Beijing, like any city with 15 million people, is full of worlds to get involved in. Tai Chi and other outdoor activities (are you serious?) are best after an air-cleansing rain, or in the moderate Fall season. Otherwise stay clear of the haze.
Beijing is a very safe city with little street crime. Dangers come from out of control vehicles or walking too close to unsafe construction. Be very careful as a pedestrian – Chinese drivers don’t yield and haven’t learned to look in the rear mirror before pulling out of spaces.
It’s difficult to walk around Beijing given the large distances and broad streets. But taxis are cheap, safe and reliable. Carry a card with your hotels name in Chinese on it to show the driver on your way back. It is also helpful to carry a mobile phone to call a Chinese friend to explain directions to the cabbie. Rides start at 10 RMB ($1.33), and even a long 45 minute cab ride across the city at night can cost as little as 100 RMB.
A drunken imbecile randomly drawing squiggles on a map of Beijing could have done a better job placing the subway lines. The subway is an overcrowded joke requiring hideous outdoor transfers like the one between lines 2 and 13. But it’s very cheap (2 RMB) and can work out if you’re going to the right place. Things are improving a bit with the new north-south line 5 and airport line.
Shopping for cheap and pirated goods is obligatory, but have your bargaining skills ready. DVD copies of recent Hollywood movies are available from sidewalk vendors for as little as 10 kwai (RMB) but quality can really vary. Nothing sucks more than coming home to watch a shaky handheld version of a new film your friends haven’t seen yet. But, hey, that’s what you get for being a criminal. Beijing is full of spectacular deals on jade, silk, art and clothes and legitimate outlets for these items aren’t hard to find. Just steer clear of the touristed areas near Tiananmen square.
For knockoffs the main venue is Xiushui or more popularly, the Silk Street market, in Chaoyang. Here you’ll find egregious violations of intellectual property rights as the vendors hawk Nike shoes, Prada bags, Ralph Lauren apparel and more. The bargaining process is well ritualized. Make a ridiculously low offer and then follow up with 1/10th of what the seller responds with. If you can keep the price in that range you’ll have made a good deal. The knockoffs these days are often as good as the real thing. I guess that’s what the corporations deserve for building their factories in China. Uncle Xie stole the blueprints and made a duplicate facility in the town over and now visiting westerners get brand-name fakes for a tenth of what they’d pay back home.
The Great Wall actually merits its name and it’s worth a trip. Avoid the usual snap a photo opportunity at Badaling and take a full day to visit the wall at Simatai starting early in the morning.
Beijing has a slew of temples and buildings preserved for viewing, including the now Starbucks-less Forbidden City, but better than those is to stroll aimlessly through the narrow hutong alleys. Losing oneself amidst the old neighborhoods full of squat tin roofed buildings is a rapidly disappearing part of the past. A good place to go is near Houhai, an area that lights up with drinking places at night.