My Beijing Journal – Navigating the Forbidden City and Great Wall

China has been much talked about in world news, given the country’s super-sized economy, its rapid development, and the trade tensions with superpower, the US. During my college days some 10-years ago, the theme in the news reports on China were about its lack of fair trade practices and the Sino-US trade imbalance; 10 years later and both countries are – surprise, surprise – in a trade war.

Anyway, the media attention on China ignited my interest to see the vast changes that are taking place in the country. It dawned on me as a college sophomore that China was returning to rightful place as the centre of the world. And, as an overseas Chinese, I wanted to observe that development first-hand.

Prior to visiting Beijing, my knowledge of China was limited to its capital Beijing and the commerce capital, Shanghai. I heard a little about places like Chengdu (pandas, Sichuan earthquake), Chongqing (my relatives visited) and Tianjin (Tianjin Eco-City). But it stopped there. The rest of China (sans Hong Kong and Macau) were a big blur. It was only in my recent visit to Borneo that I learned more about my ancestral hometown, Xiamen, and of places like Suzhou.

Beijing would be our first trip to China (not counting Hong Kong)! While preparing for the trip we also considered visiting ancient capital Xi’an, Shanghai or Tianjin. But, in the end, we stuck to Beijing because of the limited time. Some useful tips before going to Beijing:

  1. Download ExpressVPN on your mobile device and laptop. The Great Firewall blocks off platforms by US tech giants, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
  2. Download apps, WeChat, Baidu map and search, Tencent map; Google translate should be helpful to non-Mandarin speakers. You’ll need WeChat when getting free wifi in public places.
  3. Learn how to spot counterfeits. Beijing is pretty much a cashless city, but as a foreign visitor, you aren’t likely to have Alipay or WeChat pay, so cash is the way to go. Some quick methods of checking is:
    • Feel for texture of Mao’s hair and collar – it should not be smooth
    • Check if ends of the notes connect nicely
    • Look for the embossed Mao’s face in the note
    • Sidenote: We did not have any major issue with counterfeit money. It may have been a problem of the past. But there are clear signs that counterfeits exist given how many retailers have a counterfeit machine to check your cash before they accept it. At least on one occasion my wife thought she received a counterfeit 5 yuan as she was paying for an item on Nanluoguxiang.

Our itinerary in Beijing

31 Oct (Wed)

We arrived in Beijing airport as scheduled at 3.30pm; cleared immigration 5pm and took the airport express to metro station, Dongzhimen, for our transfer train to our accommodation. Tip: Buy the Yikatong (pictured) from the ticketing booth and load it up with enough value for multiple trips. This way you don’t have to scramble for change for bus (¥1 on average) and train rides that cost between (¥3 – ¥$5). Airport express rides cost ¥25 for a one-way ticket. One thing to note: Public transport security is quite tight in Beijing. Every subway, or MTR station, has mandatory scanning of bags. My hairspray got confiscated as it was a flammable item.

The Yikatong is Beijing’s public transport stored value card. Its basic cost 20yuan without value and it can be refunded.

We reached our Hutong airbnb at Dongsi around 6-ish and headed out to Wangfujing for dinner. On our way there, we witnessed a groom almost flip a child in anger during his wedding photography. Seemed like the kids were being rascals… but the outburst was OTT and couple of bystanders rushed to stop the groom from doing anything crazy.

At Wangfujing – the Orchard Road of Beijing – we bought popiah-type snack, jianbing, roast duck roll, shengjianbao and bubble tea (items are priced around 10¥ to 25¥; we spent 70¥ in total there). After that, we bought water and camped at Apple store for wifi before taking the metro home. Later at night, we had yoghurt for dessert and watched this Yanxi drama till 1-ish am.

1 Nov (Thu)

We had breakfast at Li Xian Sheng, which is a Chinese fast food style joint. It served up typical yummy Chinese delights at good value. For for 22¥, we had doujiang youtiao, porridge and xiaolongbao. We enjoyed the food enough to make a return to the restaurant.

After breakfast, we headed back to our airbnb to prepare for the day out at the Forbidden City. On returning, we found the trash we disposed in the morning hung at our door. Turned out, neighbouring unit – a hairdresser – left it there and quite rudely told me that we could not dump it in the bin. She knew we were new guests, but kept rattling on about how other guests did not heed her warning. I started wondering whether all Beijingers were so blunt…

Next, we took the train to Qianmen subway stop to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Entrance fee to Forbidden City was 40¥ per pax. We packed some food so that we didn’t have to pause our visit there to exit for food, but discovered soon that there were plenty of food options on site. Mid-way through our tour, we spoiled ourselves with a latte at Luckin Coffee, a popular cafe chain in Beijing.

I wonder how the IPO is doing

If you’ve been to Gyeongbokgung in Seoul, then the Forbidden City would come across as a bigger but slightly rundown version of a East Asian palace complex. Each important structure seem to be just a throne room for different administrative functions for the Emperor and other royals. A common sight within the complex were sculptures of phoenixes, dragon-head turtles, sundials, as well as giant cauldrons for water to fight fires.

Last stop of the day was Jingshan Park for the view overlooking the Forbidden City (4¥ for entry). After dinner, we did some grocery shopping at Wu Mart to cap of the day, and to prepare for the Great Wall.

2 Nov (Fri)

The Great Wall is, to me, the main attraction of Beijing and China. I have dreamed of seeing first-hand the panorama of this ancient structure as it meanders from end to end. Given my sedentary office lifestyle though, I struggled with all the trekking and my knee started to ache very badly from all the climbing.

We visited the Mutianyu Great Wall on our 3rd day in Beijing; left our hutong airbnb at around 7:45am. Breakfast was at the nearby Maccas – cost for 2 offer McMuffin meals was only 19¥! Next, we hoped on the metro to Dongzhimen, for our transfer to the 916快 bus. During the leg of the trip, we had our first-ever encounter with scammers.   There was a ‘service guy’ on the bus who seemed to be attending to folks going to Mutianyu; he had a public transport uniform jacket on. Turns out he was out to make a quick buck by shooing off tourists to alight at an earlier stop, so that we are forced to take his ride. Thing was his ride was relatively cheap at 15¥, so we went along. Later he wanted to charge an extra 5¥ to take us to the top of the mountain. That meant a total of 80¥ for his service for my wife and me, since we would need to follow his ride back.  

On hindsight, his price was not expensive. In fact, if we had continued with public transport and official shuttle, it might have cost just a bit less. But the whole incident bothered me. Why were these guys wearing public transport jackets? And should the posse of scammers choose to rip us off by charging double or triple the price, we would have little choice as they were the only service provider.   Anyway, we let the whole matter slide as we weren’t really cheated. At Mutianyu ticket office, we spent 310¥ on entry (25¥ for my student ticket, 45¥ for wife’s & 120¥ x2 for the cable car & tobbogan slide). The view from the peak was really awe-inspiring.

During our trip to and from the Great Wall, we were with an entourage of tourists who were led by this scammer driver and his team. There was an American family of four – parents and 2 young daughters, and an Italian couple. There was another European group of friends who were taken by another driver. The Italian couple quickly sensed they were not with an honest driver and paid their share at Mutianyu ticketing office. The American family however stayed the course. They weren’t really bothered as they almost paid 700 – 800¥ for a tour (Standard rates for tours cost around 200 – 300¥). So, what this driver was charging was peanuts.   We stayed the course with this driver, too, as it was convenient.

On our return trip, we chatted with another Canadian couple, who we were travelling for 8 months continuously. Turns out they had some special contract that allowed them this kind of time-off.   Dinner was at Teochew restaurant at a Sanlitun mall – our most expensive meal costing us 108¥. Later, we shopping for Salonpas for my sore knee and some yoghurt dessert. We also bought matcha nougat as a gift for my uncle, whom were going to stay with for the remainder of our Beijing holiday. It was a big spending day for us, costing around 650¥, but it was well worth it seeing the Great Wall.

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