A Beijing Mini Break: How To

One of my favourite things about living in Korea is the access to the rest of Asia. This year, a number of different factors conspired to mean that we have spent summer in Korea, and making our home leave visits later in the year. We’ve used a fair amount of that time to go into Seoul and more recently, made the 2 hour flight to Beijing, for my first trip to China.

Visa Free Layover 

A lot of nationalities (and I can confirm this from a British Passport Holder point of view) can do a 72 hour layover in China visa-free having met certain conditions:

  • You must fly in and out of the same airport around the 72 hour layover (e.g PEK)
  • You must be flying to a third country and possess a ticket to prove this journey. For these purposes, Hong Kong does count as a third country (e.g. Incheon ⇒ Beijing ⇒ Hong Kong ⇒ Incheon) NB. In the given example, if you wanted to re-enter Beijing after Hong Kong, you would need a visa for the second re-entry into China
  • You need to have your accommodation in Beijing booked, with a printed copy as proof.

If you are taking the layover option, there is a separate immigration queue that you can use – in fact there are two options here as well. You can either use the immigration queue that allows entry into the city itself, or if just transiting, there is another queue for visa-free-remaining-in-the-airport. Take a moment to make sure you are in the right queue and save yourself some time.

China-Visitor Visa 

Although pretty much everyone needs a visa to visit China, there are exceptions so it’s worth your while to check the requirements for your trip yourself.

Note: The Chinese Embassy no longer issues travel visas to individuals. One must go through one’s travel agent to get the required visas. Also, foreign nationals must now have 6 months remaining on their ARC (visa) to qualify for a visa to China.

For our visas, we went to Mode Tour, which is right by Central Park 2. The staff don’t speak a lot of English, but enough to help you get your visa. You need a passport photo, your passIMG_1359port and your Alien Registration Card as proof of residence. If you don’t have an ARC then you’re better off applying for a multiple entry visa in your home country. We had a little issue because our ARC doesn’t have an expiry date, but luckily we have Korean visas in our passports which do have an end date, so it worked out OK. The staff in the agency fill out most of the form for you while you are there, and the standard service takes about 4 days. You pay, in cash, on collection – about 80,000 per visa. You probably can get a  multiple entry visa via the agency, but we just got a single entry for this trip. The recommendation is that you have your flights and accommodation booked before you apply for your visa but the travel agents didn’t take the printed copies when applying for our visas, so I’m not sure about that. There is also an express service for the visas as well, and as expected it costs a little more.

Accommodation 

I don’t have a lot to say on this – where you stay depends on what you want to do and what your budget is, but I will say this. All visitors have to register with the local police office within 24 hours of arriving in China. If you stay in a hotel, they take photocopies of your passport photo page and visa and do this for you. If, however, you stay in an Airbnb or with friends, I think you would have to arrange this yourself – just make sure you’ve done the necessary admin. It’s also a requirement to always carry your passport (or Chinese ID if you have it) on your person, so a good cross body bag for essentials is useful.

Getting Around 

The subway is getting larger and is pretty easy to use. You can get a T-money card equivalent but we just did a few single journies, as taxis are really affordable in China and we were being a little bit lazy (totally allowed on holiday). When you are taking taxis, always make sure they switch on the meter (and get out of the taxi if they don’t want to), don’t take private cars masquerading as taxis and have plenty of smaller notes to pay for the taxis as well (see money, below). There isn’t a lot of English spoken, so yo need to have Chinese addresses to give to taxi drivers. To this end, Google maps isn’t 100% reliable in terms of location but you can use it to obtain said Chinese addresses. Taxis start at a base rate of 13.00 RMB and if you are spending a bit longer in China, it might be worth downloading the Didi app (available in English) to hail taxis with. We didn’t hire a local sim card as it was just 4 days so used our Korean data but this is an option at the airport I believe. One thing you will want to have set up on your phone is a VPN, as access to many Western apps is restricted in China.

Cash v Card

China isn’t as card-friendly a society as Korea is, as locals tend to load money onto their ‘wechat’ apps and use this for paying for everything – restaurants, shops, taxis, cinema etc. Foreign cards are especially hit and miss – even when it comes to ATMs. I’d recommend using cash for most transactions and to withdraw cash, your safest bets are Citibank, Bank of China, HSBC and the airport ATMs.

Cash fraud is, however, still a big deal – especially with 100 RMB notes. Our hotel (Holiday Inn Express Dongzhimen) had a little list of checks to make when money is handed back to you but I’m going to get a friend to write a little note about this as well. Watch this space. I mentioned above that you should have correct change for taxis – this is because the following scenario is pretty common:

  • Passenger hands taxi driver 100 RMB
  • Taxi driver says it is fake (when it isn’t) and hands back a fake 100 RMB note to the passenger
  • Passenger accepts fake and uses another 100RMB note to pay fare.

One taxi we got into agreed a price of 20RMB from Silk Street to our hotel, which is what we paid getting there. He immediately handed me 80RMB in change, expecting a 100RMB in return. I said no and gave him a 20 note. At this, point he said he wanted 20 euros (!) so we said no and hoped out. I can only assume that the 80 change he was prepared to hand over was fake and I foiled his plan by having change to hand. Guess we’ll never know.

Restaurants

Eating out in Beijing is great – for veggies and carnivores a like! All the menus are in English and there are options to suit every taste and budget. I’ll write more about where we ate in the next post though… 

One last thing

People talk a lot about the pollution in Beijing. We really didn’t find it to be visibly that bad but maybe we’ve gotten used to a similar level in Korea. Checking the air quality app showed that levels weren’t great, but speaking to a couple of long-term expats in Beijing, we learnt that it was the worst it had been in a while (save for 2 weeks in Winter when you try not to go outside.) What I did find however, is that my contact-lens covered eyes struggled after a day, no matter how many eye drops I used. Wearing sunglasses, even when it wasn’t that sunny helped a LOT so either do that, or give your eyes a break and wear your glasses every now and again.

 

 

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Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Designed by Zaha Hadid (no relation to Gigi & Bella as far as I can tell) and typical of her designs I’m told, Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a great place for a day out in Seoul. We only made it over for the first time three weekends ago and have ended up going there three weekends in a row.

Here’s a picture I’ve stolen from the interweb – I couldn’t get a great one of the entire building on my phone :

DDP.jpg

DDP, as it is colloquially known, is made up of five halls: Art Hall, Museum, Design Lab, Design Market and Dngdaemun History & Culture Park. Located at the centre of South Korea’s fashion hub, it is a popular place to visit with locals and tourists alike and super easy to access – the subway station Dongdaemun History & Culture Park leads straight into the plaza. There are pretty gardens surrounding it, as well as numerous malls, and in the past few weeks we’ve visited in rain and sunshine alike.

 

The Art Hall is known as the primary space for the Korean creative industry, and we visited it to check out “Volez, Vougez, Voyagez,” The Louis Vuitton Exhibition. The exhibition is a free one and on until the 27th August 2017 and if you haven’t been already, it is definitely worth checking out! You can reserve a space online, so that you don’t have to stand in the queue – we didn’t do this but were still in within 15 minutes and spent a happy hour wandering through various stages of LV’s history, checking out the designs, patterns and collaborations that make the brand so well known today. For a free exhibition, the accompanying brochure and app were amazingly produced and full of information.

We also visited the “30 Years of Pixar” exhibition in the Design Exhibition Hall – it is only on until the 8th August so get your skates on! Tickets cost 13,000 KRW per adult and inside you will find lots of background information on how some of your favourite Pixar movies are made and the incredible initial sketches and colourscapes that go in to each and every scene. It is SUCH a treat for any Pixar fan and the little gift shop is a great bonus at the end!

DDP is also the location of one of three Shake Shacks in Korea – and yes, we’ve eaten there every week for 3 weeks now (they even have a mushroom burger for the veggies)!

All in all, you should definitely have a look on the website regularly and keep heading on down (up) to see what DDP has to offer: http://www.ddp.or.kr/main?hl=en_US

 

The Incheon Injection

Now don’t worry, I’m not about to write a treatise on the various vaccinations that are recommended for South Korea (when we left the UK, there weren’t any but I believe nowadays they recommend Japanese Encephalitis – especially if you plan on visiting Jeju Island during rainy season). Rather, it was my not-so-clever revamp of what my South African Expat Friends in London would refer to as ‘The Heathrow Injection’ i.e. the phenomenon of moving to a new country (for the Saffas, England, for us, RoK) and putting on weight that proves hard to shift. Speaking to my trainer on Monday (Get me – I have a trainer. If you had known me in my previous London-Life you would be beyond shocked that I regularly and voluntarily work out with a trainer) he said of the foreigners in Korea he trains, about 70% put on weight after arriving here and 30% find they lose weight.

The 30% are usually people who ate unhealthily in their previous country and relied heavily on cars as their means of transport and find that their arrival in Korea means eating better (if you aren’t vegetarian, Korean eating can be surprisingly healthy) and not owning a car means that simply increasing the walking they do means they are a lot more active.

Unfortunately, we fell into the 70% category when we arrived. The world-over, people put on weight in the winter. Comfort eating during the long dark nights and hiding behind lovely big sweaters and jumpers. Now take two Brits turning up in Korea (remember how cold I said it gets?) in January. No Hangul skills and they don’t know anybody. Raj would at least go to work every day – but as we lived a 30 minute walk from the office, he’d either take the shuttle bus or, more often than not, a taxi to avoid the biting cold. Once we discovered the convenience store in the bottom of our building, that was usually the furthest I walked (the occasional walk to Lotte didn’t count) so my activity levels really dropped  – London meant at least 2 hours commuting to work each day and walking around the office / meeting friends in the evening etc so even if I didn’t do any actual exercise, I was at least hitting the 10,000 recommended steps daily. So lower activity, coupled with a drink almost every night with dinner and eating ‘winter portions’ of our meals, which were limited in their variety while we were at The Prau didn’t make for the healthiest of starts here.

Once we were settled in our current home, we tried to stick to healthy eating plans and to be each others conscience when it came to eating well but we’re both too soft on each other. So we checked out the gym in our building, which felt expensive (some buildings include use of the gym when you live there, but not ours.) Along with that, we also didn’t really know what we were doing in a gym, don’t enjoy working out and the trainers int the gym didn’t speak enough English for me to be comfortable (all my various aches and pains mean that I need a lot of hand holding when trying to build strength.) I also worried that Raj and I wouldn’t be motivated enough on our own to make use of the gym. So we pottered on with our own attempts without a great deal of success.

Fast Forward to Feb 2017. A bunch of our friends had been seeing a trainer, Bryce,  in Incheon who is Australian but lives here and has done for 9 years. Bryce’s training style is mostly mat work with weights in the form of Kettlebells thrown in, focusing on movement, flexibility and strength. Now here was something I could get on board with. Before he moved to Canada, this was my older brother’s training style too and the few sessions I did with him really helped me. I think Raj was a bit more sceptical of it, as he prefers sports – football, hockey etc but he was willing to give it a go (it was either that or put up with my nagging. Easy choice really.)

So we went for our consultation and came away with our targets – primarily strength building for me, and flexibility for Raj and our weekly sessions were booked in. Our exercises in the gym vary between weights, stretches and also just moving more. Once you start to make progress on one target, Bryce will add in others – for both of us, this was weight loss. He helps with diet and nutrition and keeps tabs on activity levels as well. Alongside the weekly sessions in the gym, he also sets homework – two workouts at home a week and daily stretching / walking to increase movement generally. Now I try to be pretty good about doing all my various exercises each week, but he understands that people who are working might not always do this, so he works them a bit harder when they are in the gym instead.

6 months later, I definitely see and feel the difference. My most recent pain issues have all but gone and although the back still plays up from time to time, Bryce works with me and my limitations so that I’m always taking two steps forward, even when I take one step back. The accountability and motivation he provides means that I now have the strength of a normal 30-something adult and Raj is beating his personal bests every week. The weight loss isn’t instant but my sister-in-law (yes, my brother and his wife are both disgustingly fit trainers – Keeping up with the Raghuveers is not an option) always promotes ‘strong not skinny’ and she has always said that when you train for strength, your shape does change and she is right. Apparently men lose weight more easily than women (obviously. I mean, why should women get a break when it comes to our bodies right?) but we are getting there.

The studio (which is also a Yoga Studio) used to be in Songdo but they needed a bigger space, so are now in Incheon, near the Lotte Department Store/ in between Incheon Bus Terminal and Arts Centre stations on the subway. It takes about 20 minutes to drive to, traffic permitting and there are two reserved parking spaces for the gym round the back, that are available on a first come first serve basis. Bryce always says his website needs work but you can check out the gym on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/powerbalanceyoga/

One of my favourite things about coming to Korea and being a housewife? The opportunity to get fit, healthy and strong!

Power Balance Map