I had wanted to visit Beijing for as long as I could remember, primarily to tour the Great Wall as it has been on both my wife’s and my bucket lists. So when we found an open-jaw flight home from Asia through Beijing for a great price, we jumped at the opportunity to finally take in this historic city.
A visa is required to visit China, including Beijing. But at $140 a pop, we chose to use China’s “free transit visa” program whereby you can apply and receive a free visa when passing through certain cities in China. To get this type of visa, there are three main requirements: (1) you must have your travel already booked for your next international flight from your entry city in China (and it cannot be a return to the country you are arriving into China from); (2) you can only stay in that particular arrival city, you cannot use the free transit visa to travel elsewhere in China; and (3) you only can stay a certain amount of time, which depends on which city you’re visiting. For Beijing, you can stay up to 144 hours using this free visa, provided within those 144 hours you leave Beijing (and the country). That sounded like it would work well for us. We would save $840 on visa fees for our family while still seeing all the sights we wanted in Beijing.
The free transit visa has a catch, and it’s a tradeoff of your time. You apply and get the free transit visa upon arrival before going through customs, but in both cities we did this (Shanghai on our arrival into Asia, and then Beijing back out and home), the visa desk was only staffed with one person, which meant long, grueling lines. Unfortunately, these individual were also the slowest and most thorough customs officials we’ve ever come in contact with. And for Beijing, with a 1am flight arrival time, that didn’t make for a good combination.
More than two hours after touching down at the Beijing airport we were off to the taxi line to get to our hotel. Every travel guide we read had major warnings about using unregistered taxi drivers that solicit you at the airport, and my Uber app wasn’t working in China, so we did the taxi line like everyone else. I don’t know if the warnings need to be heeded, but we did see signs at the start of the taxi line about using the official services to “save your life” and we didn’t see any locals getting approached by or using these other “taxi” services. So we stuck to the guidebooks’ advice and did the line. Which also moved at a snail’s pace. I figured it would be empty at the Beijing airport at 3am. Not the case, the airport was absolutely buzzing.
After getting 2 taxis we were off to our hotel. Good hotels in Beijing weren’t cheap (and we needed two rooms to fit our family), so since we knew this was only a partial night stay, we only needed a bed to crash in and booked a hostel close to the Forbidden City, because that was a major attraction we planned to visit on our first day anyway. As we approached the hotel a little after 4am we saw streams of people in the streets, all heading in the same direction. Dumpling sellers lined the pathways with their burners ignited, preparing and serving breakfast on the go to many passing by. Turns out everyone was heading for the sunrise flag raising at Tiananmen Square. If we hadn’t just pulled an all-nighter and weren’t so tired I think a few of us would have joined them!
This was a small entrance to find on arrival at 4:30am, but the nieghbrhood was already buzzing!
We stayed at the Leo Hostel in a great part of town. It was only a few blocks to the subway stop, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. The hotel’s location on a Hutong market street made it a fun place to explore during the day. The hostel did have a few inconvenient drawbacks. We found when we arrived the beds weren’t made. Upon check-in we were handled a bundle of sheets and made bunk beds at 4:30 in the morning (not fun) before we all fell asleep. And the room’s bathroom didn’t come with toilet paper (which was a first for our hostel experiences in Asia), and with no stores open at that late (or early?) hour we had to rely on every last tissue we had in our bags. We slept like rocks until 11:45 (checkout was at noon).
One of the cute Hotung neighborhoods by our first night hostel.
30 minutes after waking up we explored the local shops in this Hutong neighborhood and were off to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. As we wandered aimlessly through the square and first areas outside the Forbidden City, we knew we were about to waste a day seeing magical sites with zero understanding about their significance. And then we met Galin.
Galin Liu, a younger (early 30s) Beijing local, approached us on our walk towards the entrance of the Forbidden city and asked if we wanted a tour guide for the afternoon. We hesitated, thinking this might be some local scam where we pay good money and get nothing of value in return, but bit and asked how much. Galin told us he would spend a couple of hours showing us all around the Forbidden City as a private guide for 300 yen (about $45). He also would help us buy our entry tickets, which needed to be done through an app that we didn't have the ability to access in China. His English was great so we thought, what the heck. We aren’t going to gain anything on our own anyway, so let’s give it a go. Any information would be good information at that point.
We couldn’t have made a better decision. Galin preceded to show us his official tour guide certification for Beijing and spent the next 3 hours taking us everywhere throughout the Forbidden City, introducing us to the magic of ancient China. His facts were good but his storytelling about the various emperors that ruled from the Forbidden City was even better. We all learned a lot and it may have been the most worthwhile $50 we spent on the entire trip. Our visit may have been a little long for the kids considering our awkward sleep schedule the night before and the nature of the tour (it’s a lot of walking and facts), but there is no other way to do justice to this great place.
How can you tell if this statue represents a male or a female? One of the many sites in the Forbidden City with a cool backstory.
After hiking up the hill at Jingshan Park with Galin to overlook the Forbidden City some three hours later, we knew Galin was a local savior. We hired him to take us to the Great Wall, The Summer Palace (another UNESCO sight within Beijing), and the Olympic Center the next day. He arranged all that for only 1600 yen ($249), including the driver. Compared to other tours we researched we jumped at this chance, knowing that we liked Galin’s style, story-telling, and English fluency. He arranged to pick us up with his driver at our hotel the next morning. Before seeing us off for the day at the Forbidden City, he escorted us to the nearest bus station to get us back to our hostel to grab our bags and head to our next hotel, the Grand Hyatt. Bus fare for all of us was about 10 yen ($1.75) and the bus dropped us off steps from our hotel. At this point, he was more than a tour guide. He was helping us get around Beijing and save tons of taxi fare in the process.
The smoggy haze hangs over the Forbidden City.
The Grand Hyatt was just what we needed. It was big. It was beautiful. And it had the most amazing indoor hotel swimming pool we’ve ever seen. We swam that night and headed out in search of dinner. It’s location on the major walking street in Beijing offered up many options with “snack street” just around the corner, but with rain starting to come down, we kept it simple and ate at one of the indoor food courts in the connected mall (Shops at Oriental Plaza) where we could split up and everyone found food they liked. Our son, the pickiest eater of the group, fell in love with a Chinese dumpling place and headed back there the following night as well.
Thank goodness for food courts. Even our most selective eaters found a favorite dinner spot - the dumpling spot.
At 8:30am on our second day in Beijing, Galin picked us up and we started to the Great Wall. It’s a longer drive than I realized. We went to the Mutianyu section of the wall, because while touristy, it’s not as overrun as other parts of the Wall. It took about 90 minutes to get there, including a stop Galin arranged a cheap local supermarket so we could pick up some more waters and snacks for the day. I really appreciate a tour guide who isn’t stopping at “gotcha shops”, where they get a commission cut and we get screwed. I appreciated him going to a local spot in a small town where the prices were dirt cheap. Our confidence in Galin continued.
When we reached the Wall Galin arranged an easier “climb” for us. The Wall sits high on the ridges of the hills and mountains with a 40 minute climb each way. Had we done that, by the time we reached the top we would’ve had crabby kids, crabby parents, and we all would’ve been too tired to really enjoy what we were there for – the Wall itself. So for $20 we took a chairlift up to the top, explored the Wall and it’s many guard towers extensively, had a bunch of photo ops, and then road a “toboggan” (basically an alpine slide) back down. The toboggan was an added bonus of fun, especially considering the alternative: hiking up (and down) a mountain in the Beijing summer heat had zero appeal on this day. Our time at the Wall was perfect and fulfilling. Truly an amazing site that has to be seen.
Thanks to our amazing tour guide Galin, it was all smiles on the Great Wall (above) because instead of hiking up we took a chairlift, which gave us the opportunity to take the toboggan ride down at the end (below).
After the Wall we headed to the Summer Palace, where the emperor spent his time when not in the Forbidden City. To grab a quick snack for the ride we asked Galin if we could stop at one of the many roadside fruit stands we saw as we approached the Great Wall. We stopped at one and the lady managing the stand was so nice that instead of just giving us some fruit off her table, she gave our kids a basket and let them head into her orchard and pick fresh fruit off the tree! It was a fun, unexpected bonus experience and the kids loved it.
Heading into an orchard to pick some fruit during an impromptu stop on the way back from the Great Wall.
It was good we stopped because the ride to the Summer Palace was a little long and traffic-congested, and at this point we realized we never stopped for lunch, so we probably didn’t arrive at the Palace in the best of spirits. Kids were hangry and didn’t really want to do another long tour, especially after the Forbidden City the previous day. It was also overrun by many of the local (large) Chinese tour groups with guides speaking at large volumes through their speaker-systems. This practice is not allowed at the Forbidden City, which made that visit a much quieter, more intimate experience. At the Summer Palace however, it was noisy, crowded, and not exactly the vibe we hoped for. Despite all that, the Palace was beautiful and Galin did a great job taking us through it in a more requested expedited fashion to appease our crew, so I’m very glad we stopped. But going there on a full stomach after the Wall would have been the smarter move for sure. Every snack we picked up at the supermarket on the way to the Wall that morning was quickly devoured during the van ride.
The Summer Palace was more beautiful than I could have imagined.
At this point it was already 5:30 in the afternoon and our kids were basically done. So we cancelled the Olympic Park stop and agreed to do that on our own a different day. It was time to wrap up the sightseeing, get dinner, and have some downtime. On our way to the hotel Galin stopped at a popular discount mall (Pearl Market) for clothes, designer bags, and other (cheaper) merchandise. He even took us into one of the secret shops in the basement where much of the “higher quality” knock-off designer labels are sold. It was beyond a hidden wall covered in plastic vines with security cameras everywhere. It was a neat experience but we left empty-handed. The prices didn’t seem that great for knock-off merchandise and we were ready to be done for the day. Galin gave us another good location to go to the following day on our own to haggle for some bargains, the Silk Street Market.
Every one of our kids got into the haggling at the Silk Street Market.
Day 3 in Beijing we took at great leisure after two heavy sightseeing filled days. Those that wanted to sleep in didn’t get up until after 11, while the rest of us swam in the hotel pool. We spent the afternoon at the Silk Street Market. I had assumed it was an outdoor market on “Silk Street” lined with vendors hawking their wares. We took the subway to Silk Street. Beijing is huge and going just two stops on the subway covers massive amount of ground, which probably would have amounted to a 30-minute taxi ride. Not bad for a $3 total subway fare for the family! The Silk Street Market could be directly accessed from the subway station, and wasn’t an outdoor market at all. In fact, it was 6 levels of over 1,700 small discounted shops that the kids loved to go in and haggle for the knock-off brands they want at home. The haggled for shirts, sweatshirts, designer purses and bags, and when they needed some more negotiating, they brought in the heavy (me). But they did really well on their own and scored some great deals. Even our son, who isn’t exactly a fan of shopping, was running from store to store trying on different shoes and filling his souvenir space in his bag. Everyone left with smiles on their faces as we headed out for some fun on our last night in Asia, a Beijing acrobat show.
How many people do you count riding on this bike? The acrobat show had us shaking our heads at the many incredible stunts.
We took the subway right to the theatre from the Silk Street Market. The theatre is small and has tickets ranging from $30-$120 each. We went with the cheapest for this show and were dead center stage, about 15 rows back. It was amazing. When the show first started I was thinking, “yeah, I’ve seen these tricks before”. But about 10 minutes in it went to a whole other level. We were clapping, cheering, and thoroughly being entertained. It was some of the most amazing and intricate tricks I’d ever seen on stage. It was a great way to end our month-long trip through Asia as we headed back to the hotel to rest up and prepare for the long journey home the following day.
We never made it to the Olympic Park. We wanted to see the “Bird’s Nest” stadium and the “Water Cube” aquatics center where Michael Phelps earned his record 8 gold medals at the 2008 summer games, but we just couldn’t add one more thing to our busy plates. In sum, we enjoyed the sites of Beijing – they’re historical significance is amazing – but the city itself just didn’t become a fave for the family. Maybe we ran ourselves too hard compared to other stops we made on this trip throughout Asia. Or maybe It was the crowds and excessive tour groups, or the filthy smog-air that eventually did us all in (the air quality is no joke and you notice it fast). We didn’t really enjoy the food as much as we did in so many other places throughout SE Asia, and once we were done with the sites we came to see, so were we with the city. It was a well-used three days, but nowhere near a highlight of this trip. As my wife said as we boarded the plane, “it’s good to have seen Beijing, but we’re glad to be leaving”.
Leaving with more than we came with.