March 29, 2012

BEST OF: Cheap (But Awesome) Things To Do in China

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Those who say the best things in life are free are probably Americans in China. At first it seems too good to be true and you might blow an outrageous $10 on a five-star, five-course meal just because you can. But after a few weeks, your standards begin to change and spending more than $4 on anything feels like some kind of crime. It turns out, however, that spending more than that in China often isn’t experiencing real China anyway (unless it’s overspending on hotpot.) For that reason, it’s important to know some of the best and cheapest ways to get familiar with China. Here are five of them in no particular order.


Parks are often free if not very cheap, maybe $0.30 to enter. Beijing’s parks are expansive, beautiful and reveal a grand part of Chinese landscape, but more interesting is the elderly population that gathers to dance, sing, chat and exercise. Some things might even seem familiar, like a game that resembles hacky-sac, but instead of the stereotypical hippy youth playing it’s the elderly accidental Chinese hipsters, and instead of a hacky-sac, the ball more resembles a badminton birdie. Observing is entertaining enough, but joining in is even better and highly recommended to really get to understand China.


Massages aren’t the typical relaxing, candle-light, incense-infused experience we come to expect in the U.S., but are closer to a slow, painful, process in which the masseuse finds places you didn’t know you were sore, digs into them until you want to cry and then keeps going. Despite the pain, the conviction that it’s good for you and the unbeatable price (about $17 per hour) gets you through the hour. Chinese massage is a good reflection of many kinds of Chinese medicines: It might taste like shit and make you cringe, but tomorrow you’ll feel great.

Shopping (Underground Market, Taobao)

There are numerous clothing markets above- and underground in Beijing featuring what seem to be hundreds of tiny boxes each with their own personalities ranging from gaudy, terrible Chinese style to gaudy, so-bad-its-good Chinese style. Haggling is possible, but vendors often won’t budge for foreigners, so it’s best to go with a native to haggle for you. If you’re too lazy to make it out to these markets, an online alternative called Taobao is a godsend. Taobao offers everything at a discounted price, even turtles or plane tickets. Shopping can be dangerous, though. You have to be careful to avoid seduction by the call of cheap, adorable, Chinese, for lack of a better word, junk. We all have our moments when we really believe, as my friend put it, “I need a little thing like that,” but chances are that a life-size Disney character iPhone case or clip-on animal ears, aren’t things that we really need, even for under $2.

Street Food

Dumplings, steamed buns, Jian bing (Chinese “crepes”) and Chuan’r (Chinese skewers) are staple parts of Chinese life. Many of these foods include some mystery spices and sauces often stored in old plastic water bottles, which means they are especially yummy, but also means you are putting your stomach at risk. Such a risk, though, is also an important part of China, where stomach problems are ubiquitous, expected and casually talked about.

Baijiu + cab ride

Baijiu is China’s rather infamous alcohol that ranges from about 86-120 in proof and can be as cheap as $1 for a 16oz bottle. Some like to mix it with green tea or grape juice, but in my opinion, there’s very little to be done about the taste. That being said, it can lead to many a hazy night, with the lingering aftertaste in your mouth making you feel a little ill, but mostly extra-authentic in the Chinese bars. Running with this authenticity, you are given the perfect chance to strike up conversations with the cab drivers who are likely to shoulder a large part of the mess baijiu makes of you. While this usually requires a bit of knowledge of Chinese, cab drivers are filled with hard-headed, sometimes highly offensive, but always entertaining opinions of China, the states, tourists, censorship, Mao Zedong etc. etc. and are a great insight into a very real part of Chinese culture.

Stephannie Ratcliff is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected] Notes from Abroad: BEST OF appears on Fridays.

Original Author: Stephannie Ratcliff