Featured image from A Concierge's Guide to the Best of Beijing | Travel Insider (Creative Commons)
To understand China, there is no better place than its capital, Beijing. It is the second-largest city in China and has been China's ancient and modern capital for over 800 years. Beijing served as the capital of six ancient dynasties and home to the greatest collection of sites from China's imperial past. On the modern front, Beijing has the high-tech infrastructure and super modern buildings, like the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and the Water Cube, made known to the world on their debuts in Olympic 2008.
6 Reasons to visit Beijing
#1 Home to China's Imperial Past
Beijing served as the capital of six ancient dynasties. It houses extraordinary sites from the imperial past, like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace (New and Old). The Great Wall was built over the course of 1000 years (from 7th century BC to 16th century AD) to protect China from outside invaders and border controls. The Old Summer Palace is left as a ruin site to remind all visitors, especially the Chinese, about the shame and the destructions caused by the Second Opium War in 1860. Whether you are a fan of ancient history or modern ones, you will find something you like in Beijing.
#2 Political Center to Experience "Chinese Style Communism" like no other
Being the capital means that Beijing is China's political center as well. Government slogans can be seen everywhere. Since most of the high-ranking officials live here in Beijing, it is no surprise that Beijing's public health conditions are always kept in check. If you are fascinated by human's attachment to their past leaders, the highly controversial party leader, Chairman Mao Zedong's embalmed body is still on display in the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, Beijing, China,
#3 Cultural Diversity Means You Won't Stand Out
Besides the 100,000 foreigners living in Beijing, people all around China find better-paying jobs there. As a traveler, you won't feel you stand out too much. Local residents are accommodating to the needs of these foreigners and they often offer extra help as well. I was offered free food on more than one occasion as the local residents eagerly encourage me to experience their culture. Chinese signs and instructions are usually accompanied by their English translations (although sometimes, the translations are done by outdated machine translations).
If shopping is your thing, you will find all kinds of markets and malls in Beijing. There are Hongqiao Market (pearl trading), Panjiayuan Market (traditional arts and crafts), Laitai Flower Market (flowers), Beijing Flower Bird Fish, and Bug Market (what else, bugs of course), Xidan Shopping Centre, and most recently the upscale Sanlitun Mall. If you are ever homesick while visiting, you can easily find familiar chain stores like the Apple Store, H&M, Starbucks, Uniqlo, Adidas, etc. in Sanlitun.
#5 Food is Fantastic
One can argue whether Peking Duck is the most well-known Chinese cuisine. However, there is no argument that it tastes good but it can get a bit expensive due to its popularity among tourists. If you want a better bargain, try the Beijing-style Mutton hotpot. Since the hot pot uses a very mild soup base, different hotpot restaurants differentiate among themselves by making their unique sesame dipping pastes. Due to the diversity of the people who live in Beijing, you can easily find food from all over the world here in Beijing.
#6 Public Transit is Easy and Cheap
The first thing you do in Beijing is to get the Yikatong card (above) because it offers a steep (50%) discount on some trips. You can purchase it from any Beijing subway station and some bus stations. There is a refundable CNY 20 on the card itself. Subway and buses are very cheap when you compare their prices to their counterparts in the rest of the developed world. Usually, there is an assistant on the bus or in the subway to help anyone in need for the entire trip. Both buses and the subway had stop announcements in both Mandarin and English. There was also a display of the current and next stop inside the vehicle.
5 Reasons To Avoid Beijing
#1 Cultural Sites Dominates Your Visit
If history is not your thing, you may want to skip Beijing. Although there are modern structures like the "Bird's Nest" and the "Water Cube", most of the city's major attractions are historical sites. It can get overwhelming even for a history buff. If all you want is a taste of a modern Chinese city, Shanghai may fit your style better.
#2 You are anti-Communism
It's okay, you can be an anti-communist. Just don't go to China, especially Beijing. Being the political center of China, you will experience Communism's propaganda like no other. Luckily, most of these propagandas are targeted at the Chinese people. Local residents are very friendly and openly discuss any subjects EXCEPT political ones. As visitors, we learn not to pass on judgment on anyone or any government as we travel.
#3 You are paranoid about state surveillance
State surveillance is becoming a common practice in different parts of the world and China is no exception (perhaps the most well-publicized). From using digital wallets to CCTVs, expect your every move to be monitored by someone somewhere. The only comfort you can find is that you are not the only one being monitored. Unless you are doing something out of ordinary (e.g. once I was running at 5 am and I could sense that extra tension when I passed by a policeman), there is nothing to be worried about. Think of it as an extra public safety measure like most Chinese will tell you.
#4 Squat Toilet is NOT your thing
There were public toilets in most subway stations and on major streets. Their conditions vary but were generally usable. However, most of the public toilets are squat style. Although a squat toilet is generally cleaner, it takes practice for the participant to use it right. If squatting in a toilet is not your thing, you may need to limit your travel to the city center.
#5 Public Spitting
I will be completely honest here. The #1 thing I hate about traveling in China, even in Beijing, is spitting on the street. There is nothing more disgusting than hearing someone cough next to you and spit to their hearts' content as if you are not there. Later on, I learned to be alert of the sound and made sure that 1) I was not targeted and 2) I would not step on it. I can totally see that it can be a big annoyance for someone.