Wheelchair Nomad: Beijing, China

by Rosemary Ciotti 2004 


Rosemary Ciotti touring Beijing. China by wheelchair
Rosemary Ciotti touring Beijing.

Having human barriers as opposed to architectural barriers at the immigration desk at Beijing International Airport was never anything I considered when plotting and planning my visit to Beijing. However, there I was staring back at a very puzzled immigration officer who was confused as to why I was there and what I thought I was going to do there-alone. 


Being in a wheelchair is evidently not that strange, especially in an airport, but alone seemed to be the issue at hand. For as much as I wasn’t prepared for this exchange in the airport this was going to be the prevailing theme of all things curious for the entire five days I spent in Beijing..

 Having finally convinced immigration that I did know where I was and yes this was my destination, I was allowed to proceed to luggage claim (by this time my luggage was sequestered in an office) then to the curb where I met my daughter who is a Mandarin linguist, living and teaching English in Beijing. My daughter had real reservations about how I was going to get around Beijing but I was determined to visit and explore what I could of Beijing.

I transferred into a cab, got the wheelchair into the trunk and headed off to the hotel.


TIP #1: Use only the 1.60 or 2.40 cabs vs. the 1.10 cab or you will not have room for your wheelchair in the trunk. The designated numbers are listed on the cab window.


TIP #2: Have the telephone number and address of the Hotel written down. Even if the cab driver does not speak English, which he probably does not, they all have cell phones and will call the hotel to get exact directions.


Have exact change. Twice a taxi driver drove off without giving me my change.


Some cab drivers appeared to be intoxicated-if in doubt, do NOT take that cab!


Occasionally a cab driver actually refused to let me in the cab because he (I didn’t see any female cab drivers) didn’t want to be bothered with the wheelchair.

I had received a recommendation to stay at the Peninsula Palace Hotel, a five star hotel that was offering a deeply discounted special rate that included a breakfast buffet:


The Peninsula Palace Beijing

8 Goldfish Lane, Wangfujing, Beijing 100006,

People's Republic of China

Tel: (86-10) 8516 2888

Fax: (86-10) 6510 6311

Toll Free: 10 800 852 0492 (China only)

E-mail: tph@peninsula.com

The entrance to the hotel had one step up before you got to the front door. There was a curb cut, however they had a beautiful red velvet rope across the curb cut to ensure that no unauthorized persons used it. Each time I wanted to go up or down I had to ask them to remove the rope, eventually they understood that I wanted it removed for the remainder of my stay. They did ultimately accommodate me and my request. I tried my best to explain the need to keep the wheelchair accessible restroom (more on that later) and curb cut unlocked and unblocked all the time even after I left but I am not sure I won that argument.   


This is truly a beautiful hotel, it is very, very clean, and has western style shower and bathroom facilities.(Having a western style toilet is not a given.) Since everyone’s disability is unique I can only speak for myself when describing the access of accommodations.


The fact that the hotel was so clean became something I eagerly looked forward to at the end of everyday. Beijing is extremely polluted and fairly dirty. Your clothes are covered in grime after you are out for a few hours. The air quality in Beijing is extremely poor and acid rain is a serious threat to historic buildings. When packing for your trip keep in mind that wearing clothes more then one day is not an option here.


As it turns out, this Hotel has a room that is adapted and has a beautiful roll in shower. The toilet is 18 inches high with grab bars placed at 36 inches. There does seem to be some confusion about their accessible accommodations since they can see that you are in a wheelchair but you MUST request the adapted room in order to learn about it. It appears that they keep it locked and off the regular list of rooms. This is good and bad. Good because they do not let able body people use the room if the Hotel is full and bad because unless you have a well trained desk manager some do not know it exists.


 The elevators are spacious with ample room for the wheelchair, several other people and your luggage. Concierge service was always very helpful.


The rooms have built in environmental control units that are accessible from the shower, commode area, front door, and bedside. There is also a flat screen TV in the room and  in the bathroom. Even the curtains are electric. The room was furnished with easily accessible high speed internet built into a beautiful barrier free desk, big enough for two people, that is easy to get under without bruising your knees. The only negative was the room door.  The door is too heavy and difficult to open by yourself unless you have excellent upper body strength.


The Hotel has threelower levels with designer stores and restaurants. All of these spaces were accessible except for a portion of the restaurant used for the fruit portion of the complimentary breakfast buffet. The staff was very helpful in serving me from that part of the buffet.


 Every evening there is live orchestral music during happy hour. When looking for a wheelchair accessible restroom off the lounge area I was frustrated to discover that they kept it locked and where using it for storage and this required a wait while they found the keys. I requested that it be kept unlocked and empty of boxes not only for me but for anyone that might visit the lounge who uses a wheelchair. They looked at me with a look of incredulity as they contemplated the probability of another person in a wheelchair showing up. I try to subscribe to the theory of “build it and they shall come”.


The Hotel has a beautiful rooftop pool in the fitness center with a glass roof however it is up a flight of 6 steps. Since I love my water therapy I accepted the offer from a very strong and very cute personal trainer to carry me up and put me on the edge of the pool. This was a bit scary but I did have a relaxing swim.


The area of Wangfujing and Dongdan, where this Hotel is located, is easily accessible for wheeling and shopping-it is considered a newer and more western part of Beijing.  Many of the larger stores have accessible entrances. In the older section people were always willing to help lift my wheelchair the 2 steps often found in front of the older shops and restaurants. I was told to be prepared for people staring at me. One, because I have red hair and am white and two, because I am out and about in my wheelchair. The first reason was not too difficult to understand, but it took me a little while to understand the second part.


Wherever I went there did seem to be a stir in the crowd. If I was with my daughter, who is 24, people would walk by and seemingly start yelling things at her. This started within minutes of us leaving the Hotel on our first day. It turns out that they were admonishing her for not pushing my wheelchair. This happened countless times. Every cab driver, every shop owner, random people in the street would be admonishing her to “push your momma”-in mandarin.

Also of note, there were no other non elderly people seen in a wheelchair. Occasionally you did see an elderly person in a wheelchair and they were being pushed. Sometimes my daughter would implore me to just let her pretend to push me for the rest of the block just to get people to stop scolding her. Evidently it is a matter of dishonor to not take care of or tend to your disabled family member. Obviously, if I was pushing my own wheelchair I was not being honored by my family.  Several times when I was alone people asked me if I was ok, if I needed anything-trying to discern why I was “outside” by myself. I can only conclude that the concept of independent living had not woven itself into the consciousness of Chinese society. This might explain the difficulty in getting access to the most basic places. If there is a cultural bias towards disabled people staying home to be taken care of by their families and a matter of family honor to be upheld then there is no real reason or popular demand by the people for the Central Government to take accessible education, transportation, or working environment seriously.


The homeless that I did see, old and young were almost exclusively persons with significant disabilities. I noted many blind homeless people begging. I saw several younger children with withered lower limbs living in the street, pushing themselves with their knuckles while lying down on a wooden board with 4 wheels. These children appeared dirty and malnourished. The face of homelessness in Beijing is definitely the face of disability at its worse.


The Hutongs, alleys behind the main buildings that really represent the heart of Beijing life, are generally passable in a wheelchair. This is where you will find hundreds of stalls overflowing with clothes, watches, backpacks, home accessories, etc. You will also find people cooking a variety of foods in the alley and witness everyday family life playing out as these stalls appear to be an extension of their living spaces.


 I did visit the Forbidden City. We took a cab to the Forbidden City since none of the buses or rail was accessible but there was drama when our cab driver tried to leave us off at an entrance. While my wheelchair was being taken out of the trunk the Police showed up and threatened to tow his cab and fine him. Seeing me, the wheelchair, etc was to no avail, stopping anywhere near the entrance is not authorized. It would have been significantly easier and closer to be allowed to enter the courtyard where people were exiting but the guards would not even consider it. It was a long push around the Forbidden City to get to the designated entrance. I was able to get inside the wall and roll around but the interior of the Palace is not accessible.  The Forbidden City is interesting since you see it in every picture of Beijing but it was hot, dusty and exhausting.


There is an accessible route in front of the Forbidden City that takes you under the highway to the other side where Tiananmen Square is located. Tiananmen Square is barrier free but this is also where the Great Hall of the People is located and much to my disappointment this is also not accessible. The Russian Symphony Orchestra was there and I very much wanted to see them perform.


The next day, having sufficiently recovered, we went to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is a short cab ride from the hotel and is quite beautiful and mostly accessible. This is where I got to see old men visiting with each other while they hung their bird cages in trees around them. Along several of the paths within the Summer Palace we came across small gatherings of people informally singing Chinese Opera. This was a relaxing and refreshing experience and I highly recommend it. 


Beijing is good news for the pearl lover! The famous Pearl Market is located at the Northwest corner of the Temple of Heaven. Shopping here is an all day must do adventure for the shopping enthusiast. Although there is an ocean of pearls for sale, there are also many other retail stalls throughout the building. The Pearl Market has an oversized sturdy industrial elevator that will carry you and all your bundles very capably from floor to floor.

It is important to remember, if you require a wheelchair accessible bathroom that they are scarce in Beijing and none exist in the Pearl Market. I survived by planning my outings around the need to circle back to the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel.


The day I departed, I took the cab back to the airport and was caught in one of Beijing’s daily massive traffic jams.

I got to the airport 45 minutes before the plane was scheduled to leave. First no one would help me with my luggage; they kept indicating that I should have someone traveling with me. This sentiment was going to haunt me until the plane took off. Second, I was informed that you must be completely checked in 50 minutes before the plane is to depart or you can not board. So, the plane was still on the ground, they had not started boarding the plane, but I was not allowed to be processed through. No one had any authority to do anything about it and no one knew who to ask.


This led to much discussion and eventually someone from ANA did help me with my luggage and took me to their counter to arrange for a ticket on a flight leaving 4 hours later. Their offices would have been wheelchair accessible but no one could find the key to unlock the second door of a double door entry so all business was conducted from the hallway. After we got the new ticket processed, they offered to keep my luggage in the office until the flight and they also wanted to keep my manual chair and to have me use an airport wheelchair. We went round and round about that, and in the meantime they said I couldn’t fly unless I could walk to my seat since they didn’t have an aisle chair. At this point, I requested that they call the main office in Tokyo where I knew they knew better and would understand what needed to be done. I had flown ANA into Tokyo several times before, and they always did a beautiful job. At this point, things did seem to change and an aisle chair appeared and they gave up their fight to take my ultra-light Ti chair from me and agreed to let me take my chair to the bulkhead of the plane.


One final note of caution.  While killing four hours until my next flight, I went into an airport restaurant and ordered fruit salad. Fruit salad, Chinese style, turns out to be diced apple smothered in copious amounts of mayonnaise.


After landing in Tokyo, as I was leaving the plane I  felt a tremendous sense of relief. Even though my home is in the US, the Japanese always make you feel like you are home and are very accommodating. The Narita International Airport also has numerous immaculate and spacious wheelchair accessible bathrooms! 


Visiting Beijing is possible in a wheelchair but it is difficult. Having a five star hotel to go back to. made all the difference at the end of a long day in Beijing, China.

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