Beijing is busy.
I know, that seems like an overwhelmingly obvious statement to make. It is a city of 22 million people, nearly five times the population of New Zealand. I’ve been to Shanghai several times, and visited Nanjing. But nothing prepared me for the masses of people we were to experience in Beijing.
We started the day with an early pickup at 7am, with our driver from Miles Meng collecting us from our hotel lobby. It was a little confusing at first – the driver definitely didn’t look like the Mr Xie I’d been promised – but despite not speaking much English, she was friendly and directed us to her clean and comfortable car. It was a two hour drive out to Mutianyu, one of the sections of the Great Wall of China that is closest to Beijing.
THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
You have a number of options when visiting the Great Wall. Badaling and Mutianyu are a similar drive time from Beijing, but if you are hiring a driver – as we did – I’d definitely recommend going for the Mutianyu option. Badaling is more easily accessible by public transport, but is also the busiest section of the wall – particularly for domestic tourists. During the summer, aim to get to Mutianyu about 9am, and you should beat the crowds (and the heat!).
There are two options for buying tickets – at the bottom of the hill, where you will have to hop onto a bus to get further up to the skyway, or just before the cable car. If you have a driver, they should be able to take you up the hill to just before the cable car, saving you the bother of the bus. Despite our driver not speaking much English, after much gesticulating she managed to get us return tickets on the cable car and to the wall, for around 150CNY per person. You can also go one way up the cable car, and walk down – or catch the luge! – if you are feeling adventurous. I’m not 100% sure I would want to be hurtling down the mountain on a metal track in 35 degree heat, but hey, to each their own!
After admiring the fantastic views on the cable car, we walked from watchtower 14 to watchtower 20, which appeared to be the busiest section of the wall. Be prepared for a steep walk! The gradient will probably still surprise you. The walk we took ranged from mild undulating waves to climbing straight up a ladder. At least there is none of the crazy vertical stairways of the neighboring Jiankou section. Take water if you are visiting in the summer, as its also very hot and there isn’t a lot of shade to protect you. The views from the top – well, we only made it as far as watchtower 20 – are amazing, and it is a great place to recover and admire the scenery.
THE FORBIDDEN CITY
After wandering back down the wall with rather shaky legs, and meeting our guide at the local Subway store – something we weren’t expecting to see at the base of the Great Wall – we made our way back to Beijing. After about two hours, we were dropped off at the south-east corner of the Forbidden City. Mutianyu was pleasantly deserted, only starting to get busy as we left. The centre of Beijing was crazy. We passed through the gates and security screening into Changpuhe Park, and then towards the Tiananmen Gate. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite click that the massive area to our west was Tiananmen Square – home to the tomb of Mao Zedong and the Monument to the Peoples Heroes. If you want to visit, make sure you seek out the underpass at the metro before you go into the Forbidden City – it’s a heck of a walk back once you exit out the northern gates!
The Forbidden City is enormous. The fact that it says ‘city’ in the title is a bit of a hint. It was the Chinese imperial palace from 1420 to 1912. We didn’t rent an audio guide, but I would recommend renting one, or at least reading up on the history of the area before passing through. You go straight through the giant Tiananmen gate – resplendent with a portrait of Mao Zedong on it, then through the Duanmen Gate, and then through the famous Meridian Gate (once you have bought your ticket to the Palace Museum, the codename for the city).
If you are into large, ornamental gates, have I got a deal for you! There are at least three more to go through. You have to admire the architecture and the scale of the place. It gained the Forbidden City name as commoners were not allowed to enter the area, a rule which has obviously changed. Judging by the fact that admission is capped at 80,000 people per day, it would seem that many Chinese tourists take up the opportunity to visit this attraction.
It took us about an hour and a half to wander through the City, ending up at the northern gate near Jingshan Park. From here, there is a sightseeing bus you can catch to get to various other sites in the city. We decided to walk down to Din Tai Fung, a dumpling restaurant we had been recommended. Ironically, there is a branch of Din Tai Fung here in Dubai – but who could resist the opportunity to have BBQ pork buns in Beijing? It was about a 30 minute walk via the famed Beiheyan Street. It isn’t super easy to find on Google maps, so tap in the ‘Apple Store Beijing’ – Wangfujing Street – to get your bearings. Din Tai Fung in on the 6th floor of the mall, and it is totally worth the walk. We tried the delicious Shanghai style soup dumplings and weren’t disappointed. They have a massive range of delicious goods on offer, and they are reasonably priced. Dumplings rounded off the day very nicely!
After that, we were pretty much asleep, so took a cab back to our hotel. While it may seem a little crazy to try and take in the sights of a city like Beijing in just one day, it offered a fantastic taster to the Chinese capital – and I’d highly recommend it.
Hotel: Radisson Blu Hotel Beijing. From 1000CNY per night.
Transport: Miles Meng. Private driver (speaking very little English!) for approx. 650CNY for the day.
Eat: Din Tai Fung. Xindong’an Square.
Tips: If you hail a cab and they insist on a set price, try going to a major Western hotel and ask them to call you a cab with the meter running. This will always be cheaper than negotiating a fare!