Phoebe Lee

When I was studying history at school I was always fascinated by China. Something about the country intrigued me, from the architecture and deep-seeded traditions to the food, artwork and culture. I finally got the chance to visit China this year, a place that may be on many people’s travel bucket list, but tends to stay a little further down than it should.


My perception of Beijing was that it would be densely populated, a bit overwhelming and extremely polluted. From the second I arrived into Beijing I was completely blown away as it was vastly different to what I had expected, there were so many things I experienced that nobody had told me about.

While I was prepared to wear a face mask the entire time to prevent the dust and pollution setting off one of my annoying hay fever attacks, I didn’t need one at any time. The weather was beautiful, the sun shining through each morning, setting the sky ablaze. With few clouds in the sky, it radiated a brilliant blue, contrasting beautifully against the deep red lanterns, shop fronts and paint on buildings.


The streets came alive in the mornings with commuters on their way to work, just like any large city, buzzing with a sense of purpose and anticipation. The subways, buses and roads became busy, but as the day wore on things quietened down and, away from major tourist destinations, the communal world of China began to hum.

In quiet, traditional laneways called ‘Hutongs’, men, women and children went about their day. Older women gathered at sofas and tables to catch up on gossip, while the men set up games of cards and mahjong, laughing and cheering excitedly. Parents watched over their children closely as they ran and played in the streets, giggling and screaming with joy.

You often hear how communal China’s approach to life is, but experiencing it first hand is something completely different. Everyone in the Hutongs know one another, they work together and interact constantly. This way of life shows on the face of the elderly, who seem spirited, with faces that are smiling and happy. A smile, wave and ‘hello’ goes a long way and they’ll quickly remember you the next time you walk by.

Everything in Beijing seems to work together in perfect harmony. Scooters and motorbikes zip in and out of traffic, people weave through one another on the sidewalk. Dogs run up and down the street, but never stop to bark at one another.

There’s a peaceful vibe connecting everything, making it easy to slip into the Beijing way of life.

Part of me had wondered if Beijing would be over-crowded with skyscrapers, with barely a leaf in sight. Stepping into Jingshan Park, my breath was taken away by how beautiful the gardens were, how fresh the air was and just how much space there was. The perfectly manicured gardens are a haven for the locals, who cherish this space and seek refuge in it. Women gather to practice dances in groups, while some men sit and draw or just talk on benches.

There’s tradition, culture and beauty to be discovered at every turn.


From the way the buildings are decorated and painted, to the way food is prepared and sold and the way the locals interact with one another.

Beihei Park, nearby, is equally impressive. A huge lake surrounded by a vast park with elegant willows bowing into it. Take a trip to the Temple of Heaven, find a seat and just sit and watch for a while. The serenity and vast open space of these parks smashes any pre-conceived ideas of Beijing, giving it the feel of a peaceful oasis with locals casually going about their business.


There are many areas of Beijing that are designed with tourists in mind and attract larger numbers of people. To experience another side of Beijing, spend time in the local areas and immerse yourself in the real Beijing.

The natural beauty, open spaces and the relaxed, communal atmosphere are unexpectedly wonderful. The locals are friendly, warm, welcoming and happy to say hello and share a smile with you.

Things you should know:

  • Try to avoid getting caught at the really touristy areas. To experience the 'real' Beijing, spend a day wandering around the Hutongs and discovering these local areas. 
  • Social media apps like Instagram and Facebook are blocked in China, so you'll need to install a VPN on your phone before you go, if you plan on accessing these and sharing your trip. 
  • Pack a hat. I found my bright blonde hair really stood out in crowds and drew a lot of inquisitive stares, a hat is a good way to go incognito when you don't feel like being looked at. 
  • Screen shot important travel phrases and keep them on your phone, to show locals when you need to. I'm vegetarian and needed to use my phone to show servers at restaurants the Chinese characters, to make sure my food was meat-free. 
  • Eat lots and lots of dumplings, they are seriously so good! 

Phoebe Lee is a writer, award-winning blogger and travel lover sharing helpful travel tips, insight and reviews for regular people. Follow her adventures at home and around the world, on her blog Little Grey Box .

Instagram @littlegreybox_phoebe, Twitter @littlegreyboxFacebook and YouTube.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.