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Sometimes one date is more than enough. Other times that first date leaves you wanting more. It was January, 2006, and I was nearing the end of Round-the-World #1 when Beijing and I were first introduced. It was bone-chillingly cold and I was jet-lagged but the few days we spent together were marvelous – frozen lakes of skating children, an ancient forbidden city and some quality alone time with the world’s most famous wall. I’d always hoped to return someday in the warmth of the summer months to experience the city in full bloom.
So when I started looking into gateway cities for our summer flight to the Himalayas, Beijing was an obvious choice. And since my friend Shannon had never been, it seemed the perfect spot to kick off our Asian adventure.
After a marathon travel day from Atlanta (via Seattle), we landed in Beijing just before midnight Saturday night. I was thrilled that the Sheraton Grand Beijing, my hotel of choice for our stay, had generously offered to pick us up. Especially since my last late-night experience with a Beijing airport taxi driver was, uh, let’s just say less than ideal.
We arrived at the historic Sheraton (Beijing’s first 5-star international hotel) a little before 1:00am and though we were tired from the long flight, we decided to head up to the Platinum Lounge for a glass of wine before calling it a night. With a relaxed day of sightseeing planned for the next day, we had the luxury of sleeping in a little.
Beijing Day 1 – Tiananmen Square & the Forbidden City
Thanks to the 12-hour time difference, Shannon and I were both wide awake early. So much for sleeping in! But we took our time, had some breakfast in the lounge and headed out by taxi to Tiananmen Square around 10am.
One of the most iconic symbols of Beijing, Tiananmen Square is the heart of both a city and a nation. It’s the largest square of its kind in the world and in 1949 it was on this spot that Chairman Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Today, it’s the gathering site for massive parades and rallies, infamously including the 1989 protests that resulted in the death of hundreds of student protesters.
After a stroll around Tiananmen, we headed across the street through the Meridian Gate, which bears a Mack-truck-sized portrait of Mao, and into the Forbidden City. Originally constructed between 1406 and 1420, this sprawling palace complex covers more than 250 acres and consists of 9,000 rooms. As the home of the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was destroyed and renovated countless times throughout history but most of the current structure dates to the Qing Dynasty of the 18th century onward. It was declared a world heritage site in 1987 and today UNESCO lists it as the largest collection of ancient preserved wooden structures in the world.
You could spend days wandering the grounds of the Forbidden City but the massive crowds resulting from the Chinese school holiday weekend (which caught us completely off guard) and the summer heat got the better of us after about an hour or so we escaped out the back gate (known as the Gate of Divine Prowess) to the nearby serenity of Jingshan Park.
The throngs of Chinese folks on holiday were mostly absent here, especially after we made the climb to the top of Jingshan hill to enjoy the glorious panoramic view over the Forbidden City complex from the hilltop pagodas. Even though we’d just spent an hour walking the grounds, it was hard to appreciate the full magnitude of the Forbidden City until we’d seen it from above. Despite the overcast weather, it was a magnificent view.
For our final stop that day, we walked down the street to Beihai Park where we were again reunited with greater China on holiday. Bright yellow paddleboats dotted the surface of the lake and it seemed everyone with a pulse was out enjoying a summer day in the city. Exhausted by a full day of heat and humidity we conceded the park to the locals and headed back toward the hotel for some shopping and to make arrangements for our trip to the Great Wall the next day.
Day 2 in Beijing – One billion Chinese can’t be wrong…but they can be on the Great Wall
If my first date with the Great Wall could be described as memorably-serene, today’s second date could only be considered chaotic and borderline-painful. It was the kind of second date that could be a real deal breaker for a budding relationship. Admittedly, it was partially my own fault. I’ll explain.
On my first trip to Beijing, I was quite proud of myself for foregoing the traditional Great Wall tour and hiring a taxi for the drive out to the Mutianyu section of the wall. I planned my departure in the pre-dawn hours long before the tour buses had even warmed up their engines in the January chill.
It worked like a charm. I had it all to myself. Seriously. To the point that I was actually thankful when a local man out for a morning walk happened by so I could ask him to take my picture. It was glorious. The perfect introduction to one of the world’s 7 wonders and the best experience I’ve ever had while visiting one of the world’s most famous monuments.
For my second trip, I tried my best to re-create the experience. I failed miserably. I remembered paying around $60 for my half-day taxi ride out to the Great Wall in 2006 but I figured 7 years later in a post-Olympic Beijing it would probably cost a little more. However, when the bellman at the Sheraton called an English-speaking taxi driver he knew (the same strategy I’d previously employed to find a driver), we were quoted more than twice what I’d paid before (nearly $150) for the same ride, which seemed absurdly high.
So Shannon and I decided to go rogue. The local city map we were using had an ad for a private car service to the Great Wall, Ming Tomb and the Olympic Stadium for about $80 which seemed like more than a fair price to me. And the fact that it also visited the Bird’s Nest stadium and Olympic Park was a bonus! It even included an English-speaking guide. Too good to be true? Probably. And we were skeptical and prepared for the worst.
But since we figured we really just wanted transportation and weren’t as concerned with the quality of the guide service, how bad could it be? So we called the number and arranged for a 7am departure from the hotel (half an hour earlier than I’d left the last time, just to be safe).
We got our first clue about how the next day would go later that night when we were both startled awake in our room by an 11:30pm phone call from our guide. She reviewed our itinerary and tried to convince me that we didn’t need to leave the hotel until 8:00am because the Badaling section of the Wall didn’t open until 9am. I knew this wasn’t right because we’d done our research and knew that it opened at 6am in the summer. (I’m assuming either she or our driver for the next day just didn’t feel like getting up that early.) We argued back and forth but I was at a distinct disadvantage since I was half asleep and I grudgingly agreed on a 7:30am departure.
The next morning, our guide – a young university student with a fluency in English that was actually pretty commendable by Chinese standards – was waiting for us in the lobby at 7:30am. We reconfirmed the price and itinerary again before getting in the car and then set out for the Great Wall. Things were looking up but as it turned out, that wouldn’t last long.
About 30 minutes into the ride, our guide (who was more translator than guide, she hadn’t actually been to any of the places we were going and merely gave the driver instructions) explained that tolls and parking were not included in the rate – despite the fact that we’d asked her specifically before we left if there were any other charges like that we should expect. It was a minimal cost so we decided to pick our battles and gave in.
But her next surprise was a deal-breaker. She tried to explain that we would be visiting the Ming Tombs before arriving at the Great Wall. This really set me off because the entire purpose of hiring the car for the day was to get to the Great Wall before all of the tour buses and she’d already delayed my requested departure time by 30 minutes. Shannon and I pushed back on that one and insisted that we go to the Wall first.
She acquiesced but when we arrived at the Great Wall, it was clearly not the Badaling section that we’d specified. It was lousy with tour buses and I think they chose it because it was a closer drive than Badaling. She tried to convince me it was all part of the “Badaling section” of the Wall (which may have been true) but it was still not what we agreed to and again Shannon and I insisted that they take us to the Badaling entrance which they ultimately did.
It was incredibly frustrating because our guide was just as sweet as she could be and it was impossible to be angry with her but she wasn’t listening at all to what we wanted to do. She and the driver clearly had their own plan for the day.
By the time we finally made it to Badaling, it was (not surprisingly) also filled with tour buses and mobs of people. If there are a billion people in China, I can confidently say without hesitation that fully half of them were a) on the Great Wall yesterday or b) on their way to or from the Great Wall. With the Chinese school holiday there were lots of Chinese tourists from other parts of China visiting the Wall which somehow made us a bit like celebrities for the day. People kept stopping us and asking to take their picture with us (see video in the photo gallery below).
We got in a good workout by walking the steep sections of the Wall for a while and enjoyed the views despite the crowds and the less than ideal visibility due to the summer haze. Crowded or not, it’s still the Great Wall and it’s definitely one of the world’s most impressive and majestic sites.
Back in the car, we headed for the Ming Tombs which were blissfully empty of crowds (our guide explained that many Chinese believe they are bad luck to visit). Next we made two obligatory stops at jade and silk “factories” to which I have no doubt our driver was paid to deliver us but we did want to do a little shopping so we didn’t mind.
Then finally we headed to the Olympic Park to see the one thing I hadn’t seen on my previous trip because it didn’t exist yet, the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube (made famous by Michael Phelps in 2008).
By then our relationship with our guide and driver had improved (I think they were just thankful we agreed to visit the jade and silk factories) and so had our day. The Olympic Park was crowded like everything else but it was fun to see the stadium and the Water Cube. After our stroll through the park, it was finally time to head back to the hotel.
All in all, it was a decent day. More frustrating than I’d have liked but we ultimately got to see everything that we wanted to and the price was definitely right. I’d say you get what you pay for but for all we know the $150 cab driver could have been worse. Although, at least he probably would have picked us up at 7am like I’d asked.
It was certainly a different visit from my peaceful winter experience so many years ago. But despite its sterile, communist persona, Beijing does ooze a certain ancient charm. It’s fascinating to imagine what it would have been like to walk the passageways of the Forbidden City during the Ming dynasty or envision a massive undertaking like the Great Wall.
It was a perfect choice to kick-off this year’s summer trip and I’m sure I’ll be back again someday for a 3rd date. But for now, it’s time to continue on with the journey…next stop, Chengdu!
Sidebar: China is notorious for censorship and many popular websites and blogs are blocked completely. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, You Tube and the ubiquitous blogging platform WordPress (which I use) are inaccessible within China. During my last stay in the country 7 years ago, social media wasn’t a consideration for me. These days it’s my lifeline. And with 3 stops in China planned for this month, I had to find a workaround. While on a layover in Guangzhou in February, I’d used a VPN service called Securitales which did the job nicely. When I searched for it again this week, it was blocked. I eventually found VyprVPN and once I installed it ($9.99 for a month & worth it for me) I was again able to access WordPress to update my blog and Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends. If you’re planning to be in China longer than you can imagine being without access to these sites, Vypr is a good option. Here’s hoping it won’t be blocked by the time you read this.