Aiya to Zhajiangmian: The Complete A-Z For Beijing Newcomers (or Visitors)

Even after surviving several cycles of the sun in Beijing, it can still seem like a crazy world out there, but between the chaos it can often be just a vague awareness of the quick and random rhythms of life - a subtle change in mindset or knowledge of what you're stuffing into you face at any given moment - that keeps you sane. So without further ado, here are some nuggets of information that will help you navigate this barmy city in your early days.


Aiya! A Chinese exclamation often used to express something between mild frustration ("Aiya! Someone forgot to add xiangcai (cilantro) to my lamian (hand-pulled noodles)!") to complete and utter shock at what the world is throwing at you at any give moment (Aiya! That dama (granny, usually sassy) nearly pushed me onto the subway tracks for a better view of the incoming train."). Aiya is also your secret weapon while haggling in order to show your dismay that the price of something is too high and you'll only settle when it reaches something reasonable.


Brunch. We've said it before and we'll say it again: brunch can be considered one of our favorite hobbies and there are no shortage of places in order for you to fulfil your weekend sustenance needs and leave you in a (sensible) day-drinking stupor. Brunch is where it's at.


Chuan'r. Regardless of how you transliterate this word, these barbecue skewers will form the cornerstone of your summer al fresco diet when you first arrive (and Yanjing shall be your nectar). Check out this list of places to go do it right, or head to White Tiger Village for some gussied-up bundles of meat.


Didi Chuxing. The city’s top car-hailing app will take you from point A to point B easily, in both Chinese and English. Benefits of using this app over hailing a normal cab is that because of a rating system, drivers are likely to be nicer to you than regular cabbies, and you can enter your destination so you don't need to explain where you're going.


E-Bikes. They're fast, and often you can't hear them buzzing behind you. If you're looking for a quick and breezy way to get around the city you might want to consider buying one, just make sure you're careful because cars will try to mow you down at every opportunity they get.


Fu'erdai. Fu'erdai are the "rich second generation," a term used to describe the kids of wealthy families, generally born post-1980, often found either racing shiny pink Porsche's around the city, or flaunting their Louis Vuitton bags at an Ivy League university.


Great Wall. One of the first things people think of when they think of Beijing, the Great Wall makes for a wonderful weekend escape. If you've been to Badaling or Mutianyu before, there's always other parts to explore like Huanghuacheng or Simatai. Spring and autumn are the best times of the year to visit, as summer tends to get very hot and very sweaty, and winter gets super windy and cold.


Hutong. The hipsters' stomping ground, the hutongs are a network of ancient alleys connecting Beijing brimming with a mish mash of both traditional China (lots of old Beijingers still live there) and modern China (hip restaurants and bars fill the alleys). If you're looking to learn more about the hutongs then the Shijia Hutong Museum is good a place to start.


Internet. It’s slow, kind of unreliable, and you’ve got to deal with the Great Firewall. That's all we're going to say on this topic.


JianbingA favorite Beijing breakfast (and proven hangover cure, among others), the beloved jianbing is a cheap and fast food often found by the side of the road from a hero among men with a food cart. They're usually located by popular subway stations or on roads near lots of office buildings. 


Kao ya. Kao ya, or Peking Duck, is the food Beijing is best known for. The dish has been eaten since imperial times and was mentioned in record as early as 1330. Characterized by the thin, crispy skin, most authentic versions of Peking duck are sliced up in front of you, wrapped in pancakes with spring onions, and doused with hoisin sauce. The innards and bones of the duck are then boiled and cooked into a soup.


Laowai. The Chinese slang term for foreigners, often said outloud after having been spotted by a particularly perceptive local. The phrase is contentious as some people consider it derogatory when used in a certain way, and it literally means 'outside old.'


MaidanLiterally 'to buy the list,' maidan is what you say if you want to ask for the bill in a restaurant or bar. This phrase is vital if you ever want to leave a restaurant, especially a busy one. If that fails, standing up to pretend to walk out also works wonders.


No. Something you will rarely have a random Beijinger say to you, at the risk of them losing face. This is really important to understand, especially if you are asking directions, as some people would prefer to send you the wrong way rather than to admit that they do not know. It's a cultural thing.


Ofo. One of the many bike-sharing apps that are currently taking the city by storm, and in doing so causing a lot of headaches, Ofo bikes are the yellow bikes, competing with Mobike, the silver and orange bikes (read more about the difference between the two here), and the relative newby on the scene Bluegogo. Sign up to the bike-sharing services by WeChat (Ofo ID: ofobike, Mobike ID: mobike_sharing_bike, Bluegogo ID: ). You'll have to put down a deposit (RMB 99 for Ofo, RMB 299 for Mobike, or RMB 100 for Bluegogo), but actual rental costs just RMB 1 per hour.


Pollution. Undeniably the thing that causes most expats to consider leaving, and the biggest hurdle to living a happy and healthy life in Beijing. Clearing up the dirty air is one of the best ways that we could see the city being improved. Regardless of many promises, the clear air at the end of the tunnel seems far away for now.


QipaoThe qipao is a tight-fitting Chinese dress worn by women, still often seen at fancy occasions such as weddings. The dress originates from 1920s Shanghai, where it was first made fashionable by socialites and upper class women.


ReshuiLiterally 'hot water,' you'll quickly learn that Chinese people tend to never drink their water (or any drinks, for that matter) cold but rather prefer drinking warm or even boiling water because this is believed to be better for your health. In restaurants its common for people to confirm whether you want hot water (reshui) or cold water (liangshui​).


Shifu. Getting around in Beijing is definitely easiest by subway if you're new in the city and don't speak Chinese, because of these dudes: the shifu, literally translatable as masters, a term used to describe Beijing taxi drivers. The vast majority of them are grumpy and unwilling to do their job, leading many people to use car-sharing apps like Didi Chuxing (see D) instead.


TRB. Multiple the Beijinger Restaurant Award-winning restaurant TRB, or Temple Restaurant Beijing, is one of the nicest spots in town with impeccable service, delicious food, and beautiful surroundings. For a slightly more casual (and more affordable) alternative, similar standards are upheld at TRB Bites over by the Forbidden City.


Umami.  Umami, or savory taste, is one of the five basic tastes and is tasted through taste receptors specific to glutamate (as in monosodium glutamate or MSG), widely found in savory products. MSG is found in a lot of Beijing restaurants, but there isn't much evidence to say it is as bad as people make it out to be. If you don't want it in your food, all you have to say is "bié fàng wèijīng" 别放味精.


VPN. This nifty little IP re-router app is something you'll have to get on your computer or phone to get around the Great Firewall. Without it you won't be able to access things like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Gmail, and even Google search engine. Welcome to a place where this is a normal phrase: "Oh, I'm not sure about that, let me bing it!"


Xishoujian. Xishoujian, or literally hand washing room, is the easiest way to ask for the bathroom when you're out and about. Another way to ask for it is cesuo, which is more translatable as bathroom.


YiyuanA really important word, meaning hospital, of which there are lots of different types in Beijing, both international and local, ranging drastically in price. Beijing United FamilyOasis International HospitalInternational SOS Clinic, and Raffles Medical are some of the go-to international ones for the (well-)insured. For more information on getting medical attention, click here.


Zhajiangmian. Zhajiangmian are a Beijing-staple, laden with fatty pork, sweet bean paste, cucumbers, and shredded radish. The noodles are served up cold, just don't forget to mix everything together when you get them.

More stories by this author here.

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Photos:, courtesy of UnTour, Andy Penafuerte, seriouseats.comInhabitat,


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