Reading time: 6 minutes
“Halt!” Shouted the voice outside the barracks.
I turned, to come face to face into the glaring eyes of a soldier on duty.
“What’s wrong?” I enquired with a quizzical look.
”Show me your phone”.
I looked around, there were now FOUR soldiers in a semi-circle facing me.
Without further protest, I handed it over to the first soldier, who proceeded to scroll through my photo album.
“Delete this”, he pointed at the last two pictures I took.
Meekly I obeyed, what else could I do?
Because this here is China – the country of my birth.
In China, taking pictures of government buildings and military landmarks can have you reprimanded at best, thrown in jail at worst.
And here in Beijing, security is heightened significantly ahead of the annual Golden week (first week of October) in which more than half a billion people traverse to their hometowns, or travel to the big cities for a deserved holiday.
But come on, it’s not often you see an army barracks in the middle of the city right?
But hang on, hang on – let’s rewind a bit.
Since the last time we convened – (read here, CHINA!)There’s been a pretty exciting development.
Chiefly because my friends Really and Hanna arrived unexpectedly for a couple of days of touring.
Needless to say, I was very excited to show them what this city has to offer, and gladly played the tour guide.
But as I’ve found out – there’s a few takeaways for any of us looking to travel here.
I thought it best to share a few things I’ve learnt so far, from a tourist perspective based on what Really and Hanna encountered…
Cash is King
Actually, more like a Queen at best.
Because in China, the cashless society is well and truly here.
This is because the locals often don’t carry physical cash anymore – moreover, it’s all via digital wallets (WeChat pay and Alipay are the biggest).
99% of retailers have facilities to accept these providers – which are simple pay and go wallets embedded in apps on your phone (like ApplePay).
Makes life so much easier and convenient for the locals.
BUT the severe downside for foreigners is the lack of acceptance of foreign cards and payment options.
My theory is because the domestic market is so GIGANTIC that the cost of setting up foreign payment options is not feasible based on the percentage of sales from foreign payers.
Which means if you’re looking to travel in China – take cash, and plenty of it.
Like most Asian cities, Beijing is packed and traffic is bedlam at the best of times.
This means that for most commuters, travelling underground in the subway network is the preferred option.
Luckily the subway system in Beijing is tier 1.
Trains come on schedule, every few minutes and speed along tracks which are relatively straight.
Only downside is that some don’t have air-con (Line 1 one’s are really bad) so make sure you come prepared.
That’s what makes you beautiful…
No, sorry – that’s not what I meant.
One direction as in most of the traffic is funneled to move in one direction.
Beijing is laid out in concentric squares, each one enclosing a smaller one.
A bird’s eye-view would see the entire city criss-crossed with squares, rectangles and grids.
The locals don’t say “go left” or “go right”, but rather use the four points of the compass, for example:
”Go south on Laoyang avenue then go east for two blocks, the restaurant is on the north side of the road”.
But traveller beware: sometimes the main direction of travel means you have to take an almighty loop back, if you want to head in the opposite direction – a logistical nightmare.
I think they do this deliberately for crowd control, but hey – try telling that to weary tourists just looking for a way out.
Big Brother is Watching
Yeah, big brother is watching you right now.
Not in a deviant, physically uncomfortable kinda way – more in the sense that it wants to monitor what you’re doing.
EVERY. SINGLE. SECOND.
You can’t escape the multitudes of cameras on every street lamp, corner and headlight.
This is very true also when it comes to internet usage and searches.
The government monitors and censors what we search and view, irrespective of any filters (e.g. VPN) we may have on.
I asked some locals what they thought about this – the reply is that it is assuring to know that the streets are safe, the criminals can’t get away and that “you shouldn’t be looking at censored material anyway”.
So for any government agents reading this – I love a home-cooked meal, long walks by the beach and engaging conversation as we look deeply into each others eyes.
That’s 4 quick and easy things to bear in mind if you’re thinking of coming to Beijing next!
Oh and also it brings us back to the beginning of this post when I was accosted by four soldiers and forced to delete images from my phone.
The fact is, I KNEW they would do that.
You see, it happened to my friend K9 a while back as well – he was forced to delete images he took, coincidentally from soldiers also.
So why did I risk it?
Because admist all the control, the security and government oversight – I wanted to see if a boy from Oz who used to call this place home could get away with it.
Evidently not you say?
Well here’s one I took the previous day.
He he he.
Hope you enjoyed this post! Something a bit different from The Frugal Samurai – but thought we’d shake it up a bit!
P.s Genuinely looking forward to showing Really and Hanna around a bit more – hopefully they come to enjoy their remaining time here!