Beijing is China’s capital with a population of 21,700,000 – making it the third most populous city in the world (Shanghai is still #1). Beijing is packed with cultural gems from China’s rich and dynamic history. For this reason, we decided to stay in Beijing for 6 days. Looking back, we have mixed feelings about this choice. We were able to see everything we wanted to see, but at the cost of our personal comfort.
How We Got There & Around
We took a high speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao Station to Beijing West Station. The station in Shanghai was similar to an airport – spacious and clean. The only downside to the experience was our late arrival to the station, not late to miss the train, but late to explore and purchase snacks for the five-hour journey. We were able to find a few sandwiches in the station and took lunch to go. Loading the train was seamless and efficient. The actual ride itself was fine, considering you are sharing space with lots of people for a long period of time. This means dealing with coughs, cries, kicking and loud conversations on cell phones. Overall, the price was right and we thought the experience was better than flying in China.
Once arriving in Beijing, we took the Subway. We purchased a stored value transit card that allowed us to take the Subway and busses. During our stay we took both the Subway and Busses quite frequently.
The Subway is easy to understand with signage is in English. As we found out in Shanghai, Google Maps does not work in China, so we had to rely on Apple Maps which proved challenging at times. Often Apple Maps would tell us to take a certain exit from the Subway station and it turned out to be the wrong exit. We started to rely on tourist maps inside the Subway stations to help us. Another challenge we found was the “Subway Culture”. For example, most people do not wait for people to exit the train before attempting to enter the train. This ended up just causing major pile ups. Another example was pushing and shoving – both perfectly fine on the Beijing Subway. The Subway had security checkpoints like Shanghai, but we found there was lots of inconsistencies. Sometimes they asked me to take a sip of my water (perhaps to check it wasn’t poison?) and other times they didn’t care about my water. They also took my bug spray, even though I had ridden with it several times before (A Chinese-American behind us in the security cue tried to argue our case on this one, but even he was annoyed with the “TSA like” security procedures). My advice for anyone taking Subway in Beijing: bring your patience and be open minded.
The busses were quite easy, with few exceptions. We took a bus from our hotel to a bus center, and hopped on another bus to the Great Wall. We had also taken busses around the Forbidden City to get around. Our challenges were figuring out the “legit” bus. There is one bus that leaves Beijing to the Great Wall, bus 877. However, on your way to catch the city bus, there are many “imposter” private busses trying to trick you to get on at a higher cost. When we asked a local if we were in the correct area, he said yes. After further investigation, we were not in the right area for the “legit” bus. In the end, it was quite simple to catch the correct bus if you just pay attention and don’t let swindlers lead you astray. If you can manage this, you will save a lot of money over hiring a tour group to take you to the Wall
Where We Stayed
Our hotel was the Nostalgia Beijing Hotel. It was actually a coffee shop with rooms above it. Breakfast was not included, so we paid extra a few days for it. It was a bit sad, but I did enjoy the cereal. For most days, we would buy little snacks at the local convenience store and would make it last till lunch.
The room itself was interesting, there was a giant window in the bathroom to the bedroom… let’s just say, our marriage got a whole lot more intimate during our stay. The Hotel was also a 5-minute walk to the Xisi Metro station, and near restaurants, making it a pretty pleasant stay.
One Bad Day
I have mentioned on previous blogs, that Steve and I are not immune to bad days, tempers and frustration with each other or with situations. The best we can do is recognize when we are having a bad day and do our best not to escalate it. I feel it’s important to tell our readers, that yes… we have bad days. On this particular day, we were traveling to the Forbidden City. From our hotel, it was about 30 minutes on the Subway. It was also a Sunday and the hottest day of the week, which meant the worst for pollution. Once we arrived at the Forbidden City, we were immediately hassled by a gentleman trying to scam us to purchase a tour or fake ticket, we didn’t listen long enough to figure it out. The entire area was packed. It took us about 15 minutes to make it through security and another 10 minutes to get in to the ticket area. We waited in line to purchase tickets for 10 minutes. When we got to the front of the line, we didn’t realize we needed our passports (or some sort of picture ID). Steve had his, but mine was locked in the hotel. When trying to talk to the employee about this, she said no and threw Steve’s driver’s license back at him and shooed us off. If I haven’t mentioned this already, customer service is not a thing in China from what we can tell. We were sitting in the shade to figure out what we should do – to go back to the hotel and get my passport or do something else. We decided to go back to get my passport, but had to walk a 20-30 minute detour to go back to the station, we were told we couldn’t simply walk the way we walked in as it was a one-way only. The heat was pretty bad, so halfway through our walk we stopped again in the shade to drink water. Steve and I stick out among the crowd, and during our trip to the Forbidden City many people would go up to Steve and take photos. Well sitting on a bench was worse, it was like we were zoo animals and people would walk by; point, laugh and take photos without even acknowledging us. It was just a few minutes before we had enough and continued our walk. We walked back to the subway and stopped again in the shade to consult the map one last time. Once again, the laughing, pointing and taking photos started again. The last straw before I lost it, was a boy old enough to be my nephew, 10 years at least, all of sudden pulled “it” out and peed on the middle of the sidewalk, laughing the whole time. I had it and told Steve was I done. I was done with the day and needed a break from people. That’s what we did. We went back to the hotel, bought some cup of noodles and spent the entire day in our room reading, and internet surfing. This experience if anything, taught us a lot about our limitations and needs. We had gone from Shanghai Disney to Beijing and really pushed our limits. For me personally, I am an introvert and relish time by myself – reading, watching TV, and most often just simply staring at the wall/ceiling. Turns out, Beijing was more than we could handle for 6 days in a row. I have no regrets in spending a full day behind closed doors, it’s what we needed. The next day, we were refreshed and ready, and had a much better attitude.
What We Did
Summer Palace – Established as a Imperial garden for emperors since the 1100’s, this place exemplifies peace and beauty (minus all the tourists). It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, for its Chinese landscape and design. There are several things to see and do in the Summer Palace area. We arrived too late in the day to buy the full package ticket, which included tours of the Tower of Buddhist Incense (one of the more popular attractions). Still we got a good taste of everything, and even rode around the lake for an hour in a motor boat. Our highlights include: Tower of Buddhist Incense (without going in), the Marble Boat, Longevity Hill, and the many various gardens. We noticed throughout the gardens the Imperial Guardian Lions – which represent Yin & Yang.
Temple of Heaven – The temple and the surrounding park ended up being an all-day adventure for us. The Temple itself was built in the early 1400s, and had to be built again after a fire in 1889. The complex is home to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Circular Mound Altar, the Music Hall (now a museum), various exhibit halls, and playgrounds and gardens.
The Great Wall (Badaling viewing) – The Great Wall is over 3,880 miles long, so we visited a section in the Badaling area. The wall is primarily built in the 7th century, although some sections were built earlier. Most of the wall in its lifetime has been damaged, repaired and rebuilt. When we arrived via the bus, we bought our tickets and bought a ticket for the lift cart to the top of the hill. After our joy ride up the hill, we began our walk on the wall, with thousands of other people. At many times, “traffic” was stopped and our short walk took a few hours. In the end, we were happy to have done it and if we had more time and money we would’ve visited a less crowded section. Also located at the wall area was a group of Moon Bears. We aren’t sure why they were there, but they were displayed like a zoo exhibit. Except the bears looked hot and acted more like circus animals, waiting for people to throw “treats” at them. Plenty of people obliged. It made us feel extremely sad and we can only hope that the bears are being treated well and we came on an “off” day.
The Forbidden City – We finally made it back here after our first attempt. This was once the Imperial palace for the Ming and Qing Dynasty from 1420-1912. This “museum” attracts over 14.6 million annual visitors. The actual palace is pretty massive and we ended up spending a few hours here easily. Our highlights include: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the imperial garden, and the many halls (temples).
The Jingshan Park – This park is located next to the Forbidden City. It was once an Imperial Garden, but now is open for the public to enjoy (for a minimal price of course). Steve and I enjoyed our stroll through the park and various pavilions. We also learned that the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, Chongzhen, committed suicide in this park as rebel forces invaded the palace in 1644.
Tiananmen Square – We took some time to walk through the famous Tiananmen Square. Since we visited in the late afternoon, we did not get to see the National Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. We did check out the Great Hall of the People (from outside), the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the infamous Tiananmen North Gate (with Mao Zedong’s picture). Interestingly enough, there isn’t any plaque or memorial for the protests that occurred there in 1976, and 1989.