Laowai Survival Guide

Read in black on white.

Although Beijing is a safe modern city, it can be quite overwhelming for the first-time foreigner (“laowai” 老外) visitor. This survival guide provides focused tips for such visitors.

What to pack

Beijing is a modern city and if you forget something you should be able to find and buy it fairly easy. However, it is wise to bring essential toiletries as some things are difficult to find here or may be very expensive; e.g., deodorant is not common while tooth paste and tooth brushes are just very different from back in the west. The most important thing for us to consider when packing is the power cord for our laptop. Although China has standardized Y-plug, most power outlets support standard American flat plugs and European pin plugs (bring an adapter from the UK though). However, these plugs do not always support ground pins, so bring a non-grounding cord if possible.

Where to stay

The conference is in the city proper near the “Bird’s Nest” (鸟巢) Olympic Stadium, but the area is not very touristy and is also more car-oriented than the rest of the Beijing. If budget is not a problem, staying in the conference hotel is strongly recommended; be careful, there are at least three Crowne Plaza hotels in north Beijing, so make sure you choose the Wuzhou. Also, the hotel often fills up early, so book in advance if you want a non-smoking room. If the conference hotel is not a good option, it’s best to find another hotel near the stadium; here is a list for reference, but double check the location of any hotel with distance from the conference hotel. Note that cheaper hotels in China are not focused on foreigners although someone should be able to speak some English at the front desk. In general, be prepared for a more Chinese experience; e.g., very hard beds. Another option is to stay at various hotels on Beijing's East Side, such as the Westin, which tend to be nicer but more expensive; and taxi or subway to the Olympic Stadium (about 30 RMB each way).

On arrival

Arriving at Beijing Capital Airport is fairly easy; immigration and customs are a breeze. After getting your baggage, get some money/RMB. Although the airport has currency exchange counters, the ATMs outside of baggage claim will work for most international ATM networks and generally have a better exchange rate. Credit cards are not widely accepted, so withdraw enough to cover non-lodging expenses. 100 RMB is about 16 USD and 12 EUR. Prices and daily expenses in China are comparable to Europe and the US; only services (local food, taxis) are significantly cheaper.

You’ll probably want to take a taxi to your hotel. Beijing taxis are safe and fairly cheap where a trip from the airport should cost less than 100 RMB. Find an official taxi queue (indicated by English signage) and ignore the touts/private cars that will invariably bother you outside of customs. In any case, make sure you have your hotel name and address written down in Chinese! Very few taxi drivers in Beijing understand English, spoken or written. The driver will use a meter but will also tack on a 2 RMB fuel fee (if your fare is over 10RMB) and a 5 RMB (airport T2) or 10 RMB (airport T3) toll fee. Tipping is uncommon and not expected. Beijing Capitol airport also has a train to Sanyuanqiao (三元桥), where you can transfer to line 10. However, this subway is not very convenient and not recommended (taxi should be cheap enough).

After arriving at your hotel, at check-in you will probably need to pay a key deposit using cash and might have to prepay your stay using cash or credit card.


As mentioned before, taxis are cheap, safe, but taxi drivers usually speak only Chinese. If you want to go somewhere and you cannot say the name in Chinese, make sure to have the name and address written down in Chinese (your hotel can often help with that). Beijing also has a useful a subway network with a Line 8 station near the stadium. The subway is especially useful if you need to go somewhere during rush hour because Beijing traffic can be crazy bad. Subway fare is 2 RMB. Possible routes of interest from the Bird’s Nest Line 8 Olympic Sports Station:

  • To get to Sanlitun (三里屯), Beijing’s foreigner ghetto of bars and restaurants, line 8 south to Beitucheng (北土成), line 10 east to Tuanjiehu (团结湖).
  • To get to Zhongguancun (中关村), Beijing’s technology and university district, line 8 south to Beitucheng, line 10 west to Haidianhuangzhuang (海淀黄庄).
  • To get to Tiananmen (天安门) Square, line 8 south to Beitucheng, line 10 east to Huixinxijie (惠新西街), line 5 south to Dongdan (东单), line 1 west to Tiannamen.
  • To get to Houhai (后海, a nice lake with lots of bars), line 8 south to Beitucheng, line 10 east to Huixinxijie, line 5 south to Yonghegong (雍和宫), line 2 west to Guloudajie (鼓楼大街).

Except for getting somewhere on line 10 (Sanlitun or Zhongguancun), the subway is not so useful as transfers between lines are often slow to make. Beijing also has a bus system with more direct routes, but given the best reason to avoid a taxi is because of surface traffic, they are often not very useful unless going to the suburbs.

Where to eat

Beijing has many nice restaurants in many varieties (especially Chinese food). A good listing of popular restaurants are provided in the expat magazines That’s Beijing, The Beijinger, and City Weekend, which are generally free and can be found on the magazine racks at foreigner hangouts like Starbucks. Vegetarian is more difficult to deal with in Beijing and cannot really be found outside of Beijing’s East side; vegetable dishes in normal Chinese restaurants generally rely heavily on meat bases (to say you can’t eat meat: “wo bu neng chi rou 我不能吃肉”). Halal is easier given Beijing’s many Xinjiang (新疆) and Hui (回) restaurants. If you are allergic or want to avoid MSG, a good phrase to write down is不要味精 (buyao weijing). Mushrooms are common in food, so if you have an allergy be careful (to say you can’t eat mushroom: “wo bu neng chi mogu 我不能吃蘑菇”).

Just to the east of the conference hotel is a built-up area called the Asian Games Village, aka YaYunCun亚运村, where most of the restaurants and shops are local (see The Beijinger for a listing). It can be quite an adventure just to wander around this area and try a restaurant, but be careful to check the Chinese characters of the restaurant to know what they specialize in. Ideas for eating local in Beijing:

  • Beijing is famous for its duck (known in the west as Peking Duck). There are many duck restaurants in Beijing, but you’ll usually need to make a reservation ahead of time to eat Beijing duck (the concierge at your hotel can help). The most famous duck restaurant is QuanJuDe 全聚德 whose branch in Yayuncun is at 朝阳区慧忠北里309号天创世缘A座1-3楼. For a more foreigner friendly version (read: they speak English) of Peking duck in a nice classical Hutong setting, try Duck de Chine in Sanlitun behind Pacific Century (太平样百货).
  • Many restaurants specialize in hot pot (火锅), where you get a pot of boiling water at the table, and you pick the raw ingredients to add yourself. Cook a bit, eat a bit, and keep going. Popular ingredients include thinly sliced beef and lamb, leafy vegetables, and noodles. There are two main kinds of hot pot in Beijing: the spicy Sichuan hot pot and the local Beijing hot pot, where the latter pot is distinguished by being some kind of brass tower. Chopstick skills are essential.
  • Some restaurants specialize in boiled pork dumplings (饺子). There will be several flavors (vegetables and spices that go in the dumplings) to choose from; even cactus! There are many quick-service restaurants that specialize in beef noodle soup. Look for "拉面" on the sign and maybe a picture of a bull's head, which is also common at any Hui (回) restaurant. A big "粥" means a restaurant that serves rice porridge, where the menu is essentially a list of choices for what is add to the porridge. Restaurants that specialize in spicy Sichuan (四川) food are a staple in Beijing, just look for the 川. If you are looking for safety, it is hard to go wrong with Beijing’s own Kungpao Chicken (宫爆鸡丁). Finally, many restaurants will serve lamb or chicken kebobs, especially the Xinjiang ones but also many of the Beijing (家菜) and Sichuan ones; just look for the chuanr 串 character, which coincidentally looks like pieces of meat skewered on a stick.

Where to play

The area around the conference hotel is fairly local for Beijing. If this is your first time to Beijing, it might be interesting to wander around the commercial area to the east of the hotel (Yayuncun). You’ll also be able to find many local Beijing-style restaurants along with fast food chains. However, for decent nightlife and higher-end restaurants, you’ll have to taxi to other parts of Beijing:

  • Sanlitun is the main bar area of Beijing and also has a nice shopping center (Sanlitun Village) with various upscale restaurants and an Apple store. Being in the embassy district, it also has the widest variety of non-Chinese food in the city. The bars on the main bar street are expensive not very interesting; most of us hang at the smaller bars north of the Village, or some more exotic places spread out around the area. Sanlitun also contains the “Silk Market,” which are bazaars oriented at tourists, selling many authentic and unauthentic (Shanzhai) goods.
  • Houhai (后海) is a lake in Beijing’s charming “hutong” district (hutong being a traditional Beijing courtyard house). There are many bars around the lake, many of them with lakeside outdoor seating that are particularly nice in June during the conference.
  • Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷) ,east of Huohai but still requires a taxi ride; street of hutongs converted into bars, restaurants, and other interesting shops. Rooftop hutong drinking is a common.
  • And of course, tons of tourists locations like Tiananmen and Wangfujing (王府井), although these places might be too far and touristy to be useful during the conference itself.

Staying safe

Beijing is a very safe city where violent crime is very rare. However, as when visiting any crowded city, watch your belongings especially in crowded venues. Beijing also has many scams that target tourists explicitly. For example, a nice girl asks you to go have tea with her, you agree, have tea, and then get the check to learn that this tea has cost you 1000 RMB! A more wicked variation of this scam often occurs in seedy bars, so just stay away from those completely.


Free Wifi access is common in Beijing, and should be available at your hotel. However, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Blogspot, Wordpress (hosted), Googledocs, and Twitter do or may not work here and you should not depend on using these services unless you have a VPN. Search engines hosted outside of China are periodically blocked on many networks after a few minutes of use, so you may want to try or for your search needs. Starbucks will usually require a Chinese mobile phone to use their Internet, and you’ll need someone to help you out on this (ask the baristas). Costas (the UK Starbucks) does not require a mobile phone and so can be a better option. Speeds here are not that great, so don’t expect to do much video.


English is not very commonly spoken, and the only places where you can be sure someone will speak English is at your hotel, high-end restaurants, and Starbucks. However, you can get pretty far in Beijing without speaking Chinese; e.g., by having your destination written down in Chinese for your taxi driver. Some basic Chinese can be used as a courtesy, and is possibly useful in specific situations:

  • Xiexie (shieh shieh) – thank you.
  • Buyao (boo yow) – don’t want and please stop bugging me; useful for dealing with touts and hawkers.
  • Daole or tingche (dowlah or tingcheh) – arrived; you want the taxi driver to stop and let you off!

Here we provide a one page bilingual lexicon containing a collection of sentences and phrases that you are likely to use in Beijing. It can be handy when you have to communicate with someone who doesn't speak English at all.


With its history and culture, Beijing is a great city for tourism. Definitely check out the Imperial City, Tiananmen, Qianmen, and Beihai Park in the center of the city (inside the "1st" ring road which is actually the walls of the imperial city!); you can probably do this on your own by taxi or subway, no guide necessary! Excursions outside of the city to see, for example, the Great Wall, will probably require at least a hired car/driver, if not a guide. Your hotel can arrange this for you, but shopping around might get you a better deal. Then of course there are many other cities to see in China; I'm particularly fond of Guilin and Yangshou in southern China, but a discussion of what to do in China is too large to fit in this tiny article!

Some ideas are on the touring Beijing page.

This page was mainly written by Sean McDirmid with input from various other laowai and Chinese. Please feel free to contact the author at if you have any specific questions.