Whenever Andy and I plan vacations, we see if we can get a really long layover in a city that we want to see. This way we get to see another city for “free”. Since we booked our tickets with our United Airlines miles, we looked at the hub airports within the Star Alliance. One of the largest airport hubs is Beijing.
I had previously been to Beijing and don’t normally repeat destinations but Andy really wanted to see the Great Wall of China. The timing worked out well, getting us into Beijing at 5am and leaving at 5pm. This meant that we could spend the entire day on the ground and not have to worry about getting a hotel.
Chinese Transit Visa
To visit China you need to get a visa which is quite expensive and a little time consuming. Luckily, China recently eased up on their restrictions by offering Chinese transit visas which are free to visitors staying for 72 hours or less.
We filled out our paperwork, showed our proof of onward travel and had our passports stamped. Once we had our visa, we collected our luggage and headed to meet our tour guide.
We decided to use the same guide for this trip as I used when I went to Beijing previously. Barry Xu (pronounced shoe) is a tour operator who has several different guides that work for him. The best part about his service is that it covers both a private driver as well as a personal tour guide. This way you’re able to move at the pace that you want.
When I had communicated with Barry and told him that I had 12 hours in Beijing we discussed what we would have time to see. I told him that the Great Wall was the only must see thing on our list. He told us that we would also be able to go to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
Great Wall of China
The first stop on our trip was the Great Wall since we wanted to make sure that we weren’t rushed for time since this was the main thing that we wanted to see. Barry suggested the Mutianyu section of the wall which incidentally was the same section of the wall that I saw before. I knew that it was nice so we decided to go that route.
During the winter, the Great Wall opens at 7:30 so we were some of the first ones to the wall which was great. After coming from Krabi, Thailand the cold weather hit us like a ton of bricks. We both just had light jackets and were struggling to stay warm without gloves.
We took a cable car (chair lift) up to the wall with our guide. Once we got to the top she told us to take our time and coordinated our meeting point when we were finished. From there we were off to explore.
The best part about being first to the wall was that we got a lot of great pictures without people in them. Having the tripod with us we were able to easily set up the camera to take pictures of us, not relying on finding someone to take our picture. We started in the restored part but headed towards the unrestored section. Even though there was a sign that said no admittance (most likely for safety reasons), we blew through that sign and continued to the more rugged section which in my opinion was way cooler than the perfect sections of the wall.
After we finished exploring the wall, we rode the slideway (toboggan) down. I remember when I was there previously that you can get going pretty fast on the sleds. It was less fun riding the sleds down in the winter than it was when I was in Beijing in the spring. Without gloves my hands were bright red and I felt terrible. I couldn’t wait to get back into the warmth so I could start thawing out.
At the end of the slideway there is a guy dressed up as a warrior. Our guide had warned us about him. He tries to get you to take a picture with him and then asks for money. We just told him that we weren’t interested and continued on our way.
The Great Wall was more expensive than we thought it would be. The entrance fee was 45 yuan or $7.25 each. Both the cable car and slideway was 80 yuan or $13. This brought the total for each of us to $33.25. We could have saved 60 yuan each by taking the cable car both up and down but the slideway was so novel that we had to do it.
Lunch at a Chinese Noodle House
After the Great Wall we stopped by a noodle house for lunch. The huge bowl of noodle soup was exactly what I wanted after being out in the cold weather. You could tell that the noodles were made fresh and the flavors were amazing. Even though the bowl was massive, it was so good that I ate the whole thing!
At Tiananmen Square we just looked around and took some pictures with the photo of Chairman Mao. I know that there is a ton of history around the square, specifically the protests that took place in 1989. Being in my early 30’s I was too young to remember what had happened.
It was a quick stop for us and since it is located right next to the Forbidden City, we were able to walk over to the Forbidden City to finish out our sightseeing for the day.
Even though we were somewhat tight on timing, our guide did a good job of giving us the history as we were walking. The recommended time to visit the Forbidden City is 3-4 hours and we had about 1.5 hours.
The forbidden city is massive at 74 hectares which translates into 182 acres. In fact, it is the largest palace complex in the world and housed 24 different emperors during their reign. The palace is split into 2 different sections – the outer court where the emperor ruled the nation and the inner court where the royal family lived.
The entrance rate was 40 yuan or $6.50 each, a discounted rate since it was winter.
I think that we tried to cram too much into the time that we had in Beijing. When you think about how long 12 hours is you think you could do everything that you want. But when you factor in the time to get through customs and return to catch your international flight home, you’re looking at 9.5 hours. Compress that down even further when you consider that it takes 1 hour to get from the airport to the Great Wall and 1.5 hours to get from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City. You can see how quickly time will escape you.
We were very unfortunate when we were there that there was an immense amount of pollution or possibly just low lying clouds… We are still uncertain if it was just low clouds or actually smog, as we got conflicting stories from different people. The smog/fog is evident in all of the photos that we took and a real bummer since we both would have had more fun if we could have more clearly seen everything, especially the Great Wall. In fact, we overheard our flight attendant say that she had never seen the smog/fog that bad before and she had been to Beijing numerous time.
Andy found it extremely amusing that Chinese people were sneaking photos of us as we were walking around. I had experienced this at a much greater level when I was in Beijing previously with my 6′ tall blonde cousin. I understand that she looks very different from the Chinese, but didn’t really think that we looked very exciting or different. Our guide told us that a lot of people that live in smaller cities and travel to Beijing have never seen a westerner in real life.
I am glad that we were able to have a long layover in Beijing. I recommend keeping realistic expectations of how much you can actually do during a layover. Even though I am not one to typically get a package deal when we travel, for a tight trip like this, it’s an amazing benefit. You just show up and all of the details are taken care of.
We were exhausted when we caught our flight back to the US. Almost instantly we both fell asleep and slept a lot on the way home. This as an added benefit of a long layover as it helped eliminate our jet lag which was a great benefit, especially since we both had to work the day after we got home.