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Recently I visited Beijing and Tianjin for about 1.5 weeks. I'm not a native of mainland China and this report is based on observation from my short stay.
Beijing: The Beijing capital international airport (PEK) is currently under expansion. Terminal 1 and 2 are open but 3 is under construction. Most international travel are routed to terminal 2 and the place is only slightly better than LAX. I've been told that terminal 3 will be bigger and better. Rail link to the airport won't be ready until 2008, so you have to take a taxi to Beijing. The cost of taxi ride from airport to Wangfujing in Beijing is approx. 75 RMB (meter + toll fee). Beware of taxi drivers offering un-metered service for 100 RMB.
The currency in China is RMB (Renminbi), the base unit is the yuan. Many stores use a symbol that looks like a Y with 2 cross bars to indicate yuan price, instead of $ for dollar. The largest RMB bill is 100. Due to pressure from the US, China has unpegged the RMB to USD, causing a rise in RMB value. Few years ago the exchange rate was 8.28 RMB : 1 USD, today it's around 7.5 RMB : 1 USD.
By recommendation, we stayed at a hotel on Wangfujing. Wangfujing is a Beijing tourist-trap area with a mostly pedestrian-only section. Here's the wiki link:
There's a subway station near by and the Forbidden Palace is few blocks away within walking distance to the west. Restaurants in this area are over-priced and, frankly, not very good. Walk north of Wangfujing and look for small restaurants selling noodles and lamb-on-a-stick. At night there are street vendor in alley grilling lamb-on-a-stick. The lamb and chicken skewers are only 1 RMB each and quite tasty. We did go to a restaurant for Peking duck, and IMO the HK restauarnts here in LA does duck better. If you're scared of local cooking, there are multiple KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, etc. in the area.
The streets in Beijing are nice and wide with many trees. There are parks scattered about and they're well maintained. Taxi's are usually recent-model VW or Hyundai cars, the Taxi drivers very rarely spit out the window. Public restrooms are clean but possibly not up to our standards with squat-type toilets and no stall doors. Bring your own toilet paper.
Due to the 2008 Olympics, many parts of Beijing is currently under renovation. We walked to the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) and the main Palace complex was under refurbishment. I recommend visiting on a week day and not weekend, too many people. There are many people handing out Great Wall tour flyer's here, the prices are too good to be true (70 RMB for day tour? yeah right) and they hit you up for more $ later. The restrooms at the Forbidden City are basically port-a-potty's, so avoid them if you can.
An inexpensive way to tour Beijing is to take the subway, which costs 3 RMB per ride. The Beijing subway system is not as extensive as the one in Taipei or Singapore, and the passenger cars are kinda dingy. But this is off-set by the price -- you get what you paid for. The subway network is currently under expansion. Here's the wiki on Beijing Subway:
The weather in Beijing was a bit like LA, hot during the day and chilly at night. The air looks clean but actually has a lot of dust particles. If you wipe your face and nose at end of day, you'll see black marks on the tissue paper. During certain times of the year they get sand/dust storms, but fortunately that's not during our visit.
Small shop keepers in Beijing have typical blunt Northern Chinese attitude, like "buy something or don't bother me". We went to a vendor selling grilled lamb and ask for 3 lamb sticks, and the chef bluntly told us it wasn't worth his time to cook so few and turned away. I mean the guy literally ignored us afterwards because he wasn't going to get off his butt to only make 3 RMB. The next day we returned and politely asked him what the minimum order was, and he said he'd cook for at least 5 orders.
I'm not a professional photographer so my photos are kinda substandard. If you're looking for better photos of Forbidden City and the Great Wall, try here:
Last edited by momopi on October 6th, 2007, 11:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Trip to Tianjin
After a few days in Beijing, we took a car ride to Tianjin. Tianjin is just SE of Beijing to the coast. Unlike Beijing, Tianjin has many rivers and water-ways. I was told that back in 2000, the rivers were dead and very dirty like open sewers, until the local government issued an order to clean up or else. Unlike democracies they don't have to hold public hearings and do environmental impact studies until your head spins. When the dictatorship there makes a decision, they just do it. Some of the rivers have been cleaned to the point where it's swim-able and support marine life. The city even stocks the river with fish for leisure fishing.
However, unlike Beijing, Tianjin's urban planning is not as refined. In outer areas like Tangu, the local RE development can be described as "hit and run". The developers would rush in to build up an area with new buildings and infrastructure, drive up prices, then move on to the next project, leaving the old one to urban decay until it's eventually demolished and rebuilt.
In early 2000's a pre-build 3 bedroom condo in Tangu sold for about 2 million RMB. Today its market value is about 8 million, and I've been told that it'd go up to 10 million RMB before urban decay drags it down. The urban decay is already somewhat obvious in Tangu, where posh areas once lined with high-end stores are now falling apart. The developers have started on another area inbetween Tianjin and Tangu for their latest hit and run project.
Tianjin has a more gritty look and feel, like an industrial area. The sky is clear for few hours in the morning, then gloomy for rest of the day. Karoake/KTV bars line the street next to massage parlors, and we actually saw 3 hookers walk by one night. The taxi cars there are smaller local made vehicles, and the taxi drivers often spit out the window. The shopping districts are dirty and vendors inflate their prices, so you have to bargain very hard to get a good price.
On the plus side, stuff is cheap in Tianjin. We had bowls of beef noodles from Muslim pulled-noodle vendors for 5 RMB per bowl. We also did most of our shopping here, though I had to let the lady do the bargaining and keep my mouth shut. If you have the patience to spend 45 min to haggle over prices, this is the place for you. If you don't want to haggle, you can still go shop at the hypermarts.
There are many ex-pat workers from Taiwan in Tianjin, many keep 2nd wives or concubine ("bao er nai") there. The place also attracts many single women from across China to find work at its factories and service industry jobs. We had a foot massage at a massage place one night, and I found out the girl was from Heilongjung, which is located in Northern Manchuria, on the Russian border.
Be warned that restrooms in Tianjin tend to be terrible, so use the toilet before leaving the house. If you intend to sample local cooking, take an anti-diarrhea pill first, bring the chewable type so you don't have to drink water to wash it down. We went to one of the largest book stores in Tianjin, and I mean this place was as big as a library. It had restrooms on every floor, but every one of them smelled bad (inadequate ventilation) and had its stall doors removed.
If you're looking for a cheap place to retire, the coastal areas of Tianjin might work. Rent is cheap and with ocean breezes, it's chilly but the air is possibly cleaner than Beijing. However if you're closer to industrial areas, the air is dusty. This is a developing area with many opportunities for the savvy investor, if you're willing to accept some risks.
On our last night's stay, we went to eat at a Korean restaurant in downtown Tangu. The quality and presentation was inferior to Korean restaurants in LA, but it's obvious that they used local supplies and customized them to local tastes. The beef was surprisingly good however.
If you're going to eat hot pot, bring your own chopsticks. The disposable ones there have chemicals in them and might not be safe to use in hot pot.
I thought i have an iron stomach until i caught diarrhea in Shanghai after eating in a nice thai restaurant. Couldn't get amodium or other western anti-diarrhea medicine in the Shanghai's pharmacies and had to take some terrible tasting chinese black potion and pills which didnt help! As soon as i got to the US, amodium did the trick within a day! Lesson learned to always carry your anti-diarrhea pills with you !