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.

 

Dubai

There are no two ways about it: Dubai is a thoroughly weird place. It’s a sort of Arabian Center Parcs for the super-rich, a giant pleasure zone in constant competition with the rest of the world to do the implausible. Tallest building in the world? Obviously. An aquarium in a shopping centre? Why not? ATMs that dispense gold bars? Well, of course.

Dubai doesn’t feel real, especially to a Londoner. For a start, the metro works seamlessly, and it has air conditioning. But the journey from the airport into the centre shows a city under constant construction – it feels as though you’re in a life-sized lego set, or an episode of the Jetsons.

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The world’s tallest building

Dubai is one of a number of cities that’s perfect if you have a long layover. Here’s how you do it.

 

If you’re travelling through Dubai Airport and have 6 hours or more, then that’s plenty of time to get out and see the Burj Khalifa. If you have more than that you can probably fit in a second activity, if you choose carefully.

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  • Book your Burj tickets in advance – tickets are both limited and more expensive on the day, plus the concept of queuing is sketchy at best, so if you’re British you’ll have a breakdown before you’ve even made it into the lift.
  • If you’re from the EEA, US, Australia, Saudi, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman plus a few others you don’t need to get any kind of visa. You just get stamped in by the very sombre-looking chap on the immigration desk. Nationals from many other countries will need a visa but can get it on arrival. The immigration queue at Dubai Airport is pretty slick so you won’t have to work in much time to get to the other side – it took us ten minutes.
  • By far the easiest and cheapest way to get into the centre is the Dubai Metro. It’s brilliant. The machines have an English option and take cards. If you’re going to the Burj or Dubai Mall, take the red line in the direction of UAE Exchange – it takes around 30 minutes
  • You’ll come out at what claims to be the Dubai Mall, but the mall itself is about a further fifteen minutes’ walk through a shiny, futuristic walkway that feels somewhat other-worldly. Do have a look at the mall if you have time – it has the sort of things every mall needs, like a giant waterfall and an ice rink. The Souk area in particular is lovely. We also had breakfast out on a terrace overlooking the impressive fountains (or rather, they would have been impressive if they had been on. But we to the general idea.)
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What British malls are lacking: a giant indoor waterfall
  • When you get to the Burj, don’t be wedded to the time on your ticket, because nobody else is. We arrived half an hour before our allocated time and were immediately directed to the queue, which was really more of a free-for-all of people of all nationalities, inexplicably taking pictures of themselves with selfie sticks standing in a line in what was basically a shopping centre basement. It took 40 minutes for us to get in the lift, so plan your time well if you’re on a short layover!
  • The lift journey of 124 floors in 60 seconds was probably the most impressive part of the trip, but the views are also pretty good, though it’s very hazy so we could only just make out the Burj Al Arab, even though it isn’t really that far away. What was most eye-opening was probably the sheer amount of construction work – Dubai will probably look good when it’s finished, presumably in around 2060.
  • A little tip – there is a fairly well-hidden staircase up to the 125th floor from which you get admittedly the same view as from the 124th, but which at least allows you to say you went that bit higher. It also has its own lift, so you can get down without queuing.
  • If you have more time and want to tick off something else, Deira is on the same line and near the airport (the Spice Souk is worth a look) and you can take a cruise down the Creek – again, it’s only a short taxi ride back to the airport from there.

For the love of layovers

For many travellers the layover is an inconvenience, a hassle, a waste of time – hours spent roaming miles of duty free shops, or whiling away the time drinking generic lager in overpriced, characterless bars, discombobulated by the change in time zone and complete lack of awareness of what time it is, because an airport is the one place where drinking a beer at 7am is completely socially acceptable.

For me, a layover is an opportunity to snatch a quick taste of another place, to tick off another country on an ever-growing list (I am nothing if not competitive.) Given the choice between a short layover and a longer one I’ll always, where possible, pick the longer one, provided it’s over 7 hours, as this gives you time to see something of an alien city. Many airports have become attuned to this, and indeed seen it as a lucrative opportunity. Incheon and Doha airports both offer tours if varying lengths to suit different tastes – shopping tours and cultural tours of varying lengths to introduce you to a new city.  Asiana and Korean Air give passengers with a long layover overnight a complimentary hotel stay, with a choice of hotels in Seoul city centre – a flight to the UK from Australia means you can have a night on the town, Gangnam Style, then if you’re up early enough, a wander round the Gyeongbokgung Palace before heading back for your 14.15 connection to Heathrow. Icelandair have gone a step further – you can stay up to 3 days in Iceland without paying extra for your onward journey, which is plenty of time to see the famous sites around Keflavik and Reykjavik.

So, after a work trip to Australia, passing up on the chance to visit Kuala Lumpur would’ve seemed churlish. With 9 hours to play with I was craving a decent mango lassi and a look around the famous old railway station, designed by the father of an elderly neighbour of my parents early in the last century.

The centre of KL is reached by a smooth, speedy and (you won’t appreciate quite how important this is until you’ve been to this region) air-conditioned train that runs regularly to and from the airport for just a few pounds. It deposits you at KL Sentral, which doesn’t feel very sentral at all from a tourist’s point of view. It takes some fairly cunning negotiation of the transit system to get to where you want to go after this. For the Petronas Towers it’s another few stops on the Putra line to KLCC, for us it was just one stop north.

I would have liked to see the Petronas Towers, but didn’t have time to do everything. Instead, after photographing some suitably ornate colonial buildings, wandering down a hot street and being turned back by two particularly stern-looking guards because there was a protest happening ahead (they made up for this by asking if I wanted my photograph taken with them, and I didn’t dare refuse) I went to Putrajaya, a suburb but really the administrative capital for the whole country, where I had dinner with a friend by the river, watched a particularly impressive monsoon shower, and ate spicy rice that gained my friend’s approval: “even though you’re English you don’t mind trying very spicy food!” (I smiled heroically and tried not to think of the 14-hour flight ahead.)

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My consolation prize for the road being closed