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Taipei and Beijing summer 2020

I am going on tour with a choir this summer. We'll be in Beijing for 4-5 days then flying to Taipei for 4-5 days participating in music festivals in both cities.

I don't know much about our itinerary yet, but past tours I've done has involved lots of sightseeing and usually includes some free time to visit anything the group didn't do together.

Anyone who has been to either city, what do I need to know before I go? Where do you suggest I look for some reliable information? I am a monolingual American, how difficult will it be for me to strike out on my own in my free time?
I've never visited either city, never visited Asia at all, and I haven't even started doing my usual reading up on the culture and history that I usually do before I travel abroad. If you have favorite documentaries or books you'd recommend, please share!
Please no corona virus scaremongering. We're all aware that it exists.

Posted by
5622 posts

Get a good guide book as a start. I have been to Beijing three times and enjoy revisiting it’s incredible historical sites and buildings, temples.
Download English to Mandarin Chinese, and the reverse, on Google Translate. You will not be dependent on data usage if you download them ahead of time. You can show the Mandarin Chinese characters to the locals if you need help.

Posted by
58 posts

Suki, any recommendations on guidebooks you've used and liked?

Posted by
1076 posts

With the Coronavirus I am not sure I would be going to China this summer.

Posted by
4680 posts

I find Lonely Planet to be excellent for both developed and developing countries. It's especially good for when you are going to other than "major cities". In that sense, a more mainstream guide (Frommers, Fodors ... ) is easier to read for just major cities. Note that some forms of Amazon Unlimited Kindle can download a small number of Lonely Planets at a time! Although I prefer the paper editions-I think they are more complete and easier to use.

Taipei and Beijing both have excellent subway systems. In Asia, most subway systems have labels in English, as well as the local language. This is not going to be as hard as you think. I've spent more time in Taipei, but I definitely thought that it was entirely practical to visit Beijing as an independent traveler. You have to consider government restrictions if you leave Beijing. I don't know how closely the central government controls tourism today. We certainly walked around on our own in Xian and Chengdu, without "minders."

It's pointless to talk about Coronavirus at this time. If the group goes, it goes. If it cancels, it cancels. You have to assume for now that they are going.

Posted by
4120 posts

English has been taught in Chinese schools to all children for several years now and many people speak English. You won't have a problem in China or Taiwan.

Beijing has the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, as well as a day trip to see the Great Wall and Summer Palace. Also, we visited a great museum.

Taipei had one of the most remarkable museums ever. It is a MUST SEE. Chaing brought over everyone from the mainland in 1948 (except the too large stuff). A city tour is good, as well.

Check out TripAdvisor, Things to Do.

Posted by
1700 posts

Before leaving your hotel in either country pick up a hotel business card from the front desk that has the name and address of the hotel in Chinese - very helpful when dealing with the local taxi drivers whose English language skills can be marginal or nonexistent.

Posted by
343 posts

For Taiwan, I recommend reading Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan, which is a beautiful novel that explores Taiwan's modern history. (I am of Taiwanese descent with parents who immigrated from Taiwan and this sparked a record-long conversation with a parent about their experience growing up, politics, etc.)

Fully learning to read Chinese characters between now and the summer (and I am a heritage speaker of Chinese with basic level of functional literacy, so I know of what I speak!) is going to be an impossible task, but it would be worth it in my opinion to learn to pronounce pinyin, or the standard Romanization of Chinese. Because it was designed to be a standard Romanization and is also used in China to teach children, it follows standard rules.

I say this because, for example, a name like Zhongxiao Fuxing*, which is a station on the Taipei metro, is not pronounced as a native English speaker would expect -- it's helpful to know how things are pronounced so that you'll understand say the English announcements of station names on the metro (since the English announcement will use a close approximation of the Chinese pronunciation).

A specific hint for Taipei -- it's worth understanding the local address system. Find a guidebook for the best description, but in brief:

Roads are often divided into "sections," and house numbering begins anew at each section -- 168 Nanjing Road, Section 3 is not the same places as 168 Nanjing Road, Section 4. Furthermore, many smaller streets off of large streets don't have independent names but are "lanes" or "alleys" -- "lanes" come off "roads" and "alleys" come off "lanes."

So for example:

  • No. 20, Alley 19, Lane 120, Section 4, Nanjing East Road (a random address that I picked off Google Maps)

To find this, first find Nanjing East Road, Section 4. Find building number 120 on that road; in the close vicinity Lane 120 will be branching off of Nanjing East Road, Section 4. Go down that lane and then find building number 19 on that lane; in the close vicinity Alley 19 will be branching off Lane 120. Go down Alley 19 and find building number 20. That's where you are trying to go.

(Of course I realize with Google Maps/smartphones you often just follow the walking directions. But I still would recommend familiarizing yourself with the basic system especially if you just plan on walking around!)