Monday, March 3, 2008

A budget traveler's guide to surviving BEIJING, CHINA

Going to Asia nowadays is fast becoming fashionable and Beijing, China is one of the top favorites, partly because it is very affordable (save for the price of flights, especially when you're coming from Europe) but largely because it evokes a certain magic that is difficult to find in any another capital city.

Added to this, the charm of the city, called Peking in the olden days, is building up as the 2008 Summer Olympics draws near. And it seems that all Chinese are prepared ("We are ready," sing the many Chinese artists in that TV ad campaign) to receive the millions who would come to visit a nation once closed to the outside world. So you wanna visit Beijing, China? Prepare your bags and your pocket dictionary, and say a big "Ni hao."

1. Speak. Let me just get this out. The one big problem with Beijing is that even the simplest question or command (as in, "Water please," "Where's the toilet?") is not easily understood, even in a three-star hotel or a posh restaurant. I talked to a Mexican tourist on my way up to the Great Wall of China, for example, and it seemed to me that his guide was struggling to explain himself in Spanish. So imagine how surprised he was when an Asian-looking guy asked him from where he was. To survive Beijing, be sure to do one of two things: First, have a handy dictionary and ask your hotel personnel (if ever they could) to write the name of common things you would most likely request during your trip on post-its. Better yet, always stick to your tour guide and never venture out alone.

2. Haggle. If you get a budget tour to Beijing, it is very probable that part of the tour involves going to some factory or store that sells Chinese items. While you may be tempted to spend all your cash for a jade bracelet or a string of pearls, remember that the Chinese are masters of marketing and would try to sell you anything that could be sold. A word to the wise: haggling works in China! And always ask for half the price (no kidding) and from there you and the seller would reach a price that is good for both of you. How to do this in a country that doesn't speak English? With a calculator, of course!

3. Look. Beijing, China is a feast for the eyes, even for Asians. The Forbidden City is Beijing's answer to Rome's Vatican and it's a complex of palaces and palaces that once housed the emperor, the empress, the concubines and the entire imperial household. No one is allowed to see the emperor, so the entire city was built for him. Of course, the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs are not to be missed even though they're outside the city.

4. Get immersed. Traveling to Beijing, China is an opportunity to know more about Chinese history and civilization. The Chinese are proud of their culture and it's evident in everything that they do. Contemplating the Temple of Heaven, knowing what the dragon and the phoenix stand for, understanding how Chinese numerological beliefs (the power of the numbers 9 and 4) helped shape even the architecture of palaces and shrines, and seeing how the Communist regime shaped the psyche of present-day Chinese by walking through the Tiananmen Square could be very enriching and gratifying. A night of Peking Opera to end your day is like the cherry on top of a beautiful cup of ice cream.

5. Sample. Going to China is also an occasion to sample some gastronomic delights that have become famous the world over. Do try Chinese teas (a visit to the tea house was not included in our itinerary but I wouldn't miss it for the world) and some of the sweets that are not as diabetes-inducing as those in the West. Peking duck makes for a hearty dinner, but don't go to famous restaurants commonly advertised on English-language website, as they are usually over-priced. Just ask your guide to take you to a good place to eat duck (usually in places where English is unspoken) and you'll get it at half the price. Do try noodles and tofu and the vast array of Chinese pickles, but go slow with them as they tend to be very oily or spicy.

Marlon's Beijing route: It's almost impossible to go around Beijing for two days because of the language barrier. Just surf the Net or ask your favorite travel agency for any suggestions. During the lean months, they offer tour packages for as low as $500 per person, tours, entrances and accommodation in a three-star hotel all included.

Marlon's budget tip: Haggle, haggle, haggle. And did I say haggle? Case in point: I wanted a porcelain doll of the Monkey God from the Peking Opera to bring home to the Philippines, but the lady told me that it sells for 480 yuans (roughly 45 euros). I threw in some charms and put my acting prowess to work, and after 10 minutes of haggling, I got the beautiful statue for 350 yuans (35 euros).

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