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|| News Item: Posted 2008-07-29

Squatty Potties to Blank Stares - On The Ground in Beijing
By Zach Honig,

Photo by Zach Honig /

Photo by Zach Honig /

Food in China.
By the time this hits the Web, I'll be about four weeks into my Beijing adventure. I came to China on July 1 ( to work for BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee of the 2008 Olympic Games) Photo Services during the Olympics, and have been posting to a blog ( with information related to Beijing and the Olympics. Life sure is different here, and the language barrier certainly doesn't help - but I've really loved my time in Beijing so far, and I hope you're able to as well.

I admit, there's not a whole lot more I could have done to prepare myself for two months in China, short of getting past the ignorant American mindset that Beijingers - especially taxi drivers - will speak enough English to get by, and perhaps learning to play charades.

If you're not patient in America, you'll need to be here; most restaurants don't offer English menus (or crab Rangoon), bathrooms don't provide toilet paper or soap (let alone actual toilets - squatty potties are all the rage here), and the Internet isn't what you're used to back home ( There's plenty more you probably don't expect now, but listing all the unfamiliarities will take away half the fun.

With that out of the way, Beijing presents amazing opportunities to learn flexibility and to try new things, while enjoying a unique, unfamiliar culture. In June, I was a very picky eater - it's now July, and I'm definitely not.

While sometimes hit or miss, the food here is amazing with one exception; if you're a vegetarian, take the next week or so to learn to like meat or at very least fish - salads are not easy to find (and are likely washed in tap water) and cooked vegetable dishes often include meat. If you're thinking you'll get by eating tofu, be prepared to eat it covered in ground beef - or ground "something that tastes a little like beef."


One of the biggest complaints I hear in Beijing is about cleanliness. You get what you pay for - if you're eating in a hole in the wall restaurant, don't expect white tablecloths, sparkling silverware (or chopsticks), or even napkins - the same goes for hotels; low prices often mean few Western services, such as an English speaking hotel staff (playing charades with a concierge is only fun the first time) or real toilets in the bathrooms.

As much as I'd rather not think about it, you need to prepare yourself for the bathrooms in China. Chances are, the food will make you sick at least once during your stay, and you'll need a bathroom stat. Only you'll come to the bathroom to find it lacking a toilet or toilet paper. "Squatty Potties," as Westerners call them, are glorified holes with elementary flushing mechanisms - they're sanitary because you don't come in contact with anything unless you fall, but incredibly uncomfortable to use if you're used to sitting on a toilet. Somehow I've managed to wait until I'm able to return to the Western-style toilets in my hotel each day, but that's usually not an option for the ladies.

Photo by Zach Honig /

Photo by Zach Honig /

They have squatty potties in Beijing, like this one at a McDonalds.
When you do find a bathroom, it'll probably stink. There are obnoxious, often unfamiliar odors everywhere I turn. From taxis ( to buses ( to my own bathroom - Beijing smells. Deodorant is not used here - it's not even available for westerners to purchase. I thought I saw deodorant in a market a couple weeks ago but I later realized they were just large bottles of cologne. Luckily I have enough to last me another few weeks, but if anyone wants to bring me an extra bottle, I'd be forever in your debt. Also not available in Beijing, but probably the most valuable thing I own at the moment - bottles of Purell hand sanitizer.

Food and Drink

The food in Beijing isn't always great, but for the most part I've been very happy. The financial gap between the lower and upper middle classes here is enormous - the same goes for restaurants. A filling, flavorful meal at a hole-in-the-wall eatery ( will run you less than 10 Yuan (about $1.50), while a dish at the highly regarded "Made in China" will cost 150 Yuan or more.

If you're looking for an authentic Chinese dining experience, consider trying a restaurant without pictures or English menus. Walk around to see what others are eating, or if you're really adventurous, point at random menu items. Look at the waiter's expression for feedback - if they laugh at you, you may want to choose a different dish.

If you're a little less flexible about your diet, choose traditional favorites ahead of time and have your concierge write a list of your favorite dishes in Chinese. Another option is to print pictures of dishes and carry them around, but if a particular restaurant's dish isn't presented in exactly the same way, the waiter may misunderstand and fail to place your order.

I've only felt very sick once since I arrived, and I believe the culprit was a glass of "purified" water at the Hard Rock Café. Do yourself a favor - avoid tap water ( and any raw foods that have been washed in it. Salads and many fruits are out, as are ice cubes in drinks. Water bottles are available everywhere and are extremely inexpensive (1.5 Yuan or less - about 20 cents) in grocery and convenience stores.

Speaking of drinks, they're CHEAP in Beijing. A beer can be had for 10 Yuan or less at restaurants, and mixed drinks should cost about 20-30 Yuan in touristy areas - head to the bars at Sanlitun ( for great deals or Houhai Lake ( for good drinks and a great atmosphere.

If a street vendor tries to sell you a beer for more than 10 Yuan, be sure to bargain them down. It's also a good idea to pay with exact change to avoid any confusion about the currency quoted - the vendor may try to give you 30 Yuan change for your 100, citing the price he quoted was in dollars.


Photo by Zach Honig /

Photo by Zach Honig /
The metro and city buses are free if you show your OIAC (, but I always prefer taking the metro. I've managed to ride the city bus only twice so far, both times during rush hour. It's packed like a can of sardines, hot, and smelly. If you're brave enough to ride the bus, be sure to carry plenty of Purell.

The metro can also be very crowded during rush hour, but lines 1 and 10 are clean and very modern. Access to the metro is free with your OIAC, but you'll need to stop at the ticket window to pick up a free magnetic metro ticket. Your ticket will be collected automatically when you exit, so you'll need to grab a new ticket each time. If there's a long line at the window, walk directly to the front and hold up your credential - the agent will provide your ticket, no questions asked.

I rode line 10 when it officially opened on July 20, and the train was already packed by the afternoon. If you're crossing the city, the metro is your best option, but if you're only going a short distance, stick to the surface routes - buses and taxis offer a shorter trip, especially if connections are involved.

I really like the taxis in Beijing ( They're generally clean, less smelly and crammed than buses, and offer door-to-door service. Taxis here are also extremely inexpensive - fares begin at 10 Yuan (about $1.50) with each additional km costing 2 Yuan. Except during rush hour or when crossing the city (i.e. a trip from the northwest to the southeast), taking a taxi is probably your best option.

My only qualm with taxis is the language barrier - drivers almost never read or speak English. Have a Chinese friend or concierge write down your destination in Chinese and never leave your hotel without two copies of their taxi card, which usually includes a map and the hotel's address in Chinese. Western hotels also list Beijing hot spots, such as the Pearl Market ( or Sanlitun bar street in Chinese on the back.

Everything Else

I've been in Beijing since July 2, and have been keeping a detailed account of my daily activities on my blog at ( I've tried to gear posts towards both a professional ( and general audience - If you're headed to Beijing or are just fascinated by the Chinese culture or photographers going to cover the games, be sure to check it out. There are over 40 posts so far, covering everything from the environment ( to mobile phones (, divided up by category, and day and week as well.

With this column, I've tried to touch on some of the most important Beijing travel tips that would be just as useful tourists as they would for journalists coming to cover the Olympics. Frank Folwell's piece from last month's newsletter, Practical tips for the Beijing Olympics (, goes into greater detail on housing, arrival, communications, shopping, security and money, and is another great resource for photographers covering the Games.

If you have any questions about Beijing or the Olympics, please feel free to contact me via email ( or by leaving a comment on my blog ( I do my best to respond to all emails and may post a response on the blog if your question is relevant to other readers.

(Zach Honig is an editor with and has been blogging from Beijing for the past month at You can find him working with photographers at the Road Cycling Course during the Olympics.)

Related Links:
Zach's member page

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