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  • Writer's pictureNatalie Hall

Exploring Beijing and the Great Wall of China in 4 days

Beijing, is the world’s third most populous city. Despite the city having hosted the Olympics in 2008 and becoming a popular location for businesses worldwide there is still a surprising lack of tourists from anywhere outside of China. It soon became clear during my visit to this city that the majority of tourists within Beijing were visiting from elsewhere in the country which, I suppose, is no surprise when you consider it is the fourth largest country in the world.

Photograph of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

Upon arrival, after a long flight from London, it became quickly apparent that tourists such as my friend Harriet and I are a novelty in Beijing. We, two petite girls with brown hair, blue eyes and skin which, unfortunately for us, never seems to tan, attracted a lot of attention. It was a strange sensation to realise everyone was staring at us as we wandered down the streets and it didn’t take long for the first person to approach us and ask to have a photograph taken with ‘the two British girls’. Although it felt like a strange request at first, after a while we just got used to it and to be honest found it very flattering. It also gave us the chance to talk to the local people and learn more about their lives and customs. The people of Beijing are incredible and go above and beyond to help tourists who struggle in a country where little English is spoken. We were pushed to the front of a queue in a restaurant by a waitress so she could help us order and pay, were asked whether we could be joined for tea in a tea room by a couple who wanted to practice their English and received an above and beyond service from a hotel receptionist who helped us out when we couldn't get a taxi for love nor money - we weren't even staying at the hotel.

There is so much to see in Beijing and I know people who have spent a week or more here but I was just staying for four nights. I think that is long enough to see the main sights and have listed my favourite of them for you!

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City sits at the centre of Beijing and the city has been built up around it. The palace, a former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, is vast and so it can take most of the day to explore properly.

Whatever you do, make sure you visit the nine dragons screen, the jade galleries and the palaces through the centre of the complex. The dragon screen is one of the most popular attractions in the city and spans a massive 29 metres across one stretch of wall. The Chinese people believe that the number 9 is associated with power and so this screen and its dragon was seen to protect the city from evil. From here you can visit the galleries which house the jade statues and ornaments as well as other treasures from the palace’s history.

When you visit the Forbidden city I recommend you ditch the map and just let yourself get lost in the galleries and gardens within the palace grounds. Also, stay on the look-out for the elaborate vases which litter the city as they are extremely ornate and beautiful. The city was affected by a lot of fires in the early days and so the vases were placed throughout to store water as a method for extinguishing the fires.

Also, if you have time then make sure you visit Jingshan Park, just beyond the northern exit of the palace, as not only are these gardens beautiful but there is the most amazing view over the Forbidden City from the terrace at the top.

Nine Dragons Screen, Forbidden City, China
Nine Dragons Screen, Forbidden City

The Great Wall of China

Of course no trip to China would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall of China and it is within easy reach of Beijing. Being the biggest tourist attraction in the country it can get extremely busy at times - just google 'Great Wall Of China Busy' to see what I’m talking about.

All of the standard bus and coach tours visit an area of the wall known as Badaling because the parking and entry cost is cheaper and due to it being the closest area of the wall to Beijing. I would suggest you find a local guide who will take you on a private tour to an area of the wall known as Mutianyu. Not only is this area quieter but it also has a chairlift up to the wall and the option of travelling back down by Toboggan. I don’t know about you but I still have yet to meet another person how can say they have tobogganed the Great Wall of China.

Photograph of girls jumping on the Great Wall of China
Jumping on the Great Wall of China

We found our local tour guide via Tripadvisor and although it was more expensive than the coach trip it was worth it as we had the wall almost entirely to ourselves. Also, we were able to talk to our tour guide about her life; she told us inspiring stories about her childhood and her life now. It was interesting to hear first hand about her experience during the One Child Policy regime as she came from a family which was only allowed to have one child as they had no money and were not farmers or other workers who depended on having multiple children to assist at home. So, when her mother had a second child, her, her father was imprisoned for having two children. A recurring theme of our time in Beijing was the openness of the local people who just wanted to share their experiences and stories ; hearing these tales is often my favourite part of travelling.

The wall itself can be tough to climb in places especially in the summer when the sun it out as there are quite a lot of stairs and sloping walkways. However, it was as I expected, an amazing experience which provided the most amazing views. All you could see for miles was the wall meandering its way through the surrounding forest. Sadly, the area surrounding the wall has been spoilt by the multitude of fast food restaurants such as McDonalds and Burger King right next to it well as shops selling novelty tat.

Photograph of the Great Wall of China
Part of the Great Wall of China

The Summer Palace

The summer palace is just outside the centre of Beijing and so the easiest way to get there is via the subway, an extremely fast an inexpensive way to travel. Most tourists seems to be nervous to try to work out how to travel via the subway but all of the machines include an English option and so once you get the hang of it you won't look back.

The summer palace was my favourite place to visit in Beijing. It was originally designed to be a royal garden where the families could entertain visitors but is now open to the public and has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You will enter via the North gate and so the first stop has to be SuZhou Street; a canal pathway which features some very quaint traditional shops and eateries. From here you can carry on up the stairs and through the various terraces and palace rooms until you reach the Buddhist Fragrance Tower and the glorious views over the lake and Beijing city in the distance. You can then walk down to the lake and rent a pedal boat for an hour or two to explore further, you probably don't need it for any longer as it is hard work. Also, for some reason the locals enjoyed chasing after us in their boats to try and take our photograph so you spend half the time peddling away! Another option is to take a walk around the lake which on a lovely sunny day I couldn’t recommend more.

Photograph of girl at Summer Palace, Beijing, China
The Summer Palace

A few other things to see - Tiananmen Square and Temple of Heaven

Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 protests in which troops fired automatic rifles at demonstrators who were trying to block the advancement of the military into the square. It is believed that at least 10,000 were killed during this protest. To date the area is still heavily guarded and the area itself has a rather somber feel about it so it’s not somewhere I recommend spending too much time although it is definitely worth visiting.

The Temple of Heaven is an ancient sacrificial building situated in a park. One thing not to miss is the Imperial Vault of Heaven which houses Gods' tablets which used to be used at the Heaven Worship Ceremony,

Food and drink

In general, I really enjoyed the food in Beijing as there is plenty of choice and it’s delicious and super cheap. The must eat meals are dim sum of any sort, peking duck pancakes and szechuan chicken or prawns. It does take time to get used to some of the names on the menu especially if there are no photographs as some of the translations are quite poor. For example, one evening, Harriet and I could not contain our laughter at a few of the options on the menu – cold discoloured ears and bubble peppa pig did sound extremely appetising. I did feel sorry for the poor waiter though who was standing over us and waiting for us to stop laughing so he could take our order, clearly confused as to why we thought the menu was so funny. In addition, a lot of the restaurants advertise dog meat for sale which I was concerned about inadvertently eating but we were told that this meat is in fact a delicacy and is extremely expensive and so would not be found on most menus. The locals believe in most cases the restaurants are selling beef or pork labelled dog meat to the tourists.

There are two places which I would recommend paying a visit to in the evening:

  • Sanlitun - after a long day exploring it is worth getting the subway out to Sanlitun for dinner and drinks. There are some amazing dumpling restaurants in this area including the incredible Mr Shi's Dumplings which is well worth the visit.

  • Houhai - this area consists of a strip of bars and restaurants alongside a lake and is a nice area to explore for a late afternoon drink. If you plan to eat in this area please be aware that the bars and restaurants are expensive and do not really serve local cuisine - they are a bit of a tourist trap.

Other things to consider:

  • It's important to carry toilet roll and hand sanitiser with you everywhere as most toilets don't have toilet roll or soap.

  • 'Squatting toilets' are everywhere and all I can say is that you just have to get used to them and the fact that people tend not to shut the door!

  • Slow walkers. I couldn’t get over how slowly everyone walked in Beijing. Of course I am a Londoner and therefore used to a quicker pace in the city, however, this was a new level of slow for me.

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