It was crunch time. We’d secured a Chinese visa from a man in a little shop in Hanoi…when everything online says it wouldn’t be possible in such a short time. Would it be accepted? We arrived in Beijing airport not really looking forward to the whole immigration ‘thing’.
As it turned out our visas were genuine (or at least accepted!) and the speed and efficiency of entry into the country was astounding. There was no queue in the modern and airy immigration hall. It took under a minute to be stamped in. They even have a little electronic display asking you for feedback on how they’re doing. I gave them 5 out of 5.
So, into Beijing. Beijing is a massive, sprawling mega-city housing almost 20 million people. After the easy streets of South East Asia it’s a big difference: there is universal use of Chinese script and virtually no one speaks English. We found it much more difficult to travel than South East Asia.
First Problem: Leaving the Airport
We were advised to print out the hotel name in Chinese script to give to the taxi driver at the airport (they can’t read the western alphabet names). Apparently for the 2010 Olympic Games the Beijing taxi drivers were asked to learn 15 different English phrases to help tourists. We certainly found no sign that they knew any.
We found the taxi stand and our turn arrived. A taxi pulled up and the lady driver jumped out and started arguing vehemently with the airport staff and waving her hands everywhere. Basically, she did not want to take us – thanks! Welcome to China!
So we jumped into the next one, with a driver who seemed more open to the idea of ferrying tourists from the airport into the city. Crazy concept for a taxi driver! He didn’t speak a word of English. We handed over the hotel name in Chinese script and away we went through the sprawling city. The taxi driver stopped several times to ask for directions but we got there eventually.
Cheap Accommodation in Beijing
We firstly stayed at the Jade Youth Hostel which was tucked down a hutong (alleyway) in a fairly residential area, but very close to core tourist attractions and a walk away from the big shopping district. The location was fine but without many food options near by, it felt a little cut-off. Maybe that’s just something we immediately missed about Hanoi? The guy at the front desk barely spoke English and couldn’t offer us a city map (or anything in fact, he was quite enthusiastic but of little actual use) but on the first night he managed to point us towards a restaurant…just.
We then moved on to Beijing Forbidden City Hostel because Jade Youth Hostel would only let us stay on the rack rate basis, rather than the rate we’d secured online (massively discounted). Jade is simply not worth the money on a rack rate basis, only stay there if you get a good online deal.
Beijing Forbidden City Hostel was better with a good vibe and cosier ambience. Cheap food, useful tour desk and a bedroom with a giant, red, heart-shaped bed. Very romantic!
The maze-like hutongs, a warren of tiny streets and alleyways wedged between the major highways, provide a welcome balance from the grid-like 4, 6 or even 8 lane highways through the vast city. They provide a hint of the traditions of the nation, of the real Chinese going about their business. We enjoyed a stroll through some of them, weaving through the maze and then ending up (roughly!) where we thought we’d be!
Beijing City Sights
- Tiananmen Square
The world’s 3rd largest square and a must-see, if only to check out the Tiananmen Gate (aka Gate of Heavenly Peace), which displays the iconic picture of Mao Zedong above the huge archway. The archway leads in to the Imperial City and the Forbidden City at its heart. Also check out the security forces ready to pounce – apparently someone threw eggs at the picture and served 17 years in jail!
- The Imperial City & the Forbidden City
The Imperial City is the old Beijing city centre for the Ming and Qing dynasties. Within the Imperial City is the complex of palaces and administrative buildings used by the Emperors, known as the Forbidden City. Forbidden because no one could enter or leave without the Emperor’s permission.
The Forbidden City is a never-ending series of courtyards and palaces that stretch as far as the eye can see, or rather as far as you can walk before your legs give up. Well-maintained and colourful gardens surround palaces of varying sizes, but predominantly displaying the same architectural style. High-walled walkways that stretch for hundreds of metres link up the different courtyards.
The red and gold fanned roofs, displaying the classic Chinese architecture, are surrounded by pristine white-stone squares and framed by luscious green gardens – you can see why this winning formula was replicated time and time again.
There are various displays of artefacts from the Qing & Ming dynasties – some dating around 400 years old (although some of the signage was a little bit vague: ‘Piece dated between 1650-1850‘!).
You have to push your way to the front to peer in through the windows to see the exhibits – the thousands of Chinese on bus trips, moving around like herds of sheep with little regard for others, did get a little tiresome to be honest. We hired an audio guide which was very helpful but the amount of information given was overwhelming – our brains felt slightly fried by our 20th palace!
- The Summer Palace
The Summer Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was used as a peaceful and serene city getaway for the Emperors and it still retains its tranquil charm, despite the thousands of visitors. The grounds are vast with Kunming Lake in the centre and several palaces, pavilions and temples dotted around the undulating hills. It’s a welcome break from the urban centre and nice to escape the crowds and just get lost wandering along the paths, surrounded by nature.
- Temple of Heaven
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of Heaven is a collection of temples alongside the actual Temple of Heaven, set within pleasant parklands and gardens. We hired the audio guide again. All very clever as it’s GPS activated – i.e. it knows where you are standing and hence what to talk to you about. Or it’s meant to work like that…our ones went a bit haywire and told us all about one temple while standing in front of another.
The Temple of Heaven was slightly underwhelming. It’s a long way from Beijing central (we walked…we definitely recommend a taxi instead). The main temple is very old and photogenic, but lacks something special, hard to put your finger on…we ended up enjoying the parkland more. Overall though, worth a visit if you have time.
- The Great Wall
Along with the above sites, The Great Wall of China is probably the reason you come to Beijing. It doesn’t disappoint and is worth all the effort to get there – to actually walk along the wall on top of a mountain range. There are parts of the wall only a hour or two drive away. Our visit to the wall is covered in a separate post.
Overall the big sights rarely disappointed, especially the Great Wall. We liked Beijing, without goes nuts about it. If you’re planning on visiting China as a tourist then it’s inevitable you’ll come through Beijing – just make sure you write down where you want to go in Chinese…
Your views on Beijing? Please add your tips, recommendations or general thoughts about Beijing to help other round the world travelers: