Name: Caroline Chang
Attractions: You’ll probably go to Sanlitun at least once, whether it’s for brunch or going out. BUT the best hidden gem is, Gu Lou. It’s the hutongs, but a lot of developers have been building new restaurants/attractions inside these hutongs. So you’ll be walking down gu lou wondering what could possibly be down this sketchy alley? You cut a corner, and it’s an irish folk bar, or a korean/mexican fusion restaurant. There are also a TON of chinese restaurants. If you’re looking for that authentic, sit on plastic chairs/tables outside and debate with the locals experience, this is your place.
Faith: If you want to go to a christian church, there are couple churches you can find when you google (western churches in Beijing). I went to the Beijing International Christian Fellowship (BICF). It was huge and filled with a lot of expats; people from the US Embassy go there as well. You do have to bring a passport to prove that you’re an international.
Food: If you’re living in Global Village, there are convenience stores in the middle of the campus. Wudaokou is walking distance from the dorms (15min) and has a lot of korean food/other international food. Hot Pot is amazing wherever you go.
The best cafeterias on campus: Xue Wu has a really famous kung pao chicken place, the Jiao Zi place has literally so many different types of dumplings, and the Mian (noodle) place has very mediocre noodles. All the meals on campus are very cheap. Each meal usually cost me no more than 3 USD. I think the only cafeteria that sells breakfast is probably YanNan (blue roof by Cafe Paradiso). They have porridge, some kind of savory pancake, ham and eggs for breakfast.
Cafe Paradiso is where all the international students congregate. They have pretty decent coffee, and they use real milk. Recommended drinks: coffee of the day, rose hot chocolate, mint mocha.
If you want basic Western food, the closest place you’ll be able to find that is Jia Le Fu (Carrefour). It’s a french owned supermarket that mostly sells local food/produce but there’s also a western section for peanut butter, waffle cookies, oreos, etc.
If you want higher end western goods, like Philadelphia cream cheese, salsa, haagen dazs etc — go to Ole. It’s a bit further but they have many locations. Warning — the prices aren’t pretty because of the import taxes.
Miscellaneous: If you get sick, don’t worry — head to United Family Health. Everyone from their doctors to their cleaning crew speaks English. Warning: Before you go, make sure you call HTH Insurance and ask them to send over a guarantee letter to the hospital. This way, you don’t have to pay anything out of pocket during/after your visit. Don’t forget to take your passport with you to the hospital.
In terms of safety, just be smart about what you say about the government. China has a really vast state capacity and monitors people closely, especially expats.
Housing: Global village is clean and a good option if you like privacy. You and your roommate share a bathroom and a living room. But everyone has their own bedroom.
I actually went a month earlier than my program to do research. I didn’t want to do like an airbnb type of thing, so I contacted the ND Gateway office in Beijing, and they helped me arrange a homestay family. The homestay family hosted someone through CIEE last semester and was looking to host again in between semesters. I paid the family the CIEE fee to stay with them and I got the same benefits — 4 meals/week and language practice.
If I had to choose between the two, I’d live in the dorms again. I really value privacy and doing things on my own terms. But that’s completely personal preference, depending on your personality.
Transportation & Travel: The subway runs at around 40 cents (USD) and the bus is 10 cents (USD). Both are very cheap. Cabs are also relatively cheap — also don’t make the mistake of taking black cabs. A bunch of the students in the CIEE program got scammed by black cabs at the airport and had to pay $100 for a cab ride. Foreigners are even more vulnerable because these cab drivers will approach you and try to lure you into taking their cab. Just be patient and stand in the cab line — it’ll save you a lot of money (a cab ride from the Beijing airport to Peking University should cost around $20 USD/120 yuan).
Don’t book trips within China until you’re actually in China because expedia will give you ridiculous prices. If you’re planning on flying, use ctrip.com to book tickets. If you’re planning on training, there’s a place by the fruit stands at Peking University that helps you book train tickets.
The best trip I’ve ever taken was to Tiger Leaping Gorge. You hike along the Himalayan mountains and it’s one of the most incredible sites in the world. We hiked for about 12 hours and stayed at a guesthouse at the top of the mountain. Hiking all that and cracking a beer, looking along the Himalayas is one of the most fulfilling experiences. Getting there is kind of a pain because you have to fly to Southwest China into Yunnan but it was definitely worth it. In the future, I’d like the see the Himalayas on the Nepal side.
Name: Brendan Melchiorri
Attractions: Go to the old summer palace north of Beida (Yuanmingyuan). As with all the sites, just make sure that you read up on the history of the place beforehand. Also, if you like paddle boats, go to Beihai and rent a lotus flower boat. Then head up jingshan to watch the sun set and grab dinner on Nanluoguxiang.
Faith: Religion is heavily monitored in China, so finding places of worship can be difficult. However, Catholics can head to the church on Wangfujing, which generally has services early (around 7am). I attempted to go to the North Church but was turned away and told to go to Wangfujing.
Food: Where to start? Nanluoguxiang is a gem of delicious restaurants. Go look at some menus and pick a place where you can sit on the roof. If you want a little something different and fancy, try the Russian/Ukranian restaurant, Kiev. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the opera singers perform throughout the night. (Address: 13 Puhui Nanle, Yuyuantan Nanlu, Haidian District).
However, the best places are the ones you’d tend to overlook. Generally, the older and (sometimes) grimier-looking places have the best (and cheapest) food.
Housing: Housing in Beijing is tricky. If you’re a student at Beida, stop right now and sign up for the Homestay. Like many, I worried about spending a whole semester living in some random Chinese family’s apartment, but it turned out to be one of the best choices I made while there. My host mom was great, cooked amazing food, and practiced Chinese with me (in addition to helping me with my homework). It could not have been a more valuable experience–way better than living in the dorm. There’s also the rotation Homestay, but don’t be a chicken–take the risk and sign up for the whole semester! You’re in China, so be bold! (Sidenote: even if it ends up being really awful, you can switch to the dorm at any time. But you can’t switch from dorm to Homestay!)
If you’re not studying in Beijing, then you’ll need to go apartment hunting, a very tricky task. Living alone is a bit more expensive than sharing with a roommate, but be careful rooming with a rando. If you’re a hard bargainer, you can get a place for as low as 3000–just make sure everything works. If you are able to spend more, you can get a really nice apartment for around 4,000 RMB.
Local Celebrations: Take a bus from Jishuitan to the Wall at Badaling during the Moon Festival. Hike down the wall away from the crowds during the afternoon, find a nice spot to sit, break out the moon cakes, and watch the full moon rise. Then catch the last train back to Beijing just after dusk.
Miscellaneous: If you get sick, Beijing has a lot of Western hospitals. I went to United Family when I had flu-like symptoms and received good treatment. If your insurance doesn’t pay for you up-front, however, be prepared to pay a lot and do the reimbursement paperwork afterwards. Because of that, I don’t recommend going unless you really need it.
Pollution: try not to think about it. It is scary to read about, but other than the haze that looms over the city, chances are it won’t really affect you in the short-term. So take a deep breath and make the best of it!
Transportation & Travel: The subway is king, but just be prepared to for mass-spooning with the citizens of Beijing as everyone crams into the train! Cabs are another option, but keep in mind cabbie personalities vary–some are not the friendliest and many don’t want to take foreigners (some, on the other hand, are very friendly). Biking is another option–believe it or not, biking is actually really easy–on the big roads they have huge bike lanes with barriers. If you’re going outside of Beijing, book a hard or soft sleeper on a train and enjoy the scenery.