One Week in Beijing: Culture Shock and the Best Things to Do and See

Have you imagined living without your favorite social media for one week? Last year I experienced this at Beijing, the imperial capital of China. Here’s the story of how I survived one week in Beijing.

Was it hard to adapt? Not as much as I expected. It was actually refreshing to be without Facebook, YouTube and Google for one week.

Having already visited Moscow, Russia, it was nice to see its Cold-War era former comrade in arms, the Soviet influence can really be felt in China, specially at Tiananmen Square, probably the most patrolled square in the whole world.

Did you know that you have to through an underground access (where your bags will be examined and you’ll be frisked) to enter? How extreme.

The Forbidden City of Beijing, China

The Forbidden City of Beijing, China

My first impressions of China

Upon arrival to the airport, you could already feel the political influence that the Chinese government has on all aspects of life. It was curious to see how one of the airport terminals was clearly labeled “International Departures, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan”.

For those who don’t know, Hong Kong and Macau are autonomous provinces of China…Taiwan is not, but the Chinese government sure wants you to know that they think it should belong to them.

I stayed at a traditional Courtyard Hotel located at a Hutong, one of Beijing’s highlights; these are little narrow streets where people live.

Surprisingly enough (although maybe not THAT much), the English of the hotel staff was fairly limited so I had to write everything down on a piece of paper, after which the staff would use their cellphones to translate it.

Traditonal Chinese Arc in Beijing

Traditonal Chinese Arc in Beijing

This was almost the same at most places where tourists aren’t really common, including the shady hardware store where I bought a replacement charger for my laptop.

Hassle in China is not as extreme as it is in Egypt or India, it is mostly reduced to people offering to take your picture at Tiananmen Square, overpriced rickshaw rides being offered at the exit of the Forbidden City and Beihai Park, as well as random people (drivers?) offering to take you to the Great Wall.

I never encountered any of the scam-artists often described in guidebooks such as the art student who wants to  practice his English (and leads you to an expensive art gallery) or the man who invites you to a teahouse (and expects you to pay the exorbitant bill afterwards).

Chinese Souvenirs. Yes, I know...

Chinese Souvenirs. Yes, I know…

Culture shock…or maybe not?

I was surprised to find out how normal China seemed to me after the first day, my theory is that this happens because every major city in the World has its own version of a Chinatown, thus, it is quite easy to be aware and even experience the atmosphere of China’s streets before (and without) even visiting China itself!

The only instance where I felt out-of-place was at this traditional restaurant that served Beijing’s specialty: Roast duck!

Not only was the waitress extremely quiet (mainly due to the fact that in China’s service industry, only about 20% are fluent English speakers) but she interrupted my mother and I during the middle of our meal, quietly put on some sanitary gloves and started to give us a strange glares as she corrected our way of eating it!

Yes, I guess the fact that we used the Asian pancakes as tortillas had something to do about it. The waitress went so far as showing us step-by-step the traditional way of putting the duck in the pancake and folding it afterwards like a lotus flower.

The whole procedure took about five minutes in which she didn’t muttered a word. At all. Strange times, indeed.

A group of Chinese Dragons

A group of Chinese Dragons

The best and worst of Beijing

While the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City (called the Palace Museum in China in order to ensure the mysticism of its name is long gone) rank among the most important landmarks in every person’s itinerary, I must say that I found them either overrated and extremely crowded or just plain repetitive.

After spending thirty minutes at the top of any section of the Great Wall (read about my misadventures at the Great Wall here!), you get the feeling that you have already seen them all, same with the uniformly consistent (and yet, remarkably beautiful) architectural style of the Forbidden City.

In fact, out of the new Seven Wonders of the World, I would go so far as to say that the Great Wall barely surpasses Christ the Redeemer and the Colosseum in terms of the “awesomeness factor”.

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The hidden gem of Beijing is without any doubt its many Imperial Gardens, now turned into public parks. They all charge a small admission fee (going from 2 to 15 RMB)  but it is very well worth it.

My favorite ones are the Jingshan Park, just opposite of the Northern exit of the Forbidden City, offering panoramic views of it from atop one of its magnificent Buddhist temples and the Beihai Park, from where you can take scenic boat rides and enjoy a series of activities such as jogging and hiking.

PS. If you’re interested in knowing more about what to do and see in Beijing and China, feel free to check out some of these amazing tours offered by Bookmundi.

Inside the Forbidden City of Beijing

Inside the Forbidden City of Beijing

Autumn at Beijing

Of all the mainstream attractions, the two that truly live up to the hype are the Temple of Heaven (and it’s park) as well as the Summer Palace, I visited them during the weekend so the ratio of Chinese Tourists to Foreign ones was 100 to 1, which is amazing since it let me see enjoy some good ol’ people watching.

I found it extremely funny how Chinese shout and yell at each other in order to get the perfect photo of their companions.

I was lucky enough that during my Beijing Week, the air quality was relatively good and the sun shone every single day, thus allowing for some very good photo opportunities.

The weather was unsurprisingly cold with temperatures from 4 to 15 degrees Celsius and yet, visiting Beijing during autumn provided for some unique and interesting sights, especially at its beautiful parks.

If those parks were good enough for Emperors, then they are good enough for everyone, right? Want to see more of China? Check out this awesome itinerary for backpacking in China yo!

Last but not least, don’t forget to use our Affiliate Link of Wonders for making hotel reservations.

Same price for you and a small pocket money commission for this website of yours.

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Have you ever visited Beijing? Would you like to?

Beijing, China's capital, is full of things to do. All the best food, shopping, restaurants, architecture, city nightlife, and more in China's most vibrant city.

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14 Responses

  1. Sam

    This is fun. It reminded me a lot of my visit to Beijing back in 2009. Looks like you had really good weather, which is apparently unusual, or at least used to be. Regarding having your bag searched and being frisked when going into the underground, I was at first a little surprised, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered why this wasn’t done in other big cities in the West. It made me realise that anyone could bring really anything onto the underground and do something awful…but I’m probably just being paranoid!

  2. Y. P.

    really enjoyed this post – your writing flows so nicely. And I was laughing so much with the part you shared: “Asian pancakes as tortillas had something to do about it. And very interesting about the great wall – and glad you had nice weather on this journey – the photos are nice. Great post mi amigo!

  3. Ming

    The security check sounds remarkably like Washington D.C., where you have to go through metal detectors and bag searches at every single federal agency and even some private buildings. (Thank goodness no frisking though.) I also fold my pancakes tortilla style…I’ve never heard or seen it done any other way! Learned something new…fun read!

  4. Emma

    What an incredible place… The duck story made me laugh! My husband travels there a lot with work, and one of these days I am going to just book a ticket go with him! :D

  5. SJ @ Chasing the Donkey

    What a laugh (again). My uncle worked in China for a while and he told me the same thing it’s become ‘more normal’ as time goes by. I hope that it does not go too far, and retains its charm. PS: Nice Kung fo skilllllz

  6. Anna | slightly astray

    As a Beijing-er by birth, I have to say I enjoyed this post (except I really did find the Great Wall impressive and was very proud when I finally got to go :P, but that was when I was little, so maybe things are different now). I loved your roast duck experience! You’re so lucky to have experienced it, and to be taught how to eat it properly! I don’t think I’ve ever had a really traditional Beijing roast duck experience… or at least I don’t remember… and it’s something I’m really yearning for!

  7. Alouise

    Would love to go to Beijing – it looks like a fascinating city. Also now I know not to use the Asian pancakes like a tortilla (which would have been my first reaction).

  8. Jaryd

    Ha I thought you were supposed to use the pancakes as tortillas when eating the duck haha. I also found the pressures of the Government being very controlling whilst i was there. Life in China must really be tough, I certainly couldn’t live there thats for sure.

  9. Lauren

    Thank you for sharing your stories! That is very interesting about the waitress, and the Imperial Gardens turned public parks sounds lovely! Can’t wait to read more about your adventures!

  10. Tim

    Another great post Raphael. I have tried to go to Beijing but hasn’t yet worked out for me. I have though, felt the excessive presence of security and scrutiny at the airports in China and can only imagine that this continues into Taiwan…as it did in Tibet. I have read other stories also where the waitress will stop people eating in order to show them the CORRECT way :)

    Here is a link regarding my attempt at seeing the wall. I think you may have read it already though.

  11. Adelina | PackMeTo

    I would love to go to Beijing one day. My family is from southern China and my Mandarin is fairly limited. I wonder what it would be like going as a Chinese person who can’t speak the language! How did they have you eat the duck? I’ve have Peking duck many times, but I wonder now if maybe the way they serve it in Cantonese restaurants is different than in Beijing. I normally eat it by rolling it up almost like a tortilla.

  12. Charlie

    Stunning photos! I went to all the same places when I was in Beijing, but didn’t get such good shots. The anecdote about duck pancakes made this post :)