1. Forbidden City, 2. Great Wall of China, Mutianyu, 3. In a hutong near our hostel
China was a complete mystery to me, before I arrived I had no clue what to expect. Sure, I’d seen a few images of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I’d done enough research to know it was going to be cold and thus reasonably clear skies for China instead of the rumoured hazy and polluted air, but other than that I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d travelled to Europe earlier in the year, and everyone spoke perfect English. I wasn’t expecting that per se, but I was sure most people would speak basic English (cue privileged white girl status here).
The few people I had discussed my holiday with said “be careful and don’t drink the water” and the others just sort of pulled a face wishing me luck, so to be honest, I wasn’t flying into the country with soaring expectations.
But seriously, it was probably the most exciting and whirl-winded adventure I have ever had so far. Landing into Beijing Airport at 5am, with hardly anyone around and definitely not a soul who spoke English was interesting to say the least. We hadn’t organised a sim card for our phone, so we had zero internet or contact to the outside world unless we found our hostel. We managed to get a taxi reasonably close to our hostel, where the taxi driver sort of pointed and grunted in the direction we were supposed to walk. After about an hour of lugging our suitcases up and down the hutongs (alley way streets) in freezing Beijing air, with Chinese locals trying to offer help but when they looked at the address we had written down in English, they clenched their teeth and let out a laugh as they sauntered off. Of course they couldn’t read our writing, just like we couldn’t understand their symbols. We were just about to give up when we finally found our hostel. A deep sigh of relief, we weren’t going to be stranded on the streets for the next few days.
4. The entrance to the Summer Palace, 5. In the Forbidden City, 6. Summer Palace
Day 1- Forbidden City:
We spent our first day in Beijing at the Forbidden City. To get here you walk through Tiananmen Square, which is huge and has other famous attractions to visit. You can either opt to visit all of the attractions in one day and only see a small snippet of each thing, or choose one or two attractions a day and get a good insight to the few you choose. We were a little jet-lagged so we decided to just visit the Forbidden City. This cost CNY 40. We spent about 4 hours here and walked all the way from the beginning to the end, which I definitely recommend doing if you have the time. The intricate detailing on each temple was breathtaking. If you make it all the way to the other end you can get a great look back over the Forbidden City, seeing how expansive it is and the juxtapositioning to the rest of the city makes for a great photo!
7. Me on the Great Wall, 8. In a hutong near our hostel, 9. Summer Palace
Day 2- Great Wall of China:
We booked a tour the first day we were in Beijing, as we were walking to the Forbidden City. There are a few, I guess you would call them travel agents, or tour booking shops to pick from. Essentially, we just picked the first one we saw as it had what we wanted and looked good enough. Originally, we had in mind to go to the Badaling part of the wall, but the tour host said Mutianyu was better, so we opted for that tour. In our tour we stopped at a jade factory and the Ming Tombs before lunch. Lunch was included, and then we walked up the Great Wall which was amazing! I will mention that if you have bad knees, aren’t very fit or are getting older, opt for the cable car option which takes you to the top of the wall without the strain of walking. On the way home we also stopped for a traditional tea ceremony. Tours range between CNY 150-200, anything more and you are probably being ripped off.
After my own experience of this day, I would say forget about all the other stuff. The Ming Tombs weren’t exciting, the jade factory was nice but you wouldn’t miss it if you didn’t do it and you can go to a tea shop/ceremony on your own. Also, because we had to fit in all this other stuff, we were only given 1.5 hours on the wall which is not nearly enough time as it took roughly 40 minutes to climb up the actual stairs to even get on the wall.
If you are trying to save money, I believe you can get a train out to the Great Wall (a couple guys staying in our hostel said they did that, they also said the trains can be a little unreliable so don’t plan anything else for the day if you opt for this). I am not sure if you can get a tour only to the Great Wall, but if you can, I would definitely recommend just doing that and spending as much time as possible walking along the wall because it is a serene experience.
10. Men playing Chinese checkers near our hostel, 11. Tiananmen Sqaure, 12. Forbidden City, 13. Monks at Forbidden City
Day 3- Summer Palace:
We caught the subway out to the Summer Palace. If you miss your intended train, don’t worry, there will be another one in 3 minutes! How efficient. You walk through old traditional temples to get to the huge lake, which is very eery and beautiful. Allow 2 hours to wander through. This cost CNY 30.
14. The Great Wall, 15. Front of the Forbidden City, 16. Summer Palace, 17. In Tiananmen Square
We stayed at the Three Legged Frog Hostel. It was in an excellent location, with restaurants literally right outside your door, and up and down the streets. It was about a 10 minute walk to Tiananmen Square and the train station. The bedding was comfortable, the wifi worked, it wasn’t expensive, and there was a seating area where all the other guests sat at night so you could chat and make some friends.
For three nights in a private twin room, it cost us a little less than CNY 320 between 2.
18. Me on the Great Wall, 19. Two ladies at the Summer Palace, 20. Ming Tombs
- Language- Be prepared for no one to speak English.
- Toilet paper- No public restrooms have toilet paper, and more often than not, your hostel won’t have toilet paper either (or it will hurt). Bring the small tissue packets for sight-seeing in the day and toilet paper rolls for your hostels.
- Sim card- Get a Chinese sim card for your phone so you can use the data for GPS. A lot of the bus drivers also wanted a Chinese number in case they needed to call you if the bus left early or something. We didn’t do this, but it would have made things a lot easier.
- VPN- In China, sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Google (how do people live) are all blocked. So if you’re an addict like I am, make sure you download the China VPN before you arrive in the country so you can get onto all these apps! It will set you back about $3 for a month.
- Translator app- We didn’t do this either, but a lot of the locals had an app on their phone so that they could communicate with us, so if you had one it would probably make your life a lot easier.
- Cash- You will need cash on you at all times, as no one takes card.
- Travel pouch- We purchased these from Katmandu, we kept our money and passport on us at all times and these can be hidden easily under clothes.
- Water- Don’t drink tap water. A good price for bottled water is CNY 2, and the most you would pay is CNY 5, anything more is over priced.
- Translations- Google the Chinese translation for your hostel to show your taxi driver! This will minimise your chances of getting lost, like we did before we realised how helpful this tip was.
21. Outside the Forbidden City, 22. Outside the Ming Tombs, 23. The Great Wall
- Crossing the roads- People in China drive like maniacs compared to where I am from. When you cross the road, try and cross with the crowds as pedestrian crossings don’t necessarily mean the cars will stop for you, it’s more an indication of where you can walk. When you do cross the road, walk straight and fast!
- Paparazzi- If you’re fair skinned, blonde haired or blue eyed (or all three), be prepared to be bombarded with lots of photo requests. And if you’re wanting a photo of yourself, don’t bother- the locals will want to be in it too!
- Student card- Not everywhere accepts this, but a lot of the attractions will give you a discounted price if you flash your student card (if you’re a student) which is always nice!
- Travelling around Beijing- This was easy, the subway system is very efficient and they have an English button you can press so everything will read in English.
- Hostels- A lot of the hostels will charge an extra CNY 100 deposit on arrival, which you get back on departure granted you don’t break anything.
24. In the Summer Palace, 25. Keely and I on the Great Wall, 26. Summer Palace
Everything in China was very cheap and the food was delicious, enjoy it! Granted, we didn’t eat anything exotic like tongue or cow throat, but everything we did eat went down a treat.
As I mentioned, water should cost anywhere between CNY 2-5. Attractions try to charge a bit more, so just stock up before you head anywhere for the day to save some money.
A great dinner will cost around CNY 70-100. Anything more, and you could expect it to be one of the best meals of your life!