Now that I’ve finished my Beijing Round ups, I thought I’d write a post on how I found Beijing, how I prepared for my trip and how I found eating vegan in the city.
Getting a visa to China is a bit of a pain in the arse. You need to do it at least a month in advance of travelling and you need to have both fights and accommodation booked before applying. Annoying right? As I was staying with my brother it was extra complicated for me to include his apartment in my application as I’d need a letter of invitation from him as well as a copy of his tenancy agreement. To avoid this I booked a cheap hostel that could be cancelled last minute without a fee, I just didn’t turn up and was charged something like a fiver for the first nights stay. If you’re staying with a friend or relative this does violate the terms of your visa but honestly they don’t seem to check, I didn’t have any problems leaving although I may have problems entering in the future. In this circumstance you’re supposed to go to a local police station to tell them where you’re staying and fill out the correct forms…but none of them speak English so this was impossible for me to do. If you’re wanting to book accommodation more last minute then go ahead and book a hostel to cancel, as long as you check into a hotel or hostel during your stay, they will send the relevant documents needed to prove where you were during your visit and you should be okay.
I got my Visa at a center in Manchester. I didn’t book an appointment and showed up on the day, the room was packed full of people. Luckily because I had everything booked, no letter of invitation and was only spending a week there, I was fast tracked and seen immediately. If you’re planning to stay longer then make sure you book an appointment or prepare for a long wait.
Learning the language
I didn’t have long to prepare for this trip at all, I booked my flights on a whim just over a month before I flew out so realistically there was only so much I could do beforehand. I felt at the time, and still do feel pretty embarrassed and awful about how little Mandarin I knew while I was out there. I felt pretty ignorant. I managed to learn a few basics such as ‘hello’ ‘thank you’ and ‘I am a vegetable eater’ before I left but that was about it. I decided to focus on learning food related phrases because I knew that eating out would be when I needed the most help. Here is a youtube video that I found really helpful by Fiona Tian
I knew that wouldn’t be enough to get me by, so I did a lot of research and checked out some blogs written by vegans who have spent a lot of time in China. Vegetarian China was a great resource for me, loads of valuable phrases are written in both Pinyin as well as Chinese characters. I printed out all of these phrases, cut them out and stuck them all in a notebook that I took everywhere with me. I can’t tell you how useful this was, it helped me make sure I’d be getting a vegan meal in lots of non vegan restaurants.
Happy Cow is a life saver for any vegan traveller. If you’ve not heard of this amazing website…where have you been?! Happy Cow is basically an online vegetarian and vegan guide. All you need to do is type in the city you’re visiting, or a postcode and it will list all the vegetarian, vegan and vegan friendly restaurants and shops in the area, including user reviews. The site does rely on members to add and update information so occasionally it’s not totally up to date but I found the Beijing listings to be spot on.
This really helped with my planning, it was pretty long winded but I bought a map of Beijing and marked down all of the options available to me. This involved me writing a list of every restaurant in the area, I split it into 2 sections Vegetarian and Vegan and then I assigned each restaurant a letter or a number. I then looked up each place on Google Maps and matched it up to my own paper map of Beijing. I would then use a blue pen for vegetarian and a black pen for vegan and mark down the letters of the restaurants at their location on my map. It took hours but it was super helpful to me. When I was out and about and hungry, all I would have to do is check my map for the closest option to me, I would then carry a paper copy of the list I created (which included a description of what the cuisine was, prices, opening hours etc) and see what was available to me. This meant that even if I had any last minute plans, I wouldn’t have to worry about finding an internet connection to see where was closest to me, I had all the information in my back pack all the time.
I’ve barely flown since I went vegan nearly 9 years ago, so this was my first experience asking for a vegan meal on the plane. I flew with China Southern Airlines and honestly, I was dreading it. There are some really bad reviews online and a lot of folk complaining about there being zero entertainment on their flights. I thought they were fine, I ended up with a tv in the back of my seat that had loads of films available, including Inside Out which I loved. I thought the seats were reasonably comfy, I was offered drinks fairly regularly…maybe my expectations were low, but it was what I expected it to be.
In the week before flying out, I rang to confirm my vegan meals 3 times. Pestering obviously worked because I ended up with 2 vegan meals on each flight. Here’s a photo of my food on the way out
So what delights did I have here? The main dish was stir fried veg, tofu and some rice. I then had a pre-packed slice of rye ‘bread’ with vegan spread, the spread was actually marked vegan. The rye bread was gross. A small portion of salad…it wasn’t great but fair enough and fruit salad. All in all it was pretty good for flight food and looked far better than the shite folk around me ended up with. I also got my meal before everyone else and it was still hot. I was pleased that there was protein in my meal with tofu and the chickpeas in the salad. I just wish they wouldn’t assume vegans need to eat rye bread.
This was my breakfast. The rye bread and spread returned, I didn’t eat it this time. The main dish was surprisingly nice, it was a sort of lentil stew thing with peppery polenta. I had fruit salad and then a polenta based dessert, it was like an Indian sweet but was quite tasty. Not really breakfast food but to be honest it didn’t feel like the morning at this point in my flight anyway.
I did get 2 meals on the way back too but unfortunately I have no pictures because I realised on the way back that my phone wasn’t supposed to be on at all, even on airplane mode. Oops. I had a similar veg, tofu and rice thing and then a tomato pasta for my breakfast. I did get non vegan spread and some cakey thing that didn’t look vegan on the way back so I didn’t bother eating it. I preferred the meals on the way out, they were prepared in Amsterdam so I have a feeling they had a better idea of what vegan was than at Beijing airport but to be honest they were all fairly acceptable meals.
Travel Friendly Food Supplies
I spent a fortune bringing loads of food along with me for emergencies. My suitcase was full of cartons of chocolate milk, Spacebars, Nak’d & Trek bars, biscuits, fruit purees and Ella’s Kitchen smoothies. The Smoothies were particularly handy, forget that they’re for kids, they’re the perfect size to travel with you in your hand luggage as they’re under 100ml. Definitely worth having a few of these with you for long flights in case you don’t get lucky with a vegan meal.
I barely touched any of these supplies because I had no problems finding vegan food in Beijing, but I’m glad I brought them along with me. Unfortunately the fruit purees I bought busted out of their foil packets in my luggage, so I’d recommend bringing jars of puree instead, as they won’t burst and leave your entire suitcase stinking for days.
Here are a few other handy things to bring along: cereals/oats, dried noodles, soya puddings, crackers, pate.
How was Beijing?
Considering the language barrier and the short time I had to prepare my trip, Beijing was a pretty darn easy city to eat vegan in. I was amazed at how easy it was, I was expecting to go hungry a lot and I remember telling myself that it wasn’t a foodie holiday….but it totally ended up being one! Perhaps not as extreme as my trips to Berlin but I ate a lot of good food.
The thing I found hardest was being constantly stared at. Folk had no problem pointing at me, talking about me and having a good old laugh at me, it was so obvious…there was no shame in how they did it. It was hard to get used to that. For a while I found it quite funny that I was so fascinating to people but when I was travelling alone, sitting by myself in a park and being stared at full on for 20 minutes until I left, it was pretty intimidating.
I also struggled with the sheer amount of people in the city, it’s really crowded and there is no concept of queuing over there, it’s really chaotic. I hated all of the security every time you go through a subway station, I hated the army propaganda that played on a loop on the trains… and I wasn’t made to feel particularly welcome there. Beijingers don’t seem like us Westerners that much, I’m not particularly surprised by that, I don’t like a lot of us either but it was really difficult to visit a city that was so unwilling to help if you got into trouble. It was a miracle that I came across Donna and Percy when I visited The Great Wall, no one else was particularly nice to me, folk were constantly trying to rip me off, I ended up trusting no one because it didn’t feel safe to do so.
I found transport and map reading really easy in Beijing, it’s essentially just a grid system so very easy to get around.
A few things to be aware of
- Be careful crossing roads! Cars do not always stop when there is a red light. I pretty much used the locals as a shield and ran across roads internally screaming.
- Most toilets are a hole in the ground, a lot don’t even have a door or curtain…they’re pretty public affairs. There’s also never usually toilet roll available, so remember to bring your own. On the off chance that there is a Western toilet, there probably won’t be a queue as locals don’t like to use them…win? I spent a lot of the time just not going to the toilet in public areas, I really didn’t want to fail at squatting and piss all over myself in public.
- If someone invites you somewhere for tea, don’t go! They will rip you off. Do not use rickshaws unless you can negotiate, they will rip you off! Taxis are generally trustworthy, make sure they have their meters running. Taxi drivers speak zero English but you can point to the closest subway station on a map and they will get you there safely…they’re also super cheap so a perfect solution if you’re lost.
- The subway is easy to use, buses less so. A bus will not have stations written in Pinyin, it’s all in Chinese characters, make sure you write down your location in characters and pay attention to what comes up on the screens. There are conductors who sit in the middle of the buses, I found them pretty helpful so try and ask them to tell you when the stop is.
That’s about it, that’s all the advice I can give after only 7 days in Beijing. Have any of my readers travelled here? Can you offer any advice?