Traveling to China was never really on my radar - until I found a cheap fare, coupled with a travel certificate I got from another vacation made it extremely affordable and I decided to take the leap. I'm definitely glad I took the opportunity because China is a very unique country with lots of history and culture - life has a different pace in China. I was initially shocked by the cultural differences when I went there, even though I spoke Mandarin pretty well. But, it started to grow on me and I wished I had more time to spend in China - a week isn't enough!
Beijing is a very unique city where there is simply a lot of history at at every corner. The city had a lot more people than I was expecting, but it was surprisingly orderly and cleaner than I thought! You never really take the blue sky for granted until you come to Beijing - all you see is a grey tint over the sun. But overall, I really enjoyed my time here.
Before you come to China, you MUST apply for a visa (it's $140 USD for American citizens). The process is described in more detail on the consulate's website, but you definitely want to start the process a month or two before you actually leave for China. If you don't have it, you can't enter.
Also, China is an odd country in the fact that getting into and buying tickets for certain attractions requires your passport, so you'll want to carry it around with you wherever you go, just in case. But do be careful, since you don't want to lose your passport. Also, when you go into any metro station, you have go through a simplified form of airport security where you go through a metal detector and you put your bags into a machine. This might be surprising the first few times you see it but then you get used to it.
Also, apparently you aren't supposed to drink the tap water here. So, I always bought bottled water or got it from hydration stations when I was here.
In China, the Great Firewall is definitely a thing. If you want to use social media like Facebook, Instagram, etc., you need to download a VPN before heading to China. I used ExpressVPN that worked pretty well but the data connection on my phone was pretty slow even though I had LTE from my Sprint plan. I recommend getting a Chinese SIM card and then using the VPN on top of that, since any roaming plan from the US will be slower in a foreign country. Add that to a firewall and a VPN and your internet speed goes way down.
Also, Google Maps does not work very well in China. In some areas, it worked fine and in others, the GPS was showing me incorrect locations of where I was. To combat this, download a Chinese map app before arriving in China or use Apple Maps. Apple Maps is usually horrible in the US but works pretty well in China. In Beijing, Google Maps worked just fine.
My flight from San Francisco landed in Beijing at around midday - but first off, this airport is absolutely huge. If you thought LAX was big, Beijing's airport will blow your mind because it's easily three times as big as LAX. I made sure to get to immigration ASAP because I had a hunch the line would be long, and I was right. 5 minutes after I got in line, there was AT LEAST 100 people behind me - speed is of the essence. I waited quite a while at immigration before the guy looked at my visa and waved me through.
The first thing I noticed once I stepped out of the arrivals hall was that the poor air quality is not a joke. My eyes started watering and I was coughing a bit and I wasn't even outside yet! I decided to sit down and catch my breath before heading out. I would definitely recommend bringing some sort of mask if you're sensitive to air pollution. There are multiple methods to get to the city center, but I opted to take the subway since it was the easiest and most convenient for me.
I was waiting in line at one of the machines to buy my subway ticket but people just kept cutting in front of me - how rude! But you have to know that it's a part of daily life because in some places, there is no concept of a line. During my week in China, I learned that in some instances, there will just be a huge clump of people in which you would expect a line so don't get too offended if someone gets into your personal space or cuts in front of you. After waiting for a bit, the machine wouldn't accept my Chinese yuan so I had to go to the counter. I bought a smart card that could be used on all transportation in Beijing, and put some value in the card and then I was off.
I wanted to drop my stuff at my hostel first before doing some light exploring in the evening. I was staying at the Chinese Box Courtyard Hostel. At this point, the air was really bugging me but I trudged on anyways. It took me a while to find the hostel because it was a somewhat hidden in an alley, but I was able to check in and set my stuff down. After getting settled, I started to head towards Wangfujing Street, which has a night food market.
I was initially overwhelmed at all of the options in the market because there was so much food to choose from! I think I saw a stall selling fried bugs at some point but I wasn't feeling adventurous enough to try it. I ended up getting a lamb stick and a spring roll which was very tasty and cheap! If I was less indecisive, I would have ate a lot more. After the market, I decided to head back towards my hostel for some rest!
I started my day off by heading to Tiananmen Square. On the way, I stopped by a small shop to get breakfast and picked a few random things since I couldn't really read the characters - everything I got wasn't really what I was used to, but it was good. Then, I dropped off my stuff at the new hostel I was staying at for tonight, 365 Inn. Once I got there, a huge line had already formed - I should have gotten up earlier! Everyone seemed pretty antsy and pushy but as the line trudged along, an official looked at my passport and waved me through to security.
After a long wait, I was finally in! I walked around the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, which seemed very interesting but I wasn't able to go in because you can't bring anything inside and I couldn't leave my stuff with anyone because I was alone (they don't have lockers and I wasn't about to leave my stuff with a stranger). I started walking north towards Tiananmen Square, which was quite a sight - it's a pretty wide open space with soldiers walking around here and there. There are lots of people trying to sell you photographs and such in the square. Also, it was interesting to see a big portrait of Mao outside the Forbidden City. I overheard a tour guide saying that they re-paint his face every once in a while to keep him looking nice.
I started to walk towards The Forbidden City, where I got a potato and beef rice dish at a small restaurant just outside the entrance. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't overly amazing either. Then, I went to the side to buy my ticket - the thing here is that foreigners have to wait in a separate line to buy their tickets than locals. When you get to the counter, show the attendant your passport and student ID (it's cheaper that way)! It turns out that your ticket is embedded in your passport, so I went to the entrance and started to look around.
First off, I wished that I could have more time here - you could easily spend a whole day here and not see everything because this place is huge. You could definitely get the feeling of how old everything was and how life was like back then. Getting some pictures was sometimes a struggle because everyone else was constantly pushing you out of the way so they could get a better picture. Towards the end, there's a beautiful garden area which was one of my favorite parts of the Forbidden City. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time here, it's simply breathtaking.
After touring the Forbidden City, I walked towards Jingshan Park and Beihai Park, which are pretty close to each other. When you visit both of these places, show them your student ID to get a discount. Both of these parks are similar yet different in some ways. In Jingshan Park, if you climb to the highest point, you could get a very good view of the Forbidden City. In Beihai Park, you could hire a boat and just cruise around the lake for a little bit - I would definitely recommend both experiences.
After walking through both parks for a good part of the day, I decided to head towards the Temple of Heaven. When I got there, it was pretty late in the day. I would definitely recommend not visiting when the sun sets - it gets dark very fast and to be honest, I got a little creeped out. But, the temple itself was very pretty and imposing. I wished I got a chance to actually go inside, but by then, everything was closed. After walking through the park where the temple is, I made my way back towards my hostel to get some rest. On the way back, I stopped to get some duck and shumai at a food stall - it was so good!
I started my day off very early to head to the Great Wall of China. There are different sections of the Great Wall, but the section I went to was Mutianyu. The most popular thing to do would probably be to join a tour group or hire a driver for the day, but I opted to take public transportation and the bus since I didn't want to be constrained by a schedule. To prepare, I would highly recommend bringing lots of water, snacks, and very comfortable shoes - your feet will get sore and you'll sweat like a pig because of all the walking. I made the mistake of not eating enough before I went, and I ended up eating gum for lunch - don't be like me! A link by Tour Beijing sums up the process I went through in great depth and it was easy to follow.
MUTIANYU GREAT WALL VIA BUS
I left my hostel at around 5:30am to get to the Dongzhimen Transportation Hub, where you want to get on Bus 916 Express and get off at Beidajie (North Street). Before getting on the bus, I got some breakfast at McDonald's because I was curious to see how it was like in China and it surpassed my expectations. They have rice porridge there, which is a personal favorite of mine and it tasted great! I hopped on the bus and got a seat, and I passed the time by looking out the window and eating my breakfast. If you're worried about not getting off at the right stop, what I did was that I was following the directions on my phone and then when we were getting close to the stop, I was able to get off (it helps if you understand Mandarin). But, you don't need to worry too much since it's one of the more popular stops so chances are other people will get off too.
When I got off at Beidajie, I was instantly approached by a lady that offered me to take me to the Great Wall in a van, along with a few other foreigners. She greeted me in Chinese, and then in bad English, and then she took out her phone to type up something in Google Translate - you've got to admire the dedication of these hustlers. I initially ignored her, since usually that gets people to shut up but she was quite persistent. Eventually, I essentially had to tell her to screw off and stop bothering me in Chinese since the whole thing smelled like a scam and was very sketchy.
The key thing here is to not take any sort of private transportation by these hustlers, even if they're very persistent. You've got to stand your ground, even if they say that it's "quick", etc. I opted to take the H23 bus, which takes a while to come, so you just have to be patient. However, if you don't want to take the bus, I would walk a little further away from the bus stop and look for an official taxi since the bus stop is full of hustlers.
I probably had to wait around half an hour for the H23 bus to come. Before every stop, there's an attendant that calls out if anyone wants to get off at a particular stop but only in Chinese. What I would do is to keep an eye on your GPS and when it gets close to the Mutianyu Roundabout, ask to get off - other people will probably be getting off with you as well. Once you get off the bus stop, walk towards the entrance to buy your ticket, which costs 25 yuan.
To get to the actual Great Wall, you have to pay for a shuttle bus to take you there - it costs 15 yuan. Then, you could either walk up the stairs or take the cable car up. I opted to walk the stairs to get the full experience but this was quite silly as I was almost out of breath halfway through. Looking back, I would have definitely paid the extra money to take the cable car but walking the stairs builds character.
During my day on the Great Wall, I walked from one end of the wall to the other end - which was a LOT of walking, but I don't regret it at all. The Great Wall was hands down, one of my favorite experiences while I was in China. The views are beautiful, the walk is absolutely surreal, and everything in general is breathtaking. This is definitely a must-do during your trip to China!
After an exhausting day of walking, I started to make my way down the wall. However, I highly recommend taking the toboggan down to the base. It costs 100 yuan but it's definitely one of the most fun experiences I've had! You essentially sit in a "toboggan" where you just speed down to the ground. It was very fun and exhilarating in a way. To get back to Beijing, you can take a taxi or the bus. On the way to the bus stop, I saw the same lady that tried to get me to go in her van - I just thought that was a little funny.
To get back to Beijing, I just retraced the route I took to get here - but in a sense, it was harder because towards midday, the H23 buses are far and between. So, I had to wait quite a bit. But then, when the bus came, the bus was PACKED so I rushed to the front to make sure I would get on. I was lucky I realized this before everyone else that was waiting with me, because half the people that were waiting had to wait for the next bus. On this bus, every seat was filled and there wasn't even any standing room - I was standing on the steps that led to the bus driver's seat. I didn't know how the bus driver was seeing out of his mirrors, and I knew that if anything happened to the bus, we would most certainly die but I guess that's part of the experience, right?
We made a few more stops on the way to Beidajie. The attendant yelling out the stops had to tell people at these stops that they couldn't get on and had to wait for the next bus - so I felt pretty lucky that I had a spot. Don't worry about squeezing past people to get off because when the bus stopped at Beidajie, almost everyone got off the bus. At Beidajie, it was easy to find a bus heading back to Dongzhimen Station.
Once I got back to Beijing, my legs felt like they were going to fall off so I slowly made my way back towards my hostel. But I decided to get dinner first at a small food court in Dongzhimen Station. I ended up getting a DIY soup bowl, where they had a wide range of ingredients (noodles, vegetables, meat, tofu, etc.) and you pay by weight. The bowl I got was very cheap and really good! After eating, I finally made it back to my hostel where I'm pretty sure I instantly fell asleep.
I only had about half a day left in Beijing because I had to catch a overnight train to Guilin. To start off my day, I walked to Beijing West Station with the new friend I made in my hostel, since she had to catch a train to Xi'an. When we got to the station, we parted ways and I left my bags at the left luggage area in the station so I wouldn't have to carry them around for the rest of the day. The left luggage area was outside the station off to the side, so it was kind of hard to find. Once I dropped off my bags, I headed towards the Summer Palace.
Now, the Summer Palace was incredibly beautiful and I wished I had the chance to stay longer - a few hours isn't enough for this place! I would at least recommend half a day to fully see everything. Everything you would want in a very nature-y spot is here: it's somewhat like a forest, but then you see a beautiful lake where you could take boat rides. All the buildings and houses and such are also very pretty to look at! I definitely recommend this place.
After visiting the Summer Palace, it was time to head back to the train station to catch my train. Make sure if you come early (I would say at least 2 hours before your train's departure) because if you miss your train, you can't get a refund! I bought all my train tickets from Ctrip, so all I had to do was go to the counter and show them my confirmation number to pick up my tickets. Then, you should see a huge information board that shows your train number and your "waiting room". I walked to my waiting room and there were a LOT of people here. I couldn't find a seat so I had to sit on the ground and wait for my train to be called. Once your train is called to start boarding, it's not too hard. Just follow the crowd towards your train and then there will be attendants to help you board. Read my guide on Guilin to learn more about my train journey - until next time, Beijing!