Some notes on my trip to Beijing disguised as travel tips


Single-use tickets purchased from subway vending machines are valid only on the day of purchase for use in that station. Do not buy your return ticket at the same time as your outbound ticket because it will not work. This detail is clearly explained on the ticket that you receive after you have paid for it. (Also, the vending machine will ask you how many "sheets" you want. It's asking how many tickets you want.)

Subway station names are printed in both Chinese and pinyin, but the pinyin omits the tone markers, which means that you will have no idea how you're supposed to pronounce the station name, should anybody ask you to say it. (See below.)

Unlike in some cities, where the subway logo is bright and distinctive (and therefore easy to spot from a long way away), the logo for the Beijing subway is not consistent in color, which makes it hard to pick out from a busy streetscape. (One sign I saw used the high-visibility color scheme of beige-on-brown.) The logo is a monogram of the Latin letters "D" and "G", because the Mandarin word for "subway" is pronounced "dì-tiě". You might think they would use "D" and "T", but you're being too literal.

Even worse, the Olympic Green station entrance nearest the convention center is so unobtrusively marked that if you aren't standing on the correct side of the building looking directly at it, you won't see the sign at all and you will end up spending an hour walking around Beijing looking for it. (For reference, the station entrance is opposite convention center entrance C-2.)

When you fail to find the Olympic Green station entrance, you might consider going to a security guard booth (they are all over Beijing, the city being somewhat security-obsessed in a mostly-theater sort of way) holding a subway map with the Olympic Green station circled and asking, "火車?" because you don't know the Mandarin word for "subway" and have to make do by asking for the "train". Do not expect the security guard to have any clue what you're asking for. (Okay, I sort of undermined myself by pronouncing the first word in Mandarin but the second in Cantonese, because the two languages occupy similar portions of my brain and I often get them mixed up. But still, the first two cues...)

In general, if you ask for directions but don't know more than a few dozen words of Mandarin, you're going to be in a world of hurt. My plan was to hold a map, point at it, and ask, "我在哪裡?" ("Where am I?"), and then calculate what direction to head based on the answer. Do not expect people to answer the question you ask. They will instead ask you other questions like "你去哪兒?" ("Where are you going?") but since answering that question is beyond your vocabulary, all you can do is repeat your original question, and they will give up, frustrated. Telling them that you're from the United States doesn't help, because they don't speak English.

(The "Where am I?" technique worked great in Germany. The person I asked would locate me on the map, and even orient the map, then follow up with additional questions that I struggled to understand and answer.)

It has been suggested that my profound difficulty in getting directions was exacerbated by the fact that I look like somebody who should know Mandarin. If I were some European-looking person, I wouldn't have had as much of a problem because, I'm told, Chinese people naturally assume that if they see a Chinese person on the street, that person speaks Mandarin. (The person may speak a regional language as well, but you can count on them speaking at least Mandarin.) If you look Chinese but don't speak Mandarin, then they will just get frustrated at this Chinese person who refuses to speak Chinese.

This roughly matched my experience. Pretty much everybody assumed that I spoke Mandarin. The exception? The street hustlers and scam artists. They had me pegged for a foreigner.

By the way, I eventually solved my problem by looking for a bank. The manager on duty spoke some English, and combined with my rudimentary Mandarin, Cantonese, and Hokkien (thank heaven for cognates), I was able to get the information I needed. Of course, by that time, I had wandered so far astray that the nearest subway station was nowhere near the one I was looking for originally!

Oh, and do not expect the hotel concierge to give you an up-to-date map. The information on the map had not been updated to take into account recent subway expansion, which means that its directions on how to get to points of interest were unnecessarily cumbersome. (What's more, the hotel itself did not appear on the map, because it was covered by an inset of the Olympic stadiums. This makes it hard to orient yourself once you step outside.) In fact, most of the time the street I was standing on didn't appear anywhere on the map (or at least I couldn't find it), so I had no clue where I was.

The air pollution in Beijing is legendary. The week before I arrived, the United States Embassy declared that the Air Pollution Index in Beijing topped 500, earning the rating "Hazardous for all people." On the other hand, the official Chinese government pollution index was "only" 341. (Mind you, 341 is still off the chart. For grins, compare the scales used by mainland China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.) You don't really notice the effect of the air pollution until you return to your hotel at the end of a day outdoors and wonder why your throat is sore and you feel like you spent the day in a smoke-filled bar.

Walking through the Forbidden City makes you feel like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. You fight your way across a courtyard to reach the building at the other end. Upon reaching the building, you cross the gate and before you lies... another seemingly-identical courtyard. This repeats about twenty-five bazillion times. They should really call it the Forbidden County.

If you're trying to get to the Summer Palace, do not accidentally leave your map in your hotel room thinking that "This is such a prominent tourist location it must certainly have adequate signage, or at least be present on the 'things nearby' map at the station." The only nearby attraction on the map at the station is the Old Summer Palace. The only directions to the Summer Palace is a single arrow on the plaza level of the station. The arrow tells you to Frogger across a busy four-lane street (and over the fence). If you go to the crosswalk some distance away, you end up wandering in the wrong direction for a while and turning around when you figure "This can't be right." On the way back, you try a slight variation on the path out of the station and notice that there's a directional sign for the Summer Palace facing away from the station. (I.e., only people returning to the station can see it.) You follow that arrow and wonder if you're on the right street since it's pretty much an empty street as far as the eye can see, but you gradually find tour buses so you figure you're getting closer. You then find the Summer Palace parking lot and say, "Cool, there must certainly be a sign to the Summer Palace from the parking lot" but you'd be wrong. You then see a tour group in the distance and take your chances that they are going into the Summer Palace (rather than returning) and follow them down an unmarked side street, then another unmarked side street, before spotting the entrance to the Summer Palace.

China clearly has yet to figure out this "foreign tourists not visiting as part of a guided tour" thing. My guess is that since it was a closed country for so long, there was no need for directional signage because all foreign tourists were necessarily accompanied by a government-approved tour guide, and the government-approved tour guide knows how to get there.

The Summer Palace is very scenic. I bet it's even prettier in the summer.

Orthographic note: Out of habit, I use traditional characters even though China uses simplified characters. With one exception, I'm reasonably comfortable with reading both sets of characters, though when writing I prefer traditional. Traditional characters feel more formal and "standard" to me, whereas simplified characters feel too casual for normal use. (Like writing "u" and "b4" instead of "you" and "before".)

The one exception? The character for "car": 車. The simplified version is 车 which to me is unrecognizable because it destroys the ideographic representation of the top view of a car. (The central box is the body of the car, and the horizontal bars at the top and bottom are the axles. The simplified version is just a number "4" with some extra bars.)

Mostly-theater: X-ray machines are omnipresent, but they are largely ignored. People just walk right on past them. The TechEd conference I attended had three security checkpoints: One with an X-ray machine and a metal detector, and two additional checkpoints where security personnel checked that you had a valid badge before letting you pass. What nobody appeared to notice is that if you took the publically-accessible skybridge from the Intercontinental Beijing Beichen hotel next door, you could enter the inner sanctum of the conference without ever passing through a security checkpoint.

Comments (34)
  1. Kim says:

    "China uses simplified characters."

    Depending on you definition of "China."

  2. RobertWrayUK says:

    Time for a Geo-Political Nit-Pickers corner? Good grief!

  3. Sven says:

    "If I were some European-looking person, I wouldn't have had as much of a problem because, I'm told, Chinese people naturally assume that if they see a Chinese person on the street, that person speaks Mandarin."

    I'm familiar with that phenomenon, as well. I had a friend here in Tokyo who is actually Canadian, but her parents are Vietnamese, so she looks Asian. Whenever we went anywhere, if I asked a question in Japanese, they'd reply to her, under the assumption that she spoke Japanese (even though I asked the question). Our Japanese skills were actually quite similar, since we were in the same language course (that's where I knew her from).

  4. Robert Morris says:

    I wish this would happen to me. I look so United-States-ian that people insist on speaking English to me everywhere I go, even when I was in college on a language immersion trip. (I think one of my friends got around the problem by claiming she was Norwegian, which her parents really were–not that English, IIRC, isn't a required part of school curriculum there.)

  5. Greg says:

    I love posts such as this one!

  6. Gabe says:

    Back in high school I knew a girl whose mother was of Japanese descent. Apparently that made her look Chinese-enough. When she went to China with her father everybody assumed she was the local tour guide for the American, so they spoke Chinese to her instead of attempting to speak English to her father. Obviously this was a problem because even if she spoke her mother's language, it's nowhere near Chinese.

  7. Cherry says:

    Quote: >>The air pollution in Beijing is legendary. The week before I arrived, the United States Embassy declared that the Air Pollution Index in Beijing topped 500, earning the rating "Hazardous for all people."<<

    This sentence makes me laugh. You know why?

    It's because in Salzburg, a (relatively) big city in Austria, Chinese tourists often wear a mouthguard (don't know if the word is right), to protect themselves from pullution or disease-causing agents in the air, I assume. Like on this picture: http://www.ard.ndr.de/…/mundschutz100_v-ardgross.jpg

  8. Almanac says:

    I love Traditional Chinese much much better although I am a pure PRC. And yes we assume every Chinese looking guy a Chinese. You know, you see thousands of Chinese looking guys passing in front of you everyday, it is an impression strong enough that you cannot easily shake off.

  9. Marcel says:

    "The arrow tells you to Frogger across a busy four-lane street"

    Well done, Sir! Had a good laugh at this great phrase!

    [Forgot to mention: On the other side of the street is… the other half of the train station. So the next thing they expect you to do is, um, climb over the building? -Raymond]
  10. Tiff says:

    On being given directions: What's even worse is that if you ask someone for directions and they don't know how to get there, they won't say, "Sorry, I don't know." Instead, they'll make it up and point you in a COMPLETELY wrong direction. Happened to me about a dozen times there.

  11. Jim DeLaHunt says:

    Apropos of looking like or not looking like a foreigner, James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine has had an interesting series on his blog for the last couple of months about just this topic. Here's the last (so far) post in the series; work backwards from there: http://www.theatlantic.com/…/67480 .

  12. dnm says:

    great post…only thing is that you exposed a security vulnerability in the last para :)

  13. dbt says:

    My take on the omnipresent security "guards" is that it's a jobs thing, not a security thing.

  14. bdodson says:

    Now i'm reminiscing about Beijing – it's awesome despite all of the cavaets (confusion and pollution mostly).

    I'd have to agree with the above commenter that it seemed like everyone wanted to speak English to me if they could do so at all and refused to let me try to speak Mandarin. Of course it seemed like I met a lot of people who spoke English quite well, and I am a white person – some of the Asian Americans in our group had a pretty rough go of it I think.

  15. tom says:

    I am surprised you did not have a colleague as a guide. There are not many city as big as Beijing in terms of population, residents alone, in this world. And consider the history of this city too. If you you are going to explore a large code base with a long history in which people have put in so much changes, and you usually want to get some guidance before you start. Or you'll at least be missing some interesting stories. In a sense,your blog has been our guide to Windows and telling many interesting stories we would be ignorant of otherwise.

    The fact you look Chinese may also gave yourself unfounded confidence that you could get it through alone. My experience, it'll be much easier to get through a jungle than a crowd where I do not speak their language. As you experience showed, having been grown up in American, you are probably not at an advantageous status of understanding China and Chinese than your non-Asian-looking American folks. By China I mean both the people and place where they make a living on everyday nowadays, and by Chinese I mean the language and history. If you started your trip with that kind of consciousness you would probably have enjoyed your journey more.

    Finally, allow me to join your Beijing bash. I always remember it as being gray and cold and avoid going there as much as I can. I did not register in the Tech Ed just because it was in Beijing, even Raymond would be there. Declaimer, I am in Shanghai, so you know how much my comments about Beijing count;-)

    [My colleagues were busy running the TechEd conference. I didn't have any confidence that I would be able communicate with anybody. My mistake was assuming that maps would be vaguely accurate. This was an "I have four hours free, what can I do?" exercise. -Raymond]
  16. Donald says:

    I spent a few months in Taipei once.  My Mandarin was pretty meager, but my pronunciation was excellent; so naturally once I opened my mouth people assumed I was fluent.  Fortunately, one of the very first things I learned to say was "I can't speak (much) Mandarin."

  17. Xiaoyin says:

    > The one exception? The character for "car": 車. The simplified version is 车 which to me is unrecognizable because it destroys the ideographic representation of the top view of a car.

    I agree. However, 車 is a graphic representation of a "wagon, carriage", the original meaning. It hardly resembles a car. In the 20th century, the meaning expanded to include another means of transportation: cars.

    [I know that, but I decided not to go deep into etymology because I figured people could've figured that out. -Raymond]
  18. Samat Jain says:

    I like to think crowd-sourced mapping projects would mitigate problems like out-of-date maps (read: <a href="http://www.openstreetmap.org/…/a&gt;), but then you realize that <a href="http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/…/content_821274.htm">crowd-sourced mapping is illegal in China</a>.

  19. Mark says:

    Xiaoyin: the same applies to the word 'car'.

  20. greenlight says:

    My number one travel tip is to grab a local prepaid SIM card with a data plan and then just use Google Maps religiously the whole trip. I made it around Beijing without knowing a word of Mandarin by using prepaid 80 yuan mobile broadband card and an iPhone. All the locals I spent time with were absolutely amazed that I used the subway – some girls I met who were from outside of Beijing just used taxis instead of figuring it out, and a guide at the Summer Palace pointed me in the direction of the taxi stand near the exit, and when I said "well the subway is the other direction" she acted as if I was the most impressive person in the world. Also, Google's maps were very detailed and up-to-date, showing all the subway exists etc.

  21. John Muller says:

    "I have four hours free, what can I do?"

    I recall there was a TV show based on a group of people taking a three hour tour… a three hour tour…

  22. Cheong says:

    Regarding pronounciation of "車", I think the word sounds close enough in both Mandarin and Cantonese, so people speaking Mandarin shouldn't misunderstand it. Instead, he probably thinking you're going to railway station which could be far away.

    Just like if you ask and mention "火車" in Hong Kong, most people will just think you're asking for instruction to get to a KCR station instead of MTR.

    Regarding pinyin name of stations, you should probably just go ahead of pronouncing it as if it were English, and let them figure out. If you mentioned "火車" and then the pinyin station name, there could be chance that they can at least tell you how to get to a nearest station. (Since some Metro station's name does sound similar to railway station, I think this trick wouldn't always work.)

    And if your traval plan works closely with Metro, you should get a metro map from CS counter on the first metro station you visit. Not only they have latest map on Metro expansions, in your case you could just pointing on Metro logo and they should recognise you're going to take a ride on Metro.

  23. Drizzt says:

    And, guess what? I happened exactly the same for me.

    Yeah, but in France.

    No one speaking english, hidden direction signals (usually put them on the other sides of the crossings, and really really small), a devious metro system in Paris, etc. etc.

  24. steveg says:

    I had exactly the same problem in Beijing, being unable to ask someone where I was on the map (in fairly well practiced communication-through-mime-and-hand-waving).

    In the Forbidden City, if you can (and if they still have it) you *must* listen to the English language commentary by Roger Moore. It's hilarious; the man was taking the mickey.

    Outside Beijing I found hustlers etc weren't as much of a problem; China has a massive internal tourism industry. Once you're slightly off the international tourist path it becomes less of an issue.

    The only other issue I had in China was ordering meals from my Lonely Planet guide book — I always got the first thing on the list until I crossed it out.

  25. Jeff says:

    The people in sushi restaurants, in America, get mad at me because I look Japanese, but I don't know how to speak the language. I had one waitress yell at me in Japanese and then refuse to serve me (another waitress was ok with it).

    I am not Japanese at all :O.

  26. Ian says:

    @Drizzt: You'll find Parisians are mostly very happy to try to help you in English – provided you at least make an effort to try French with them first.

    As for the Metro, all you need to know is that directions are given by the station at the end of the line, not 'eastbound', 'southbound', etc as they are in London (and probably elsewhere).

  27. Florian K. says:

    @Drizzt:

    I was in France this summer (first day from northern Germany to Milan, Italy, then ten days from Nice to Lourdes/Gavarnie, then one week through the country to Alps, Switzerland, Alsace, and from there back to Germany), and my general experience was that most people spoke at least some English. Granted, I speak enough French for such a voyage, but the guys I was travelling with don't, so the French switched to English when they saw their non-understanding looks.

    There was exactly one guy deep in the country who spoke only French ("Parlez-vous anglais?" – "Non. Parlez-vous francais?"), and a girl at our hotel in Lausanne (French part of Switzerland) who preferred German with a sweet French accent over English, but other than that, they all spoke English and were very helpful. The signs were also quite good, most of the time.

    We found this kind of funny since we rather expected that they mostly refuse to speak English outside of Paris, but since you got problems exactly there, it seems to be the opposite – but then, Ian may be right, outside of international tourist places, they're more helpful if you try some French at first, even if it's just that your French is not very good.

  28. jim says:

    @Ian: I noticed this phenomenon when we went to Paris in the summer. At breakfast in the hotel, I would ask a waiter for something in French, and he would reply in English. At a nearby table was a family of Americans, ordering stuff in English … and none of the waiters would speak anything but French to them.

  29. Gregory Kong says:

    @jim: The trick is to speak some /other/ language in France, preferably one that you know reasonably fluently. I personally would go for Hakka, Hokkien (Chinese dialects), or Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysia's national language) for preference. Chances are either (a) they'd speak English back hoping this horrible foreigner might understand it or (b) they'd reply in the same language, and in both cases you'd be able to communicate just fine.

  30. zd says:

    Actually, the logo is a monogram of the letters B, G, D

    The meaning is left to the reader as an exercise :)

  31. Drak says:

    @Xiaoyin, Raymond: my first thought was indeed that it looked like one of those people-drawn carriages you (used to) see in Hong Kong quite a lot.

  32. DWalker says:

    Great post.  Reminds me of my trip to Amsterdam, where another American friend and I were standing on a street looking at a map.  A very helpful local was walking by, and he stopped, and helped us tremendously, in perfect English.  We were impressed.

  33. Pavel says:

    Well… Was it forbidden to bring a GPS into a country?

    Even when travelling in Europe, where chance of meeting someone not speaking English is quite low, I always carry a GPS, just to be sure.

  34. Nawak says:

    I can't really say anything about the helpfulness of Parisians. They are generally regarded as being assholes but it may be just an old reputation.

    See for instance these ads:

    http://www.dailymotion.com/…/xvthi_pub-le-parisien-montage_ads

    http://www.culturepub.fr/…/le-parisien-paillasson

    ("The Parisian. Better to have it as a newspaper")

    Regarding the directions signs, you have to remember that a lot in France has been made for the cars, so the directions may indeed be unadapted for tourists (If it is really the case in such a touristic city, I agree it is strange!)

    Traveling by car, I have always found the directions signs to be helpful and put at the right time. When you cross the border to Spain, you will inevitably doubt at a moment or another because the city name you were following on the directions disappears or isn't present at a crucial intersection, etc.

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