What’s Beijing Like? Everything You Wanted To Know About Moving To Or Visiting Beijing

Tiananmen Gate
Tiananmen Gate

Since Justin and I moved to Beijing last August, I have (understandably) had many questions from friends and family about what it’s like out here. I’ve also had a few from people who have found my blog and are considering visiting or moving to Beijing. Before I moved here, I had so many questions so I thought I’d start to put a few of them together in a post. I will come back and edit this post intermittently. Feel free to ask any more questions if you have any at the end. Since I also get asked about what on earth I’m doing in Beijing, I’ll answer a few personal questions to start off with.

All About Me Being In Beijing

First off: Who are you and where are you from?

Just in case you don’t know me already- I’m Joella, I’m in my late 20’s (not for too much longer though…eek!), I’m British and I’m married to a Californian called Justin.

What are you doing in Beijing? Are you working?

Justin and I both have jobs. I am a UK qualified primary school teacher and I teach at an International school that follows the UK curriculum. Justin is a writer and continues writing for the same publication he wrote for when we lived in the UK.

What’s an International school? Do you teach English?

I’m not an EFL/ESL teacher now, but Justin and I both taught English in the past. I enjoyed it and would do it again in the right situation. After I finished teaching ESL, I went back to university to train as a  primary school teacher (I did a PGCE). I work at an international school teaching children from various different countries who live in Beijing. My school follows the same curriculum as back home and I get all the lovely long holidays, large amounts of paperwork and stress as teaching back in the UK. But with slightly better benefits and no Micheal Gove (thank goodness). A lot of Chinese people don’t know what international schools are so when they ask if I’m an English teacher, I usually just say yes or it gets confusing.

Why Beijing?

I don’t really remember why we decided to live in Beijing. We wanted to live abroad again and had enjoyed our previous experiences living in East Asia. I liked the sound of the school and Beijing was also a good location for Justin to continue his work. I applied, got the job and we moved here! I had the interview in November 2012 to start in August 2013- International schools tend to hire really far in advance!

How long are you going to be in Beijing?

My contract is for 2 years then we’ll see what we both feel like after that. It probably depends what the pollution is like on the day ha!!

Hutong
Hutong

About Beijing

What’s Beijing like then..?

It’s really hard to answer what it’s like. It’s amazing, exciting, busy, crazy, polluted, frustrating, modern and old all in one. It’s a really interesting place with so many fantastic places to visit and foods to eat. It’s about having crazy expensive cocktails then having to use an open squat toilet. It’s feeling down when it’s polluted and being on a high when it’s a blue sky day.  It’s ginormous roads and quiet, empty hutong. It’s a city of amazing contrasts. And it’s big. So, so big!

Is Beijing like Seoul?

I honestly thought Beijing would be a little more similar to Seoul than it is. But, it’s just not like Korea at all. It’s not as modern, fashionable or cutesy. But, I still like it 🙂 Beijing is brilliant and has it has it’s own charms, they are just not at all the same ones as Seoul.

Is Beijing expensive?

Beijing is a city that can be both cheap and expensive. You can take the subway (underground) to any part of Beijing for only 2rmb (That’s only 20 pence!) and eat 30 dumplings for practically nothing. Or you can spend hundreds of pounds at a fancy restaurant looking over Tiananmen Square or 260 RMB (about £25) on a one hour yoga class. Taxis are much, much cheaper than back home but decent apartments are really quite expensive here. Not as expensive as London but getting close! Of course, you could also get a cheap house share or live in a less desirable area and cut the costs. Gas (for your heating and hot water, not your car) can be astronomical or practically free depending on where you live.

 

Beer at the lakes
Beer at the lakes

Beijing Essentials

Can you drink the water?

No, don’t drink the water when you come to China. Supposedly the actual water is clean but it’s the pipes that are full of who knows what -so it is not safe to drink when it arrives in your tap. Bottled water is very cheap here and most companies and hotels have water coolers for you to refill a reusable bottle (although the water may not actually be cool as Chinese people don’t drink cold water). We have a hot and cold water cooler thing in our apartment and we order huge containers of drinking water to go in it from the supermarket. They are really cheap. We do use the  tap water to brush our teeth and wash fruit and vegetables however. Most of my colleagues do too. I have tried to find out if that is something you actually should do but I have found no evidence one way or the other.

How do you access the internet- isn’t everything blocked?

There are quite a few blocked websites in China. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the New York Times have been blocked for ages. Popular blogging sites like WordPress and Blogspot are also usually blocked and The Guardian newspaper recently became blocked. But don’t worry- you can access any of these things with a VPN. It’s easy to get one- you just download it from the relevant website (Astrill and Pure are popular VPNs and we have accounts with both. We also had a Chrome plugin that we used for a while but it doesn’t seem to work well now). I’m not sure if VPNs are technically legal in China or not but they are so widely used, most big companies have Facebook and Twitter accounts and the only way they could have opened them is by using a VPN. Also, some international places of work and some of the big hotels even have some kind of VPN router which automatically gives you access to these sites. VPNs also mean you can watch Netflix, Hulu, BBC and all the other online streaming sites as you can look like you are in any other country you wish.

Do I have to use a squat toilet in Beijing?

Yes! Sorry but you will most likely have to use one and the more you do the more you’ll get used to it. Even shopping malls (apart from the really new ones) usually still have squat toilets. Your hotel or apartment won’t though (unless you rent an apartment in the hutong which may not even have a toilet at all…!) I really don’t mind using them. In fact I’m thinking of producing a guide on how to use one haha (seriously though, I think I should?). It’s true that some of them are yucky but, yesterday, I went in the most amazingly clean public toilet ever. Some public toilets will also have a ‘disabled’ toilet (which is a western toilet) but honestly, these can usually be more disgusting than the squat toilets because people stand up on them and try to use them as a squat toilet (really- there are signs in most Western toilets asking people not to stand on them!) so I usually just use squat toilets most of the time.

What essentials should I bring to Beijing?

Beijing is a very international city and you can find most things you need here. Places like Jenny Lou’s/Jenny Wang’s and April Gormet stock loads of important food and beauty products. But they can be very expensive and might not be the same brands that you like back home. Also, some people are not sure of the quality or age of these products (but they are usually fine). You need to be careful that you don’t buy moisturisers with whitener (bleach) in.

The things I like to bring from back home are- deodorant (you can buy it imported but it’s cheaper and more quality assured to bring your own. Especially if you have a specific type you like. Justin just buys his here now though), good sun cream (not widely available), hair products for blonde hair, and really good moisturiser. Seriously if you are coming in winter you need a really, really good moisturiser because it is crazy dry here. I found that usually reliable brands like Nivea and St Ives, whilst fine in Summer, just didn’t cut it when it hadn’t rained for 6 months. The only one I found worked well was Palmer’s Cocoa Butter and they don’t sell it here so I ran out before the end of winter. I’m getting loads sent over for next winter!  I also found the tights were not the best here- I like my M and S ones from back home. I also like to ship in (or buy imported from the UK) toothpaste. There were big scares over Chinese made toothpaste here a while ago. Mini pots of Vaseline lip balm and veggie stock cubes (you can get meat ones) are two other things I’ve had sent out here.

You can easily buy stuff like contact lenses, different kinds of sanitary products, make up brands like Mac and Benefit here in Beijing. But some of those things will be more expensive. For Vitamins, I have started going to Holland and Barrett. It’s a UK company and they sell the same stuff as back home so I know I can trust it. There’s a branch in Solana shopping mall.

What’s it like being a vegetarian in Beijing?

It’s actually not that hard to be a vegetarian in Beijing. There are loads of vegetarian restaurants (serving Chinese veggie food or international veggie food) and, as I speak a little Chinese now, it’s not too hard to get some delicious veggie hotpot or dumplings. I’ve also had no problems in Shanghai and Xi’an but we’ll see what i’s like when we travel to more rural parts of China in summer.

Our Beijing Bikes
Our Beijing Bikes

About Being An Expat In Beijing

Is it easy to be an Expat in Beijing?

Beijing is an easy place to be an expat. There are a lot of expats here doing all kinds of different things from studying and volunteering to making millions for some international bank or company. There are many services available to expats such as free weekly and monthly magazines (check out City Weekend,The Beijinger and Time Out), international hospitals, exercise classes in English (check out Heyrobics), hiking clubs (check out Beijing Hikers) and some great  internationally owned bars (with some awesome craft beer) and restaurants.  Of course most people don’t want to spend their whole time doing things aimed at expats, but it’s great to have these services available and they are also used by Chinese people too. I think the magazines and the opportunity to  attend exercise and hiking clubs run in English is fantastic. There are also many places to study Chinese of course.

Where do you live? Where do you recommend living in Beijing?

We currently live out in the suburbs which I can’t stand (and not for much longer..)! I know there are some people that enjoy it out here but it’s no secret that I think it is the worst! My school found and provided the apartment for us (which to be fair, is a super nice apartment) before we moved to China so they placed us out here close to school (most, but not all, of the big international schools are out in Shunyi). Although the housing is much bigger and cheaper out here, I think that the services and infrastructure are terrible. Under Beijing law we cannot buy a car so we have to rely on our bikes and taxis. We are nowhere near a subway station and it’s a pain just to go to the supermarket. Whilst it hasn’t stopped us from enjoying Beijing life, it means we have to take taxi rides every time we want to go down town (which is most days!) and Beijing traffic is notoriously bad. There are not even any parks nearby which surely is something you expect in the suburbs!

Next school year we will have a housing allowance and can choose our own accommodation. We already have our apartment sorted and in June we are moving downtown to an area which is walkable, has plenty of great shops, restaurants, cafes and things to do! We can’t wait!

Popular expat areas to live that are down town, or close to down town, are: Sanlitun, Chaoyang Park, Lido and Yonghegong.

What about healthcare?

My employer provides medical insurance for me and Justin. There are many ‘international’ Drs and hospitals here where people speak English.

Can you watch English TV and News Channels?

We have some kind of cable TV provided in our apartment complex and can watch BBC, CNN and other world news channels and some other English language channels like National Geographic and HBO. There is a Chinese run English language news channel (one of the CCTV channels) but we don’t get that in our housing complex. We didn’t get to choose which channels we had so you will have different ones depending on where you live.

Do they have western stores/clothes/food in Beijing?

Yup. There are loads of Western brand clothing stores all over Beijing- places like Gap, H and M and Zara all exist here. They are slightly more expensive than the UK. As mentioned, Beijing is becoming a very international city and you can get delicious food from any country. Recently an LA style restaurant that serves Korean/Mexican fusion opened- it’s become very popular. There also seems to be a rise in ‘healthy and fresh’ kind of restaurants. So, whilst you obviously want to eat Chinese food, if you are used to living in a place like London or New York and having every possible cuisine at your finger tips, there is no need to miss out in Beijing. There are also many Western style supermarkets in Beijing these days as well that cater to foreigners and middle class Chinese.

What are your favourite places in Beijing?

There are so many awesome places in Beijing. To name a few: I love wandering round the hutong, Lama Temple and Confucius Temple, the wild parts of the great wall and 798 Art district. For modern dining, shopping and entertainment I recommend The Village (now called Tai Koo Li but everyone still calls it the Village).

 

Starbucks sign in Chinese Characters (this is not a typical Starbucks. Most of them look the same as back home!)
Starbucks sign in Chinese Characters (this is not a typical Starbucks. Most of them look the same as back home!)

Learning the Lingo

Do you need to speak Mandarin to visit or live in Beijing?

You don’t need to speak Mandarin to visit Beijing but a few words really goes a long way, especially if you are moving here.  If you can learn to say hello, goodbye, thank you, where’s the bathroom, ask for a glass or water/beer/cola etc then it will make life easier. Taxi language it also useful as taxi drivers often don’t know where they are going (tip- if I’m going to an unfamiliar destination that I can’t give directions to, I take a screen shot of the address written in Chinese on my phone. Check out the online versions of The Beijinger, City Weekend or Timeout for addresses written in Chinese. There are also plenty of taxi apps out there to download too.). However, if you are just visiting on holiday for a few weeks then I think you can get by easily without speaking Mandarin- especially if you stay centrally. There are plenty of places with English menus and many waiters and shop staff speak a little bit of English. In the small backstreet noodle or dumpling restaurants (and outside of Beijing) you are less likely to encounter English, but you just have to see it as an adventure and things will work out. You might get a fellow diner offer to help or you can use a phrasebook/phone app.

Do you need to read Chinese characters? Are signs in English?

There are plenty of signs in English these days. You will have no problem using the underground (subway) without being able to read Chinese and many larger restaurants will have an English menu. Even some of the small, local restaurants have a  lone English menu hidden somewhere (not always though so that’s when you either need to get creative or pull out your Mandarin phrase book/phone app if you can’t speak any Mandarin yet).

Can you and Justin speak Mandarin or read Chinese? Is it difficult to learn?

Justin and I have both learnt to speak some Mandarin but Justin is much better than me as he has dedicated more time to it. Whilst I only took one lesson a week (and am currently taking a break) Justin has attended 3 times a week and puts in study time outside of class. What a good student he is! Justin can also read many Chinese characters which comes in handy! I chose not to learn to read (although I have seemed to pick up a few Chinese characters by osmosis!) as I didn’t feel I could dedicate enough time to it and would rather focus on speaking well. Even just learning to speak the essential Chinese made me much more confident in living here. It’s also handy for those restaurants that don’t have English menus as I can communicate what I would like verbally.

I have to say, I personally found Chinese much more difficult that learning European languages like French and Spanish. There are so many words used over and over again but in a different tone here in China. I definitely learned Spanish much, much faster and more naturally when we were in South America. However, I do still enjoy learning Chinese and think it’s important to at least try if you’re here for a while.

 

Sunny, Blue Sky in Beijing
Sunny, Blue Sky in Beijing

All About the Weather

What about the pollution?

Shh, don’t mention the P word! Honestly, my thoughts on this depend on the day and pollution levels. Most days are not those ‘crazy bad’ (as the American Embassy once put it) days. But when we do get those 300-500+ days it is really, really horrible. From arriving in Beijing in August until January, we really didn’t get much pollution at all and didn’t know what the fuss was about. February was the worst- ugh! Lately we have had a lot of 150-200 days, which while not really too bad (ok, not too bad for Beijing standards, your sense of clean air does get seriously warped) it is enough to make the sky grey and that is kind of depressing over long periods. We have pollution masks air filters and wish for windy days a lot. Today is a gorgeous blue day by the way!

What’s the weather like? When’s the best time to visit?

The weather in Beijing ranges from hot ( up to 40 degrees C) and humid summers to freezing (night time temperatures were -13C ) and very, very dry winters. We were lucky this past winter and the day time temperatures actually didn’t get too far below 0C. Apparently the previous winter was absolutely horrible. During Spring and Autumn is can still be very warm in the day time but rather chilly in the early mornings and evenings. I’d say the best time to visit is September to November if you can. You’ll avoid the bitter cold and boiling heat of winter and summer. Hopefully you’ll be lucky with little pollution too but it can never be guaranteed.

 

So, that’s about all the questions that I can remember for now! If you want to know anything else about visiting or moving to Beijing, feel free to ask! Or if you already live here and want to know how to do something/where to buy something then I’ll do my best to help!

 

 

28 thoughts on “What’s Beijing Like? Everything You Wanted To Know About Moving To Or Visiting Beijing

  1. This was such an interesting blog to read! It’s interesting because even though Beijing isn’t on my immediate travel itinerary, it was still absolutely fascinating blog and you had such a good mixture of questions – things that I wouldn’t even think to ask but am happy I now know! I really would love to visit – when I have the balance back in my bank, I think Beijing will definitely be higher up on my list.

    I’ll definitely bookmark this for anyone I know to be travelling to China! Thank you! xxxxxxx

  2. I’m going to meet my parents in Beijing in august and I’m super excited. Learning mandarin is frustrating but it’s so nice how happy it makes people when you can speak to them. Definitely worth it. Most of my expat friends here are already fluent and it’s frustrating to be the beginner at times.

    1. That’s great Becky- I’m sure you will love visiting Beijing! It’s a really interesting place. I agree- it’s definitely worth at least attempting to learn. That’s so great that your expat friends speak Mandarin so well. I only have a few who are fluent already (I wonder if that’s to do with living in Beijing as maybe we don’t need to use it so much here?) and my Chinese friends and colleagues speak English so well that I don’t practise much. I should study more!

  3. You fit a lot of info into this post! How did you stumble upon the job in Beijing, or where you looking at that school in particular? Ugh – squat toilets – nemesis 🙂

    1. Hi Katie- there’s a website called TES which advertises teaching positions for UK schools and also some International schools. I’d also heard about this school before I saw it advertised. Haha- yeah they are unavoidable 🙂

  4. I haven’t made it to China yet, but it’s on my list. I’m a vegetarian too so it’s nice to know you are able to find great veggie food in Beijing! I usually head straight to the Chinese districts when I travel in Southeast Asian cities. They always have the best vegetarian food, including the most amazing mock meats!

    1. I was kind of surprised that there was so many veggie options here. I’m not sure what it will be like when we travel to more rural parts of the country though…! That’s a good idea to visit different China Towns in different countries to look for veggie food. And there is always, always a China town!

  5. This is great! So much information and presented really well. I keep meaning to do something like this and never have. Now I can just point people who ask in your direction 🙂

    Annnnd now I’m a little scared haha.. what was the toothpaste scare all about? I never heard anything!

    Also, I worked in Shunyi last year! But I still lived in Chaoyang District and dude, the commute could be bad.

    1. The toothpaste thing was actually a few years ago I think! But all the expats I know that have lived here for a ages told me not to buy toothpaste, so I don’t. They found some kind of poisonous chemicals a few years back and it was even in toothpaste that was exported to the US, UK etc. It’s probably fine now (probably..) but paranoia lives long I guess!

  6. This is such a good post as it explains the basics of Beijing very well. I’ve been to Hong Kong but I haven’t been to “real” China yet LOL! My dream is to take the train from Berlin to Beijing, travel around for a few weeks, then fly back to Berlin. Have you done similar?

  7. Hi I saw you’re new on Travel Blog Success and I couldn’t help check out the only other China expat blog i’ve seen! I live in Ningbo now, but I studied abroad in Beijing and I lived there this summer as well.

    I’ve traveled around China a lot and if I could choose anywhere to live as an expat it would probably be Beijing (or Xiamen.. I love the beach!). Yes, it’s polluted and crowded and dirty, but it’s also vibrant and fun. You get all the perks of it being a somewhat cosmopolitan city, but it feels much more like “real China” than Shanghai, which honestly doesn’t even seem like China to me. You could feasibly live in Beijing for years and not see all of the cool cultural and historical sites. I’ve also found that Beijing has really cool expats. A lot of people make an effort to learn Chinese and have Chinese friends. Also, the nightlife is really awesome and much cheaper than even second tier cities! In Ningbo, a cocktail is 50-someting kuai. In Beijing I could go to a bar and get 10 kuai rail drinks or 5 kuai draft beers or even drink for free (if you know the right days and the right bars).

    Right now I live in the “countryside” (aka middle of nowhere factoryville) which is not so great as an expat. I’m the only foreigner that has ever lived here (that anyone knows of). I can’t tell you how much I miss Beijing sometimes! It’s like my China home 🙂

    1. Hi Richelle, Thanks for your comment and sharing your experiences! I’m really glad as I’ve just popped over and started reading your blog now too. It must so different living in the countryside! Interesting in a very different way! Right, I’m off to read more of your blog! 🙂

  8. This is so useful! I plan on going on a trip to China eventually, and it’s good to know about the pollution. I have a friend who lived in Shanghai and said that you couldn’t even exercise outside, and a lot of times she would come home to wash her face, and her hands would turn black! hopefully that doesn’t happen to you too often!

    1. Thanks Hannah! I don’t find that my hands get like that too much but my feet do when I wear sandals (which is everyday now because it’s so hot)! I used to keep my bike outside and it was disgusting how dirty and dusty it got.

  9. Hey Joella
    That was a great article. I enjoyed reading about the details of Beijing, it was really informative. My story is that I recently got a job offer to work in the shangian district in west beijing and i said yes however it is something i feel unsure of now after 1 the pollution stuff and 2 the craziness of the place. I havent lived abroad so I would like to broaden my horizons but not totally sure if Asia and Beijing will be too much for my first time living abroad? What was Spain like? Hope that you see this it is two years later than when you wrote your post , thanks Niamh 🙂

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