It was our first trip to China and we were excited to spend two weeks immersed in one of the world’s oldest civilizations, seeing some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth and visiting cosmopolitan areas, like Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Our first stop was in Beijing (three days) and here is how everything started:
Beijing First Impression
The weather was a big plus. We understood it would start getting a little bit cold this time of year, but we liked the idea of avoiding the big summer crowds, and not melting in the extremely hot Asian Summer.
Because our Chinese communication skills didn’t go beyond “ni hao,” “xie xie,” “zaijian,” etc., I decided to hire a local guide. She did an amazing job coordinating transport (very handy after a long flight) and arranging private tours for two of the three days there.
Traffic was another big concern with so many cars, bikes, and pedestrians sharing the streets. Cars honk all the time and red traffic lights seemed merely a suggestion. My advice is to look both ways carefully and wait for a safe gap in the traffic before crossing any street. We found that out the hard way when my husband almost got hit by a car on our first day there.
Did I tell you to bring face masks? Be ready, the air pollution can be very bad and disgusting smells waft throughout the city. The eye drops and masks we brought came in very handy. The pollution level affects your views and photos, but we still tried to make the most of it during our three days there.
Day 1: Scammed!
Scams were everywhere in Beijing. We encountered scammers at the airport, near points of interest, shopping, and they were very aggressive. Scammers were suited up, presented ID (fake of course), and spoke fluent English. We saw cops chasing some of them in the airport, so make sure you talk to airport personnel to get information or help.
Since our hotel, The Legendale, was within walking distance from the Forbidden City, we explored it on our own after we got settled. On our way there, many “freelance workers” (aka scammers) tried to hustle us for tours. We tried to avoid them as much as we could, with success, until… we were fooled by one well-spoken guide. He was very convincing (or maybe I should say we were naive) and yep, we got scammed on our very first day!
He approached us, flashed an ID, and said he was an official Forbidden City registered guide and could take us in for 100 yuan ($15) using a special pass to avoid the lines. My husband and I looked at each other and we thought it was good deal. I couldn’t believe I got ourselves in this situation, especially after all I read about them. He did give us a tour, but took us to different ancient buildings around the Forbidden City, not actually in the City. On the plus side, we learned a lot about the Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace.
Discovering Beijing’s beauty
With three days in Beijing, we grouped attractions by area (and convenience). As I said before, in the first afternoon there (after the misadventure) we explored the Forbidden City by ourselves. Lucky for us, touring the City in the middle of the afternoon wasn’t so bad! Many people were leaving when we began, so we were the last tourists left in the whole City. We used the automatically activated audio tour which comes in more than 40 languages. Another option would be a private, customized tour for a little bit of extra money, but we were very pleased with the audio guide.
We learned that 24 emperors worked and lived there with their families during the Ming and Qing dynasties. But why is it called Forbidden City? Well, back then, ordinary people were not allowed in the Palace without the Emperor’s permission. They were forbidden, which consequently gave the Imperial Palace that name.
To finish the day, we crossed the street and visited Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Square is a symbol of pro-democracy movement in China. On April 15th, 1989, a group of students gathered to protest the death of their leader, democratic general Hu Yaobang. Thousands of people joined them in the following weeks to protest China’s communist system. On June 4th, Chinese troops fired on civilians and students, ending the demonstrations. To this day, the number of deaths is unknown.
On day two, the air quality was greatly improved. To maximize the use of our time, especially after our experience with Beijing’s chaotic traffic, we had a very knowledgeable and friendly guide, and she made our visit in Beijing very pleasant. She picked us up at 8 am and we went to the Temple of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven is an imperial sacrificial altar where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties used to offer sacrifices to heaven and prayed for successful harvests.
When we left, we walked through gardens and footpaths where many Chinese retirees were socializing while they played dominoes and other board games, did crochet, and took dance and tai chi classes.
From there we hopped in our car and visited hutongs (alleys formed by traditional courtyard residences) next. We took rickshaws, a light two-wheeled hooded vehicle drawn by one or more people, to explore the area.
Our next stop was Houhai, a lake and its surrounding neighborhood with many restaurants, bars, and cafes.
In the afternoon we went to the Summer Palace, located about 9 miles from Beijing. It was my favorite place that day. I could have stayed much longer staring at the bridges, gardens, promenades, decorated corridors, and the breezeways (hallways that allow the passage of a breeze between structures). The visit requires plenty of walking, so wear comfortable shoes. If you are more adventurous you’ll want to climb the hill to the Buddhist Temple and overlook the entire area. It is quite glamorous!
The Summer Palace was first built in 1750 and named Garden of Clear Ripples with the intent to combine political, administrative, residential, spiritual, and recreational activities. It was destroyed during the war of the 1850s, but reconstructed and renamed Summer Palace.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall was, not surprisingly, the highlight of our visit to Beijing. Although on top of my list of places to visit, we visited only on day three. We chose the Mutianyu section because it has been well maintained, typically less crowded than other sections, and offers a stunning view of gorgeous mountains. Our guide picked us up from the hotel in early morning and drove northeast for about 1 hour (45 miles). We parked in the touristy villa and took a cable car up to the Wall on top of the mountain.
We hiked up and down the steep uneven steps snapping photos from different viewpoints for about 2 hours. It was fascinating to stand in such a remarkable site.
Think about these facts: a 5,500-mile wall built about 2,700 years ago, (770 – 476 BC) over a period of 2,000 years, during many imperial dynasties and kingdoms, using 1,000,000 soldiers and criminals forced into work as a punishment. Sources say about 400,000 people died during construction, many of whom were buried within the wall. And to this day it still stands! Very impressive, right?
On our way down, we took a fun, wild, mile-long toboggan ride from the Wall back to the village at the base. If the toboggan is not your cup of tea, the cable car is available back to the village.
Overall, we had a great experience, and I am happy we got to see such historic sites, but I don’t think Beijing is a city to which I’d return. It is a place I’m good seeing just once. The pollution bothered me, the traffic strained me, and watching out for scammers drained me.
Having a private guide and driver in Beijing was a great choice. They were totally available for us during the last two days there, including airport and hotel transfers. During the drives, we had the opportunity to hear about traditions, food, jokes and much more about Chinese culture. The guide recommended local restaurants and an acrobatic show, for which she helped us buy tickets. Also, she made sure that the driver would come back after it was over to take us back to the hotel.
Funny aside: the guide who scammed us was at the acrobatic show “guiding” another American family! On our guide’s advice, we did not approach him.