...and other survival tips.
Okay, I don't mean survival in the true sense of the word, but I came back from China with a slew of practical tips that I wanted to pass on.
1. This is how you cross the street.
Crossing the street is harder than you would expect. At big intersections, the streets are many lanes wide, and the system, if there is one, is hard for outsiders to understand. One thing that was explained to me: just because you have a green walk sign, doesn't mean you have the right of way. In fact, all the cars and motorcycles that are making a right turn have the right of way, making it feel rather perilous to leave the curb. My solution? Attach myself to the crowd. There's a good chance there will be a crowd, or at a minimum a handful of locals, and from a motorized perspective running over a group of people is more difficult and less attractive than running over a single person, right?? That was my logic, at least. If the buddy system works for kindergartners, it can also work for hapless tourists in Beijing.
2. Choose your subway exit BEFORE you leave the subway.
In any other place I've been, I've never placed much worth on exiting the subway at the exit that would bring me closest to my destination. Normally it seems just as easy to climb up into the light of day, look around to get my bearings, and be on my way. In Beijing, this approach is a recipe for disaster (or at least a 30-minute delay in getting where you're trying to go). The train stations are enormous and and it's not the case that the various entrances are simply across the street or one block away from one another. The key is that when you are inside the subway there are maps showing the various exits all over the place. You should go study one and figure out which exit will get you to your destination, and then walk as far as you need to underground to get to the correct exit. It will be worth it, I promise you!
3. Use your phone's compass app.
Discovered while in China: the compass app doesn't require a data connection! After exiting the subway, I found it super helpful to do a quick check of what direction was what, preventing me from walking off in the wrong direction. The blocks in Beijing are BIG, so if you wait for the next intersection to confirm you're on the right track, you will have potentially wasted a lot of time and energy. Of course, if you can get offline maps to work so you can simply follow the blue dot, that works too. (But reminder - no google services will work without a VPN, so your google maps app is useless.)
4. And speaking of apps...
There are new apps are coming out all the time so this list is bound to be already outdated, but here are some apps I found useful.
A few other notes on getting around...
The subway in Beijing is easy and efficient. There is signage in English, the network will get you most anywhere you want to go, and trains come frequently. A few additional points on what to expect:
Taxis are a great way to get around at night. During the day, taking a taxi is likely to be slower than the subway, as Beijing has notorious traffic problems. At night though, it's quick and easy and also super cheap.
If you are feeling brave and have Apple maps, you can figure out the bus. We did, and it wasn't too hard. But within Beijing, there's probably not much of a need to, the subway plus an occasional taxi can get you everywhere.
By long-distance train.
We rode the high-speed train from Beijing to Zhengzhou, and the in-train experience was very similar to a train ride in Europe. Riding 2nd class provided plenty of western-style comfort. The train station experience, however, was a bit overwhelming. You should be able to buy your tickets online, but you will need to go to the train station in person to pick them up, and for this you will need your passport. Picking up our train tickets involved standing in a very loud and chaotic line. I would recommend picking up train tickets at least a day before departure, and know that this step could take 45 minutes or so. On your travel day, you should arrive at the train station (with your ticket) 45 minutes in advance, since you will have to go through a security check.
And in conclusion...
China felt very foreign to me, and I'm saying this as a Chinese American (more precisely, a Chinese-Irish-American) who once took a year of Mandarin lessons. (I remember none of the Mandarin.) But with an adventurous spirit and a good dose of patience you can navigate like a pro. At least if you are headed to the more typical tourist destinations, that is. If I were headed to the deserts of Western China I would brush up on my Chinese for sure, or better yet, convince a Chinese-speaking friend to come with me.