Leaving the safety of our final Trans-Mongolian train and stepping out into the big wide world again seemed almost daunting at first but we acclimatised quickly enough. The first thing we were struck by on our arrival in Beijing was the sheer number of people, but at least Ulaanbaatar had prepared us in part for dealing with the crazy traffic.
Beijing wasn’s quite what we were expecting for a city in a communist country. It’s like any other bustling modern metropolis with advertising and shops galore. Food and public transport are super cheap and admission to attractions is usually very reasonable. Public transport is especially great in Beijing! The subway is very easy to navigate, clean, airconditioned and only 20p for a one way trip. Buses are another great option once you figure out the most useful routes and they cost half the price of the subway.
Our lovely London friend Danni grew up in Beijing and armed us with loads of excellent recommendations for things to do and, most importantly, places to eat. The guy running the guesthouse we stayed at was also very helpful. As a result of all these suggestions we had a great time in Beijing, although we only really scratched the surface. And I have to admit, the crowds and the traffic did get a little exhausting by the end of the five days we had there (12-17 October).
Places to visit in Beijing:
- Tiananmen Square. Rich in history, surrounded by museums and offers your first glimpse of the iconic Forbidden City entrance. You can also visit Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum.
- Forbidden City. It’s no wonder it’s called a city, it’s huge. We thought we explored half of it on our first day and later realised we hadn’t even made it through the ticket entrance! (There’s a fair walk after the famous gate with Mao’s picture on it before you reach the real heart of the city.) The audio guide is worth getting to make sense of the almost endless halls and palaces.
- Jingshan Park. Directly north of the Forbidden City, the central of five pavilions sitting atop the large artificial hill offers a spectacular view of the Forbidden City and the greater Beijing skyline.
- Beihai Park. West of Jingshan Park, Beihai is another beautiful oasis in the middle of the city. It features a large lake that you can go boating on, Buddhist temples and even caves.
- Tiandi Theatre. Here you can watch a jaw-dropping performance by the China National Acrobatic Troupe. Absolutely spectacular and a really fun night!
- Wangfujing Snack Street. Super touristy but it has an enjoyable night time atmosphere. Worth a wander just to gawp at the creepy crawly snacks on sticks such as scorpions, seahorses and starfish. Other food is available too but it’s pricey for what you get.
- Beijing Zoo. The pandas are definitely the star attraction here. Unfortunately some of the other animals’ enclosures aren’t quite the same standard as the zoo’s main drawcard.
- Water Cube. This place looks super cool but we didn’t have enough time to visit. Apparently the entry fee is a little steep but it sounds preeetty fun!
Places to eat:
- Sha Guo Ju (砂锅居), 60 Xisi South Street, Xicheng. Established in 1741 and famous for their claypots but they do lots of other dishes too. (English menu available.)
- Hai Di Lao (海底捞火锅). Various locations, but we went to the one on the 7th floor of the Xi Dan New Wedding Center, 109 Xidan North Street, Xicheng. A super popular hot pot/steamboat restaurant. Plan for an early dinner – as in, 5pm early. Otherwise you may have to wait a very long time for a table: when we left at 6pm there must have been 50 or more people waiting! Tip: you can order half portions of the dishes which is great if you want to try lots of different things.
- Li Li Restaurant (力力餐厅), Xianyukou Street, Qianmen. Established in 1954 and specialises in SiChuan cuisine. There’s no English but we just followed Danni’s recommendation and ordered the super cheap and tasty Dan Dan Noodle.
- Huatian Emei Restaurant (峨嵋酒家), 58 Bei Li Shi Lu, Xi Cheng Qu. Another restaurant specialising in SiChuan cuisine. The menu doesn’t have any English but look out for 宫保鸡丁 (Kungpao Chicken) and 麻婆豆腐 (Ma Po Tofu), both of which are mindblowingly delicious!
- There’s also a good selection of places to eat inside the giant shopping centre on Wangfujing Street. We enjoyed Chef Hung’s Taiwanese Beef Noodles and Danni also recommended a traditional hotpot restaurant called Donglaishun (东来顺).
We actually didn’t get around to having proper Peking duck in Beijing which is a bit of a shame, but I kind of got the impression it was something you might have had to order in advance… either way, we definitely ate our fair share of delicious meals in Beijing.
The Great Wall of China
Several sections of the Great Wall of China are accessible as a day trip from Beijing. The nearest section, Badaling, is about a 1 hour drive and the furthest section, Jinshaling, takes 3 hours. Badaling is touristy and over-restored but possible to reach by public transport. Our accommodation arranged a private driver to take us out to the Jinshaling section and while it was one of the priciest day trips we’ve taken it was worth it. It cost 1100 CNY for the car and driver but we didn’t get dragged through any tourist shops, just 3 hours drive to the wall, 3 hours to explore the wall at our own pace, then 3 hours back to Beijing. We left Beijing at 5:30am and were the first people on the cable car – we practically had the place to ourselves.