I'm writing this because I came to Beijing dramatically unprepared, and I don't want anyone to follow in my footsteps!
1) Download several VPNs
Simple, right? Not so! I downloaded a VPN but it's actually blocked now that I'm in the country, and it seems to be that way for most VPNs available. I would try to find an alternative solution, but sadly Google is blocked here making it a little difficult to find anything that isn't easily accessible on Bing. Other things that are blocked? No facebook, instagram, twitter, gmail (I have over 20 missed emails and whoever knows me knows me will know how much anxiety that brings me) and worst of all - Google Maps.
2) Carry a map
I often joke about how I don't understand how people could travel without Google Maps and that I would be clueless without it, and it turns out I was right! I got completely lost on my way home, desperately searching for anybody who could point me in the right direction. Sadly, the only address I had was in English, leading to laughs instead of assistance, leading me to my next point...
3) You're not going to fit in - and that's fine
This has been one of the strangest places as a tourist in my experience. Having been stopped over 5 times today to take selfies with random locals, I've also been laughed at numerous times for my shoddy use of chopsticks, attempt to pronounce Chinese words, and at my assumption that people might speak English. Fun fact: nobody speaks English - not police officers, shop workers, or restaurant owners - trust me, I spent half an hour trying to order food using a translator on my phone (not Google translate, sadly, because of course that's blocked). Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting everyone to speak English wherever I go, it's just something to keep in mind when traveling over here.
4) Don't get scammed...
So these really nice ladies stopped me in the subway station because they wanted to practice their English; how nice! They walked me around Tiananmen Square, and then we went for tea and talked about school and their jobs and lives and such, they gave me lots of compliments, it was really nice. At the end, they made me pay for like half of it? Which was fair, but a little annoying because I'm a poor college student and tea is more expensive than food here. Then we parted ways, but when I got back to my hostel I see:
"Beware Tea Selling Scam
You may be approached by girls asking you to come and teas for free or pay separately. However at the end they will try and make you pay!"
I got scammed! For tea! Horrendous! Other scams include art students making you buy overly priced gifts, absurdly expensive fake tour guides, men getting you to pay for karaoke, and general pickpockets. Keep aware!
5) Know what's going on in your area!
Familiarize yourself with the local transport, the food, the events and shows and concerts and whatnot. And explore, get lost! I got on a random subway, found the major monuments, and luckily happened to stumble upon a big military parade and flag show. Would have been better if I actually did research, but still an amazing experience! Put yourself out there, see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City especially, talk to locals and find the cool spots that you may not know as just a random tourist. I especially enjoyed the Dongsi Subdistrict, lots of cool restaurants and shops.
Overall, Beijing is a beautiful city full of culture, history, and delicious food. While difficult to navigate at times, a visit is completely worth it. The night life is bright and fun, and the streets are constantly bustling and alive. There are fun markets and each neighborhood has its own individual attitude, reminding me of New York in a lot of ways. It's big, and can feel lonely at times, but I look forward to coming back and spending a more solid amount of time in this thriving city.