As you may know, Sean and I try to take full advantage of all Hong Kong public holidays as it’s free time off and Asia is so accessible for weekend getaways. July 1st was one of these public holidays which meant a three day weekend, and we jumped at the chance to travel. I had moved over to Hong Kong on July 4th 2015, so technically this trip was marking one year of living in China….except I had never even been to China. Sean and I have Hong Kong resident visas, however to get to the mainland you need a Chinese visa. Anyway, with the July 1st holiday coming up, we knew that we wanted to venture to the motherland so we applied and were granted our 10 year Chinese visas. Side note: every time I go through visa processes, I am reminded how lucky I am with an American passport!
I am notorious about last minute planning and procrastination. Most of the time I actually plan our trips (flights, kennel, accommodations, etc) the week of…or even the day before…or even at the airport en route…. It adds to the excitement of everything, being completely adventurous and spontaneous. I like to think Sean agrees, but I’m mostly just lucky he puts up with this because he loves me. This time, due to the visa application process, we needed to prep this trip a bit more in advance to Sean’s great relief. Now the decision was Shanghai, Beijing or somewhere more local. We decided on Beijing, because what better way to start exploring China then to start with the GREAT WALL!
Here is a recap of our 2 1/2 days there…
Day 1: Arrival & First Impressions
We traveled to Beijing with very little knowledge of the city. Personally, when I think of China, I think of two major cities: Beijing & Shanghai. Even though I’ve never been to Shanghai, I’m familiar with the futuristic skyline and architecture. Also, being from Hong Kong (the vertical city with the nightly light show that brings all the buildings to life) I had just assumed Beijing would be similar. Of course there are skyscrapers, but Beijing was different than the modern city I had in mind. For me specifically, one of my first impressions of the city was that I could relate the buildings to the communist state. It’s hard to describe, but I had the same feeling when I traveled through Slovakia years ago. I think it was really the uniformity of the buildings, something called Stalinist urbanism.
After arriving to the hotel at about 8:30 PM, we decide to take a little walk around to get to see where we were staying. We were right in the middle of city (staying in the inner ring) and we were so surprised on how quiet the streets around us were. It could be just the location we were staying in, but this small quiet neighborhood feel was Sean’s first impression.
Another interesting thing people forget Beijing, well actually China, has censored internet. One does not realize how dependent you are on google until one no longer has the ability to google things. Sean has developed a deep hatred towards Bing.
We stayed at a Novotel hotel and upgraded to the executive floor (thank you hotel points!). Even though we paid with points, we felt like it was a little “treat yo’self” moment. With this floor we had access to the executive lounge where we could have free breakfast every morning and more importantly free happy hour from 6-8pm each night. How many glasses of free Cab do you think you can drink in two hours? We walked out of there winners.
Day 2: Tiananmen Square & Forbidden City
Today’s itinerary was about exploring the Beijing city, and we spent most of the day touring Tiananmen Square (you may be familiar with the 1989 protests & massacre) and the Forbidden City. As I wouldn’t due either site justice trying to explain the history in one quick paragraph, and my intent for this post is to focus more on Sean and my experiences, I’m not going to go into too historical detail. However, if you are interested you can learn more about these amazing locations, I’ll post some links at the bottom of the post.
We were able to walk to Tiananmen Square from our hotel (about a 25 minute or so walk). We knew we were in the right “tourist” location because of the security. We must have passed through 6 or 7 security check points (including baggage scanners/metal detectors) throughout our time there. It is actually not too bad and is set up quite efficiently if you consider the fact of how many tourists visit these locations. We saw a sign that said the only let in 80,000 people daily into the Forbidden City…. 80 THOUSAND … per day!! The Forbidden City is huge and a quick walk through will still take a few hours, but this just gives you a glimpse into the masses of people that we dealt with for the day.
One thing about mainland China, which is not something that we typically experience in Hong Kong: local Chinese love to take pictures of “Westerners”. The more “Western” you look (blonde hair/blue eyes) the more popular you will be. This is a common scenario: a family will push their child into your arms and take a picture of you with their child. Some can be a bit pushy about it actually. We have dealt with this in Macau before, but as this was our first time in China, the concept is still strange to me. I also have a newfound respect for people that are famous. At this point in the day I was exhausted, really hot, and walking amid masses and masses of people. I was not exactly in the mood to be touched or photographed, especially by people I didn’t know. Anyway, we got out of the day with only a few photos (which I don’t have). We went back to the hotel, and we booked massages to decompress from the craziness of the crowds.
FOOD: Beijing is known for a dish called Peking Duck, so we made a point to make sure to put this on our to-do-list. Oh. My. God. It was amazing and I’m not even a duck person. We ordered a half duck, which comes with “pancakes” (which look like crepes), vegetables (cucumbers, carrots, a few other greens) and a sauce that is kind of similar to BBQ sauce. What you do is put the duck on the pancake with the vegetables and sauce, roll it up and eat it. We even conquered the initial challenge of how to pick up a pancake/crepe with chopsticks… we are pretty much chopstick pro’s now. Anyway, the duck was superb: I can’t rave enough. If you are in Beijing, please indulge.
Day 3: Great Wall
We saved the best for last. Here it was, the day that we were waiting for, and basically the reason we chose to come to Beijing initially: going to see the Great Wall.
Especially after the previous day of fighting the crowds, I really wanted the trip to the Great Wall something that would be memorable and Sean and I would really appreciate. There are a few sections of the Great Wall that are about an hour away from Beijing, but with the close proximity, they are much more touristy, crowded, and fully restored. Basically, you take a sky lift up to the top of the wall, walk around for 10 minutes, take a photo to document you’ve been there, and then take a toboggan down. This is great if you are short on time, are not really hikers or are just checking off your bucket list item, however this is not really Sean and my style. Instead we opted for a small group day hike on a more remote and not fully restored section: the Jianshanling section.
We left early in the morning, and got to sleep for a few hours on the bus ride. Our group was only about 10-12 people, mostly European back packers. When we got to the entrance to start to hike up to the wall, the place was deserted – great sign! Our “tour guide” basically took us to the entrance, showed us the path to take to hike up to the wall, told us to turn left on the wall and then to stop at a watch tour with 5 windows. It was maybe a 30-minute hike up the mountain to get to the wall which runs along the ridge, but luckily Hong Kong has really prepped in climbing stairs.
We got up there and wow! It’s one of those moments where you are breathless (not only from the hike). I was also felt so blessed to be able to share this experience with Sean: being able to travel the world with him and see these amazing places. I won’t get too emotional, but hiking the wall was amazing. We hiked for a few miles. After the watchtower with 5 windows the wall is not as well preserved and you need to hike down off the wall to keep going. I read there are some great overnight hikes that take that route.
We returned back to Beijing just in time to shower and attend our happy hour in the executive lounge #winning. It was our last night in Beijing, so we decided to go out to find see a different district that was more known for their great nightlife. After many drinks, winding up in a very local club and many hours of dancing, we bargained our way home in a little tuk tuk. Probably not the best choices when we had to catch a 6AM flight back home.
Till next time.
- Tiananmen Square: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/beijing/sights/squares-plazas/tiananmen-square
- Forbidden City: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/beijing/sights/historic/forbidden-city
- Jinshanling Section, Great Wall: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/scene/beijing/jinshanling.htm