Austin, Tex., couple John Milton and Amy Bush are going to the capital of China for four days and want help navigating the city.
Amy Bush and John Milton of Austin, Tex. John is a computer systems analyst. "A super geek!" says Amy, laughing. "No, John is laid-back and goes with the flow." She's a career counselor at St. Edward's University, a small liberal arts school. "I'm more of a social butterfly. And I'll choose shopping over adventure any day." Also pictured is the couple's 8-year-old Maltese, Fisher.
Where They're Going
To celebrate her birthday and the couple's sixth anniversary, which are only a few weeks apart, John surprised Amy with a trip to Beijing. "I found the deal online," he says. "It was too good to pass up." The package from Gate 1 Travel included round-trip airfare from San Francisco and five nights' hotel for $699. John booked connecting flights from Austin through the tour operator, too: "Gate 1's prices were better than what I could find on my own." After taking Amy to get a passport photo and having her sign a covered-up visa application form, John finally spilled the beans a month before the trip, knowing they'd need time to research and plan. "It's so exciting," says Amy. "We'll cross the international date line and--poof!--I'll be 36."
How Can We Help?
Cab queries: "What's the best way to get around Beijing?" asks John. "I've read a lot about renegade taxis. How can we tell if a cab is legitimate?"
Finding their way: Amy doesn't think simple guidebook maps are really detailed enough. "Is there a specific map we should buy when we get to China?" she asks.
Money matters: John wonders about basics like ATMs and credit cards. "What do we need to know about getting cash?"
Decoding a menu: "Johnny doesn't eat red meat," says Amy. "Is that going to be a problem at a lot of restaurants?"
Great Wall advice: "A friend told us to go to the Simatai section of the wall, not Badaling," says John. "What's the difference?"
Winter fun: The couple plan to travel in late January. "Can you suggest some good cold-weather activities?" asks Amy.
The right sights: "We've only got four full days in Beijing, so we want to see highlights, not tourist traps," says John. "Other than the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, what are the must-see places?"
Pre-trip research: "I've already bought a bunch of city guides and a Chinese phrase book," says Amy. "Can you recommend a few books and movies that'll give us a broader perspective on China?"
Here's Our Advice
Getting and spending yuan: Credit cards are increasingly accepted at restaurants and markets, but John and Amy will want cash for taxis and incidentals. Most ATMs require a four-digit PIN. People who've converted their PIN to a word in order to remember it should memorize it as a number.
Haggling is commonplace in China. Intense negotiations--which may sound like angry shouting to the uninitiated--are often accompanied by facial expressions indicating displeasure. It's all part of the game. Buyers must be prepared to walk away if they're not offered a price they think is fair.
Gratuities aren't expected or necessary in China, though tipping a hotel porter or tour guide is a nice gesture.
Buying the right map: It's important to find a map that's labeled with both Chinese characters (which locals read) and pinyin, the Roman transliteration of those characters (which Westerners can pronounce). The Beijing Tourist Map is available at airport kiosks, at hotel gift shops, on newsstands, and at the Foreign Languages Bookstore in the Wangfujing shopping district (235 Wangfujing Dajie, 011-86/10-6512-6903, $1.50).
Transportation: Licensed taxis have meters and display a red sticker on the right rear passenger window listing the per-kilometer rate (1.20¥, 1.60¥, or 2¥, depending on the size of the car, after an initial charge of 10¥). If the driver doesn't turn on the meter, remind him by saying da biao (pronounced "dah beow"). Most drivers don't speak English, so point to your destination on a map or, better yet, ask a hotel concierge to write it out in Chinese characters on a piece of paper that you can then hand to the driver. It's also a good idea to carry a few hotel business cards so you can find your way home.
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