One week in the capital of China What to do in Beijing & a visit to the Great Wall
Beijing, the capital of China! With its 21 million inhabitants it has twice the amount of people our little Belgium contains, which is crazy! I did not know what to expect, but I was really surprised! Beijing is not a city filled with skyscrapers (at least not in the city centre) and with it’s Hutongs it feels way more small town than I expected for such an enormous city! Oh and if you say Beijing… you think about the Great Wall of China as well! We spend one week here and this is what we did…
Hutongs, parks and ancient China
As I said, Beijing surprised me. I had expected to be overwhelmed by this major city with all it’s people, but to my surprise it felt so spacious! The buildings in the centre aren’t that high, you still have a lot of Hutongs (alleys with houses of the local people) and there’s more green than expected. I can’t say I fell in love with this city (in contrast with Shanghai) but it was a pleasant visit. We spent a week here and I honestly think that is the perfect timing!
So what did we do in the city?
- We strolled around the Sichuahai lakes and visited the cosy streets around them. In this neighbourhood we found our favourite street in the city with tiny shops and lots of food! Here I also found a specialty coffee shop, which made the barista in me sooo happy! We also went to Hubei Park but honestly, that was a bit of a disappointment. In my opinion, it’s not worth the visit – it resembles the lake of the Summer Palace and all you can do is take a stroll around it (after you pay an entrance fee – only 15 yuan, but still).
- Emperor Street, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City! That these things were on our list won’t be a surprise to anyone I think – if you come to Beijing, you can’t miss out on this cultural heritage. Honestly the Forbidden City is impressive and massive! Expect a lot of crowds – even in the low season, we thought it was really busy – but also a lot of beautiful buildings! Even though the City is beautiful and it’s wonderfully preserved and restored, after a while you feel like you’ve seen it all. It’s so big that building after building keeps on coming! What I really missed was more historic information for the English speaking tourists. I think it took us around 4 hours to visit the city (but we didn’t see everything – didn’t feel the need to either) and then we went to Jingshan Park where you can climb a hill to have a magnificent view of the city from above. A tip: as a foreigner you can buy your ticket after you enter the gate and right before all the scan boots (for the tickets) on the right. It’s really not very clear! Oh and a nice surprise was that this ticket is so cheap! Only 40 yuan! Crazy right?
- The Summer Palace is the place were the former emperors went to relax. We expected a Palace but it is a gigantic domain and felt more like a huge park with lots of historic plots! If you go, definitely buy the ticket that includes all ‘side attractions’ because the temple pagoda is really worth a visit (and the ticket isn’t that expensive). It took us a long time to walk through the whole complex and it was the same as with the Forbidden City, after a while, you feel like you’ve seen it. Once again, I missed historic information, but it was still very interesting! We also took a detour to the smaller attractions and found a really nice garden with a beautiful pond.
The Great Wall of China Gubeikou
Visiting the Wall the easy way
Beijing = The Great Wall. It’s really easy to visit a part of the Wall once you are in Beijing. Most hotels/hostels offer a one day tour for around 300 RMB and then a mini bus will bring you to a restored part of the Wall and then you get four hours to explore. If I’m correct, it mostly is a 1,5 hour drive (single).
The Gubeikou Wall
We however wanted to visit a less touristic part of the Wall that was only partly restored. We mostly didn’t choose for such a tour because we wanted more than four hours on the Wall, we wanted to hike it for at least a day. So… we decided to go to Gubeikou! Which is definitely an adventure on it’s own.
How to get there?
You take the 980 bus from Dongzhimen bus station (which you can easily reach by metro) and then you stay seated until the last stop, where you transfer to bus 25 to Gubeikou. It would take us around 3-4 hours (as I said, an adventure on it’s own) and we were warned that people would say bus 25 isn’t driving anymore to get us in a taxi. Problem was, we weren’t allowed to stay on the bus until the last stop and had to get out one stop earlier. I honestly admit that we were well prepared with our research, but that we forgot to get an offline map (maps.me, a total lifesaver) and a decent translator app. So there we were, at a random bus stop with no idea where we could catch the next bus. And ofcourse, a group of taxi drivers surrounded us to offer us a ride.
We were a bit frustrated and said no to the taxi’s and tried to figure out the bus signs (all in Chinese characters). Since the length between the bus stops varied greatly, we decided not to walk further to see if we could find the last stop because who knew how long that would be. In the end we realised a taxi was our only option. Luckily there was a driver who was kinder and less aggressive in his sales and he took us to Gubeikou for ‘only’ 120 RMB – which was a pleasant surprise for a ride that took 45 minutes (it saved us time as well, the bus would be one hour and a half).
Walking a partly restored wall
We checked in in the Great Wall Box House, a lovely hostel that was recommended the most if you went to Gubeikou. The hostel was great indeed, if you’d consider going to Gubeikou, this is a solid choice! We ate our lunch (we had instant noodles with us) and took off to the Wall! At first we did a part of the Wall named Curling Dragon – the Wall had really deteriorated in the beginning but it got better afterwards. Don’t expect to walk on a finished bit of Wall, every part of it was crumbled down (all in a different stage) but it was still so impressive! We enjoyed ourselves so much! The wall not being renovated made the walk more of a hike so it was way more challenging and fun for us!
Sadly after a while we came to a part where the Wall was blocked because of restoration works. It probably was possible to walk around it, but we had no idea how long the detour would be and there were no signs at all. We were disappointed because we wanted to walk further! But since we had to get back before dark, we decided to eat a snack on the roof of one of the watchtowers and head back.
Day two was also a bit of a disappointment because we wanted to hike another part of the Wall named Crouching Tiger – we had seen it from a distance already and saw that it was a really steep part and were excited to go for it! We didn’t have that much time because we had to get back to Beijing so we left early to walk for a few hours! But once we reached the stairs that would bring us to the beginning of the Wall, we were blocked by Chinese people! A group of six persons surrounded us (sounds exaggerated, but that was honestly how it was) and started to say no and lots of things in Chinese.
It felt quite aggressive because they were with so many around us and all talking. We tried to communicate and say we just wanted to head to the beginning of the Wall to at least see it but they wouldn’t let us pass! We were really frustrated! A woman explained with a translator that this part was closed-off and we saw a sign that confirmed this (after using my translator app) but we were very frustrated that they wouldn’t even let us see the top.
Back to Beijing
So our outing to Gubeikou was not what we expected – we had hoped to hike waaay more of the wall (even though a second day hike wasn’t planned, but after hiking less far than expected on the first day, we wanted more because the Wall is sooo impressive). When we informed the host of what happened, he simply said that this can happen because we chose to visit an older part that still needs restauration. Still, it’s really frustrating that there’s no information or alternatives. Not so tourist friendly. We think that it was probably because we were there in the off-season… so that’s maybe when they do more renovations.
Anyways we decided to head back to Beijing which left us a lovely afternoon which we spend being lazy, which did us good after an intense first week (also conquering a jetlag). We have no regrets do, we still loved our outing to Gubeikou very much and we saw more than we would have seen with a fixed tour.
Wonder of humanity
The Wall is definitely something I would consider coming back to China for. The Wall is truly impressive, especially if you think about the fact that it is build by hand! It’s a true wonder of humanity. The most amazing part is that it stretches out endlessly before you. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it!
So, this was our week in Beijing – our first week of our world trip! I hope you enjoyed my blog and if you have any questions: shoot!
Lots of love,