BEIJING — We recently spent a day and a half in Beijing – a city of over 20 million people, capital city of China, and home of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics – and found it polluted and sometimes depressing but (maybe) worth visiting at least for a day. But despite the Great Wall and other popular tourist sites (like the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square and Summer Palace), and we were less than impressed with the city as a must-see tourist stop.
The smog is real
It’s true what they say: the smog is real. Stepping outside right after your flight landing, you’ll feel the pollution in hit your lungs. When we were there, it was more like standing beside a highway rather than than poisonous or choking, and breathing was fine. I thought I’d have great difficulty breathing after my rib-bruising freak bike accident the previous stop, but it wasn’t an issue. Our driver told us people in Beijing don’t mind the smog as they are used to it (sad as that is). And you’ll get used to it to, possibly, maybe – depending on your health. Asthmatics and emphysemics, perhaps wander elsewhere.
Where to stay: If you’re there for a day, We would recommend staying in the central area, next to the main sights (Tienanmen Square, Forbidden City). There are a few Marriott/SPG hotels in that area that would be great to stay (though quite pricey if paying cash rather than SPG/Marriott points). The Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing was very central, near the Forbidden City and Wanfujing Market. If you’re a Marriott Elite member (Gold or higher) you get access to the Concierge level which includes breakfast, evening snacks (which served as our dinner!), alcohol at certain times, and non-alcoholic drinks all day, not to mention a great view over Beijing.
Good Call on The Wall
Even though our lack of time in the city had me believing that we could cut out the Great Wall (being a 1.5-2 hour drive each way), my fiance (and my common sense) convinced me that it was a must-see (the must-see) when visiting Beijing. In fact, it was the only thing I felt I really needed to see. There are basically a few sections of the wall, the most tourist-friendly being the nearby Badaling and Mutianyu, along with some further areas that get further out. The trade-off is essentially the closer you are, the busier and more touristy (and also more developed), and the further out you go (AKA more time and expense spent getting there), the fewer the crowds, less touristy, and more rustic and ‘real’ (and sometimes more unsafe to walk). Personally, we chose Mutianyu because its just a bit further if you get a driver (not quite accessible by public transport), well maintained, with somewhat fewer crowds yet still some of the fun touristy stuff (up by cable car, down by ‘slide’). At first the notion of man-made tourist gimmicks like cable cars, ski lifts, and slide rides near a wonder of the world seemed like a bad idea, but the ski lift and ride at Mutianyu were quite fun, and took a lot of time off the 45-minute hike up (then back down) to the Wall. Remember, you’ll be ideally walking on the wall a lot so best to save some energy! Only downside? I believe we waited 45 minutes to go up the lift and a long time to get down, so if you’re fit, then the hike might be best. And these tourist transport vessels cost a lot! Your best choice depends on the crowds, I suppose.
The world’s largest palace complex, built in the 1400’s and a World Heritage Site consisting of 980 buildings and covering over 180 acres, the Forbidden City is being constantly restored and is a must-see in Beijing. We sort of rushed our visit, snapping photos and selfies while racing around and past the tourist hordes. Perhaps the audio tour would’ve been a good idea to give us a better historical view, as we didn’t get much out of our visit but that’s our fault. Quite an impressive area if you pay attention to the history and grandiose scale of the site, with plenty of photo ops (and plenty of tourists and gift shops).
One of the world’s largest city squares, Tianamen is historical and essential to a Beijing visit. It’s a must-see, due to the political nature of the Square. It has history. You can feel it, and the government’s repressive reach, from when you enter through the long security line and the quiet repressed feeling with Mao looking down on you, to the multiple cameras everywhere and police officers (both uniformed and undercover) watching for someone who says or does the wrong thing. Not a fun place to go, but definitely a place to go nonetheless, to see the ‘official’ China and how saddening government crackdowns can be. We went a few weeks after term limits for President-for-life Xi Jinping were lifted, so this weighed heavily on my mind as we walked the barely-public, seatless government square in the windy cold. You won’t feel like relaxing on the grass (grass, what grass?) here.
Beijing for Tourists
Just like for its citizens, tourists have to live with the same type of totalitarian government deathgrip when in China. Ridiculous lines, waits, security at the airport? Check. Extreme limits on Internet freedom? Check. There are tons of sites that are banned in China, at the government’s will. Wrote a mean critical article exposing someone in power? Banned! We didn’t expect that we wouldn’t be able to use Google Maps to get around the city like we normally do, or go on Facebook or use Gmail or Instagram. We would strongly recommend using a VPN, and we found ExpressVPN to be easy to use on your smartphone and would let you access all the regular sites you normally would without being subject to dictatorship-level restrictions. Check out ExpressVPN at this link (note this is a referal link which helps us pay our bills if you sign up through us). It’s a great service, worked like a charm (but warning: it may eat up your battery life faster than without) and is quite inexpensive for what it offers. After realizing you can’t even post your travel pics to Instagram or check your Gmail for essential trip emails, the few bucks fee will seem a bargain and you’ll feel like a powerful secret agent at the same time.
Beijing Airport Nightmares
Beijing’s Capital Airport (PEK) requires more time than I’ve typically seen at an airport. We had to take a bus after offloading from our plane, then wait in a line for our 72-hour visa (which was hard to find!), then wait in a massive immigration line, then walk, then take a train, pick up our luggage, only to realize our luggage had not arrived, and meet our driver (who had been waiting an hour). Not to mention our plane was an hour late, and one of our bags did not arrive, marking the first time in our long travel history that one of our suitcases was lost or delayed. (One week later, we’re still waiting for it – thanks, Air China!) The wait to check our luggage at Air Canada’s check-in was uncomfortably long (make sure you check in online first!). Seriously, this is an airport you should expect to arrive late in, leave late in, line up for a long time in, and should arrive at least 3 hours before your flight. Thank goodness a new airport is set to open in Beijing in 2019 (to be called Beijing Daxing Airport) as PEK is basically at capacity, but I don’t have great hopes for that airport either.
♠ So, will we be back to Beijing? Probably not. Aside from Tianamen Square and Forbidden City, we’ve seen The Wall, so we’ve seen it all. Next time, Shanghai maybe, but the communist, free-speech-stifling strongman government of China is no place for us to spend our tourist dollars again. Ban that, Xi Jinping.