We made it to Beijing for a brief 72-hour stay, but that was enough time to see the legendary Great Wall of China!
After our amazing time in the Philippines, we still had a few spare days before going back home to see our families for Christmas holidays, and of course we wanted to use them to go and see a new country. Searching the web for options, we found some pretty cheap flights from Manila to Beijing and we didn’t think twice: China here we come!
72-144 HOURS VISA-FREE PERMIT TO CHINA
Our landing time is past midnight, we find ourselves walking in long bare corridors of an already asleep airport. Signs in English are tiny and rare. Flying from Philippines to China, we are the only Europeans. We had read about which lane to look for to get our permit validated, but there are no officers there. After queuing in the standard one and getting to the counter, the officer sends us away without even saying one word. Few minutes later we are reached by a helpful authorized man who gives us forms to fill in. We are worried about our arrival and departure flight times, there are more than 72 hours between them, but the 72-hour count starts from h 23.59 of the day of arrival, so we get our stamps that say: “permitted to stay until 9 November 2017 in Beijing“. These exemptions are strict and don’t allow to move from one city to another.
(Update: starting 2018, Beijing should be included in the 144 hours cities. Damn we came too early!)
A COLD WELCOME TO BEIJING
The driver, who didn’t say a word and clearly didn’t speak English, takes a small alley and drops us in front of a door with a red sign that says “Happy Dragon Hostel”. We get inside and the boy at the reception says “wrong place“! Panic. We realize our place’s name is Happy Dragon Alley Hotel. Luckily it’s just 500m further. Finally at almost 3 am we reach our hotel. That was quite a challenge from the plane to our room!
Our hotel is very nicely decorated and the staff speaks good English, our room is extremely cozy, with Chinese motives on the red walls, soft smooth lights, some comforts we hadn’t seen in a while as a flat TV, heating (!), and most importantly a luxury shower with hot water! Simple things we are normally used to really become as precious as gold when you stay for weeks without them. In warm places like the Philippines heating and hot water are hardly ever used.
DAY 1 – 72 HOURS LEFT
The 72-hour countdown fixated in our minds subconsciously helps us to wake up early. It’s never nice to have such a short time, we try to plan our stay in the best way possible. The visit to the Great Wall, about 60 km far from Beijing but still contemplated in the visa permit as being part of its municipality, takes a full day, so it will fit in tomorrow. We head out in the cold, dressed in multiple layers (our backpacks only contain summer clothes!), and witness the true nature of the city, differently from what we saw last night: the streets are heavily trafficked, sidewalks and cycle paths are busy, hundreds of people walk fast to reach their offices. We are close to Zhangzizhonglu subway station, and the trains are full as you would imagine they’d be in Beijing, Seoul, or London. The subway system works perfectly, and the central lines mainly follow the rectangular scheme of the ancient walls shape that used to protect the Forbidden City in the past. It is quite easy to orientate around the centre of Beijing, both on foot and via public transport.
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN PARK
We reach the Temple of Heaven Park and, after a quick visit to the Pearl Market just outside its long wall (Hongqiao Market), where you can literally find anything you need at cheap prices (be ready to negotiate strongly, as prices they tell may be 10 times higher than normal!), we pay the inexpensive entrance fee (10 yuan for walking around the park only, 30 yuan to enter the buildings) and get in. The park is enormous, featuring wide long walking boulevards, thousands of cypresses. The main attraction is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a huge structure with a wonderful round umbrella-shaped purple roof; another highlight is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, at the other end of a long pathway connecting it to the Hall of Prayer; the Echo Wall surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven: if there are not too many people, your whisper could reach your friends’ ear on the opposite side of the wall.
The park now is packed with tourists, both foreigners and Chinese. It must have been a true oasis of peace back in the days. The place that we liked the most, that maintains a different charm, is the Long Corridor connecting the Hall of Prayer to the west gate: here locals, particularly elder people, get together to play traditional games, cards and music. Along the corridor, in the green areas, some other exercise or play jiànzi, a game of keepy-uppy played with a weighted shuttlecock.
Leaving the Temple of Heaven Park we take the subway and hop off at Qianmen station, just south of Tian’anmen Square. Here is Qianmen Avenue, a traditional commercial street in Beijing that has its name from the majestic gate at the entrance. Trams used to run in this area, and an old carriage is still in use for tourists. Among the silk and tea shops there are a couple of streets full of food stands: we eat some specialties, we can’t miss steamed dumplings.
The feeling is that everybody and everything is controlled, which may be good for safety reasons, but does convey a sense of oppression too. Like in our hotel we couldn’t access Google, nor Facebook, Whatsapp or Wikipedia, and we were in trouble to organize our trip to the Great Wall, since we didn’t want to join a guided tour. One of the staff helped us to download a VPN mobile app that allows you to bypass the server blocks. He told us that it is forbidden by law to use these VPN’s, and whoever is seen by an officer to do so may be fined!
So we finally are in the historic Tian’anmen Square. We can’t visit the Forbidden City today though, as it’s closed on Monday. The square is huge but maybe for its reputation we thought it to would be even bigger. Also, after living in Vietnam almost 2 years, we can see the similarity with all the main squares you can find in Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hanoi, which are enormous flat squares in front of a government or historical monument, with the unavoidable super high red flag dominating the setting, just like here in Beijing. Nevertheless, the Forbidden City gates on the north side of the square looks massive, imaging Mao Zedong having a speech here to an immense crowd, well it must have been impressive.
BEIJING’S INFAMOUS SMOG
It is always foggy, and to be honest it is hard to see the other end of Tian’anmen Square clearly. We’ve come to realize that this is in fact smog, not fog, the infamous Chinese big cities pollution that impacts views other than health. In the morning, from the top of Pearl Market, we couldn’t see the Temple of Heaven Park entirely, and also we haven’t had a glimpse of Beijing skyline yet, as the visibility has never been more than a few hundreds of meters.
Still, the sun is out there, pale and covered by the smog, but it is not raining. We understood that humidity is given by trucks that every few hours spray water on the streets, trying to bring the pollution down. That’s why nights are so chilly and humid, and roads are wet despite it’s not raining.
DAY 3 – THE LITERALLY FORBIDDEN FORBIDDEN CITY
On our last day in Beijing, our legs are still sore from yesterday’s hike. We go back to Tian’anmen Square, but when we get there we notice something very unusual: every Chinese flag in front of the Forbidden City Gate is tied up with a U.S.A. flag. Oh no, President Trump must be coming here soon! Still, there are huge crowds going past the first gates. No one is able to explain to us, the guards won’t speak and there are no signs. We join a queue to a counter that reveals to be selling tickets to enter the hall and terrace of Tian’anmen Tower Gate, overlooking the square. As we ask about the Forbidden City, a laconic “closed” is the answer we get: now it’s clear, the Forbidden City is reserved for Trump’s private visit. What a bad luck! Two days out of three we got here and it wasn’t open.
We abandon our hopes to get inside, and leave for Wangfujing district, one of the most popular shopping streets in town. The weather is clearer today, we almost would need sunglasses to cover from the shy sun rays. We finally can see more of Beijing skyline, some skyscrapers rise here and there but it is not too spoiled… Yet.
Our last activity before going to the airport is getting some Christmas presents and souvenirs for our beloved ones: we head to Silk Street Market (Xiùshuǐ Jiē) where we show off our best bargaining skills we learnt in Vietnam, getting “discounts” of more than 80%! As we were warned, here in Beijing it is sometimes true that a good price to pay is 10 times lower than the one told.
WHERE TO GET CASH IN BEIJING?
We return to our Happy Dragon Alley Hotel to retrieve our backpacks and leave for the airport, using the subway. Luckily we leave early and our flight is again after midnight, because another time-wasting misadventure is behind the corner. Once at Dongzhimen station, a huge bus/subway hub, we don’t have cash enough to recharge our subway cards to cover the cost of the fare to the airport (25 yuan). However, if we got our cards deposits back, together with our cash, we’d have sufficient money. Trying to deal with the lady at the counter is useless, so we wonder a few minutes around the station and finally find an Atm… But it won’t work with Mastercard or Visa circuits! We try with other two, three, four Atm’s in and outside the station, same story (on our first day we got USD cash changed, and in the markets atm’s would work for us, but only in the market, had we known!). It’s already 10 pm and all counters are closed. We manage to have an information disclosed from a guy who, counting with his fingers, tells us to look for the 8th letter of the alphabet, as far as we understood we must find gate H! So we start searching around the block with all our luggage on us and after half a dozen gates we find the bloody H. Thank goodness there’s the counter to return the subway cards (no where near the airport subway gate)! With our hard earned cash, back around the block, and finally through the checks to have our entire backpacks inspected from bottom to top. The same procedure, if not worse, will take place at the airport before checking our luggage in, when we will have our backpacks completely voided from the security to find a forgotten lighter that, now we learnt it, is not allowed on flights leaving China, not even in the cargo hold.
A CONTRADICTORY WORLD
Well China, thank you and goodbye (maybe!), more likely the place were we found the most difficulties considering we only stayed 72 hours. Hopefully staying longer one can overcome the first barriers and enjoy it in a more relaxed way. Sometimes we may demand that everybody in the world must speak English, but truth is we are grateful that not all the places are the same, that’s why we travel, to see different situations. And to be fair, going back to gestures from time to time is a lot of fun!
China has a lot of natural wonders and history, we saw The Great Wall, arguably the most important one. As for Beijing, or at least the glimpse we had of it, it is interesting to see how this huge country’s capital city with the biggest population on earth is apparently trying hard to resist western influences, or maybe is just not too keen on welcoming tourists, or maybe again it’s just a matter of different culture and habits. For example the lack of English signs and English speaking employees could be improved, unless for some reason they don’t want to be too much conditioned by foreigners. But then why would there be 7Eleven’s, McDonald’s and Burger King fast food restaurants everywhere? Probably the answer to these questions is always the same: money.
- Happy Dragon Alley Hotel: perfect location, 3min to subway in the centre of Bejijng, helpful English speaking staff, style designed themed rooms, AC/heating, TV, bar at ground floor, excellent value for money.
- Beijing airport to city by subway: 25 yuan/person to/from Dongzhimen station; by private transfer 150-200 yuan;
- Beijing Transportation Card: 20 yuan, refundable: valid on buses, subway, airport train. Fares from 5 yuan.
- Cash exchange at a local bank: 300 USD=1.900 CNY;
- Temple of Heaven Park: 30 yuan/person, through access;