About a year ago I rolled in some vacation time with a work trip to China which gave me the opportunity to spend a day in Beijing. I’ll skip talking about this history of this impressive city (you can find all that on Wikipedia anyway) and just run you through how I spent my day there.
My first stop was the airport.
My flight from Detroit arrived on a Sunday afternoon, having previously flown into Shanghai I was mentally preparing myself on the plane for several hours of standing in line waiting to clear customs and immigration, but I was pleasantly surprised by there being no line at all. So what I thought we be an hour long ordeal turned into 5 minutes. I cleared customs, picked up my bag and headed towards the taxi line. First mistake was talking to one of the guys by the cab line while waiting for a cab to show up. Welcome to the Beijing black taxi, which is an unofficial cab that hangs out near airports and tourist spots and tends to overcharge its customers. Pro Tip #1: Don’t take any taxi that is not in the official taxi line. After a significantly more expensive taxi ride than normal (but in a much nicer car) I wound up at my hotel. I decided to stay at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing (No, I still can’t pronounce that last part). I chose this hotel for three main reasons: It’s a major hotel chain - so I know I’m getting a decent room, I had a lot of points with the hotel chain, and most importantly its location is in downtown Beijing, within walking distance to many of the main tourist attractions. After checking into the hotel and going to my room I crashed pretty quickly, and that’s where my travel day ended.
My first real day started at the hotel (surprise!).
I wanted to make sure my day in Beijing went as smoothly as possible, so prior to my arrival I had booked a day tour through https://www.travelchinaguide.com/. I initially selected the option to tour The Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but The Forbidden City was closed on the day I was going to be in town so I changed it to The Summer Palace. I had to go with a private tour since I was the only one in my group that went through Beijing which was a bit expensive, but they do have group tours at cheaper rates. I can’t say enough good things about the tour company, booking was super easy and everybody involved was friendly and great to work with. So, on the day of my tour my tour guide, Tina, showed up right on time, and we were off to our first stop – The Great Wall of China.
The tour company provides both a driver and a tour guide when you book your tour so as we were driving to The Great Wall I was were free to chat about what it’s like to live in Beijing with the guide. I’m not the chattiest person in the world, but I did learn that it’s very similar to most other modern cities. A bit more crowded and polluted, and it being the capital city has more of a political element, but not a bad place to live and work overall. The drive from the hotel to the Great Wall took about an hour and we arrived there mid-morning.
First impression – Wow.
Second impression – Wow.
Yeah, it’s that impressive. There are a few different sections of the wall you can visit. I chose the Badaling section, which is the more common and popular section. If I ever have the change to go back I will probably try the Mutianyu section (which is supposedly less crowed and has more of an authentic feel) to compare.
It’s tough climbing the stairs on that wall. The stairs are very steep, shallow, and worn smooth so you don’t get much traction, and there are a lot of stairs. But the experience is incredible and the views from the top are pretty spectacular. In-between walking uphill and walking up flights of stairs there are old guard towers you can explore as you make your way to the top. The staircase leading up to the top is way more extreme than all the “practice” stairs leading up to it. Getting up that last staircase is a workout in and of itself (my legs ached for hours afterwards) and going down can be quite formidable (if you are “cautious” around heights, like I am). It’s totally worth it though.
The entire time I was walking along the wall I kept alternating between trying to imaging what it would have been like to have been a Chinese soldier patrolling that section of the wall and imagining that this must be as close as we can get to being a member of the Nights Watch from Game of Thrones. I spent most of my morning hiking from the main visitor area to the highest portion of the wall you are still allowed to go on and it was easily one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.
After the long descent down the wall back to the visitor area the car ride back to Beijing was a welcome relief from walking. I chatted with Tina a little bit more about this history of the wall and about the differences between life in the U.S. and China and within an hour we were at our next stop: The Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace was interesting, not quite what I expected – lot of open-air parks and buildings. When I hear the word palace I typically think of one large building, and the Summer Palace was more of a collection of lakes, gardens, and palaces. Similar to the Great Wall it’s also a UNESCO world heritage site.
We walked around the site for a while exploring the different buildings and gardens and corridors, until we came to the Long Corridor (yes, that’s actually its name – it was named back when names were chosen to be helpful and descriptive, not based on the sponsor of the week). This is a particularly famous corridor due to its length (2388.45 feet) as well as the number of paintings (14,000 of them). It’s pretty cool to walk through.
I’ll spare you my attempt to give a history of this place (Wikipedia is way better than that anyway), suffice it to say that while I did miss the Dragon Boat festival by a week or so there were still Dragon Boats there!
So Dragon Boats, long corridors, art, gardens, palaces, … there are lots of ways to fill an afternoon there. We spent a few hours walking around then our driver took me back to my hotel, which concluded my tour. Overall, I was very pleased with the experience.
After I parted with my tour guide, I continued exploring the area, I had selected my hotel because of its proximity to some rather remarkable destinations that were in walking distance: The Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square, so I started walking.
Walking though Beijing is not all that much different than any other city in China. You have the usual assortment of locals walking up to you wanting to practice their English or to invite you to a tea house (spoiler alert – the Tea House scam is fairly common, locals invite you to a tea house where they jack up the prices and stick you with a bill), luckily I had read ahead and was alert for that scam. Once you say no and keep walking, people don’t usually pester you after that. So, after turning down a few offers for tea I made my way to the entrance to the area with Tienanmen square and the Forbidden City. To get into the area you have to pass a security checkpoint, run your bag through a metal detector and show your ID or passport – which was annoying but uneventful. Once through the checkpoint I continued on with the Forbidden City on one side and Tienanmen square on the other.
Unfortunately, the Forbidden City was closed the day I was in town (in other words, it was super forbidden for me to enter that day… haha). But I was able to wander around the square for a couple of hours. There are a few interesting monuments there, but nothing to commemorate the protests that have happened there– which was a bit disappointing given the historical significance, but not unexpected given the policy of censorship in that country. In any case, the square is an interesting place to check out if you are in the area, but on the day I was there it was pretty low key. I wandered around the Monument to the Peoples Hero’s for a bit then headed back to my hotel to close out the day.
I visited several culturally important landmarks in my one day in Beijing, but there is much more to see. For adventurous eaters there is the Beijing night market, the Forbidden City, other parts of the great wall… Just way too much to cover in a single day’s trip. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to visit some of those other spots someday, but until then enjoy the pictures!