Hardly any other land ignites our imaginations as much as mysterious China, a response amply ensured by its history of several thousand years. From flying monks to Peking duck, the Heavenly Kingdom is never dull. But where to begin when time is tight? Here I’ve reviewed Beijing’s top spots and put together a list of favorites.
Preparing for Your Trip
A trip to China requires a visa, which I got at the Chinese consulate in Zurich. You should be able to gather the necessary documents relatively quickly. These include a completed form, a copy of your passport, and confirmation of your flight and hotel reservations.
Those traveling to China on business and wanting to work there will need additional authorization. The consulate is only open in the mornings, but there are far fewer visitors midweek, and the wait times are very short. Following my visit to the consulate, I was able to pick up my visa as soon as five days later, without the need for an express order.
Beijing is big, and it can easily take one to two hours to get from one important sightseeing attraction to the next. That’s why I absolutely recommend that you consider beforehand where your interests lie and then book your hotel in the appropriate location. Personally, I chose the Lee Garden in Wanfujing, from which you can access the Forbidden City and the hutong in half an hour by foot.
Even though mobile network coverage is very good and wi-fi is often easy to find, a lot of high-ranking websites are blocked by the Chinese government. Among these are all Google products (incl. Google Maps and Gmail), Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and also all sites requiring a Facebook login. On the other hand, WhatsApp worked for me, and Yahoo also goes through without a problem. If you don’t want to give up your usual surfing habits, you should definitely download a VPN app and establish a connection every time via VPN. Here’s an app for you.
The Chinese either speak English and work in the tourist industry, or they don’t speak it at all and can at best make themselves understood through a translation app. If you plan on getting around Beijing on your own, you’ll have to make use of pictures and body language. You should always carry a hotel business card in any event.
Sometimes more, sometimes less, smog is still a perpetual aspect of life in Beijing. Many people wear masks, which makes them look like characters from a hospital TV series. I didn’t wear a mask myself but always had one on me just in case. Best times are in the mornings, when the wind blows quite strongly and clears the air. After that, the smog covers the sky.
Things to Do in Beijing
As you might expect, the possibilities of a large city with a several thousand-year-old history are numerous. But I still wouldn’t stay in Beijing for a long time. For one thing, because of the constant smog, which gives some people dry cough or headaches. For another, because as a metropolis its size and anonymity give you less insight into the authentic local lifestyle. That’s why I did some thorough research and put together a list that will hopefully inspire and excite you, too.
Visit to the Great Wall of China
Since the flight from Switzerland comes in at 5 in the morning, I decided to take advantage of the early hour and visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. It’s relatively close to the airport, so the driver I’d booked in advance picked me up following my arrival and drove me straight there. An hour later, the endless wall rose before us beneath the rays of the rising sun. It felt like a dream to be standing upon one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The seemingly endless wall is a mighty symbol of Chinese history and culture. In earlier times, it served as a defense against attackers and as a system of communication. Today it’s a magnet for tourists and a World Heritage site. Be sure to collect a few short stories and legends about it before your visit, and read them on the sun-warmed stone steps while enjoying a relaxing picnic. It’s worth allowing a little extra time to sit back and enjoy the Great Wall and the view all around. The natural interplay between the sun and clouds made a big impression on me as well.
There are also two gondola lifts that take visitors up to the wall and back down again. The gondola lifts are situated far apart from each other and are independently operated, which means that the ticket for one gondola lift is not valid for the other as well. A return ticket costs 100 yuan; a one-way ticket, 80 yuan. When I arrived at the lift with my return ticket after three hours of trekking up and down the steps, the friendly employee informed me that I would have to either buy a new ticket or walk back. I could have the unused part of my return ticket refunded.
The early arrival by car was truly worth it, for two reasons. There’s almost nobody around that early in the morning. The Great Wall stands silently there, offering a perfect opportunity for taking pictures or for sheer uninterrupted wonder. The tour buses and consequently the tour groups don’t arrive until around 10 am, when they rapidly fill the steps and walkways. Add to that the physical challenge presented by climbing up and down the countless and, in parts, very steep steps, especially when it gets really hot towards midday. Since I was there in the early morning towards the end of March, I initially had on a warm felt jacket. But as I was leaving at around 11 am, it got really hot. So be sure to take along a bottle of water as well.
The Impressive Summer Palace
When it gets incredibly hot in the summer, the wide expanse of Kunming Lake offers a welcome cooling effect and a pleasant walk along its shores. Those interested in history or who have simply seen such magnificent films as The Empress of China will recognize much of that here. It was here that the Emperor and his wives once perfected the conjoining of essences for the purpose of attaining immortality. From numerous halls and temples to the impressive summer palace, colorful buildings line the shores of the lake, across whose surface glide the gilded dragon boats. A lovely stroll through the Garden of Virtue and Harmony or the Hall of Dispelling Clouds quickly puts the visitor in a contented mood.
Spring brings the blossoming pink cherry trees and white, slightly sweet magnolias that once delighted the Emperor’s family and now do the same for all tourists willing to pay the entrance fee of 20 yuan.
The Historic Hutong
In the center of Beijing, you’ll find not only high-rise hotels and giant Prada stores but also the old, historic quarter. Here are the streets with one-story houses and a multitude of small shops, street food stands, and massage parlors. Wandering through these alleyways and exploring historic Beijing is a part of the journey that’s not to be missed.
The Famous Tiananmen Square
This square is known for its size and for Mao Tse Tung’s mausoleum at its center, and it’s among the top sightseeing attractions on Tripadvisor. Whoever likes large squares and mausoleums can pursue their recommendation, but personally, I’d refrain. It’s really nothing spectacular, and you can safely strike it from your program or just pass by. Much more impressive in this regard are the huge buildings all over the city. The buildings and bridges are generally built so tall that you end up feeling really small, a sensation I haven’t had since childhood.
The Majestic Forbidden City
This is another highly sung site, but because of the high expectations, it may instead come across as disappointing. Jingshan Park offers the best view of the Forbidden City, so be sure to combine these two adjacent spots on your visit.
Destination for the Evening
North of the Forbidden City are the QianHai and HouHai hutong, a highly recommended area for bars and restaurants in the evening, when colorful lights and lanterns are lit. All around the western lake, you’ll encounter a lively mix of locals and tourists who have unearthed this insider tip.
Peking Opera in the Liyuan Theater
The gorgeous traditionally attired singers and acrobats embody hundreds of years of Chinese culture and art. Those wishing to experience historic China should save an evening for this spectacle. It’s best to book a table in the front, where you’ll be served with green tea and fruit, which naturally rounds out the sensual enjoyment of the experience.