Six Days in Beijing: First Impressions

Skyline | Beijing

Our six days in Beijing began in the International Departures terminal of SEATAC at the Hainan Airlines check-in desk.  Although we were still on U.S. soil, it was here that the language shifted due to a majority Chinese-speaking population waiting in line to go home from vacation or to visit family.  Red Chinese passports dominated the check-in desk, with our blue U.S. passports standing out markedly in the line…oh, and my blonde hair stood out a bit, too.   It is also here that the thrill (and anxiety) of our journey began to creep into my veins and cause my fingers to fidget with my backpack strap.

Forbidden Palace | Six Days in Beijing

The Forbidden Palace

Once boarded on our plane, the acculturation begins.  Unlike AirChina and Delta, Hainan is mostly utilized by Chinese nationals.  Social norms shift to our new home-away-from-home, and I pull out my Mandarin phrase book to brush up on my pinyin.  Once landed in Beijing, the hubby’s family picks us up and drives us to our hotel to freshen up for dinner.

First Impressions

My husband was born in Beijing, but hadn’t visited the city or his family living in the city since he was 17 years old.  A lot can happen in that amount of time (such as the 2008 Olympics…).  Thus, the city was almost as foreign for him as it was for me.  There were three specific things, however, we both had expected about the city based from what we have seen in the U.S. news: pollution, traffic, and questionable food safety.  While we did see all of these things during our six days in Beijing, our experience was that it has been grossly over-represented in the news.

Beijing Pollution

We arrived Beijing in the evening quite worn out from the 11 hour flight from Seattle.  Despite a dense fog clouding my memory, I know that we checked into our hotel, showered, then had dinner with some members of my husband’s — and now my — family.  We did not have the mental facilities to really observe our surroundings.  So, day one of our six days in Beijing began with us opening the window on our first sun-soaked Beijing morning to see a view of Haidian — the University District.  We were pleasantly surprised by a fairly clear, blue sky.  There was certainly pollution, but no where near the pictures so often seen on the news back home.

Skyline | Beijing

Beijing Skyline as seen from the Summer Palace in Haidian

This is not to say that a problem doesn’t exist — we saw pollution rise significantly on the last few days of our trip during a holiday that gave people time off from work and added many more cars into the equation — but there seems to be a misconception among many that the extreme smog seen in photos of Beijing is a constant state.


There have been many incidences of several days-long traffic jams in Beijing.  One even lasted nine full days. Pictures in the news show 50-lane highways becoming a sea of cars — a parking lot.  However, our experience was that on most days traffic was comparable to New York City.  Chaotic, yes; busy, absolutely; but we moved steadily toward our destination.  However, as a tourist you’ll still find that taking the subway where you can will get you where you need to be quicker.  And, if you don’t speak Chinese, don’t even think of taking a cab.  We took many cabs and not even one cab driver spoke English (and, as my husband chatted them up, most told him they don’t speak anything but Chinese).  Taking the subway has the added benefit of avoiding the unofficial cab scams or un-metered cab rides that target foreigners.

Questionable Food Safety

Many warned us to be careful eating in China and to expect to get sick from the food.  The only sickness we ended up with, however, was being sick of having to decide between the plethora of options.  That isn’t to say there weren’t concerns about hygiene here and there, and that we didn’t see food that looked iffy, it’s just to say that…well, use common sense and don’t eat food that looks iffy.  It’s not as though that is all there is to choose.  Even among the street foods, it was easy to see which foods were safe.

Overall, what is Beijing like?  Like any major American city, if public restrooms were squat toilets, if cities still burned coal, and if everyone only spoke Chinese.

Scorpions WanFuJing | Beijing

Live scorpions are sold to eat in Wan Fu Jing, a snack we declined to try. Definitely not kosher.

What’s to come

As promised in my last post, I will be sharing recipes as well as more photos and stories from our six days in Beijing.  However, adapting Northern Chinese fare to the U.S. kitchen and kosher standards is taking me awhile.  Stay tuned for recipes for Liangpi (凉皮, or Cold Noodle), Jianbing (煎饼, or Chinese Crepe), and Zhajiangmian (炸酱面, or Beijing Noodles).

My husband has also published a series of blog posts, starting with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on his photography blog. Check it out if you want to read more!