Layover Guide: Beijing. Part 2: Beijing on Speed

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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A snapshot of Beijing life

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.

 

Layover guide: Beijing. Part One: How it works

Modest to the last, I like to consider myself something of a queen – or at the very least minor royal – of layovers, and after this week I feel I have truly earned that title. After a gradual build-up via more commonly-frequented layover destinations such as Dubai and KL we went for the ultimate Asian layover – Beijing.

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China is a notoriously bureaucratic and authoritative nation. It has (amongst other sobering statistics) the highest use of the death penalty in the world, executing more people per year than all other countries combined. It’s not a country into whose bad books you’d wish to fall. It’s also the fourth largest country in the world by surface area and the largest by population. It does not, then, immediately spring to mind as somewhere you could pop into for a mini-break, and yet that is exactly what we did.

In an attempt to encourage more tourists to come to China, it’s now possible to enter the country without a visa for a set period of time, (known as Travel Without Visa – TWOV), but this is not as simple as it sounds. Some cities allow a period of up to 144 hours, but the maximum you can apply for depends on which country you’re from; some require that you stay within a very limited region, others allow you to travel farther afield. Rules are subject to change, and the exact way that this entry permit can be obtained seems shrouded in unnecessary mystery. Anyway, we navigated it successfully so that, subject to arbitrary changes, of course, you can do the same.

We were transiting through Beijing en route to Tokyo, and planned a layover on the way back. Our experience at Beijing Capital Airport on the way there did not fill us with confidence, and anxiety about having to spend our planned layover trapped in an underwhelming airport was at the back of our minds throughout the holiday. On the way there we had two hours for a connection that was reduced to one hour due to an Air China delay (this seems common – on the way back my husband and I were inexplicably seated one place apart from one another, with an exhausted and sweaty Northerner sat between us – he was supposed to be on a flight that left 18 hours before, but missed this due to his flight from Bangkok being delayed. On asking when the next flight was, he was apparently told that Air China didn’t fly to London and that he would need to go home via Dusseldorf, before being handed a ticket and directed to our flight to Heathrow). Beijing Capital is illogical to navigate at best – it’s a beautiful airport, with its newest terminal opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, but unfortunately it feels a bit as though someone has sent them a lovely flat-packed airport but forgotten to enclose the instructions. Nothing quite works, and many of the processes haven’t been thought through. To transfer flights we had to go all the way out along with all the people who were leaving the airport, then back around and through the world’s slowest security queue, where the staff were seemingly obsessed with whether or not you had any lighters in your hand luggage. It’s also the first place I’ve visited where you had to take batteries (including portable chargers) out of your bag and put the into the tray separately. You are then patted down with rather too much familiarity and a lot of inexplicable shouting. There are signs that say that if you have a short connection time, but when we urgently told them we had just 45 minutes to make our flight we were sent to the back of the queue with a smirk and told “you will miss flight.” We made flight with just 5 minutes to spare, and only then because it was delayed. Again.

So, coming back, we were not filled with confidence. But we were wrong. The TWOV system was actually easy, but could have done with a bit of explanation. So, here it is:

  1. When you arrive the first thing you will need to do is give your fingerprints. There are lots of little and very efficient machines to do this, and they will give instructions in English if you choose that option. You’ll get a tiny little receipt confirming you did it – hang onto this!
  2. Next you’ll see some yellow immigration forms. We diligently filled these out, only to find that, in this form-loving country, there is actually a different, blue form that you need to complete if you want to apply for the TWOV. These are nowhere to be seen. We went to the TWOV desk but it was empty. Don’t worry – there is another one, but it involves doubling back on yourself once you are into the immigration part of the hall and going what feels like the wrong way through some desks whose purpose remains unclear. Tucked away in a corner is another TWOV desk, complete with the elusive blue forms and a lot of staff fulfilling the role of Standing Around Looking Important.
  3. Complete the blue form and join the queue of confused foreigners trying to obtain a TWOV from the one person behind the desk whose job is to Not Look Very Important At All But To Do The Actual Work. You should have with you evidence of a hotel booking (they are very suspicious if you say you’re staying with friends or family) and, most importantly, your onward ticket (i.e. a flight out of Beijing to somewhere else.)
  4. A few words of Chinese are helpful, especially Xièxiè (thank you).
  5. When you come back, make sure you have with you the other half of your blue form. Once again, there will be yellow forms for exiting the country and people will tell you that you must fill one of these out. You don’t need to – the blue form is your equivalent of this.
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Beijing Capital Airport – vast yet uninspiring

Beijing Capital looks nice, but it’s something of a facade. Unfortunately, it probably is worth coming back earlier than you think you’ll need to due to the chaos and general unpredictability of the security arrangements (the immigration, to our surprise, was the easy bit). We found the international departures area to be fairly calming, as it was vast and almost entirely devoid of people. Unfortunately it was also devoid of anything to do, with rows or vacant shops with optimistic signs assuring you that a new store would be there soon. We were doubtful if this was true. It’s good if you want to buy international luxury brands or, bizarrely, go to Pizza Hut, but if you want to buy tacky souvenirs (usually the highlight of my airport experience) it’s best to do it in the city. But, in summary, the TWOV process, as long as it stays in place, is impressive, and, hopefully, the more people who use it the less likely we are to lose it.

 

Foodie Heaven…or Hell

I’ve recently been binge-watching Supersizers Go…, not because it has anything remotely to do with travel or indeed my regular job, but because I’m a little bit in love with Giles Coren. (OK, I am really a lot in love with Giles Coren.) The format is basically: Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spend a week “living” and eating the food of another era, invariably washed down with copious quantities of alcohol, and hilarity ensues. It’s actually rather marvelous. I wish they’d do a travel version.

One of the most fabulous things about travel is the opportunity to try different foods in their far more authentic forms than the often poor imitations we’re served at home. In Mumbai I was dazzled and delighted not by chicken tikka masala (invented, I think, in Glasgow?) but by spiced basa fillets and smoked hilsa (it’s a bit like a big, angry-looking herring), and in Hong Kong by various bits of animal I couldn’t identify, and was probably grateful not to. In Bethlehem I had one of the best meals I have ever experienced – mouth-watering hummus and falafel and lamb in a restaurant called Afteem.

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Meat on a stick, Marrakech.

But eating abroad also has its downsides. Imagine coming to the UK and eating what you thought were traditional British dishes – you’d have permanent indigestion, and mushy peas would be enough to give someone who hadn’t grown up with them some form of mild PTSD. I’ve had a number of similar experiences abroad, and am not informed enough to know if I was unlucky or having the sort of “experience” which will allow me at parties to pretend I was posh enough to have a gap year and get away with it. Here’s a rundown.

 

  1. Delhi Belly: you’re actually not allowed to go to India and not get ill. I think you sign something that says as much when you get your visa, and if you manage to stay well for your whole trip they don’t let you leave again. Nobody can put their finger on what it is – street food and ice cubes and generally delicate western constitutions all get the blame. The woman with whom I was working confidently blamed watermelon juice, and went into a slightly-too-graphic description of how bugs can get into it via tapwater, which every traveler knows will BRING INSTANT DEATH. Convinced I was nearing the end one night I texted my husband the words “I love you” from my hotel bathroom floor, and when pleasantly surprised to wake up again the next morning still relatively intact and very much alive. Surreptitiously warning my supervisor that I was a little unwell and may need to nip out occasionally, she lavishly presented me with my own toilet (“On the western-style toilet there is now a sign that says Out of Order, but IT IS NOT OUT OF ORDER! IT IS FOR YOU!) and every time I came back 20 people asked if I was OK
  2. Moving swiftly on, we come to offal. Pretty much every local specialty seems to involve parts of an animal you wouldn’t willingly/knowingly eat, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a ruse of the rest of the world against us. In Hong Kong I was given what I was told (this must have been lost in translation, as I have looked it up since and am assured nobody eats such a thing) “chicken bladders”. I went towards these tiny little things with my chopsticks to be told “don’t pierce them! The juice will escape”! Since you ask, it was like chewing a condom full of chicken gravy.
  3. Trying to please the tourists: one of the funniest and least inviting “meals” I encountered was the “English Breakfast” in a Spanish hotel, which was apparently provided “in response to customer demand”. It looked as though the chef had had an English breakfast painstakingly described to him but had never actually seen one, and the result was previously-beautiful Serrano ham fried to within an inch of its life and sitting in a centimeter of fat, dry scrambled eggs and baked beans made from scratch by mixing haricot beans with an improvised tomato sauce. We stuck to the pastries.
  4. Durian fruit. There must be someone somewhere who likes it. It must be something peculiar to particular cultures, like marmite, which you might possibly like by default if you are brought up with it. I tried durian once, and it was like eating vomit, only with an even more disconcerting texture. And what on earth possessed the first person to ever discover it was (in the loosest sense of the word) “edible” to take something that looks like a mutated porcupine and smells like a sewer, and think “I’ll see what that tastes like”. It’s banned on aeroplanes for a reason.
  5. National delicacies: snails, etc. I actually like chicken feet, one of those rites of passage you’re supposed to try in China; obligingly I have also tried snails in France. They taste of nothing. Rubber, at a push. This is why they’re served swimming in garlic and butter – so that there is something to taste. In this category fall countless other things, usually insects (scorpions, I’m told, are lovely and crispy, but I’ve never had the chance to try them) or snakes. So much still to try, so much disappointment still to come.
  6. Local booze: this really depends on where you are. In South Africa the Pinotage was, of course, fabulous, and in Canada the white wines of the Niagara region came as a pleasant surprise. In Europe, however, every country seems to have an obligatory “local” spirit that you could either clean your teeth or strip the paintwork from your walls with. Here’s a tip: if the guidebook tells you it was previously used for “medicinal purposes”, avoid it, as this translates as “will kill everything it touches”.
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The national drink of Latvia. No. Just no.