By Sapna Maheshwari
During my stay in Beijing, I've quickly found that one of the greatest parts of the city is the amount of fun you can have without breaking your bank.
One hundred yuan, the equivalent of about $14.50 USD, goes much further here than most other cities in the world. After studying in London last fall, where the pound murdered most of my savings, I have definitely appreciated the extent to which one can stretch money here.
When our editors sent the four American interns here at the China Internet Information Center out to explore the city with 100 yuan each, I was more than excited to see where it would take me.
The first resolution I made was to use public transportation all day. Like any city, the most expensive way to get around Beijing is by taxi. The base fare of 10 yuan and additional 2 yuan for each kilometer (plus small charges for time, which add up during traffic jams) will eat your money up quickly.
The bus system only costs 1 yuan one-way and 40 cents if you buy a card. The metro only costs 2 yuan one-way, also incredibly cheap. What you're paying for in a taxi is the comfort of a guaranteed seat and plenty of space, but hey, it's Beijing...brave the crowds!
I set out on a beautiful, sunny Wednesday morning to go to Beihai Park, one of the oldest and most well-preserved imperial gardens in the city, with a history of about 1000 years. It consists of 69 hectares, 39 of which are covered by water.
I spent my first 3.80 yuan on an ice cold orange Gatorade to get me through the day without falling apart from dehydration. Next, I hopped onto a bus that brought me to my nearest metro station. Warning: all of the bus schedules are in Chinese, but pointing at the written name of where you need to go with a politely confused smile is generally a surefire way to attract help from other people at the bus stop. From my station, Gongzhufen, I took Line 1 to Tian'anmen Xi (West) for 2 yuan. From there, I hopped onto Bus #5, which brought me close to the park.
Admission to all the sights within the park was 20 yuan and well worth every fen.
One of the highlights of Beihai Park was the Round City, a serene area where you can see the Marquis of Shade (an 800 year-old Chinese pine tree) as well as the Jade Jar or Great Jade Sea, a 3500-kilogram solid jade wine vessel which dates back to Kublai Khan. With crickets chirping into the quiet air, it made for a picturesque scene.
The temples within the park are the real gem, and most are located on the Jade Islet. I left my iPod in my purse and instead enjoyed the traditional Chinese music drifting through the park. In the temples and their courtyards, the sounds of Beijing and city-life vanish, a surreal occurrence in the heart of one of the most populous cities on Earth. It was easy for me to imagine that it was 100, 200 or 300 years ago.
I climbed more than 60 stairs to the jaw-dropping White Pagoda or Bai Ta, which was erected in 1651 at 35.9 meters up. At the very top, I happily paid an extra 2 yuan to visit the Hall of Beneficent Causation, or Shan Yin Dian, which is covered with 455 glazed tiles, each with Buddha's image on them. The satisfaction of being so high above the city made it easy to understand what Chinese emperors of the past were thinking when they built such a place.
From the top, I exited to the left for a scenic route down the Islet and then walked around the lake. One of the most interesting sights off the Islet was the Hall of Spiritual Peace, where I actually felt so at peace that I’m fairly convinced I could have been an empress in a last life. Also fascinating was the Nine-Dragon Wall, a seven-colored mural of sorts made from glazed bricks.
After walking around Beihai Park for about four hours, I was enamored with the place. However, my feet were starting to protest and I decided at about 2 PM that it was time for a late lunch.
I don't quite know how I ended up back on the metro since I took the wrong bus out of the park, but the other passengers were so helpful and friendly that I eventually found my way to a place called the Vineyard Café, which was mentioned in my Lonely Planet Guide. The café is located in a pretty hutong by the Lama Temple (closest to the Yonghe Gong metro stop) and features a menu with prices in the range of 30 to 60 yuan.
Although I could easily have found a place to eat for 10 yuan (what I typically spend for noodles or fried rice during the work week) I decided to spring for an excellent set lunch for 50 yuan. It included the best Caesar salad I've eaten while here, a yummy pepperoni pizza and a diet Coke. It was a relaxing and tasty meal in the restaurant's sun-soaked courtyard.
If you've been keeping track, 3:30 PM found me with about 18.20 yuan left. I walked around the Lama temple area for a bit, which was mostly replete with stores selling religious paraphernalia including more types of incense than I knew existed.
Finally, exhausted, I made my way to the metro station because this girl was more than ready for a nap. While waiting for the train, a British man asked me what I was doing with his pizza. Puzzled, I joked that it was a really good pizza. As we conversed, it turns out this man, Will, was the owner of the restaurant I just ate at! Funny how a city as big as Beijing can produce a coincidence like that.
It never felt better to kick off my flip-flops and collapse onto my couch after all the traveling and sightseeing. But I wasn’t about to let that last 15.20 yuan go to waste (after spending 3 yuan on the subway and bus home).
After a much-needed energy-boosting nap, and a dinner of lunch leftovers, I headed out to Wudaokou with some friends for a free trivia night at Lush, a popular bar in the area. I had just enough money to buy some pineapple juice and make my way back home, spending the last of the cash.
So there it is: a 100 yuan day. To think--the same amount would only fill up a third of my gas tank at home or buy me a single cocktail in London.
The lesson here is clear. If you're planning a day of sightseeing around Beijing, don't worry about running out of money -- worry about having enough energy and enjoy it to the max!