Though it's home to several large international corporations and every western fastfood chain you can imagine, a visit to Beijing can still be an exercise in culture clash for foreigner business travelers. The language is indecipherable to most English speakers, the air is remarkably smoggy, and western-style toilets are the exception, not the norm. But to cash in on the booming business opportunities the city has to offer, you'll have to learn to love the rich (if unfamiliar) culture Beijing has to offer. Here's how.
How to Survive a Business Trip in Beijing: Kick the Jetlag
Beijing can be between 12 and 15 hours ahead of the United States, depending on where your plane takes off. To get adjusted, Lonely Planet travel guide author David Eimer says, "Set your watch to Beijing time when you board the plane." In flight, it's a mistake to drink alcohol. Instead Eimer says, hydrate thoroughly with water.
Some frequent fliers rely on melatonin to put them to sleep in the air. Once you get to Beijing, though, especially if it's during the day, keep yourself awake with some exercise. "Take a short walk after you arrive," Eimer says. "Don't sleep until the evening."
Still, it's likely you'll wake up early the next morning, so Natalie Behring, a photographer who spent 12 years living and working in Beijing, says there are ways to use the early hours to your advantage. 'Go early to Jing Shan Park, behind the Forbidden City," she suggests. 'In the morning, all the geriatrics get up and do their dancing and get their exercise. It's lovely to watch.' This goes without mentioning the Park's birds' eye view of the city.
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How to Survive a Business Trip in Beijing: Where to Stay
It's easy to find a hotel with all the comforts of home (standing toilets included). Beijing is full of well-known hotel chains and upscale boutique hotels that offer travelers the best of both worlds.
• Starwood Hotels. The chain boasts several outposts around the city. If you plan on spending a lot of time in the financial district, consider the Westin on Financial Street or, if you'll be doing most of your business on the east side of town, there's also a Westin Chaoyang location. Another attractive option is the St. Regis located in the city center. All of the hotels have private meeting rooms you can book, if necessary, and bedrooms start at about $200 a night.
• Shangi La Hotels. In a similar price range as the Starwood hotels, the Shangri-La locations are also spread out around town. China World Hotel is located in the central business district, not far from the St. Regis. Its bar, Aria, is a 'sedate post-work getaway with a good happy hour,' according to Jim Boyce, who writes the nightlife blog BeijingBoyce. In August, the China World Summit Wing will open, along with the city's highest restaurant, Grill 79, which derives its name from its location on the hotel's 79th floor. The Kerry Centre Hotel is where you need to be if you're working in the financial district.
• Hotel Cote Cour. Located on a historic hutong (meaning narrow alley), Hotel Cote Cour is "the cutest hotel in the city," according to Behring. This boutique hotel has only 14 rooms and it surrounds a charming garden that's best viewed in the summer. Its traditional architecture will give you the feeling that you're far from home, despite all the familiar amenities. A standard room is slightly cheaper, at about $157 a night.
• Red Capital Club Residence. Behring says the Residence has the type of 'Mao [Zedong] communist nostalgia only a foreigner could pull off.' It's fitting, then, that the Residence is owned and operated by American ex-pat Lawrence Brahm. Complete with Mao soap dishes, a cigar lounge, vintage furniture and a pervading color scheme of red, red red, Behring says, 'It might not be luxury comfort, but it's definitely luxury nostalgia.' Rates begin at about $200 a night, with breakfast included.
• The Peninsula Beijing. If you want to get a little sightseeing in, the Peninsula really couldn't be closer to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. But the view comes at a hefty price, with rooms starting at $450 a night. Tempting though it may be, do you really need a plasma TV in the bathroom and a Cartier store in the lobby?
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How to Survive a Business Trip in Beijing: Where to Eat
Before you plan a business dinner in Beijing, you need to make sure you mind your manners. According to Ann Mah, author of Kitchen Chinese, "Chinese culture depends a lot on something called 'Face.' It's a really complex idea that depends on giving someone face or losing 'Face.'"
It's important, therefore, to take business associates to a restaurant that will make them feel like you're showing them respect. One way to do this is to choose a restaurant that has private rooms you can reserve for yourself and your guests. Mah says many classy restaurants in Beijing have private rooms, though you may have to pay a little extra to reserve them. If you don't speak Chinese, verify that the restaurant has an English menu or photos of the food in the menu, since you'll be expected to order for the group.
Arrive early to select the menu. Start out with a few cold dishes, like cucumber salad, raw vegetables or pressed tofu with chili oil. For the main course, order meat or seafood. "Seafood is considered very expensive, so to treat someone, you should order shrimp or fish," Mah explains.
Don't fall into the trap of ordering rice, dumpling, or noodles for the main course. "Those things are considered filler food," she says. "It should be something that's offered after you've offered everything else that's more expensive."
When you sit down, Mah says, there may be one napkin on the table folded differently than the rest. "That's the seat of the host," she explains. "If you're hosting, you should automatically go to that seat, and if you're not the host, don't sit there."
Continually fill your guests' plates, and the same goes for their glasses. If someone hands you a business card, take it with both hands and look at it. Putting it right in your pocket is considered disrespectful.
Below are a few places you can feel comfortable bringing guests, and a few you can try out when you're off the clock.
• Da Dong Roast Duck. You should order Peking duck at least once while you're in Beijing, and you should order it at Da Dong. It's famous throughout the city, and with both English and Chinese menus, it's as foreigner-friendly as it is locally respected. Mah says it's an ideal place for a business dinner because it has private rooms. Location: 22 Dongsi Shitiao, Phone: +86-010-5169-0328.
• Made in China at the Hyatt. Let's face it. Once you get one taste of Beijing's signature dish – duck – you'll definitely want another. Don't miss out on the one restaurant that's widely considered to be a rival to Da Dong. Slightly less creative than it's competitor – it is located in the Hyatt, after all – Behring says Made in China just may be 'the best duck in town.' The open kitchen adds an element of entertainment to the dining experience.
• Din Tai Fung. This is one place where it's okay to order dumplings as a main course. 'It's a chain from Taiwan,' Mah says, 'and it's definitely somewhere you could bring people.' Din Tai Fung offers a variety of steamed dumplings, noodle dishes and specialty soups for Westerners who like to play it safe.
• Capital M. Boasting one of the most scenic views around, Capital M is located on Qianmen Street with terrace views of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Despite its setting in one of Beijing's most iconic areas, the food at Capital M is skewed toward European dishes and flavors, like crab tortellini and Catalan seafood stew. Still, it comes highly recommended by Boyce, who describes it as 'excellent for business dinners.'
• Old Beijing Noodle King. Though you'll want to entertain clients at a high-end restaurant, one of the perks of visiting Beijing is getting mouthwatering meals cheap. If you want to catch a quick bite, Mah suggests the zha jiang mian at the Noodle King, which are homemade noodles tossed with sweet and savory pork sauce, julienne cucumbers and vinegar. Location: 29 Chong Wei St., Phone: +86-010-6705-6705.
• 'Ghost street' or Guijie. Lined with red lanterns, 'Ghost Street' is kitschy, but still considered a hub for good shopping and great food. One of the more celebrated spots is Hua Jia Yi Yuan Guijie, where the atmosphere is casual and the interior courtyard often hosts live entertainment. Location: 235 Dongzhimennei Dajie, Phone: +86-01-6405-1908.
• Yue Bing. If you're up for a treasure hunt, Behring says navigating your way to Yue Bing is well worth it. 'It's not fancy, but it's the best food I've ever had,' she says. Head toward the National Gallery, and on the north side of Wangfujing, you'll find the restaurant in the Cuihua Hutong. Once you get there, Behring recommends the guo tai doufu, which are tofu sandwiches filled with pork, battered and fried.
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How to Survive a Business Trip in Beijing: Where to Unwind
Sooner or later the crowds, the language barrier, the jetlag and the back-to-back meetings are going to get to you. Luckily, Beijing is well prepared for overwhelmed business travelers who want to kick back without spending all their free time in a hotel room.
• Get a massage. A massage is relaxing in and of itself, but in Beijing, you can get one at a fraction of what it might cost in the States, making your time on the table that much sweeter. Eimer recommends either Dragonfly or Bodhi for a high-quality, low-cost massage. The Bodhi Sense location has comparable prices to all three of Dragonfly's centers, starting at about $22 for an hour-long massage.
• Take a stroll. Walk around the acclaimed 798 Space in the Dashanzi Art District, and you will not only find a maze of galleries to explore, but the Timezone 8 book store and eatery offers American visitors a taste of home, courtesy of Texan owner Robert Bernell. Another neighborhood you can visit to clear your head is Hou Hai. According to Mah, 'There's a man-made lake in the middle that dates back to the 19th century, and the whole area is surrounded by narrow alleys that date back to Mongol times.'
• Grab a drink: 'The most famous drinking area is Sanlitun, though the main strip of neon-lit bars is a tourist trap full of ‘lady bar' touts and overpriced beer,' says Boyce. Instead, he suggests checking out the side roads, where you can find familiar watering holes like Union Bar & Grille. Closer to the central business district, Eimer says both LAN Club and Xiu Bar, which is in the Park Hyatt, are classy options for clients. He adds, 'Most business in China is conducted over meals, and you will be expected to drink with your hosts.'
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How to Survive a Business Trip in Beijing: What to See
Without question, you could spend a whole day walking on the Great Wall, meandering through the Forbidden City or winding your way around the Summer Palace. Still, says Eimer, you can squeeze more sightseeing into one day than you might think. Here, he lays out the game plan for a day's worth of touring:
1. Start with the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which lies right in front of the City's gates. The centuries-old palace was once home to emperors in the Ming Dynasty, and the massive Tiananmen plaza was the site of the infamous protests of 1989, in which peaceful student protesters were violently subdued by the military, ending in an untold number of deaths. Now, on any given day, it's flooded with people, so it's wise to watch your bags.
2. Take a cab to the Temple of Heaven, which consists of a Taoist-style central temple surrounded by smaller altars. Test out the nearby Echo Wall, which has been constructed to carry even quiet sounds great distances.
3. Hop in another cab and end the day at the Summer Palace. It's unlike anything you've seen before, and you won't likely see anything like it again. The Palace sits high on a hill by the Kunming Lake, which is surrounded by traditional-style pavilions and bridges. Climb the stairs up to the Palace, but take the long way down using pathways that lead you back to ground level.
Outside of Beijing, of course, is the Great Wall. If you choose to make the trip, Eimer suggests the Badaling section, because, he says, 'You get the classic vista of the Wall snaking off into the distance, and it's the closest section of the Wall to Beijing.' Get there early enough and you stand a chance of beating the crowds and making it back to Beijing in time to see Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.
Guidebooks may also direct you to the extreme food stalls at the Night Markets, where vendors serve everything from dumplings to scorpion and testicle skewers. Mah says skip it. 'People don't really eat that way in China,' she says. 'It's a tourist attraction.' As an alternative, head over to stalls at Jiumen Xiaochi, a once outdoor food market that has been relocated to an old courtyard building. 'It's a charming traditional style food court, and I like it more than the Night Market,' Mah says. Location: 1 Xiaoyou Hutong, Phone: +86-01-6402-5858.
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How to Survive a Business Trip in Beijing: Essential Information
• Currency. China's currency is the yuan. You may see the abbreviation RMB used in pricing, as well. The conversion rate is such that 1 yuan equals roughly 15 cents.
• Transportation. All sources say that taxis are an easy, cost-efficient way to get around. 'Beijing taxi drivers are honest and always use their meters,' Eimer says, so you don't have to be concerned about getting ripped off. If you don't speak Chinese, though, Eimer says, 'Get your hotel to write down your destination and always carry the hotel's card so you can get back home.'