Life in a country of 1.3 billion people…

In the summer of 2012, I (Julie) moved from Washington, DC, to Beijing, China, with my husband and baby son. Since then, I’ve been gleaning from the wealth of experience and advice of long-time expats, locals, and forums whose archives I scoured. I’d also been in Beijing before while pregnant and now with a baby, so I’ve become even more interested in seeking out healthy, reliable food sources for my family here — not easy in a place where food scandals abound! I thought I’d compile some of the resources I’ve found helpful in one place, should it be useful to anyone visiting or moving here in the future. Except for the few noted, the following are resources that I have personally tried or visited. There’s are a lot more out there, so if there’s something particularly useful I haven’t listed, please recommend it in the comments. I hope to update this page as I get the chance to explore more.

  • Travel Resources: Websites, Money, iPhone Apps, VPN, Things to Bring With You
  • Local Resources: Websites, Publications, Bookstores, Beijing Food Blogs, Cooking Classes, Forums
  • Staying Healthy
  • Eating in Beijing: Restaurants, Local Grocery Stores and Markets, Expat/International Stores, Specialty Stores, Organic Food

TRAVEL RESOURCES

Websites:
CTrip – China travel website for booking flights, train tickets, hotels, and tours. Often has promotions, especially for travel within China or Asia.

Train Travel – Seat 61 is one of the most comprehensive sites for train travel around the world and has a helpful guide for train travel in ChinaTravel China Guide is a good site for looking up train schedules in China.

Budget Airlines – Whichbudget is one of my favorite travel sites — it’s a search engine for budget flights around the world. Just enter your departure point and destination, and it will list the budget airlines that fly that route. For Asia, Air Asia and Jetstar are some of the most popular budget airlines and often have promotions.

Money:
Capital One credit card – This is one of the credit cards that does not charge any foreign transaction fees.

ATM – We usually just use ATMs to get local currency when we arrive in any country. It’s convenient, and the exchange rate is decent. Check with your bank on what your daily withdrawal limit is, and don’t forget to alert them about your travels.

iPhone Apps
Pleco and Dianhua – Dictionary apps for translating to/from Chinese. Both have a flashcard function. Dianhua is free. The basic version of Pleco is free and charges for add-ons, but it has the useful function of being able to use the iPhone’s camera to focus on Chinese characters and translate them (instead of entering the strokes in yourself).

Google Translate – Very handy app for translating whole phrases or sentences, but does require internet access. Also used by the NYT’s Frugal Traveler, who has some helpful tips.

Talkatone or Viber – Both use a US number (Talkatone uses your Google Voice number), which allows you to make phone calls and send texts to other US numbers. Both require internet access.

VPN
Many websites are blocked or have limited access in China, including Gmail and other Google sites. All social media, as well as some blog sites like Blogger and Tumblr, are banned. Things change daily, and you can get an idea of what sites are currently blocked here.

If you have a US smartphone, you would remain on the US network and have normal access via roaming. If you need uncensored internet access while you’re here, you’ll need a VPN to get past the Great Firewall. It’s best to do this before arriving in China, as many of the VPN sites themselves are banned here. There are free ones available if you’re just here temporarily. But if you’re here long-term, it’s worth paying for a good one that constantly updates. Some of these can be used on your smartphone as well. Astrill is a particularly good one, allowing you to switch locations and connection speed / security options as often as you need. Some more options are listed here.

Things to Bring With You
This will seem very paranoid, so feel free to make your own call, but I recommend bringing all of your bath and body products, as well as medications, even over-the-counter ones. The quality of many things is questionable here, and when it comes to things that you ingest or put on your body, I would tend to err on the side of caution. I personally also avoid foreign brands that are locally produced (they will have Chinese print on them). Imported toiletries and basic medications can be found here, but they are expensive and may take some time to hunt down (see Expat / International Stores below if you do end up needing to buy these things).

LOCAL RESOURCES

Websites:
Dianping – The Chinese equivalent to Yelp. In Chinese only, but is readable with Google Translate.

Taobao – This is a very powerful site that I’ve heard described as “Amazon and Ebay rolled into one and times 100.” You can find everything on here, from everyday goods to fresh food products to obscure imported items. The caveat is that, in many cases, payment requires a local bank account, though a few sellers do take cash on delivery. The site is in Chinese only, but is readable with Google Translate. Here is a very handy Taobao user’s guide in English.

Publications:
The first three are monthly print magazines, often available for free at local coffee shops and cafes. Most of their articles are also available on their websites.

Time Out Beijing – Great for restaurant reviews.
The Beijinger – I particularly love the online directory of all kinds of stores, restaurants, and other resources here — many with Google maps!
Beijing Kids - Here is a quick link to the most useful resources to get started on life in Beijing. There’s also an annual Beijing Kids Relocation Guide, which is a must-read even if you don’t have kids. Full of indispensable tips on living in Beijing. It’s available in print and online.
Insider’s Guide to Beijing – A booklength guide that’s updated yearly. Also check out some of the other immersion publications.

Bookstores:
English bookstores in Beijing: The Bookworm (also hosts a lot of events), Page One (several locations), Wangfujing Bookstore (has Chinese and English books)
Book Depository – An Amazon-like site that offers free international shipping(!) for books. Books take about 2 weeks to arrive in Beijing. Prices are comparable to Amazon, but are often a bit higher for specialty books (like cookbooks). I use this site constantly, and it’s very reliable.
Better World Books – Similar to Book Depository but functions as a social enterprise that funds literacy and donates books. One of the benefits of this site is that it also lists many used options for most of the books. The downside is that I’ve found that shipping time can vary greatly, from 2 weeks to over a month. (My first order didn’t even arrive. I’ve subsequently had better luck, but it does take a while.)

Beijing Food Blogs:
Haw Berries & Kumquats – Recipes, restaurants, and an amazing guide to baking bread in China.
Savour Asia – Great website on places to eat in Beijing and a couple other cities in Asia.
Eileen Eats – Restaurant recommendations and more from food writer Eileen Wen Mooney.
Beijing Haochi – Recipes and restaurants in Beijing.

Cooking Classes:
China Culture Center – An extensive list of classes on offer here, including cooking, arts, crafts, medicine, and much more. Some of the less popular ones will require special request. I highly recommend the hand-pulled noodle and dumpling-making class, which is taught by a professional Chinese chef. You will learn how to pull noodles the way the pros do it — though it usually takes people 3 months or more to master the technique!

Black Sesame Kitchen – Offers cooking classes as well as delicious 10-course dinners cooked in their open kitchen.

The Hutong – Cooking and cultural classes here are taught in a beautifully renovated hutong in the Beixingqiao area. I took the hand-pulled noodle-making class here a while back, which you can read more about here.

Forums:
If you are living here for any length of time, joining a local forum is one of the best things to do. If you have a question about anything, just send out an email, and within hours you’ll have others responding with answers and advice. Or you can search the archives for more ideas, since it’s likely that people have asked that question before.

Beijing Cafe – An invitation-only listserv that is rumored to have lost its administrator or reached its membership capacity — or for some reason has become nearly impossible to get on. If you manage to join, please let me know how! For those who can’t get on, there is Beijing Exchange, a new general expat forum that is slowly growing. Also consider joining Beijing Mamas (below), as a lot of general topics are covered there too.

Beijing Organic - A great forum for staying healthy in Beijing, from food to air pollution to paints. Be sure to check out the documents section for a comprehensive list of organic food sources, markets, and stores.

Beijing Mamas – This is one of the most valuable resources in our lives here. There are some really active and resourceful expats, some of whom grow their own vegetables, visit farms, and have a wealth of knowledge to tap into. This is also a good forum to look for an ayi (housekeeper or nanny) and to get advice on just about anything.

STAYING HEALTHY
This requires a category of its own. Whether you’re visiting or staying here long-term, here are a few things that might be helpful.

My Health Beijing - A blog by an American doctor practicing in Beijing. Lots of useful and well researched information written in easy-to-understand language. It’s become my main resource on things like air pollution and food safety. Here’s a really helpful post on health for newcomers to Beijing.

Face masks – You probably won’t need one if you’re just visiting, but the pollution in Beijing is so bad that it can’t hurt to be prepared. We mostly use N95 3M masks, which are cheap and utilitarian (we purchased ours here, but it’s also available on Amazon if you get it beforehand). Here’s more on where to get certified N95 masks in Beijing. It’s a bit more expensive, but my favorite is the Totobobo mask, which is plastic and has replaceable filters built in (and with the great benefit of being trimmable to size for children). Newer to the market is the Vogmask, which is cloth and has an in-built filter and is better-looking than the plastic and paper masks (if style is at all an issue when you’re breathing :). We prefer to use this for our toddler (it comes in both infant size and child size) because the cloth is more comfortable, but my personal (and not-at-all-professional) opinion is that the seal doesn’t seem nearly as good as the Totobobo (if my toddler didn’t mind the plastic, my first choice would be the Totobobo).

Beijing air quality – We obsessively check the US embassy air quality monitor to get one of the more accurate readings. The China Air Daily app for smartphones is also indispensable. There is now also the site Beijing Air Quality Forecast that predicts the air a few days in advance — it’s generally reliable, but don’t count on making important plans based on air quality in Beijing. :)

Air purifiers – If your employer covers such things or you’re able to afford it yourself, we recommend Blueair (Swedish), which we use, but it is one of the most expensive options. The other popular ones are IQAir (Swiss) and Alen (American), also expensive. More affordable Chinese air purifiers are also available at local shops. See here for more info on air purifiers.

Humidifiers – We’ve found we also need humidifiers, especially in the winter, to combat the dry air. We just have cheap locally made ones, but they have admittedly died on us a few times within our first winter. Along with that, plenty of Cetaphil for those dry months, as well as gentle bath washes for our toddler (who never had skin problems before but developed eczema in Bejing).

Aquasana water filters – The water here is very hard and not safe for consumption. You can stick with bottled water or have Watsons water delivered for your home dispenser, but there have even been reports of fake Watsons water. We’ve opted to go with Aquasana water filters. It’s an American brand that is available in China. Aquasana has a Water for Life program that gives you a 20% discount if you purchase a year’s worth of supplies at a time — it can be canceled if you move.

Plants – Here are two helpful guides (including Chinese names) on what plants are most useful to have in China to improve air quality: Clean, Green Air and Honey, I’m Home (scroll down to “Houseplants” in the second link).

EATING IN BEIJING

Restaurants:
You can read about some of my favorite places to eat from previous trips I took here, including Beijing Essential Eats and Regional and Ethnic Foods. I particularly love Noodle Loft, Yunnanese food, the Guizhou food at Jun Qin Hua (mentioned in the regional food post). You can also check out my custom Google Map to Beijing, with many of my favorite restaurants marked. A few recent favorites I have yet to blog about are Sijiminfu for Peking duck and lots of other local Beijing dishes, as well as Nanmen Shuanrou for traditional Beijing-style hotpot.

A word about eating street food: We do eat street food and love to try local hole-in-the-walls. It’s part of the adventure and experience of living abroad, and we’d hate to give that up. Just use your good judgment. Here is a great article on this topic by Robyn Eckhardt, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Eating Asia. Living here long-term, though, I try to counter-balance all the questionable stuff I eat on the street by eating at home most days and buying better quality food. More on that below.

Organic Food:
This is one of my favorite things about living here — getting local organic foods delivered to you straight from the farmer!

Note that “organic” may not always be a reliable label. I prefer to order directly from the farmer. The following are places that have either been recommended by other expats (some of whom have visited the farms) or have been written about (and presumably vetted) by foreign-run publications like Time Out.

De Run Wu – By far my favorite source for healthy, clean food in Beijing. This is a small farm that, while it does not have the official “organic” certification (which I find meaningless in China anyway), follows Buddhist principles and so goes above and beyond the usual organic standards. They have some of the freshest, most beautiful produce I’ve seen in Beijing. They also have dry goods like grains and condiments, but no meat and very rarely fruit. But generally everything they offer is of high quality and is either natural or organic (whether certified or not). They are a bit more small-scale in operation, so they only deliver on certain days of the week (currently, Wednesday and Saturday), but I find that I prefer this kind of small-scale operation because their quality is much more reliable, and I love that they’ve had the same friendly delivery man for quite some time. They now have a website you can order directly from, or you can also contact jiyunliang@vip.163.com to get on the mailing list. Delivery fee is 20rmb, or free if you order over 200rmb.

TooToo Organic Farm – This is a relatively new option (or at least the English site is new), and their list of offerings is growing every day. I definitely find TooToo to be the most convenient and to have the most extensive offerings — they deliver daily and have a lot of meat and fruit options in addition to vegetables and dry goods. In addition, you can also order everyday items that may not be organic or natural, but are helpful to have in one place to order from and have delivered to your door. The caveat to all this, I’ve found, is that you have to be a bit more conscientious about finding out as much as you can about what you’re ordering. There are things marked “organic” or “high quality” (I’ve tried to inquire but still don’t know what the distinction is between those) or “imported.” I’ve gotten things that were described as being from Canada but turned out to be from China but manufactured “with the approval of Canada” (whatever that means). Because this is a larger-scale operation, I’ve found that things can be a little hit-or-miss at times in terms of quality, sourcing, and general idea of what you’re getting (especially when it comes to meat — the pictures don’t always convey the product). Still, this is by far the most convenient option for organic / clean food, and the company is very responsive if you need to communicate with them about anything.

Organic Farm – This was the site I used to use before TooToo came along (the TooToo founder I believe used to be / may still be affiliated with Organic Farm). The site still runs, though I now only use DRW or TooToo since they have more options. You just register for a free account, fill out the online order form, and submit (make sure to log in first, as your order will not be saved if you log in after filling it out). Orders made before 5pm are delivered the next day (Sunday is the only day they don’t deliver), and delivery is free for orders over 100rmb. Also available in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.

Green Yard milk – Milk is important to us because we have a baby and, well, we love milk. It’s the first product that we completely switched to buying organic-only back in the US. But good-quality milk is especially important in China because of the history of melamine scandals here, and this was something also stressed by our pediatrician. Right now Green Yard is the only certified organic milk available in Beijing, and it is expensive. Another good option is Wondermilk, which is natural but not organic and is cheaper (only comparatively). If you’re interested in the details, just do a search on one of the expat forums and you’ll find some discussion comparing the two companies. Both Green Yard and Wondermilk are available at any of the expat / international stores, and both can do regular home deliveries with a minimum order. I used to order from Wondermilk but have now switched to Green Yard’s certified organic milk.

Beijing Farmer’s Market – A collection of local farmers and producers of sustainable goods. Meets about every other week at several locations in the outskirts of the city. The link goes to their Facebook page, which has more details. It’s worth a fun outing, but I think there’s much more available via the delivery options above.

Lohao – Has a number of small stores throughout the city. It sells some organic and some regular produce. Some stores have organic roosters and better quality pork (I’m not sure what quality exactly) that you can order ahead of time. I have also gotten frozen Norwegian salmon here. You can read more about Lohao in this LA Times article.

Expat / International Stores:
Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet – These are the most popular expat grocery stores with many locations throughout the city, and it’s where I usually go for imported foods, whether from the US or SE Asia. The price of produce is comparable to large Chinese supermarket chains, and the imported foods are more expensive. You can also get imported soaps, detergents, and other household goods. I find things like imported 7th Generation products here that, while pricier than back home, seem to be cheaper than locally produced organic alternatives.

BHG & Ole – These supermarkets can often be found in malls or large shopping centers. They are larger than Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet, and prices can be even more expensive, though they occasionally have some things that the other stores don’t.

City Shop – Gourmet international grocery store with outrageous prices, though here and there you stumble upon imported things that you may not find elsewhere. For example, this is the only place I have been able to find regular, unsweetened Cheerios. The website offers delivery in Shanghai and Beijing, though the new site does not seem to show anything in stock for Beijing anymore.

Specialty Stores:
Le Fromager de Pekin - Beijing’s own French-trained cheesemonger! His cheeses are sold at Sanyuanli (see above), and he also has a stand at the Beijing Farmer’s Market. You can also order cheese straight from his website to be delivered to your home, which I’ve found to be great.

Schindler’s [map] – Also known as the German butcher. Sells meats, lots of charcuterie, cheeses, some imported dry foods, and has a small cafe. The meat is local (that is, not organic), but the handling and sanitation standards are higher than local supermarkets. I would buy things like my ground meat here.

Boucherie Michel [map] – Also known as the French butcher. Sells cheeses, rotisserie chicken, and a large selection of wines, but has a much smaller selection of meats than Schindler’s. The meat is local (not organic), but the handling and sanitation standards are higher than local supermarkets. Boucherie Michel also has the advantage of being right across from a big April Gourmet, so I often hit up both.

Tongrisheng (同日升) grain store – Chinese shop with several locations selling flours, beans, grains, and nuts. There’s a section in the back that makes fresh-baked (Chinese) breads. I learned about this place from Haw Berries & Kumquats, a fantastic blog with a great list of baking resources.

Local Grocery Stores and Markets:
I love visiting local grocery stores and markets to see how people in different countries eat! It’s one of my favorite things to do when traveling.

Carrefour and Walmart – Before you dismiss these, let me first say that these stores do not have a whole lot in common with their French or US counterparts. There is a lot of local color to be found here! I hope to write up a post on one of these soon. Note that Walmart has been recommended by My Health Beijing as a good place to purchase meat because it’s mostly sold behind-the-counter or packaged (at Carrefour, the meat is exposed and rifled through by shoppers). Lotte, Jinkelong, and Bonjour are a few other similar local grocery stores — they are smaller and therefore easier to find within the city, but they are not as fun to visit as Carrefour and Walmart. :)

Sanyuanli [map] – This is a pretty unique place in that it has all the characteristics of a local covered wet market, but it caters to foreigners. A lot of foreigners come here to buy things that, although available at expat stores, tend to be a bit cheaper here. You really have to spend some time exploring and poking around to discover all that’s available here, and there is a lot. This is where I get all my pho ingredients, and I recently even found fresh HK-style egg noodles here. There’s a lot of SE Asian produce, much of it Thai-focused (Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, even krachai). There are also foreign cheeses, grains, nuts, spices, cereals, and various tropical fruits. The open-air meat stalls sell meat butchered in cuts that may be more familiar to expats (most of the meat is still local). I have bought meat here and not had a problem with it, and I see a lot of foreigners doing the same. Although the meat is not refrigerated, it is mostly handled by the sellers and not by shoppers the way it is at Carrefour. The market is currently under renovation, so I’m hoping that the meat stalls will be one of the things that will be improved (will update when I find out). There are also all the usual local foods here that you can find at Chinese wet markets, like fresh tofu and fresh noodle stands.

(New) Dongjiao Wholesale Market [map] – This market recently relocated. It used to be an enormous outdoor and covered local market that sells just about anything you could possibly ever want to buy. A real local gem. It now is located near the Fifth Ring Road and is a bit more sanitized, for better or worse. I’ve been several times to buy tea and kitchen tools, but there’s a lot more here yet to be explored.