Culture Shock in Beijing: Joan Trip Part IV

Follow contributing editor Ed Perkins as he embarks on a round-the-world "Joan Trip." (What's a Joan Trip? Find out in Take That Special Trip ... While You Still Can.) According to Perkins, "neither frequent-flyer miles nor people improve with age," so he's working off a bundle of miles seeing the world, combining places he missed over the years with some old favorites. Read the rest of Perkins' round-the-world-trip posts.

In many ways, you may find more culture shock going from Seoul to Bejing than from home to Seoul. The big issue is language. Here, you find far fewer concessions to English or any Western languages, and that difference permeates your entire experience in Beijing.

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Of course, it isn't hopeless, and Beijing's airport at least gets you off to the right start. It is well signed in both Chinese and English, and although it's even bigger than Seoul's immense new terminal, it's relatively easy to navigate. Don't worry about arriving with yuan. You'll find lots of banks and ATMs once you get through customs.

The best way to get into the city center is on a nonstop airport express train. For just 25 yuan (about $4), you make the trip in about 20 minutes. The downside is that unlike Seoul's airport train, the airport train here has no provision for baggage storage; this is strange for a train that serves only an airport. Once you arrive at the city terminal—which is on a peripheral road rather than in the middle of town—you'll find plenty of cabs hanging around the station exit.

But right away you may face that language barrier. English hotel names bear no phonetic resemblance to their Chinese names, so the Chinese for "Bates Motel" could  sound like almost anything, and repeating "Bates Motel" slowly and distinctly won't do you any good. Instead, before you leave home, download and print out a sheet from the hotel's website or from an online travel agency that includes the hotel's name and address in Chinese, and show that to the cab driver.

Cultural note: After a tiring day schlepping around the Forbidden City, I returned to my hotel room to flake out a bit and watch CNN World. The news program that came on led with a story about that Chinese dissident who is asking the U.S. for protection, and as soon as the report got underway, the screen went blank. We weren't in Kansas anymore.

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