Budget Beijing: Some Advice During Your Training Period And Beyond| 10 min read
On arriving in Beijing and sending the obligatory “I’ve arrived, I’m alive” email to my friends and family in which I marvelled at the all the new and exciting things that I had seen so far, it seemed that the topic that had me typing away the most vigorously was the amazingly low prices of everything in China. It’s very easy to get carried away and query no price asked of you when you first arrive here as everything you wish to purchase seems so very cheap compared to the raised cost of things at home. It can often seem as though your brain was turned into an automatic currency exchange calculator as soon as you stepped off the plane onto foreign soil. Every price you are given is swiftly translated into ‘home prices’ and considered amazingly cheap.
Unfortunately though, that initial high felt upon arrival in Beijing and seeing how cheap everything was is replaced by a seemingly low bank balance. The only problem with my brain automatically flicking between Yuan and pounds was that I wasn’t being paid the cash equivalent of an English salary (not to mention the 6 week wait for the first allowance installment). Having said this, whilst the money I was earning as a teaching intern was substantially less than the money I would earn for working similar hours at home, it was by no means ‘not enough’, it just depends on the kind of lifestyle you hope to have in China.
I went out most weekends with friends, stayed in hostels and ate out a few times a week and for the most part my ‘living allowance’ was plenty enough to cover such. However, as is often the case at home, by the end of the month I was sometimes strapped for cash and a certain amount of budgeting was required. Luckily, China is a very easy place to live when on a budget: haggling is widely accepted, traditional food and drink is very cheap, there are many cheap transport options available and there are plenty of cheap (often free!) pass times.
Whilst my allowance covered a certain amount of shopping, those initial prices given to me in markets when I first arrived, which I had considered more than reasonable and very cheap, began to look a little less reasonable and a little more expensive. Living in Beijing can sometimes mean a little extra effort is required when out looking for a real ‘china bargain’ as there are many tourist spots whereby foreigners are seemingly viewed by locals as walking ATM’s. There are several markets in built up and ex-pat/tourist areas, such as Yashow in Sanlitun and the infamous Silk Market, which are appealing to the aforementioned due to the multilingual staff and the western style ‘fakes’.
The problem with these markets is that many of the traders expect you to pay for such privileges. That is not to say that you can’t agree on a good price in such places, it just means more effort is required. Haggling in these places is often like taking a starring role in a pantomime, the trader will come in with a price about 4 times higher than the amount you have on your person whilst simultaneously suggesting they are doing you, their “beautiful friend”, a huge favour by offering such a cheap discounted price and then gasp in horror and tell you you’re crazy when you dare to so much as halve their original offer.
The key to achieving a successful purchase in these types of situations is to join in with theatrics of your own: gasp back, gesticulate, pretend to walk away (if they don’t chase you don’t worry, most Chinese markets are like Scooby Doo sketches, no doubt there will be a trader 5 stalls down selling exactly the same thing and the haggling fun can recommence!) As long as you go in with an amount in mind as to what you would like to pay for something (keep it low: think bargain bin prices at home!), it will be much easier for you to remain un-phased by the ridiculous offers being tapped into the calculator in front of you. Remember: never let a traders original ridiculous offer affect your responding offer. There’s absolutely no need to feel cheeky, its expected of you.
If, however, you are not feeling very theatrical and begin to miss the days when purchasing something didn’t take a ten minutes, you can of course venture to less foreigner-friendly parts of the city. There are many very cheap markets in Beijing, such as the huge underground market opposite Beijing Zoo; it’s just a case of finding them. You may have to travel further a field away from your usual haunts, many traders don’t speak English and they are sometimes very crowded and chaotic but prices are low and haggling is often actually not allowed.
Whilst markets are the main sites for haggling they are not necessarily the only ones. In certain drinking and eating establishments haggling is often acceptable if you think the owners of such are over-charging you. This is particularly true in Houhai, a huge lake in central Beijing surrounded by bars and restaurants. It’s very visually impressive and therefore popular with large tourist groups. Such means that many owners will attempt to charge you extortionate prices (even by home standards!) for food and drink.
Popular mixers and Chinese beers should be around 10 Yuan but many of these places will try and ask you for anything up to 80 Yuan for one drink. If staff are reluctant to lower the price sufficiently for you, move on. There are hundreds of places to eat and drink around Houhai lake and you will find the further you walk around (and the further away from the main road you are) the more susceptible to haggling bars should be. This is also true of bars with less people in. After all, these places can’t make a living if they’re empty!
In other areas of Beijing, no such haggling is necessary. Many bars and clubs in both Sanlitun (“Sanlituur”) and Wudaukou (the popular student district) have nightly offers. Whether it be extended happy hours, special drink offers, free drinks for ladies (head to Propaganda, Tun Bar and Luga’s) or all you can drink for a prepaid sum, Beijing is a huge city with endless possibilities for fun-filled, budget nights out. The ex-pat publication “The Beijinger” and website (www.thebeijinger.com) is a very useful resource when planning your social life. A little research can save you many a Yuan!
Of course, bars and nightclubs aren’t the only places to enjoy a beverage or two. Drinking in restaurants can also be a cheap way to start your night out. I often find that the best and cheapest places to eat and drink are those places that don’t seem to look like there is much to them. They can appear kind of shabby (sometimes bordering on dubious!) from the outside but inside they sell all the usual Chinese dishes for no more than about 25 to 30 Yuan and a fairly sizeable bottle of Tsing dao or Yangjing will often be as little as 4 Yuan.
My friends and I have a few favourite cheap eating spots, particularly round the Sanlitun area as we spent many a week living on a budget in a hostel near by! I would love to share with you the name of these establishments but unfortunately, I have no idea what any of them are! They are all every bit the Chinese restaurant, meaning no English name, a lot of pointing at pictures in the menu and a certain amount of charades to ask for anything that doesn’t have a picture equivalent. Not to worry though, these sorts of places are everywhere!
Even if your Chinese is lacking (mine certainly is), many places have picture menus and the TTC phrasebook also comes in handy. If times are so hard that even these prices are a bit too rich for you, take to the streets! Beijing is famous (or in certain cases infamous) for its street food. You can buy all manner of snacks for less than 5 Yuan and the vendors cooking up a storm in the streets seem to work 24 hours a day so you never need to worry about the time!
If you are missing home comforts, in particular western food, there are of course many western eateries in Beijing. You should however bare in mind that with western food comes (to an extent) western prices. Perhaps the only options available in a similar price range to that of traditional chinese food are McDonalds and KFC which are readily available all across Beijing. The menus vary slightly from those you are probably used to at home but prices are often also slightly less which is good news for those of us on a budget.
When you are not eating and drinking in Beijing there is also a wealth of things to do and see for those on a limited budget. Most of the famous sites in Beijing have very low entrance prices which means having little money doesn’t mean you have to stay home. Entrance fees for famous landmarks such as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the Lama Temple vary between 30 and 60 Yuan depending on the season and there are many other sites such as Tian’anmen.
Square and certain galleries and exhibits in the 798 Art District which are completely free. Another great thing about Beijing is the numerous methods of cheap transport available for you to travel to and from all these places. As with everything else, on first arriving I was amazed by how cheap taxis were, they start on 10 yuan (11 Yuan after 11pm) and a half an hour journey cost about 25 Yuan, amazing! However, when on a budget there are much cheaper ways to travel around without losing a lot of time. Subway journeys are 2 yuan whilst bus journeys (although possibly a little more complicated) are often only 1 Yuan and unlike at home when a taxi would be considered a cheaper and more efficient way to travel, in Beijing the roads are so busy that taking the subway can often be quicker and easier.
So there you have it, Beijing on a budget. It’s pretty easy really and it’ll make you an expert haggler. My only concern with regards to how thrifty I have become here is returning home and having temporary heart failure upon seeing for the first time how expensive everything is in comparison to China!