Happy Chinese New Year from Beijing!
It’s amazing to think that it’s already my second Chinese New Year in China, though instead of spending it in Shanghai, this year I spent it in Beijing.
The last (and only) time I was in Beijing, I didn’t have much of a chance to get my bearings since it was such a whirlwind tour with business school shuttling around between company visits and major tourist spots. This time, I had the chance to navigate the city on my own and I must say that I came away liking Beijing a lot more than going in.
First of all, the tourist stuff, here are a few recommendations if you plan to be in Beijing for a few days:
- Great Wall – there are a few major places to see the Great Wall like ba-da-ling八达岭 but I’ve heard that if you want to avoid the crowds you can go to the ‘wild’ spots which just means that it’s unkept (read: free) but more ‘dangerous’ since it literally isn’t maintained
- Forbidden City – the emperor’s palace
- Summer Palace – where the emperor would hang out
- Lama Temple – used to be where once of the emperors lived but is now converted into a temple
- Tiananmen Square / Front Gate
- Temple of Heaven – I’d say the temple is just ok, but the more interesting part is the park because you get to see people dancing, playing chinese chess, writing calligraphy, etc.
There are others that I’ve been to, but I’d say these are the ones I’d recommend if you were to spend 3 days in Beijing.
- Peking Duck
- Egg pancakes
There are more traditional Beijing foods like fermented tofu soup, fermented green bean paste, and assorted internal organs soup, but there is a very high probability that you won’t like it. I tried them all and can’t say I was a fan of any of it. Even most Beijing people don’t eat that stuff anymore (unless they grew up eating it). But if you’re feeling adventurous or just want to say you’ve tried it, go for it.
I think the best way to sum it up is that Beijing is very much like Washington DC while Shanghai is more like New York. Here is why I say that:
Geographically more spread out – even though cab rates are cheaper in Beijing (10 rmb for 3 km and 2 rmb/additional 1 km) vs Shanghai (11 rmb for 3 km and 1 rmb/additional 0.3 km), people end up paying more in Beijing because places are much more spread out. In Shanghai it’s rare that I pay anything over 30 rmb but I would say that 30-40 is more of a norm in Beijing.
Government vs Commercial – there is a pretty stark contrast in that Beijing has much more of a government feel to it, whether in the sense of buildings (I passed by the mint, epa, etc) or the denizens’ mindsets
Suburban vs Urban – like DC, there are many regulations against high rises in certain places in Beijing so it ‘feels’ much more open than Shanghai. And like DC, you can forget about trying to navigate the city by foot. Even though 2 places may only be separated by a few blocks, it may take 5-10 minutes to walk an entire block.
Culture – On average, I’d say that Beijing’ers are much more politically and culturally aware. I’d guess it’s a function of the environment, but probably has something to do with self-selection. Most people who like Beijing tend to not like Shanghai and vice versa.
Weather – It can get really cold in Beijing. Lows were in the single digits while I was there, plus it’s windy! But it’s a dry kind of cold. I know, I know, single digits is cold no matter how you slice it, but in Shanghai even though it’s 40 degrees, it can feel super cold because of the humidity. Though people say weather sucks in the spring in Beijing because of the dust storms – which come from the desert up north. Luckily for me, it was really sunny the whole time I was there and I didn’t feel like pollution was much of an issue. My Beijing friends told me it’s only because it’s windy. Otherwise, it can get pretty bad.
Traffic – Since I was there for Chinese New Year there wasn’t much traffic to speak of, but I hear typically it’s horrendous. I think it has to do with the fact that you really do need a car to get to a lot of places. Luckily, I didn’t have to suffer through any of that gridlock. Oh, and there are a LOT less motorcycles – like almost none.
I hate getting 1 rmb bills because I feel like the denomination is just too small to be dispensed as a bill, but for some reason in Beijing everyone uses the 1 rmb bill whereas in Shanghai people predominately use the 1 rmb coin. It didn’t really occur to me until I realized that in the ENTIRE time I was in Beijing I didn’t get a single 1 rmb coin whereas I’d say in shanghai I’d get a 1 rmb bill once every couple weeks, tops. I wonder how these things happen?
There are lots of changes going on in Bejing due to the Olympics – most of them I find interesting because they are public announcements about how to be more ‘civilized’ and ‘refined.’ These things range from ‘don’t litter’ to ‘keep to the right on the escalator’ to ‘don’t buy pirated stuff.’ Overall, I must say I commend them for it, I just hope that people keep it up after the Olympics!
Receipts – as opposed to the standardized receipts that you get in Shanghai that just say you spent x rmb’s, beijing’s receipts are now all electronic and like the ones we get in the US. I find the system in Beijing better because it’s probably less prone to tax evasion for both the consumer and the business.
Temples auction the right to be the first one to light incense in the new year – I heard from the cab driver that a certain temple auctioned off the 1st spot for 170k rmb (~$24k USD!).
Here are some highlights from my trip!
Check out all the people at the temple on the 1st day of the new year waiting to light incense!
Lots of old style buildings getting torn down…which I think is unfortunate
A Chinese New Year fair… saying that there are a lot of people here would be an understatement
Crickets in a gourd – I am not really sure how they get them in there
Paper art – these are all paper cutouts!
You’re supposed to eat dumplings for the new year – so here is one filled with sesame seeds.
Seated ice-skating for lazy people
More incense burning
The local polar bear club
A local Beijing eatery – Mmmm….internal organs
Chairman Mao looking as fine as ever at Tiananmen Square
The front gate to the city
Beijing map – the city is basically square with the forbidden city in the center. It’s a pretty logical setup with higher numbered ‘ring’ roads as you move out from the center. Ie. the 3rd ring road is farther away from the city center than the 2nd ring road
A restaurant offering 爆肚 (bao-du) which means exploding stomach. Yet another Beijing delicacy…but I didn’t eat it
Another restaurant offering donkey meat
For 10 rmb, you too can ring this bell 3 times. Supposedly if you ring it 108 times your worries go away.
Cool looking lion
I am not sure why people were tossing coins at this thing
…I guess this sign wasn’t very clear, it says “please do not toss incense or coins”
Grass that look like worms
Bird’s nest – for eating of course
Clockwise starting from the left – cold tofu in sesame oil, fermented green bean paste, fried dough, fermented tofu soup
My buddy giddy in anticipation of eating the duck’s blood (currently in a jello-like state)
Noodle twirling – who needs a noodle making machine when you have this guy
I’ll cheat a little and include pictures from my last trip (which was from a few years ago)