, even at many 'major sites'.

I've never been approached at any Great Wall site, but I suppose it might happen, although I'm at a loss to know what use a guide would be.

There are situations in which one is annoyingly pestered, but that's mostly by vendors of this and that, or beggars, and having someone of Chinese descent with you (automatically assumed to be your guide) is usually no defence. This is commonplace across much of Asia. 'Annoyance' comes with the territory.

There seems almost a relentless determination here to see difficulties with independent travel in China, despite the fact that tens of thousand of people manage it every year. If that is how it is approached, that's no doubt how it will feel, and it probably would be best to purchase services in advance and to hire a guide, regardless of the consequences. Some people are just more comfortable that way, and that's fair enough. But I hope that the messages poste above and elsewhere on this site result in a little caution.

Peter N-H
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Mar 13th, 2003, 10:00 PM
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How do you do the summer palace by boat?
alison is offline  
Mar 13th, 2003, 11:03 PM
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At present there are two routes to the Summer Palace¡¯s South Gate, one leaving ten times a day from Bayi Hu in Yuyuan Tan Park, the other leaving four times a day from a dock behind the Zoo, the Beizhan Hou Hu Matou. Both voyages take about 50 minutes, and services run mid-March to mid-November. Tickets cost Y40 (US$5) one-way, Y70 (US$8.75) round-trip. For exact schedules and bookings, have a Mandarin-speaker call 6852-9428 for departures from Ba[li]yi[li] H¨², or 8386-3576 for departures from the Summer Palace.

Peter N-H
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Mar 14th, 2003, 02:33 PM
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When we went to the terracota warrior site outside of Xian, we were approached by quite a few people offering guide service. Sometimes, one simple 'no' won't work and you have to be just as persistent as the 'guides'. Once we were inside the buildings, no one came up to us. It's not bad enough where I would actually consider hiring a guide just to keep others away though.

Peter offers an interesting strategy of responding in a language other than English. I've found that responding in Mandarin sometimes works better but not consistently so. Perhaps a few words of Spanish next time will do?
Patty is online now  

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