While it was a busy day at the Panda Offices we took the time out to meet with one of the capital’s most interesting tour guides.
In so doing, we put down our stalk of bamboo and left our Panda lair on this dusty and sun filled day to meet with Julia.
So it begins.
First of all, where about are you from?
I am originally from Hebei Province, from a big city called Zhangjiakou (张家口). It is about three hours drive from Beijing. While the area is not yet well known to international travelers that could soon change as my city in Hebei is currently bidding to co-host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games with Beijing. Because the area is right next to Inner Mongolia it has very few factories so it has little in terms of pollution.
On beautiful days like this in Beijing it’s easy to forget about all of its pollution woes. Does your hometown have any specialties?
Hebei is a very hearty area of china and my city is famous for possibly the best potatoes in China, as well as a special kind of flour and some cooking oils that are peculiar to the area.
According to some, no greater potato has been found outside of Heibei.
We use the special flour to make a type of mianfen (noodles) called gongmian (宫面). The noodles are very, very thin and quite hard to make.
Simple and delicate, gongmian (宫面).
The process of making these fine noodles is quite difficult.
What is your favorite Chinese food?
I generally tend to go with traditional Chinese food in general. Of course, things like Kung Pao Chicken (gōngbǎo jīdīng; 宫保鸡丁) * laughs* actually, basically all traditional Chinese foods are good for me.
Kung Pao Chicken – a long time favorite for North Americans.
How long have you lived in Beijing?
I have lived in Beijing for 6 years. Time flies.
What did you do before you were a tour guide?
I worked for a short time as a teacher but I found that was not really for me. Previously, I also worked at an airport for about half a year at Terminal 3 in Beijing. I was there when it opened 2008
I was the broadcast announcer, letting people know who lost their luggage or something where to go. If you heard a voice in 2008 at the airport it could have been me.
Why did you become a tour guide?
By chance I had a friend who was working in the industry and he knew my personality as well as my English ability. At the beginning he asked me to do it part time, but then when I did it part time, I realized this was good for me.
What is it like being a tour guide?
It’s really interesting and always pretty exciting. It’s a great way to get to always meet people from different countries… different cultures… we talk different … its very fun to someone like me who likes to communicate with all types of people.
In some ways I feel I have a responsibility to show them a snapshot of China and its many cultures. I always try my best.
A look at the Hutongs.
What languages do you speak?
English & Mandarin. I studied English during my middle school, I studied three years, high school three years, in university I chose a major in English. Xi’an University.
Do you ever receive people who don’t speak English well or at all? What do you do in cases such as this?
Yes of course. I remember one case where an Arabic group of people spoke little to no English. But it was fine, I showed them the sites, we communicated with our hands, and in the end I think we all understood each other fine.
Developing common ground across language barriers seems to be a big plus.
As a tour guide, what do you think tourists like the most about China? What do you think surprises them the most?
One of the first things you do as a tour guide is you get to enjoy so many tourist sites. For example, I have gotten the chance to see the temple of heaven so many times, it’s a real pleasure.
Besides of course some usual things, like how they think that Beijing is organized well and has many historic places, friendly people, one of the things I noticed is that when we go to the public parks, like the Summer Palace, and when they see seniors dancing they often get surprised. I think it’s a cultural thing, here in Beijing, even old people can be seen out dancing with others in the park. Sometimes they will even go out there and dance with them a bit. I think it’s great.
Seniors hitting the park – Chinese style.
Have you ever had any funny tourists that you guided?
I did a tour and the group simply did not want to go home when the arranged tour was finished. They wanted to live in Beijing…. When this happens, when I see they really fall in love with the place so much, this is when I feel I did a fantastic job as a tour guide. This has actually happened a few times over the years and it is quite rewarding.
When it comes to something that is just silly, sometimes people just can’t use chopsticks. We all have to start somewhere. I try to teach them using gestures and I hope they can follow my lead. Some people don’t learn fast. It’s a good thing that all of the restaurants we choose when doing a guided tour all have forks at hand just in case things don’t develop with regards to chopstick skills.
To try or not to try – that is the question
What is the biggest challenge being a tour guide? What is the biggest reward?
While meeting people from different countries & cultures can always be a rewarding challenge, however it’s not always that much fun when you meet someone who is not that kind. A lot of issues can be solved with patience but in cases such as this being an experienced tour guide really comes in handy. You need patience to handle these situations. Patience, as well as experience, is also a big plus.
One of the biggest rewards of course is that being a tour guide allows for a very free life, to go outside and see a lot of natural sceneries that you simply would not get working at an office all day.
For first time travelers going to Beijing, do you have any recommendations of places to see and even places to avoid?
Yeah of course, Beijing is the most important tourist place in China. Great Wall, Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square, Ming Tombs, Beijing is the capital for three dynasties (Yuan, Ming and Qing)… in Beijing you can, in a way, get a chance to see all of china. For example, you can get a taste of the traditional as well as the modern.
For first timers to Beijing, if you only have 2 - 3 days I usually arrange 2 - 4 places a day, so they can understand Beijing and china cool. For the first day I like to take people out to the great wall, and then when we come back and then go to Olympic venue, visit a museum and of course the Temple of Heaven.
Another day would be Summer Palace, Lama Temple, the hutongs…. In the evening maybe go out and enjoy a show.
For things to avoid, it really depends on what kind of traveler you are. Unlike most mega-cities in the world, English signage – let alone English speakers - is really not that common in Beijing.
In just three days you can do a lot if you are well organized or hire a tour guide like me.
Another look from the Hutongs.
What kind of food have you noticed foreigners enjoy the most?
In Beijing we basically have food from all over the place.
Of course I try to give as many opportunities as I can to let people try some traditional Chinese food, like hot pot. I know that sometimes my guests can’t enjoy Chinese food, so depending on their tastes, we would go everyday to an Indian restaurant or an Arabic restaurant. We make special arrangements.
For Westerners, I have found that one of their favorites is definitely Kung Pao Chicken (gōngbǎo jīdīng; 宫保鸡丁) and Yuxiang Rousi (yúxiāng ròusī; 鱼香肉丝). Sometimes they will also enjoy Peking Duck (Běi jīng kǎoyā; 北京烤鸭).
A delectable plate of Yuxiang Rousi (鱼香肉丝)
Also sometimes, specially the more adventurous ones will also enjoy some street food, like Jian Bing (煎饼).
A food cart whips up some Jianbing in Beijing.
As a closing question, do you have any advice you want to give our Panda for first time travelers in Beijing?
Book a tour guide if you want to get the most out of your first-time journey. One of the most important ngs you should consider, either-way, is how many days you would like to stay in Beijing.
If you go with a tour guide, you can seamlessly visit 3-4 places per day.
However if you are more free with your time, you can really take it easily and explore the Hutongs.
Beijing is a big place, try to get to see the most you can.
As well as working at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (Canada’s top think tank on Asia), Joe has been a regular at the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations conferences and has received an award for his analysis work on China from the illustrious Fraser Institute. He’s currently wrapping up his two-year policy analysis project which looks at over 40 years of the UNESCO World Heritage Center and China tourism-related official documents.