Transit through Beijing

When we travelled to the Philippines, we flew through Beijing. We decided to extend a bit the layovers in order to be able to visit the main attractions of the Chinese capital. Thanks to it, we had the chance to explore places like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, in addition to enjoying the delicious Peking duck.

Days: 1/2

Budget: $$$

Category: Cultural

For our trip to the Philippines in November 2019 (which we hope to tell you about very soon), we decided to fly with Air China for both the outward and return journey. This forced us to make a stopover on both occasions in Beijing. After taking a look at the different available options, we decided to make long stops. On the one hand, this way we made sure that there would be no problems if the first flight was delayed or there were long queues at the airport (which are frequent at Beijing Capital International Airport, and can even take hours). But the main reason for this was that this way we could visit the main points of interest in Beijing.

This was possible thanks to two factors. Firstly, the recently established visa-free transit policy for foreign tourists in major Chinese cities. Thanks to this new policy, tourists from a large number of countries that transit in these cities (which include Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu among others) can stay in the city and its surroundings for several days without having to apply for a visa in advance, as long as you show at the airport of entry that you have an outward flight departing from the same airport (in addition to a valid passport). You can check if the visa-free transit policy is applicable to your nationality and port of entry in China here.

On the other hand, the routes that we will describe below are only possible by car. However, most foreign national or international driver’s licenses are not recognized in China, and it is not possible to obtain a temporary driver’s license quickly enough to make the visits. Therefore, the only option is to join a tour organized by one of the companies that offer this type of services for tourists in transit. There are several companies, but it must be taken into account that the guide and driver must be certified to carry out tourism-related activities. Otherwise, it could lead to facing serious problems with Chinese authorities.

Our recommendation is not to take any risks and arrange the tour with an agency with a good reputation and that is clearly certified for tourism. We chose BeijingLayoverTour both times, and we were very happy with the service we received. The company offers private and shared group tours, in both cases in English. Although group tours are somewhat cheaper, we opted for private tours, since the price difference is not so large and they offer greater flexibility of schedules and amount of time in each spent at each place.

Through the company’s website, it is possible to contact one of the representatives by chat. It is a very professional and efficient team, and they will present you all the available possibilities if you let them know your arrival and departure flights. In addition, after booking, they will provide you with very detailed information about the process to obtain a visa-free stay permit, including the path you must follow at the airport. It is also possible to book the tour upon arrival at Beijing airport without prior reservation. In this case, be sure to check before hand the instructions available on their website.

Layover of 8 hours (Chinese Great Wall - Mutianyu)

For the outward journey, we arranged an 8-hour layover in Beijing (counting from the time of landing of the arrival flight until the time of departure flight). We landed at around 12 noon in Beijing, and took off at 8 pm. One of our traveling dreams was to visit the Great Wall of China. As you probably know, it is the longest wall in the world, and it is among the new seven wonders of the modern world. We asked if with this stopover it would be possible to visit the Great Wall, and they said yes. However, it should be noted that this was the minimum stopover length for this visit to be arranged. This is because the company only carries out a tour if they are certain that you will not miss your departure flight even if there are unexpected circumstances during the visit. The price of the tour was $110 per person (the price per person is reduced the larger the group is), including everything except the cost of the optional cable car (as we will describe below) and possible souvenirs.

We chose to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall as we found it to offer some of the best views, but other segments are also possible. Thanks to the instructions that we received in advance, we were able to quickly obtain the visa-free permit for the stay and meet our guide in time. It is important to be fast to minimize waiting time both at the permit counter and at passport control.

Once we met with our guide (easily located since he will have a sign with your name written on it), he told us that there were two ways to climb the wall: on foot or by cable car. The cable car has a small additional cost that is paid at the entrance, but we recommend this option as it is faster and allows you to spend more time visiting additional parts of the Great Wall. Therefore, we got the required yuan at the airport ATMs, and a few extra ones for souvenirs.

After that, we got into the car and headed for the Great Wall. Along the way, our guide gave us a brief overview of the history of the Great Wall and told us many interesting facts not only about the wall, but also about other aspects of Chinese culture. He spoke English very well, and he made the drive very enjoyable for us. After reaching the entrance, we climbed to the top of the wall by cable car. Save the ticket, as it is must be shown again to go down. While on the cable car, we could enjoy the beautiful landscape of the area, with trees in a variety of green, yellow and red tones as it was the beginning of autumn. Also, towards the end of the journey they took a photo of us, which was then available to buy as a framed picture together with a brief history of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. We decided to buy it as it was quite cheap and we found it a good souvenir.

We then started the tour of the wall properly. Throughout the itinerary we were able to further appreciate the beauty of the landscape, full of trees with a great variety of colors. We visited multiple towers and barracks, where garrisons of Chinese soldiers were established to prevent foreign attacks (originally, the wall was built as a line of defence against the nomadic peoples of the northern steppes). Our guide described thoroughly  the history and purpose of each place.

After finishing our visit to the Great Wall, we went down using the cable car again. It is also possible to go down a slide, but when we went it was closed as it had rained. Our driver took us back to Beijing airport, where we paid for the tour in dollars (in principle, other currencies are not accepted).

Layover of 1 day and 1 night (Beijing)

For the return flights from the Philippines (at the end of November), we decided to make a longer stopover in Beijing, of one day and one night. This now only allowed us to visit Beijing, but also gave us the chance to enjoy the famous Peking duck. Also, since we were returning to Europe from Asia, we did not have to take any additional holiday days to accomodate the long layover due to the change of time zone.

On this occasion, we decided to hire a private tour of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. In this case, the price of the tour was $138 per person. As in the previous tour, after meeting our guide, we got some yuan at the airport ATM. This time, we got a bit more since we needed enough to pay dinner and taxis to the hotel and airport (taxis do not accept cards!). It was a very cold day, but luckily our guide had brought extra warm clothes for us to use.

Our first destination was Tiananmen Square. It is one of the largest squares in the world, and it is surrounded by buildings such as the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong or the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the entrance to the Forbidden City, with the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong. Along the way we could see other points of interest, such as Zhengyangmen, one of the gates of the historical walls of Beijing.

After a brief historical introduction, we entered the Forbidden City. Thanks to being accompanied by our guide, we were able to access very quickly, with almost no queues (if you decide to go on your own, keep in mind that the ticket has to be purchased online in advance, and you must show your passport at the entrance) . It is the largest palace in the world, comprising 980 buildings with 9,999 rooms arranged in an area larger than 700,000 square meters. The number of rooms is due to a Chinese tradition according to which the Jade Emperor (one of the most important Taoist gods) had 10,000 rooms in his heavenly palace. Therefore, the Forbidden City was built with one less room out of respect for the god.

The entrance is carried out through the Meridian Gate, which gives access to the outer court. This courtyard is crossed by a canal with five marble bridges, representing the five virtues of Confucianism (kindness, rectitude, decorum, wisdom, and sincerity). Already in the outer court, and in general throughout the entire Forbidden City, you can enjoy magnificent traditional Chinese architecture, with numerous buildings with red columns and walls and roofs with typical red tiles. We then moved forward to the Gate of Supreme Harmony, where the audiences of visitors were held. It is guarded by two large Chinese lions, one male (with a sphere under his leg, which represents the supremacy of the Empire over the world) and one female (protecting a young lion). In the central access ramp, you can see carvings that depict dragons among clouds. This central walkway, made of marble, was reserved for exclusive use by the emperor.

Behind the Gate of Supreme Harmony is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall in the palace. This pavilion is located in the center of the Forbidden City, and it was used only for the most important ceremonies, such as coronations and weddings of emperors. At the tips of its roof you can see a series of figures of animals and mythological creatures, which could only be placed in official buildings of the empire.

Moving beyond the Hall of Supreme Harmony, we arrived to the Hall of Central Harmony (used by the emperor as his resting place during the ceremonies that took place at the Hall of Supreme Harmony) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony (where the emperor received foreign rulers). We continued our visit through the Gate of Celestial Purity, which led us to a smaller section of the Forbidden City known as inner courtyard. This was a section dedicated to the personal use of the emperor. The largest building in the inner courtyard is the Hall of Heavenly Purity, which was used as an imperial dormitory. It constitutes, together with the Halls of Union and Earthly Tranquility, the core of the inner courtyard.

Finally, we proceeded to the Imperial Garden. Here, we found various hundred-year-old trees, sculptures and rocks of multiple origins, including corals, which were used as decorations. We then left the Forbidden City through the Gate of Divine Prowess, after which our guide took us back to the car.

Our next destination was the Summer Palace. It is a large ensemble of lakes, green spaces and pavilions that once was the Imperial Garden of the Qing dynasty (the last Chinese imperial dynasty). It is frequently associated with Empress Cixi (also known as the Dragon Lady for the great power and influence that she came to gather), who even established the seat of her government there.

We entered through the East Door of the Palace, and soon we arrived at the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, where the throne of Empress Cixi is located. Behind this pavilion is the immense Kunming Lake, the main lake of the Summer Palace. The entire lake was built artificially, and the extracted soil was used to build the adjacent Longevity Hill. From its shore we enjoyed an excellent view of the landscapes, with the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha on top of Longevity Hill.

After a quick visit to the nearby Pavillions of Wenchang and Zhichun, we headed towards the Long Gallery. It is a long wooden corridor over 700 meters long, decorated throughout its entirety with paintings that represent different scenes from Chinese history and mythology. In fact, it has been recognized as the longest decorated corridor in the world.

By following the path along the Long Gallery, we arrived at the Yunhui Yuyu Arch (also known as Arch of the Holy Land). It is a large wooden arch decorated with impressive paintings in bright colors. From the arch we could see the beautiful Seventeen-Arch Bridge, which connects the shore of Kunming Lake with Nanhu Island, where the Temple of the Dragon King is located. We also took some time to enjoy the views of the lake from the different pavilions that can be found along the Long Gallery. At the end of the itinerary we found a pier with the surprising Marble Boat, which is actually a large wooden structure with paint that imitates marble. After passing through the Suyunyan gate, we crossed the iconic bridge of Banbi Qiao and returned to the car to go back to the center of Beijing.

After an intense day visiting Beijing, and to conclude our visit to China, we decided to go to the famous Quanjude restaurant. It was founded in 1864, and is well known for its delicious Peking duck. Currently, they have several stores in Beijing and other regions of China. We opted for the original establishment, which is located on Qianmen Street. This is one of the main commercial avenues in Beijing, and runs between the districts of Dashilan and Qianmen. The street is not accessible by car, so our guide dropped us off as close as possible, next to Zhengyangmen Gate.

On the way to the restaurant, we had the chance to appreciate the historic buildings and streets of Beijing at night, with beautiful lights. After entering Qianmen through the gate known as Zhengyang Bridge, we walked south until we reached the restaurant (it is not possible to make reservations in advance, but you will have no problem getting a table given its large size). It is a historical building with very nice traditional Chinese decoration inside. Although the English of the waiters was a bit limited, we were treated very kindly at all times.

We decided to order the full Peking duck menu, plus boiled duck liver. Everything was delicious! As you can see in the images, the duck had an incredible golden color. It was hands down the best duck we’ve ever had. The total price for two people including drinks and dessert was about 600 yuan (around $90). We guarantee that it is worth it! In addition, they gave us a postcard indicating which duck number was the one that had been served to us within the historical count of ducks served since the restaurant opened in 1864. Ours was already close to 200 million!

After enjoying such a delicious dinner, we took a taxi to the hotel. We spent the night at the Ramada by Wyndham hotel near Beijing airport. With a cost of $57, it was the cheapest option we found close the airport. The room was very spacious and comfortable, and they also have a shuttle service to the airport. However, as we had to be there very early at the airport, we could not use the shuttle. Instead, a taxi was booked for us for the next morning. We were very happy with our short but intense visit to China, and we hope to be back very soon!

Summary of visited places

Day 1:
  • Chinese Great Wall (Mutianyu)
Day 2:
  • Tiananmen Square
  • Forbidden City
  • Summer Palace
  • Qianmen Street
  • Quanjude restaurant

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