Food, clothing, tourism in Shanghai and Beijing China.
September 22, 2006 12:21 PM   Subscribe

My SO and I are in Beijing 1-11 October, Shanghai 11-18. 1st-6th is taken up by travel and a conference, but vacation after that. Help us have an awesome vacation...

We are crazy foodies, so would like to get the most out of China from that perspective. What is not to be missed? We eat anything! Any worthwhile "fine dining" options?

I am thinking of buying a suit or two. Is it possible to have one made in ~ one week? Any recommendations where? What are the customs ramifications for bringing it back to the states?

What kind of clothing to wear for wandering around? T-shirt & shorts, or jeans, or dress slacks or what? How about footwear? Are sneakers OK at most restaurants, museums, etc. or will I feel like a tool?

Are there any obscure but awesome things to do or see in either city?

We were thinking of booking some day tours, but reading this has made us a bit hesitant. Any recommendations on how to get the most out of the tourism perspective. We'd really like to find a food oriented tour, but have struck out so far. Would simply hiring an interpreter to assist us as we go about our day make more sense than booking a private tour? How would one do that?

My the gist of my reading elsewhere is, "haggle everywhere, don't tip anyone" - is this essentially correct?

Will my “PLUS / NYCE” debit card work in ATM machines there? Or, what is the best way to get cash? How widely accepted are Visa/Amex?

Yes, I have read all of the other ask.metafilter posts on this topic - no need to point them out.
posted by juliewhite to Travel & Transportation around China (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Suzhow out of Shanghai
posted by blueplasticfish at 12:25 PM on September 22, 2006

Granted Suzhou is like an hour or two away and unless you do some research you probably won't find much interesting. There is the garden of the humble administrator, which is pretty cool, and ALOT of pearl markets, but I couldn't guide you to said markets.

There was a huge knockoff market in Shanghai, and a fabric market, but I heard that they were shut down and moved.

The Jin Mao tower in Shanghai is cool, as is the Pearl TV Tower. The maglev is so-so since it doesn't really go anywhere, and its short. You'll probably want to go to the Bund downtown on the waterfront. There is this place that I believe is called The Dragonfly and they have massages for 100 yuan per hour, and near that is a very good Indian restaurant, and a Japanese restaurant. At the Japanese restaurant you can pay 180 yuan and have as much as you want of anything on the menu, so basically you can try stuff to your hearts content. I think those are all near the Carrefour downtown.

In Beijing you'll probably want to see Tienamen Square (spelling?), the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall. Out of every place we went in China, the Great Wall was the best, most untouched, most breathtaking (We went to Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an [where the terracota army is], and Zenzhou [near the Shaolin Temple]).

Hope that helped a little.
posted by mhuckaba at 1:35 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: I was in Beijing on vacation last October. The first thing you need to be prepared for is the massive amount of construction. Even a recent map is going to be incorrect (streets missing, buildings gone, etc), and some of the cultural sites may be partially closed. But seing this huge amount of change is itself interesting.
As for food, really the best thing you can do is just wander around and find places that are crowded and the food looks good. There are street vendors all over selling in the morning, and in the evenings which are great. That said, you MUST to go to a restaurant that specializes in Beijing duck. Quandjude is the "popular" one everone seems to go to (which is why we didnt). We went to Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant. The food was great, but it was truly hard to find. Strange crowd there--Lots of expat Americans/Brits/Aussies there that spoke fluent chinese. But the food was great thats what matters.
Clothes: The whole city is pretty casual. You wont feel out of place in jeans or khakis unless your in a super-fancy restaurant. But it will probably be somewhat cold, pack a jacket wherever you go. Public transport is pretty good (both subway and busses) but you'll still be walking a LOT so wear comfortable shoes.
Tourism: The big question is what portion of the Great wall you go to. If you see the photos where there are millions of tourists on the wall and nobody can move -- thats Badaling (maybe not so bad in Oct, but still) Some friends went to that part and warned us off it before we went. Find your way to a section thats farther out. We went to Simatai, which in Oct was basically deserted and totally cool. Getting there was an adventure, since we decided to take a series of busses, and its quite far out. Fun, but in retrospect I have no idea how we did it not speaking a bit of Chinese. I'd recommend hiring a car (pre-negotiate a total price of course) from Beijing for the whole trip there. People watching at Tianamen is a lot more fun at night than during the day (maybe its less tourists and more locals? Not sure).
And the summer palace is great, dont miss it.

posted by Spurious Packets at 1:37 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: My wife and I were in Beijing in March. As for food, I read a lot on the Chowhound boards before going and a lot of people recommended the "Made in China" restaurant inside the Grand Hyatt, especially for the duck. It was so good, we ended up going twice in the six days we were in town. You'll probably need reservations. The first night we tried to eat there, it was booked up, so we made reservations for another night and ate downstairs at the Noble Court, which was also quite good. There was a good steamed bun place recommended in the Lonely Planet Beijing guide. And we found a dim sum place (not a specialty in that area of China) in the mall near the Grand Hyatt that was decent.

I had no trouble using my ATM or credit cards. We mostly window shopped though. My wife did have a dress custom-made at a place near Tiananmen Square that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We had no trouble bringing it back through customs. The dress was made in only a couple of days, so you should be able to get a suit within a week.

As for tours, we asked our hotel about visiting the Great Wall and were quoted $80-$100 depending on whether we wanted a group tour or private car. We ended up taking public transportation for about $6. It was definitely a challenge based on the vague info from the guidebook, but we managed to pull it off, and in about a third of the time of a guided tour.

The Lonely Planet Beijing guide seemed lacking in meaningful/useful descriptions. I would recommend supplementing it with another guide.

I tend to dress casually when I travel. I wore casual travel pants and sneakers that look a bit like boots. I don't know about shorts because it was cool while we were there, but jeans should be fine.

If you're interested in more detail, you can check out the trip report I posted on my blog following the trip. You might also be interested in the dim sum flash cards I made to take along, so we could order the stuff we like.
posted by xulu at 2:47 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: My the gist of my reading elsewhere is, "haggle everywhere, don't tip anyone" - is this essentially correct?

Yep, you need to haggle virtually everywhere. Try offering a third of the asking price (or less) to start with and work up. If the price isn't to your liking try walking away - often the vendor will cave in. Don't feel bad about it - they won't sell unless they're making a decent profit (ignore the "You're killing my children" routine). Even when buying bottled water you may need to haggle - for local bottled water it should be around 1RMB in the countryside and 2RMB in the city, but vendors will try to charge a 'lowai' 3, 5 or even more. The cost of living in China is so low that you may end up finding yourself arguing about what amounts to a few pence/cents, though - depends how budget conscious you are.

You don't need to tip anyone, although when a taxi driver got me out of a potentially sticky situation while I was out in a very rural area I told him to keep the change from my fare and it made him extremely happy. At restaurants etc. it's never done, though

My UK debit card worked in the Bank of China ATM machines fine. Travellers Cheques are a huge pain to cash (certain branches of the Bank of China will cash them, and some hotels but don't count on it). Credit cards are pretty much useless in my experience - you won't be able to use them anywhere (except at higher-end hotels and touristy places). Some places may take debit card payments, although I believe that there's an issue with requiring 6 digit PINs. I stuck to paying for everything with cash from the ATM.

Clothes - wear whatever you're comfortable in when wandering around, nobody seems to particularly care. I went to the top nightclub in Xi'an looking pretty scruffy and unshaven - as long as you pay your bill and don't cause trouble it really doesn't seem to be an issue. Be aware that once you get out of the real tourist centres you will be stared at anyway, regardless of what you wear, simply because you're a foreigner.

I only went on one organised tour while in China, really just to kill some time while I was in Beijing on my own. Booked it through the hotel and while it did include the shopping detours, they were actually pretty good in their own right. We got taken to a silk factory and a jade factory, and in both cases were shown round and had the production processes explained by an English speaking guide. The jade factory in particualar had some beautiful pieces and I quite enjoyed the browsing - you're not obliged to buy anything at all. You could book a private tour through the hotel, too (you basically get a guide and a driver for the day and they'll take you wherever you want - I think it was about 900RMB from the place I was staying)

We went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall about 2 weeks ago and it wasn't crowded at all - until you get to the very top. If you go early in the morning and actually walk up and along the wall from the bottom it's pretty empty most of the way. If you take the lazy option and ride the cable car up then the part of the wall you walk along is absolutely packed. Other sections of the wall are less heavily restored and less crowded but harder to get to.
posted by boosh at 3:19 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: * Food: In Beijing, eat some jianbing--sort of an eggy crepe, available from street vendors, insanely delicious. Bing, or bread, of all kinds is a good bet in Beijing. In Shanghai, I've been told that the pork broth dumplings are the local specialty.

I developed something of a fondness for the aloe vera flavored yogurt they sell at the convenience stores, but that's not really very, ah, gourmet.

You might also want to try one of the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants (check your guidebook, or get The Insider's Guide to Beijing) which have many, many varieties of strange fake meat.

* Tailoring: I had a suit made in Beijing at a sort of department store, popular with the expats there--I can't recall the name of the place off the top of my head, unfortunately, but I'll try to look it up when I get home. I had it made in about three days. You might want to allow the whole week, if it's feasible, so that you can get multiple fittings. I imagine most tailors will be able to do it in that time period. It cost me about $110, if I recall correctly, so not expensive enough to create customs hassles.

* Money: Your debit cards will work in practically all local ATMs. Don't bother getting very much money exchanged anywhere except at ATMs--they're extremely convenient and the exchange rate is excellent. (Caveat: you may not be able to re-exchange your Chinese money at the border unless you have an official exchange receipt. I don't recall exactly how this works.)

* Haggling: Haggle for everything, yes--in some particularly popular markets, I ended up buying things for about one-sixth of the initial asking price. If you do end up hiring an interpreter (unfortunately I'm not sure of the best way to do that) they will help immensely with this.

* Obscure and fun things: In Beijing, go to the Taoist temple to see the statues of umpteen Heavenly Committees (such as the Committee for Fifteen Kinds of Violent Death.) It's utterly fantastic and bizarre. The Tibetan Buddhist temple is also fascinating. I went to the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng, which is difficult to get to but practically deserted and generally really awesome.

In Shanghai, Nanjing Road has red-bean-flavored Haagen Dasz. The Cloud Nine bar/restaurant, at the top of the Jin Mao tower, has a really lovely view and the best coffee I had in China. It's expensive even by Western standards, but I think the spending minimum is only about $15 US. Totally worth it.
posted by fermion at 4:34 PM on September 22, 2006

I'd think you would miss the best of Chinese food on "fine dining". If you can stomach it, try all the street vendors.

Food is very trendy in asia, look for any restaurants/stands that have long lines, you'll definately eat something good and probably something you will never eat again.

My personal favorite food in shanghai (or most Chinese cities) is xiao long bao, you can find them almost anywhere.

You can get tailored clothes cheap, just make sure you have time to go back several times (every time I go, it takes me 3-4 trips to get it perfect). 3-4 days is plenty, and you will can spend $60-80 on a nice tailored suit.

BTW, bing is not bread, bao is bread.
posted by mphuie at 4:58 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: Lots of good advice here. I would say that the best way to experience Beijing is to get out and walk, as you never know what will be around the corner. When you get tired, pop in to one of the restaurants that look good, and prepare to get some great food! I would highly recommend sampling not just what we would think of as Chinese food, but the other stuff available, like Korean food, Hot Pot, Xinjiang style cooking, and definitely some awesome Dim Sum and noodles.

For a quick noodle fix, I would recommend MaLa LaMian, a really good fast-food type pulled noodle chain, where you can watch noodles being pulled. If you get tired of dealing with the Chinese menus, you should be able to find decent English menus at restaurants around the major universities. For example, there is a thriving restaurant area that caters to foreign exchange students around my old stomping grounds at UIBE, in the northeast.

Since you will be in Beijing and free on a weekend, I would HIGHLY recommend taking a trip to the "Dirt Market" AKA PanJiaYuan, an antique market that is in itself an experience. Bargain on everything! Oh, and check out the less crowded, less restored area of the Great Wall at Simatai or Huang Hua, instead of the touristy Badaling.
posted by gemmy at 5:11 PM on September 22, 2006

BTW, bing is not bread, bao is bread.

Difference of emphasis, perhaps? When I was in China, I usually heard "bao" used to refer to dumpling-style items, and "bing" to refer to Beijing flatbreads and pancakes (such as jianbing and lao bing.) But I don't speak more than a few words of Mandarin, so I don't know all the implications of the different terms.
posted by fermion at 5:45 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: Like fermion I went the "wild wall" section of the Great Wall, guided to it by the Lonely Planet book and a very long taxi ride. It really is "wild", in the sense that it is totally unrestored and there is NOTHING there. I mean, I just had to have faith in the instructions and so just stepped off the road and practically waded through underbrush to get to it, but there it was. I explored it alone for about 3-4 hours and ran into about 5 people the whole time (all Westerners, of course). Walking across that dam is scaaaary. It might be a little too adventurous for most, especially if you don't speak Mandarin. It sounds like Simitai might be just as good or better.
posted by intermod at 8:23 PM on September 22, 2006

Best answer: I know this thread is already skewed towards Beijing, but nonetheless: my boyfriend and I went to Beijing this April, and we had a great time. Things of note:

-The silk market is a freaking zoo. If you're looking for Chinese kitsch and knock-offs (Mao alarm clocks, fake brand name clothing, commie red star magnets), it's the most consolidated area. You will have to brave teenage Chinese girls pulling you into booths, speaking broken English, and generally reinforcing the international economic pyramid that makes you richer than most Beijingers who don't shop on Wangfujing.

-Wangfujing is a neat walk at night, and if you're into bright lights, international fashion and attractive teen couples making out, stroll down there at least once after dark.

-While you're there, go to the night market (down a tiny side street jutting off WFJ marked by big red Chinese gates) and stuff your foodie self with scorpions on a stick, crazy hot tofu, and barbequed pork.

-Take a cab to the Great Wall. You can get one to take you there and back for about 400 yuan. We went to Mutianyu, which was far less touristy than Badaling, which is probably where your hotel will arrange for you to go. It's crappy and all restored.

-Please, please, please visit the Summer Palace. Apparently you can get there by bike on a nice day, and Beijing is the flattest city I've ever seen (never been to the Great Plains states, though) so it wouldn't be hard. It's the most beautiful place I've ever visited, Europe included. It should be magnificent in fall.

-ALL cabs in Beijing have license plates beginning with a B. DO NOT get into a cab without a "b" license plate. This was how we lost $25 and it was totally our fault.

-Eat at markets, and buy whatever looks interesting. Eat duck, eat fake meat (faking meat is an art in China), eat sweet sticky dumplings, and don't be put off my non-English menus. And eat whatever you want, because you'll walk it all off. I lost about 10 lbs in Beijing and I ate everything in site.

Lastly, do lots of cultural stuff in Beijing. We never went to Shanghai, but we heard it's mainly shopping and much more international, though again, it's all hearsay. And have fun!
posted by zoomorphic at 2:15 PM on September 23, 2006

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