10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing, China

People had mixed reactions when I told them my boyfriend and I were going to China. They ranged from congratulatory and enthusiastic, to puzzlement and even cautionary. My sister, who’d live in China for a year, was predictably the most excited for us along with a colleague who’d also visited some years ago. But more commonly, people either perplexingly asked why we wanted to visit China or worse still, told us how much they disliked the country. The descriptions ranged from “dirty” to “it’s like India, but without the warmth of the people.” Ouch.

I wasn’t deterred by the negativity, in fact, I got even more excited as the trip got closer. While my boyfriend and I had been to Europe just five months earlier, it was more holidaying than travelling. This time, neither of us had been to the country before and we had no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Beijing, which I’d been told represented old China. Just weeks before we departed, television screens were filled with a city glowing orange with pollution. Media portrayal included mass population, poverty and a dismal human rights record. 

Our flight from Perth, Australia to Beijing via Singapore landed around 3pm and by 5pm, we were exiting a subway station and walking along a footpath to our hotel in the Wanfujing district. The atmosphere was peaceful, with only a few cars and people around as the sun began to fade. The street names were in English, and we easily reached our hotel after 10 minutes. It was nothing like India.

The four days that proceeded were incredible. I didn’t fall in love with Beijing immediately, but I quickly absorbed and enjoyed all that was around me. History, culture, food, excellent transport, bikesharing, art, the absence of Western media (a true holiday when you’re a journalist), the open spaces and public places. It didn’t resemble anything I’d imagined from television or people’s stories. Many of these themes continued throughout our three week China trip, and I loved the country even more than I’d anticipated. 

Here’s what struck me most in Beijing, to the point where I began this blog post on our journey because I wanted to counter the narratives I’d heard before we left. I’ll concede we stayed in the central tourist areas, did a lot of research and preparation before we left (such as downloading city and subway maps), and also love being out of our comfort zone. But even without these things, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s capital. 

Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

1. It Wasn’t Crowded

Were there a lot of people in Beijing? Yes. Train stations were busy, and roads were filled with vehicles often coming to a standstill. But I never truly sensed I was in a city of 21.5 million people (almost the entire population of my home country Australia). I didn’t see any exceptionally large crowds and never felt boxed in. Beijing was far less busier than New York for example, and train stations were no different to London’s Kings Cross. The most common question when I returned from China was “It was really crowded, right?.” No, it wasn’t. This is probably linked to my next point. 

2. Sprawling but Not Dense

While my boyfriend and I flew into Beijing, our journey into the city centre was by train. Departing the airport, there were masses of tall apartment buildings but sprawling areas of greenery between them. This became less so as we got closer to the city, but it was immediately evident Beijing is a city of highways that has developed outwards rather than upwards, much like Los Angeles or Paris. Even in the central tourist area we were staying in, our hotel only had 12 floors and was one of the taller buildings in the area. The city was also very flat, making it the perfect concrete jungle to explore on foot. 

3. Organised

Beijing had a level of organisation that rivals Ikea or The Container Store. Many places had a clear entrance and exit, even in a small area like bag check or cloak rooms. This may partly be because of security checks at the entrance (see my next point), so wanting to control the flow of people. But the subway system was excellent. Exits are clearly marked A,B, C and so on (identical to Hong Kong) and often divided further into B1, B2 and so forth so you have an exact reference point to meet somewhere or reach a location. If only more cities would adopt this system! Traffic is mostly cars with a few buses, tuk tuks and scooters. The scenes got a little hairy at some intersections, but drivers largely followed the rules. 

4. Security

I’d expected the military presence we saw around tourist locations like Tianamen Square, but I didn’t anticipate the level of other checks. Our hotel had a passport scanner and staff checked our visas, we had to show our passports when entering the train station, staff scanned my body with a hand-held metal detector at most checks, and sometimes my handbag would go through an x-ray machine only to be scanned again five minutes later. There were security cameras across the city, and I later saw a news story about how China is introducing live facial scanning technology. 

5. Lack of Pollution

There’s no denying pollution is a huge problem in China and Beijing is no exception. However, I was surprised (and somewhat concerned) that at no time could I sense it. I could clearly see the dull, hazy grey band of smog across the horizon, but I could never smell it and my breathing felt the same as it did in Australia. After a day of sightseeing in Beijing, I didn’t feel any dirtier than after a day walking around New York City. When my boyfriend and I tried to raise the topic of air quality with our Great Wall tour guide, who’d quit journalism over having to write pro-government stories, he told us Beijing simply had ‘fog.’ 

 Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn't feel affected.
Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn’t feel affected.

6. English Prevalence 

One of the biggest shocks in Beijing was seeing numbers in English! Everything from platform numbers to bus numbers, times and prices. I felt ignorant but then recalled my experiences catching local buses in Thailand. As mentioned, we did largely stay in the tourist areas of Beijing, but the prevalence of English continued throughout our trip. It gave me confidence we could catch buses across China. Many street names had English and Chinese characters too. Spoken English was a different story, ranging from fluent to none at all. A few times we asked for help with directions, and young people would apologise for their ‘bad’ English before clearly explaining where we needed to be. My Mandarin comprised hello, thank you, water and cheers. 

7. Punctual 

As well as the clear organisation of train stations, roads and attractions, much of Beijing operated like clockwork. Trains departed to the minute, our hotel breakfast closed exactly 10.30am, lights went off in market areas at precisely 10pm and our tour guide for the Great Wall of China met us at exactly 7am. For the rest of our trip, it became a game to see whether boarding for a train opened exactly 20 minutes before departure (in almost every case, it did). A friend of my sister’s, living in Beijing, warned us that planes in China were often heavily delayed but of our four internal flights, we only were late once departing 15 minutes after the scheduled time. 

 A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 
A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 

8. Clean

I didn’t expect Beijing to be like walking in a trash can, but the absence of litter was noticeable. Roads, footpaths and public spaces were clean and tidy although – as with most capital cities – I suspect this wanes further away from central areas. The notable exceptions were public toilets (see below) and The Great Wall of China, which in some areas was littered with plastic drink bottles and empty food wrappers.

9. Public Toilets

I relax my obsession with staying hydrated when travelling but it wasn’t a problem in Beijing or the rest of the five cities we visited in China. Public toilets were everywhere and well sign-posted. As a local resident told us, you simply need to follow your nose. And bring toilet paper if you want some. Like the extensive labelling of exits at train stations, I wish other cities in the world had as many public toilets as Beijing did! 

10. Accessibility 

Beijing deserves a solid congratulations for having accessibility that, in parts, is better than my home city. I know this, because I’d debated whether to take a backpack or suitcase to China and I was glad I chose the latter. It was effortless to walk along footpaths, get around train stations, and enter accomodation. The prevalence of ramps and lifts was impressive and I recall hauling my suitcase up a lot less stairs than I did in Europe just five months prior.

When we left Beijing after four nights for Xi’an, I felt like I’d just begun to discover a city. I wasn’t ready to leave and was glad we’d return for a final night at the end of our trip before flying home. My expectations certainly weren’t low, but I was surprised by just how much I liked Beijing. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, which my boyfriend and I consider is one of the best we’ve done to date. Are you considering a trip to China’s capital? Check out My Must-See Attractions in Beijing.

QUESTION: Which place has surprised you most in your travels?

Catching the Athens to Santorini Ferry

The sun was rising, the air was fresh and the water was calm. It was mid-May in the Greek capital of Athens and under any other circumstances, the scene would’ve been beautiful. Except my boyfriend and I had barely slept five hours and we were never meant to be in Athens. Let me rewind. 

We were nearing the end of five blissful weeks in Europe. We’d spent months planning our itinerary, taking in everything from a wedding in London, to cycling through French vineyards and hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre. The trip was meant to end with four luxurious nights on the Greek island Santorini. While there hadn’t been an obvious way to get there from Cinque Terre, we eventually worked out a route that had minimal transfers and maximum sightseeing. We were extremely proud of ourselves (read more in How to Get from Cinque Terre to Santorini).

arriving in athens

Just 24 hours before seeing Athens at sunrise, we’d woken up in Florence, Italy and caught a train to Rome Airport to then fly to Santorini. Everything was going to plan! Except the moment we began descending towards the Greek island, the pilot announced it was too windy to land. Our hearts sank. The plane was diverted to Athens, touching down around 3pm. We frustratingly sat on the tarmac for hours, being told various messages from “We’re flying back to Rome,” to “You can disembark in Athens but your bags will be sent to Rome” before eventually “You can get off the plane in Athens with your bags, but find your own way to Santorini.” It was nearly 6pm and we’d been in transit for 12 hours, so my boyfriend and I got off the plane and began making alternate plans. 

There were no more ferries to Santorini that night so our first priority was finding accomodation. Secondly, we wanted to get to Santorini and resume our holiday as soon as possible – mindful that a few hundred people were seeking the exact same thing. I felt like a competitor on the Amazing Race, making phone calls, checking websites, and evaluating our options while waiting by the baggage carousel.

 Herodion Hotel, Athens: view of the Acropolis from Point A restaurant
Herodion Hotel, Athens: view of the Acropolis from Point A restaurant

Our bags finally turned up and we made a last minute booking for the 4 star Herodion Hotel in Plaka (€180). Our taxi driver got lost but we checked-in around 9pm, hit the mini-bar, showered and had dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant Point A. It had a view of the Acropolis, which was a slight consolation given we should’ve had sunset in Santorini. We set an alarm for 5am (the second day in a row) and collapsed around midnight. 

choosing a ferry

There are several ferry companies operating between Athens and Santorini. The vessels differ in size, speed and frequency of service. We chose the Blue Star ferry as it runs daily, departing Athen’s Piraeus Port at 7.25am and arriving in Santorini at 3.10pm. The journey takes eight hours but it’s reportedly the most sturdy of the ferries so it can handle rough weather and offer a fairly smooth journey. Given our flight was diverted because of strong winds, we also wanted the most reliable vessel. The Blue Star ferry stops at multiple ports (Paros – Noxos – Ios) before terminating at Santorini. There’s also a high-speed ferry which takes five hours, but it’s apparently more susceptible to poor weather.

How to Book

I tried calling Blue Star Ferries while we were at Athens Airport but their English was limited (and my Greek is non-existent). We instead bought tickets online for the following morning using the airport wi-fi. There were seats available in every class, despite approaching the high season (June – August). Unfortunately, there’s no option for e-tickets so you’ll still need to collect your paper ticket at least 60 minutes before departure. Note that you can’t buy tickets onboard.

Blue Star Ferries: Ph: +30-210-8919800 | Website 

Cost

The Blue Star ferry can cost as little as €20 for a super economy ticket, but it can’t be booked online. An unassigned economy seat is €40 or for €45 you can have a reserved “aircraft style” numbered seat. I recommended choosing that during high season to be guaranteed a seat, as our ferry had a lot of passengers in mid-May.

 Ferry ticket: €56 for a business class seat
Ferry ticket: €56 for a business class seat

My boyfriend and I opted for business class seats at €56 each, as theoretically we should’ve been sunbaking poolside at our Santorini resort by now. These tickets gave us access to a large lounge area, which was quieter and more comfortable than economy (see more under ‘facilities’ below). Cabin options are also available. Click here for all Blue Star ferry ticket prices.

Getting to the port

From a hotel in central Athens, it takes about 25 minutes by taxi to reach Piraeus Port. We took a cab (€18) as we weren’t familiar or confident in Athens’ pre-dawn public transport. We left our hotel at 5.30am and arrived at 5.50am. It’s important to know which gate your ferry leaves from so your taxi driver can take you there directly (see “port” below). Alternatively, it’s 45 to 60 minutes from central Athens to Piraeus by bus or train/metro (both €1.40). 

The port

The port is HUGE. Do not think you can simply get a cab to the first gate and walk around. That could take you 30 minutes or more, and time is precious when you’re up at dawn. Find your gate by working out which vessel you’re on (this should be on your email booking confirmation or ticket). We were catching Blue Star 2 which departs from Gate 1, while other Blue Star ferries for Santorini left from Gate 6. Click here for a map of Piraeus Port with gates and their corresponding vessels.

 Piraeus Port: the view at Gate 1 before boarding
Piraeus Port: the view at Gate 1 before boarding

Collecting tickets

Our cab dropped us at Gate 1 and I waited with our bags while my boyfriend collected our tickets from the kiosk opposite. It’s a large building so you can’t miss it, and it only took a few minutes. The email booking confirmation states to collect tickets at least one hour before departure but I’m not sure how strictly this is enforced. Obviously, bring ID and have your email confirmation ready along with the credit card you used for the booking.

boarding

Having left our hotel at 5.30am, I was surprised to have travelled to the port, collected our tickets and be boarding at 6.05am. We put our luggage in metal racks in the hull, alongside vehicles that were also making the voyage. It seemed risky to be leaving our bags with no tags or receipt, but it worked out fine. Just remember where you put your luggage. We then followed the signs to business class and got seats by the window. 

 Blue Star 2: the business lounge exceeded all my expectations for a domestic ferry
Blue Star 2: the business lounge exceeded all my expectations for a domestic ferry

Boarding at 6am may sound early for a 7.25am departure, but by the time we’d stowed our bags, found our lounge and got comfortable, we didn’t actually wait too long (maybe 30 minutes). I’d recommend getting to the port by 6.30am, especially if you have luggage or you’re in unassigned seating. If you just have a carry-on bag, you could allow less time – but know which gate you’re going to! 

the ferry 

I’ve caught ferries in Australia, Mexico, New York and perhaps the most memorable – from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar in Tanzania. They ranged from standing room only to plastic chairs, with varying amounts of shelter. But the Blue Star ferry was surprisingly modern, huge and well equipped. It’s 176 metres (577 feet) long and can take 1,800 passengers. The economy class area resembles a typical ferry, fairly noisy but comfortable enough and enclosed. You can access open deck areas if you want. Our business class area was like a floating airport lounge with waiters, carpet, comfortable seats, televisions and a full-service restaurant. Staff were wonderful and just as well – because we ordered quite a few coffees, snacks and drinks during our eight hour journey!

 Business class menu: click to enlarge
Business class menu: click to enlarge

 Menu (page 2)
Menu (page 2)

 Menu (page 3)
Menu (page 3)

Facilities

The Blue Star 2 is fully air-conditioned and has a reception, ATM, souvenir shop and food/drink outlets (see more below). Wi-fi was available for €5 from reception but it was incredibly slow. You could access a few emails, but forget Facebook or Instagram. My boyfriend found it faster to use data from his French sim card. You can connect to Blue Ferry’s free in-house entertainment @sea from your smartphone or laptop, which offers some movies, games and travel information. 

 Restaurant: the ferry dining options exceeded expectations! 
Restaurant: the ferry dining options exceeded expectations! 

Food

Economy class has a range of food options, including fast food (burgers, fries, etc) and a cafe. I didn’t look at prices but all the venues were busy. In our business lounge, there was table service and a range of food and drinks available. The offerings were similar to what you’d expect at an airport. Consider bringing cash as the EFTPOS machine only worked intermittently – we just set up a tab and paid when we were closer to shore.

 Restaurant: wine, salads and fava for two for €32
Restaurant: wine, salads and fava for two for €32

A surprising highlight was dining in the ferry’s a la carte restaurant. It was quite an experience to have waiters, white tablecloths and a two-course lunch while sailing through the Greek islands. My boyfriend and I had a large salad each, fava dip and a bottle of wine for €32. It was a great way to spend an hour. 

disembarking 

Each stop is clearly announced but be warned – the ferry will only stay in each location for a few minutes. People began moving as we got closer to Santorini so we followed the crowds and collected our luggage from the hull. Lots of people were impatient and there was a bit of pushing and shoving, but we retrieved bags in time and waited for the doors to open.

 Disembarking: get your luggage early and prepare for the mass exodus
Disembarking: get your luggage early and prepare for the mass exodus

 Santorini Port: not exactly a postcard
Santorini Port: not exactly a postcard

at the port 

We finally arrived in Santorini, 24 hours later than expected and exhausted from two days in transit. We were met by a driver from our hotel and could finally begin our Santorini holiday! Subscribe to my e-newsletter to get my highlights from this stunning Greek island in the weeks ahead. 

Overall

The Athens to Santorini ferry exceeded expectations and while eight hours is long, you’ll be amply entertained if you bring a book or iPad and have a meal or two on board. The ship was much more comfortable than expected and while I usually feel nauseous if I read or write on a bus for too long, I was perfectly fine during the journey. As you’d expect, business class was much nicer than economy but the vessel had good, clean and comfortable facilities throughout. It was still disappointing we lost one of four nights in Santorini, but the ferry was far from the wild, windy ride I’d imagined. Six months on, our travel insurance claim is still being assessed but at least we made it to Santorini eventually! 

QUESTION: What’s your most memorable ferry ride?