A little sad to leave Mongolia, but glad to be out of the smog in Ulanbataar we boarded our flight to Beijing at 6:10am. Originally this should have been the beginning of our China adventure but thanks to Chinese bureaucracy we would only be able to transit through China. Currently it’s possible to spend up to 72 hours ‘in transit’ in a certain Chinese cities (some cities now offer up to 144 hours). To obtain 72 hours transit visa free we just needed to have an onward flight booking and stay within the Beijing area. Our choice to travel early to Beijing and travel onto Tokyo worked in our favour as we had three days and two nights in Beijing. The transit application desk is well sign posted before passport control and we only needed to fill in two forms before we were allowed into China.
Our first impressions of China mainly centre on their use of English and English pronunciation, which is fairly amusing. We were really glad there were a lot of signs in English but slightly apprehensive about boarding the ‘automatic people mover’ to get between airport terminals. Once through, the airport we boarded the ‘airport exprice’ train into the city centre.
Beijing is a huge city but has a great subway network which is fairly user friendly so we didn’t have any problems buying tickets or transfering lines. Our first hurdle was finding our accommodation which took us around an hour. The biggest problem was that we first went to the wrong hostel, which had a similar name before eventually finding the correct place in the middle of a hutong (traditional chinese neighbourhood). Finally we had a place to have a free welcome beer and relax a little after such an early start.
Due to such a restricted time in Beijjng, we opted to try and see the forbidden city and great wall of China as a priority. With only an afternoon remaining of our first day we decided to take a trip to the Temple of Heaven which wasn’t too far from where we were staying. It appeared to be a little smaller than some of the other sites but in fact it is set in a huge park. We wandered around the park and visited the fake meteorites, empty flower garden and pretty rose garden. The main attraction is the hall of fasting, which is the only remaining example of chinese ming architecture. It’s set on a hill with stone steps around it making quite a formidable site.
For dinner we planned to have the famous Peking duck. Interestingly Beijing was previously named Peking as this is the traditional pronunciation, but due to Communist language regulation it is now pronounced in Mandarin as Beijing. The duck however clings onto it’s traditional roots and thousands of ducks are eaten in Beijjng everyday. We followed the recommendation of our friend Matthias and ate at JingZun duck restaurant. We ordered a whole roasted duck with spring onions, cucumber and pancakes. It was delicious although very different from Peking duck in the UK which tends to have more spices added. We just about managed the duck between us, while we watched a chinese family tuck into a huge feast of at least 40 different dishes and run out of space on their table. There are so many duck restuarants in Beijing it can be hard to choose where to go, so it’s definitley worth checking reviews and prices as ducks range from 180-300 yuan.
Our second day in Beijing was a day for a visit to the great wall of China. We woke up to sunshine and clear skies which was perfect. There are a few different places to visit the wall from Beijing. The most visited and restored is Badaling, while Muntiyau is less touristy and Laolongtou allows you to see the wall meeting the sea. We opted for Badaling to see the best of the wall and for ease of transport. Our hostel offered tours for 250 yuan per person but we decided to make our own way there. The 887 bus from Dengshemen bus stations goes straight to Badaling and costs just 12 yuan each way. It was really easy to find the right bus, but there was a decent queue of about 4 bus loads of tourists which we joined. The buses leave when full and take around 90 minutes to reach the wall.
Once there, entrance is 40 yuan for the 2 mile stretch of wall. We recommend going onto the Southern part of the wall to get away from the crowds and to get some of the best views. We had expected a large wall but actually the wall is not too tall. However, what is truly impressive about it is how it snakes up mountain sides whilst maintaining the same height. We were prepared for walking and lots of steps but were shocked by the gradients without steps which were difficult to ascend and descend. We definitely got a good workout whilst wandering over the walls. We found it impossible to comprehend how armies marched up and down the hills or how they rode stubby chinese horses along some stretches, let alone how they built such a structure without machinery. Interestingly, the white coloured cement used to build the walls contains exactly the right percentage of sticky rice to make it incredibly strong and long lasting.
Our one disappointment at Badaling was the huge numbers of people particularly on the northern side. We had read that it would be busy but nothing prepared us for the huge number of chinese tourists who kept stopping to take selfies or have a break halfway up a slope. This got quite annoying after a while so maybe it’s better to visit earlier or go to another part of the wall. Even with this we still recommend making the effort to visit the wall even if you only have a short time in China.
The next day we had devoted to the forbidden city. It’s possible to prebook tickets online if you can navigate the website. We struggled with this and could see only 54,000 people had prebooked so there were at least 26,000 tickets left for the day. Stupidly we arrived and struggled to find the ticket office as they are really pushing for a fully online service. At present they have people helping chinese visitors to use a qr code and book via free WiFi onsite. There is also still a ticket office almost immediately before the entrance gate (where we purchased tickets) but soon this will be gone too. We recommended reserving tickets online to save the hassle of locating the ticket office or someone who speaks English.
Once we had tickets we finally entered the huge forbidden city with our audio guide. The guide had some great information but sadly the English guide is no longer narrated by Roger Moore and the American replacement was irritating. Nevertheless, we enjoyed wandering through the temple complex for most of the day. We particularly enjoyed some of the smaller palaces which still have some furniture and stories connected to the people who lived in them such as the concubines. Also most of the tours just go straight through the central palaces so going off to either side allows you to leave the crowds behind you. After leaving the palace we would have liked to climb the hill behind but it was a really foggy day (Beijing had more foggy days than both London and Tokyo) and the views would have been rubbish. Instead we headed back for dinner before catching our evening flight to Tokyo.