Travel China: Spies, Smog, and Traffic!

Traveling to China? Check out our experience for tips on preparation, money exchange and your personal safety.


Make sure you plan and submit your visa application with plenty of time to spare. If it’s not completed accurately it will get returned disapproved.

If it’s a short notice visa application, you will pay an additional “expedite” fee. Our visa application was a four-day turn around. The scheduled flights were within the four-day approval process. Flights had to be shifted accordingly because the Chinese were not willing to accommodate.

Once the visas were granted, we noted the visas were actually approved the first day of the four-day process! What the Chinese Embassy was doing with our passports the other three days is a mystery, but probably something nefarious.


My Doctor prescribed Cipro (antibiotic) and a prescription anti-diarrhea medication. I never needed the Cipro, but the anti-diarrhea pills were a lifesaver! I never had food poisoning and felt fine, but I’d try different dishes and the natural bacterial flora and fauna that my body was used to in the US did not agree with what I was eating in China.

One rush to the toilet, pop one anti-crap pill, and I was good to go. If you have asthma, or any type of respiratory problem, you need to take this into consideration before traveling to Beijing due to extreme smog.


I flew enhanced economy (little more leg room) and the seat next to me was empty. My friends flying with me flew plain economy and said the rear of the aircraft was packed. Families with crying infants and a few people with colds made their flight miserable.

Pay the extra for enhanced!


The airport in Beijing is very modern and easy to navigate. Picked up my bags and proceeded through immigration and customs with no difficulty.

I changed money at the airport ($1.00 = 6.2 Yuan). Do not accept offers from people outside the terminal to exchange money. They may give you a terrific rate, but it’s almost certainly counterfeit (this happened to one of my associates).


There are two types of cabs at the airport: private cabs (no meter) and metered cabs. You may be able to haggle a private driver, but I was told it was better to get a metered cab.

There is a 10-Yuan surcharge no matter how far the trip takes you, but it’s still very inexpensive compared to US prices.

You’ll notice that there are two microphones in the front of the cab where the front doors hinge, next to the dashboard. Every cab in Beijing is set up like this for “customer service.”

If you’re in Beijing on a competitive business trip, you may want to withhold from talking about your business while riding in a cab.


The hotel where I stayed was very nice. It’s located in central Beijing near a shopping center called “The Place,” which boasts the largest TV screen in the world (it’s the roof of the center walkway).

I stayed in a non-smoking room. However, one evening when I came back to my room, there was a strong odor of smoke in my room.

I called down to the front desk and told them that the person who had turned down my bed must have been smoking and to not charge me the cleaning fee (which is clearly stated what will happen if you smoke in a designated non smoking room). They assured me they would not.

I told this story to the expat owner of a local restaurant and he informed me the “Public Security Bureau” had probably searched my room. He also told me that the Chinese government thinks that every foreigner who comes to China is a spy and they will search their room at one point or another.


If you plan on leaving Beijing and staying some place else for over 24 hours, you’re required to check in with the local police station and show your passport. People in Beijing may appear to be rude, but it’s just a big city cultural norm.

As soon as we left Beijing and got to the smaller villages, the people were very friendly and accommodating.


Crime appeared to be non-existent in the areas of Beijing we frequented. You’ll notice that there are cameras everywhere and uniformed police, military, or private security all over the place.

The biggest threat to a newcomer is traffic. Because traffic is so congested in Beijing, it’s rarely moving fast enough to create many “catastrophic” collisions. Most are just fender-benders.

When two locals have a fender bender, a policeman is called to the scene and arbitrates. There is no exchange of insurance, no tickets are written. The policeman decides who’s most at fault and who will pay what to whom.

If the accident is between a local and a foreigner, things change drastically. Unless the foreigner is politically connected, he’s always at fault. He could be t-boned in an intersection but it’s still his fault.

The policeman will rule in favor of the local and have a split of the awarded proceeds.


When crossing streets in Beijing, make sure to stick with a large group of locals who start to move. It seems that only a mass of people in front of vehicles (even when their light is red) will stop them.

You need to keep your head on swivel when crossing intersections.

In the event of an accident where you’re struck by a vehicle (bike, motorbike, car), if you are uninjured, it’s automatically your fault. If you happen to be driving a vehicle and you bump a local, it’s automatically your fault.


Smog. While I was there, most of the days were fairly clear. However, there were days where you could literally taste the air and only see a hundred yards.

The day we traveled to “The Dragon’s Head,” which is where the Great Wall meets the Yellow Sea, there was a solid layer of smog from Beijing to the Sea (310 km). Locals and expats told me the smog is the norm and that while we were there it had been abnormally clear.

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