Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Survival Guide for Beijing during Strings 2006

From the 19th of June around 500 physicists will descend on Beijing for the Strings 2006 conference. This will be my first 'Strings' and so I can't offer any insight into the goings on on that front yet. I have however been in Beijing for around eight months now and though I'm no China expert there are a few things I've picked up along the way which may be of some use. However, if anyone follows these guidelines and ends up in a dark hutong at three in the morning without two kuai to rub together I can't be held responsible ;-)

Please ask more questions if there's more you want to know, I'll see if I can help.

Monday is set to be 41 degrees though whether that's horribly dry or drippingly humid depends on the direction of the wind. That said, last Monday we had similar predictions and it didn't get much above 30. The hotel for the conference should have air con which will most likely be set very high so it's also worth bringing something to stop you getting frostbite. Several people from the pre-Strings school are now moping about with summer colds so be warned.

While I'm on the subject of weather, it's raining about once or twice a week at the moment (occasionally with impressive thunder to boot). This may seem like the perfect opportunity to get outside and cool off in some lovely summer rain but be warned, again depending on the direction of the wind the rain is likely to contain muddy sand or be highly polluted from the factories.

OK, I'm probably not selling Beijing well yet so I should interject to mention that Beijing is an awesome city once you've worked your way around some of the simple obstacles. I'm generally having a superb time out here and if you do have the chance to explore it's well worth it.

The food of course is excellent and you can get just about everything under the sun in Beijing. There's a reasonable quantity of spicy food so be warned that what look like bell peppers may pack a punch. The Szechuan peppers also take some getting used to as they numb your mouth on contact which can be a little disconcerting when first encountered.

Muslim food from the North and West tends to be reasonably mild with superb kebabs, flat-breads and lamb in all forms. Further South the food is often slightly sweeter with things like dim sum coming from Hong Kong and around that region. Of course Beijing duck should be sampled though the real delicacies are the miscellaneous duck organs and limbs which give such a range of flavours and textures. The pancakes are fine but they don't taste that much better than anywhere else.

People eat early here on the whole. Lunch is often over and restaurants closed by 12.30 or 1 and people regularly eat by 5.30 in the evening. If you're wandering out to find a restaurant at 8 in the evening you will have to be heading somewhere specific as most places will be closed by that time. Street food is however on offer most of the day and night and the pancakes with egg and spices is not a bad snack.

Most restaurant menus are in Chinese only, it may be worth coming with a few translations of the basic food items to find them and point on the menu, though when you spot the character for chicken, don't be surprised if you find a dish of feet or tongues sitting in front of you.

When it comes to paying for the meal there's usually a great play for who is going to foot the bill. This can go on for some time and often gets rather animated. I made the mistake recently when going to a restaurant with an English friend of letting him pay without putting up a fight (I'd paid the last bill and we'd agreed previously). As I was clearly the host and had ordered the food, the waitress who up to that point had been all smiles shot me a look of death as she realised what scum I was for letting my guest pay. Just be aware that you may be thought of badly if you don't put up a fight.

You don't need to tip in restaurants. Until recently tipping was illegal though it appears to be welcomed in fancy hotels. The fact that it's not expected can make it a little awkward and I still can't work out what is a mean amount and what is too much.

For those who want to sample some of the finer delicacies, head to Wangfujing where you can get all manner of insects, arachnids and crustacea on a stick. The grubs are probably the strongest tasting of them all and the scorpions don't appear to sting you when eaten. It's all a bit touristy though so clearly you shouldn't feel that just because it's strange it's normal for the locals. They probably spend their time laughing at the strange Waigouren who eat all the detritus.

Don't drink the tap water unless it's been boiled. You'll be given some water in the hotel and you can ask for a continuous supply of thermosflasks of boiled water to be taken to your room.

I've become somewhat immune to what I'm told by the Trieste connoisseurs is very poor coffee. There was virtually no coffee consumed in Beijing just a few years ago and now with cafes popping up all over the place quality has become less important than quantity. I imagine that they'll serve it in the hotel though I can't promise that it won't be vile.


Taxis are pretty cheap with a journey right across the city costing just 5 or 6 dollars in the middle of the day. After midnight prices are ramped up though often there's no choice as the metro stops after about 10.30. Taxi drivers drive fast and swerve in and out of traffic. They seem to know what they're doing but accidents do happen.

ALWAYS CARRY A CARD WITH THE NAME OF YOUR HOTEL IN CHINESE ON IT. The English name of the hotel will probably not be known and in eight months I've only met three taxi drivers who admitted to speaking any English. They can rarely read a map and even fewer can read Pinyin (the Latinised transliteration of Chinese). I've only been ripped off in a taxi a couple of times but just always make sure that they start the meter which will read 10 or 11 kuai (also called yuan and renminbi) when you set off.

Cheaper and often quicker than a taxi is the metro. 5 kuai for anywhere you want to go in the city, the trains are well air conditioned though rammed at rush hour. The signs are in English though often the maps are in Chinese so make sure you know which stops you've got to change at before you head out. It's infuriating but people will go straight into the train as soon as it's stopped before letting anyone else off. Just make sure you're reasonably near the exit when getting close to your station (there are announcements in English). Trains run every five or ten minutes most of the day. There are no ticket machines so you have to ask for a three or five kuai ticket at one of the windows. Just indicate the price with your fingers as they rarely speak English. It's three kuai on the outside line and five to go on the inner lines too.


There are several main shopping areas, Wanfujing being one of the largest with lots of modern clothes stores. The silk market sells everything from silk to sculptures to mp3 players and haggling is compulsory. They'll often quote ten times the price you should be paying so you have to haggle really hard. They love it! Most of the things you can buy in the silk market can also be purchased in the Friendship store which used to be the only shop that non-Chinese were allowed to buy things in. All prices are marked and you can get some great deals there.

Rip-off DVDs are everywhere. They come in different ranges of quality depending on the price and often a five kuai (60 cent) DVD will not work about half the time. The ten kuai ones tend to come in nice boxes and work more often. Films that have come out that week at the cinema are likely to be filmed in a cinema. Be aware that what you are buying is clearly illegal and is clearly detrimental to the industry. Also be aware that (as far as I know) to take them back into the States is illegal and you can get a hefty fine if caught. As a lover of Asian cinema I find it impossible to turn down a Kim Ki Duk or Kitano film which would cost me 20 quid back home. You can also buy box sets of TV series and complete collector's editions of every film by Kurasawa, Hitchcock, Almodovar etc. for very little money.

For those who want to know, I can tell you where you can buy Chinese editions of a huge range of mathematics and physics books for just four or five dollars each. I still don't know the legality of this though I believe that there is an agreement with the publishers (Springer in particular). If you want to stock up on differential geometry or random matrix theory texts, now may be the time. Again, I don't know the legality about taking them out of the country but the opportunity may be too hard to resist.

China is still almost entirely a cash culture. While in the big hotels and restaurants you will be able to pay with a credit card, expect to be using cash the rest of the time. Perhaps a third of all machines will accept major international debit and credit cards and will give denominations of 100 kuai only.

There is of course a huge list of things to see and do in Beijing depending on your tastes. There are enough temples to fill several months if that's your thing. Museums aplenty including an area called 798 gallery in Dashanzi which is filled with contemporary artist's studios. There's Beijing opera for those with strong eardrums and extremely impressive Chinese acrobatics which you can either see a whole show of or have a sample in certain restaurants. There are huge numbers of places to get foot massages to rest your weary soles having trekked about the city and plenty of bars and clubs (in Sanlitun, Houhai, Chouyang etc.) to relax in afterwards.

To head further afield by train you generally have to book a few days in advance but while you're here there are many places to see which are definitely worthwhile visiting.

Anyway, those are a few pointers which may or may not help/set your mind at rest just before heading out here. It should be an excellent conference I hope and there may even be some physics involved. If people want to ask more questions on anything they're worried/concerned about then please do.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Jon - that was very helpful

Unknown said...

Hi David,

Pleased to help.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

You spent a lot time helping others, good job!

Regarding the books, they are completely legal in China. However, as stated on the copyright page, they are not allowed to be sold anywhere outside China. It seems that it will be fine when you pass the house of your country, if you will be able to prove that the books are for your personal use. As far as I know, customhouses don't really care about the book as long as you are not carrying a whole trunk of them. :-)

Anonymous said...

Just linked to your posts in my blog here:

Unknown said...

Hi Yidun,
Thanks on the info about the books. That sets my mind at ease and I'm happy to take anyone to the campus stores in that case. Having seen other people's reaction to it I feel that all the books may disappear off the shelves in a matter of minutes.

Also, thank you for the link on your blog.

Best, J