We once went to Toronto for the weekend. Our friends teased us mercilessly for this, and now every Friday when my husband leaves work one of his colleagues will inevitably pipe up “what you up to this weekend? Off to Buenos Aires?” (Ahh, office banter…)
So we upped our game a bit on the way back from Japan and popped to Beijing for 24 hours. Like you do.
If you’re flying somewhere via China you can usually do this these days without having to go through an arduous and expensive visa process. But how on earth do you make the most of such a short stay in such a major city? You’ll need to accept it’s going to be a snapshot at best – a whistlestop tour or taster for a future visit. How you do it also depends on when you’re arriving and how long the layover is – if you’re arriving early in the morning there are lots of pre-organised day trips and tours ranging from as little as four hours in length which you could go on, which are probably the easiest and least stressful way of seeing a bit of China, and will take you as far as the Great Wall. We arrived in the early evening and left the following day in the late afternoon, so, feeling intrepid, we did the following.
We booked a hotel very close to the areas we wanted to see (a ten-minute walk from the Forbidden City) – there are loads of hotels around here, and we opted for the mid-range Hotel Kapok, which turned out to be a delight, with very obliging front desk staff with good English skills (a plaque above the desk proclaims that they have an award for “Managing of Foreigner”) and beautiful rooms on a relatively quiet street (this is impressive for Beijing.) We got out of the airport relatively quickly and negotiated the subway, which turned out to be a breeze because everything is bilingual – at the airport you can buy a smartcard and pre-load it with money, take the Airport Express and get off at the last station, then make your way from there. Unlike London, where the lines have incomprehensible names (the only logical one is the Circle Line, and even that has ceased to be a circle following redevelopment a few years back) the lines in Beijing are called 1, 2, 3 etc. We got off at Wangfujing, in the centre, where you can choose from a dazzling array of eateries (we went to McDonald’s, but don’t tell anyone.) Most restaurants will have some degree of English menu (though interestingly McDonald’s did not), though the accuracy is questionable – I’m still not sure what chiclcen feet are!)
If you’re short on time, a tip would be to buy something for breakfast the night before or on the way the next day – there’s no shortage of amazing pastries in and around Wangfujing – so you’re not spending time eating an overpriced, dubious attempt at breakfast when you could be sightseeing. The major sites in Beijing get ridiculously crowded, so getting up early to explore has the additional benefit that you’re slightly less likely to get run over by Chinese tour groups, whose response to having someone in their way seems to just be to plough on determinedly until you move or are physically removed as an obstacle (after 2 weeks in Japan, arguably the politest nation on earth, being doggedly shoved and elbowed because you were where someone else wanted to be came as a bit of a shock.)
We walked to the Forbidden City first. If you want to go inside you should book tickets in advance (and can do so easily through Viator, Tripadvisor and a huge number of other go-betweens) to allow you to jump the chaotic queues. Aware we only had about two thirds of a single day we opted not to go inside (this has nothing to do with us having booked tickets for the wrong day and only realising this fact as our flight took off… nothing at all…) as the guide books advise that a visit can take all day. We walked alongside what was, basically, a tranquil inner-city pond to the imposing and ornate gates of the Forbidden City. We then walked all the way up to the entrance to Tiananmen Square only to discover that a completely unsigned one-way system meant that it was now the exit FROM Tiananmen Square, so we walked back around the pond, down a couple of streets and into it the other way. The authorities in Beijing have a frustrating habit of fencing off vast areas, so if you find yourself on the wrong side of a road huge iron rails down the middle could mean a 200m detour to get over to the correct side.
Tiananmen Square is impressive, almost menacing, smouldering with the events of 1989 which the Chinese don’t talk about, but which must inevitably push themselves to the front of every tourist’s mind as they walk through the vast square, peppered with sombre-faced soldiers at every interval, standing so still that we thought one was a particularly life-like statue until he blinked. On the other side from the gate back into the Forbidden City, iconic largely for the enormous image of Mao’s face which adorns it, is Mao’s Mausoleum, looming, austere, grandiose, and at 8am already surrounded by an enormous queue stretching probably 3-400metres around it – thousands of Chinese citizens waiting patiently to view the embalmed body of the founder of modern China, whose Great Leap Forward led to the starvation of millions, but whose supporters credit with unifying and rapidly industrialising China.
Out of Tiananmen Square (my advice is to make use of subway tunnels and avoid trying to cross roads as much as possible) it’s about a half-hour walk down to the Temple of Heaven Park. After the frenetic pandemonium of Tiananmen Square this is both a haven of tranquility but also a window onto more normal Chinese life, away from the rampaging tour groups and the pilgrimage-like reverie down the road. The park is vast, with the famous Temple itself in the centre (you need to pay to enter the park, and pay extra to enter the temple – you can do both at the West Gate). I could have spent hours here. Upon entering we had only walked a little way when we found what looked like a ballroom dancing session for pensioners, serenely waltzing their way between the trees as people walked their dogs and pushed their children in buggies around then. Further into the park an enormous group of elderly people were engaged in unison tai chi, a mesmerizing mass of elegant, deliberate and precise movements, like slow-motion ballet. Almost directly opposite them a group of teenagers were break dancing, and a few feet away a couple of women of working age were playing a sort of free-form game of ping pong without the table.
So absorbed was I in this glorious display of Beijing life that I almost didn’t notice the gentleman trying to earnestly attract my attention. “American?” he was saying, with a sense of urgency.” “English,” I replied. He beamed at me and pointed to an immaculately groomed, miniature creature at his ankles and announced, carefully and slowly, yet with some pride, “This is my dog!” I wasn’t sure what the response to this should be, so I bent down and said “Ni Hao” (hello) to the little dog, who looked back at me with a sort of apologetic resignation that seemed to say “don’t bring me into this”. “It’s a lovely dog,” I said, and he nodded vigorously and repeated enthusiastically “thank you. It is a lovely dog. Yes. Thank you. It is my dog,” then went on his way.
Exiting from the East Gate it was an easy subway journey back to the hotel, and from there a longer journey back to the airport. It may have been a flying visit, but I felt we’d been able to create at least part of a picture of what makes this city so great – its people, its culture, its astounding historic architecture combined with its modern feats of engineering that make it more efficient than many cities I’ve visited. While the overt and persistent presence of so many military and police made it feel a little sinister at times, it was nonetheless friendly, accessible and varied, with its mix of local stores and international brands. I would go back again, but definitely for more than 24 hours.