After 9 months of living in China we finally had a chance to explore some of the highlights of northern China when some friends from home came to visit. Our first stop was Beijing to catch some of the more well-known sites: the Great Wall (长城), Summer Palace (颐和园), Temple of Heaven (天坛), Tian’anmen Square (天安门), and the Forbidden City (故宫). We only budgeted three days for Beijing on this trip, so we definitely have more to see if we are able to make another trip back there. Our fourth day we went to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors and a little history of one of the older cities in China.
The first day we met up with our Chinese teacher who happened to be visiting Beijing for the public holiday and she showed us part of the city near our hotel and recommended a lunch place for all of us to eat at.
We enjoyed the sights of the Houhai bar area from the rooftop of one of the nearby restaurants in the evening, but we were unable to stay out too late because we needed to be up early the next day for our trip to the great wall!
We left the hotel at 7am and headed for the Mutianyu (慕田峪) section of the great wall. This section has been (is being) restored and is located a little farther outside Beijing than the most popular section of the wall (Badaling 八达岭). It also boasts an awesome toboggan option to get back down to the road once you are done exploring atop the wall. Overall we found this section of the wall not very crowded (especially when compared with pictures from the holiday weekend of people packed on to the badaling section of wall so tight they could hardly move). Getting to the wall around 8:30/9 also helped and ensured we were some of the first people there. As the day went on it started to fill up a little more, but as tourist destinations go, the crowds were VERY manageable.
Until last year you were able to go a short walk from Mutianyu to an unrestored section of “wild wall.” You can still get there from elsewhere, but they have walled up the two entrances to the respective sections of wall and taken away the stairs to the second floor of the guard tower. This was done to prevent injury to visitors and possibly in response to incidents over the last few years. The best we were able to do was wave at people on top who could not get down to our section and turn around and walk the wall the other direction.
After our trek on the great wall we made a quick stop at a subway (first time we’ve been to one in China) and grabbed a sandwich so we could continue on to the summer palace without delay! The drive to the wall was about an hour and a half, and the drive to the summer palace was another hour drive or so. While we loved all the Chinese food in Beijing, it made sense to grab a quick snack and keep going. It also helped us save up room for hotpot later that night!
The dragon lady’s redidence at the summer palace. Dowager Empress (and regent) Cixi effectively ruled China for many years in the late 1800s-early 1900s, though she was not offically emperor. To my knowledge there was only ever one female emperor equivalent and that was back in the late 600s.
We had friends tell us that the summer palace was so big we should really devote a whole day to it, but I honestly think the 3 or so hours we spent there were enough to get the feel for it. We saw about 2/3 of everything that was there, and if I were to do it again in the future I would likely hire a guide to give me a bit more historical insight. Overall we were pleased with our visit, though we could certainly have spent more time there.
Practical Trip Planning & Other Observations About Being a Tourist in China
- We planned our whole trip around the train schedules as the high-speed trains can make it from Shanghai to Beijing in around 6 hours (5.5 hr for us as we picked it up in Suzhou). We had to buy tickets almost 2 weeks in advance (online, with the aid of our Chinese teacher to avoid the processing fee for English websites) to ensure we could all sit together. We were then unable to pick up the tickets until
we had everyone’s passports in hand. Overall this worked well.
- We booked a car (and tour guide) in advance. This allowed us to both research prices a bit, and ensured we were not desperate to accept the first offer that came our way. The recommendations we got came from Chinese and Expat co-workers and everything worked out well.
- We kept our plans flexible enough to optimize our sightseeing. Everyone’s top priority was seeing the great wall, and we only had two full days on which we could accomplish this. We were scheduled for a driver on Thursday, but one look at the AQI (air quality index, aka pollution forecast) during our train ride there told us that Wednesday would be far better for long distance viewing and laborious breathing while walking up and down excessive amounts of stairs. I contacted our guide who had helped arrange the car and she was more than happy to switch the days, but she was not available Thursday to guide us around the city. As the great wall was our #1 priority, we accepted this and only ended up arranging and paying only for a driver from her.
- The basics always apply, bring your own tissue/toilet paper, hand sanatizer, and cash (cards are not commonly accepted in many places).
- The subway was much more accomodating than taxis for the most part. After a certain time (~10pm?) most taxis will start charging whatever they wanted with the meter off. As David booked us for the midnight showing of Captain America 3 for his birthday we ended up paying some of these flat rate fees (though we did haggle over the final price). In the end the prices were no worse than that I would typically expect in the US, but generally speaking they should be considerably cheaper.
Being able to speak even a little Chinese went a long way in improving our experience:
- Your new favorite phrase when traveling in touristy areas of China is “bu yao, xie xie” (不要谢谢) which is the equivalent of “no thank you” and is good to use when offered rides and miscellaneous items or services while walking down the street that you do not want. Being able to say this in Chinese lends you a little more credibility and you are less likely to be pursued.
- We were able to get a driver without paying for an additional guide/translator. This may not be a big deal for some, but our group decided part of the purpose of this trip was a reunion for us and we preferred to take everything at our own pace and be left to our own devices (for better or worse). Between our broken Chinese, WeChat translator function, and gracious guide who offered phone assistance even though we did not pay for her services, we were able to sort everything out and get the right tickets for the tobaggon option back down the wall.
- Several taxis did not know where our hotel was (despite the address and map on the back of the hotel business card). They were also unwilling to look it up. Giving them a nearby tourist attraction name and being able to direct/stop them when we wanted to get out was useful. Calling the hotel for directions also helped if you have cell signal/battery.
- We were slightly less prone to being ripped off at markets. Shop owners will barter with you in any language (usually a calculator is pulled out for non-verbal negotiations), but I had some fun with one shop owner at the great wall. She saw me coming a mile away and when I approached she wrote down on a piece of paper the outrageous price of 150 RMB for one of those cheap straw hats with the Chinese characters 长城 (great wall) on it. I fairly screeched “that is way too expensive, that woman over there will give it to me for 30” at her, to which she laughed heartily and immediately agreed to 30 RMB.
- This also created confusion as some people expected English to come out of our mouths and were therefore really confused when we tried to speak Chinese. Our Chinese unfortunately is still so-so at best, so some people were at a loss as to what to do with us in these scenarios.
- Interacting with locals was more rewarding. You will encounter many a child who will yell “hi” or “hello” at you once they are prompted by their parents, but we had a chance to interact with locals in the park, play some in some ping-pong, and other idle chit-chat with a taxi driver or two. You will also encounter people eager to practice their English, but for those who are unable, the sheer delight on their face as you stumble your way through ordering some food is pretty priceless.
Stay tuned for installment #2 of 3!
Kayla － 卫岚
(I’ll have to do an entirely separate post on my new Chinese name at some point…)