Some random notes on my first visit to China (Beijing)
Bring cash. Almost everything outside of the Western hotels is cash-based.
Exchange only enough money at home to get you to your hotel. By law in China all currency exchange is the same rate with no fees. For example, in Chicago I got an exchange rate of about 5.25 RMB per US $1, plus a $5.95 transaction fee. In my hotel I got about 6.5 RMB per $1 and no transaction fee.
Taxi fare from the airport to downtown spots (like Olympic Park) will be about 120RMB (cash only!)
Have your destinations (hotel, business, tourist sites, subway stops) printed out in both English and Chinese. Carry it with you and guard with the same tenacity as your passport (which must be carried. Recent world events have prompted checking of passports for Western visitors).
Learn to eat like a local - this means chopsticks and communal serving dishes. It will be fun, tasty, and healthy.
Prices vary madly. Hotel food is very high priced. 100RMB for a room service sandwich and fries. McDonald's value meal is about 22-30 RMB (about $4-$5). But a group of four or five people can get a great Chinese meal for about 30 to 50 RMB each.
McDonalds, KFC (but don't say Kentucky Fried Chicken because no one knows what KFC stands for), and Pizza Hut are fairly ubiquitous in Beijing, often near each other.
But if you can, let someone who knows the menu order, because it is hard to tell even by the pictures what foods will be too spicy or unappealing to Western tastebuds..
It is very dry. Drink lots of water.
If you can have someone help you learn the subways, it is a faster way around town than taxis because traffic jams are common at normal rush hours.
It is only 2 RMB any station any time - about 35 cents! And its cleaner and smells better than the subway in New York. It can get very crowded in the city center though.
If I'm ever in an alley fight or a war, I want Beijing taxi drivers on my side. They can fit a taxi (almost all either small Hyundais or VW Jettas) through any gap down to the size of a bike lane, and they don't back off from anything, including very large buses.
Conversely, as a pedestrian, be aware that taxis will not stop or yield it doesn't matter if you have the right of way or are in the cross walk or you have the "Walk" signal, or if you are walking right with Jesus, because they will not stop for anything and will make sure that you get your wish to walk next to Jesus right now.
Listen for horns. They are the universally respected turn signal in Beijing traffic.
Take a tour bus to the Great Wall, because it can be confusing on your own, but don't bother with a tour group or guide for the Forbidden City (Gugong) - take a taxi there yourself, buy a ticket (40RMB offseason, 60RMB on season), and get an audio GPS tour (40RMB plus 100RMB deposit on the gizmo).
At outdoor vendor stalls, bargain for prices, and if you don't like the price being offered, walk away, the price will come down.
The Chinese people are fantastic. Very polite. When I stumbled walking up a steep part of the Great Wall (which really does live up to the name), someone grabbed my arm to keep me from falling.
You will see bikes, homemade tricycles (with motors and wooden flatbeds over the rear wheels hauling all manner of household goods and produce), motor scooters, ponies pulling carts, ancient 3 wheel trucks, huge buses--and brand new and immaculate Mercedes, Audis, and BMWs all sharing the same roadways.
Facebook and Twitter are blocked (Lunch isn't blocked). You will need to find a different way to stay in touch with friends and family. I'm not even a hardcore FB/Twitter user like my kids, but I missed having the access.
You'll also need a different way to share pictures of your adventures. I put just two here to give you a taste.
Skype gives you decent free voice communication ability.
The city during the day is a phantasmagoria of architectural styles equally audacious, aggressive, and absurd,
The city at night is an explosion of the most imaginative neon since Vegas was young. Its worth a long taxi ride at night just to see the sights from the taxi.
In America, we get exactly the government we deserve, hence why so often so bad. In China I'm not sure this is true.
If you can arrange it, walk through the Olympic Park after dark. Its a party in the midst of oversize party decorations!
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