Beijing + The Great Wall of China
BY JENNY PETERS
As the Year of the Dog approaches on the Chinese calendar — arriving on February 16, 2018 — perhaps now is the time to plan, and take, that bucket list trip to China you’ve been contemplating. The Chinese New Year/Spring Festival is a one-of-a-kind annual celebration in the Chinese capital that brings everyone to the party and turns the town red.
The color for luck in China is red. During the Chinese New Year, red is everywhere — from lanterns and scrolls decorating city buildings, to envelopes filled with Chinese Yuan, given to delighted children. Red fireworks explode merrily everywhere you look, marking good luck in the New Year. The busiest travel time of the year (think Thanksgiving in the U.S.), it’s an occasion for families to get together for four days around New Year’s Day. Celebrations for Beijing’s 2018 Chinese New Year Festival/Spring Festival are February 15-21.
If crowds of happy locals celebrating in the streets, Temple Fairs (complete with dragon and lion dances), massive fireworks displays, live music performances and street fairs are your idea of a cultural experience (it is definitely ours), then visiting Beijing for Chinese New Year is for you. If a less crowded experience is more your style, consider seeing Beijing — and the nearby Great Wall of China —at a less busy time of year.
GET YOUR VISA FIRST
Regardless of when you decide to see China’s legendary sights, remember the toughest part of going to China (for most foreign nationals) is getting your Chinese visa to enter the country.
That means some serious planning, especially if you are from the United States and don’t live in one of the places where the Chinese government has an embassy or a consulate (D.C., New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston). As an American planning a trip to China, the first step in getting to Beijing and the Great Wall is to check your passport because China requires visitors to have at least six months of remaining validity and at least two blank pages.
Once you have your passport, an in-person application is required for a visa that allows you to enter China. It costs $140 and you must leave your passport with them, generally for four working days. Not only does it have to be dropped off in-person, you’ll have to return to the Chinese consulate/embassy to pick it up. Be certain to apply to the city consulate that corresponds to the section of the country where you live, or it will be denied and you will have to try again. Many people pay a travel agent to do this for them. Allow even more time for this, and be ready to pay $200 (or more) for the service.
American Airlines (AA), United Airlines (UAL), and Air China (CA) offer nonstop flights from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Beijing (PEK). Choose a nonstop flight, remembering that “nonstop” and “direct” mean two different things when booking with an airline. A “direct” flight can stop along the way, if the same plane filled with continuing passengers goes on to the final destination while a “nonstop” flight does not stop. A nonstop (usually overnight) flight between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and PEK should take about 13 hours. Getting into the city center is easy, via subway, bus, taxi or private car. Be certain to have your destination written in Chinese because few drivers in Beijing speak English.
HOTELS NEAR THE ACTION
Choosing the luxurious Peninsula Hotel is sure to relieve all your worries. From the moment you land in Beijing, hotel staff are there to take care of you. The chauffeur will meet you, driving your choice of Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz or BMW. They will whisk your luggage into the car and away you’ll speed, right into the very heart of the gigantic city. Situated in the Wangfujing area of Dongcheng, the amenity-packed hotel is within walking distance to many key historical sites that typify a trip to Beijing. This district is in the heart of the action –— especially great for first-time visitors.
Other welcoming (and less expensive) hotels in the Dongcheng District include the legendary Beijing Hotel, built in 1900, as well as the chic boutique-style Kapok Hotel.
Dongcheng is the best neighborhood to stay in as a tourist because Beijing is a huge, traffic-congested city and can take hours to traverse by taxi or bus. Walking is limited to the immediate neighborhood where you are staying. Trying to walk, for instance, from the Central Business District (CBD) to Dongcheng and the Forbidden City can take almost two hours, with no dawdling. You’ll often find yourself needing a ride, and even then, what seems close can be quite a trek. Fortunately, the subway is easy to negotiate, even for English-only speakers.
Or choose to stay in the large Chaoyang District, which encompasses the Central Business District (CBD), Embassy Row, the Olympic Park, the Silk Street shopping area and the 798 Art Zone, and get around the rest of the city using subway, bus or private chauffeured car (don’t try to drive in China unless you can read Kanji, for there are few signs translated into English). The Opposite House is a cool boutique hotel in Chaoyang.
VISIT HISTORICAL SITES
Begin your adventure in Beijing wearing sturdy and comfortable walking shoes as you head to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Start in the vast square where tanks have often rolled, and then make sure to visit the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong where you can view his embalmed body.
Exploring the Forbidden City, home to China’s historic royal dynasties, can take most of the day. It is the largest palace complex in the world, so give yourself plenty of time to traverse the expansive courtyards and palace buildings. Join an English-speaking tour at the front entrance, or wander on your own, using a guidebook for reference, and marvel at roof decorations, massive marble terraces and elaborately carved thrones in ceremonial halls.
Take another day to visit the area around Houhai Lake, first checking out the ancient Drum Tower. Climb to the top for views of the city and then catch a ride on a rickshaw (or pedicab) through the local hutong nearby. Hutongs are alleyway neighborhoods where citizens have lived since time immemorial in Beijing. Tiny doorways open into courtyard homes, and at many you’ll be offered the chance to visit inside (for a price, of course). It’s a fascinating look into traditional ways of living. Of particular interest, notice the bathing and toilet facilities are often shared in these neighborhoods.
After your hutong experience, stop and enjoy the numerous outdoor cafes surrounding Houhai Lake. Choose one with an upstairs balcony and you’ll have a great view of both the lake activities and the people strolling below. It’s a lively area both during the day and in the evenings, not to mention a beautiful green setting to relax in after a day full of activities.
To see the famed Beijing Olympic Park, hop the subway at head to the Green line, and take it to the Olympic Green stop. Beijing subways are clean, inexpensive, easy to maneuver and so modern that you can watch televisions mounted on the car walls (there are televisions in the buses, too) and talk on your cell phone while deep underground. Check out the Bird’s Nest (Beijing National Stadium) and the Water Cube (National Aquatics Center) that caught the imagination of the world during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
UP TO THE GREAT WALL
For an experience you will never forget, factor in some time for a visit outside of the city to climb the Great Wall of China. Plan for a full day excursion and you’ll get the most out of your Great Wall adventure. The Badaling portion of the wall is closest to Beijing, about 50 miles away to the North, and was built around 1571 during the Ming Dynasty. It’s the first section of the wall to open to tourists, back in 1957. Get there by hiring a private car and driver or joining a bus tour. Just make sure to wear comfortable shoes, with good traction.
It’s a bit of a circus heading from the parking lots up to the main entrance to the wall, a long street that’s jam packed with shops selling everything from tacky souvenirs to beautiful calligraphy paintings and wood carvings. Hold off on shopping until you’re on the way back, as there’s no reason to carry anything extra all the way up and back down. It’s a hike up to the entrance where most people load onto a cable car that takes you up to the edge of the wall. It’s there that the real walking begins. Don’t forget to fill and bring your reusable water bottle.
Start climbing and you’ll soon find yourself on a three-mile stretch that winds its way atop the mountain peaks, with 19 watchtowers to visit along the way. There are massive staircases to navigate, with uneven steps that remind you this breathtaking structure was built long before machines created pre-formed blocks. It’s an exhilarating experience and the vistas are breathtaking. Take your time as you hike along the 20-foot-wide central area of the wall where five horses or 10 soldiers used to stand abreast, and drink in the atmosphere. It is truly a wonder, and a monument to humankind’s ingenuity and architectural prowess.
Other wall sections to visit outside of Beijing include Mutianyu, Huanghuacheng, Gubeikou, Juyongguan, Jinshanling and Simatai. Your hotel concierge can arrange a private car and driver for you, which is well worth the cost.
When it comes time to get in a little shopping therapy, visit the Wangfujing Walking Street in Dongcheng. It’s Beijing’s most famous shopping area, a long, pedestrian-only street lined with shops filled with silks, arts and crafts, and all kinds of clothing and accessories. In the evenings, the Wangfujing Night Market is the spot to find unique local foods like deep-fried scorpion or seahorses on a stick.
When shopping, you can (and should) haggle for virtually everything in China. It is an art and well worth a deeper dive on the basic tactics. Make sure to take a trip to the famed Silk Market in the CBD in the Chaoyang district, now located in a high-rise building known as the Silk Alley Building. It teems with retailers ready and willing to barter with you.
TIME TO EAT
Beijing is a huge city and like most international destinations, has a wide range of cuisines to sample — from traditional dim sum spots serving gao, bao and maybe even an egg roll or two, to pizza counters and burger joints.
Still, a trip to Beijing isn’t complete without sampling the city’s signature dish. Peking duck, a succulent roast duck dish paired with thin pancakes, sweet bean (or hoisin) sauce and scallions that has been served since imperial times, is a must try during your visit. The old-guard restaurant Quanjude boasts eight outposts (that are always crammed with tourists), so no matter what district you are in, you’re likely to find one serving up the crispy-skinned delicacy. For a more authentic experience, visit Li Qun Roast Duck, located in Dongcheng. That’s the hole-in-the-wall where Anthony Bourdain gets his Peking duck. And for what we consider the best Peking duck, make sure to try Duck de Chine, located in the ultra-cool 1949 — the Hidden City arts and restaurant complex in Chaoyang. The combination of gorgeous ambiance, beautiful presentation and the most succulent-crispy bites ever, makes it a heady experience.
No matter where you are in Beijing or when you’re feeling hungry, take a chance, wander into a restaurant, say “Ni Hao” (“Hello”) and smile. The rest will come easily, as most Beijing natives are friendly and willing to discover as much about you as you are about them.
Beijing is a unique place to visit, where the ancient stands juxtaposed with the ultra-modern, home to a populace breaking out of its shell and fascinated with Western culture — all of which make the New Year an exciting time to experience Beijing. Just be sure to wear some red for luck on your journey.