I didn’t actually pay to enter China…yes you heard that right, I did not have to pay for a visa or pay an extortionate amount to fly in, all shall be explained.
As most of you who follow me and keep up to date know, I’ve actually just returned from Tokyo. I go on about it all the time but it is certainly my favourite city in all the world, so many fond memories of mine have been made there. Plus despite some societal, political and cultural differences, the city itself is pretty much perfect. However, to fly to Japan it is quite a journey and I do like to break it up with a stopover if I can. On this occasion, flying via Beijing was actually the cheaper option. At first, I was put off by the idea of transiting there, mainly due to horror story reviews of transiting in PEK, the strict immigration and crowds of people, and the requirement of needing a visa to actually leave the airport. But, a couple of years before, a new law was introduced. In an effort to increase the amount of people transiting through China and not other places such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Dubai etc they made it so you were allowed to actually leave the airport – providing your second flight was within 72 hours and it was to a 3rd country (not the one you originally flew from). This competitive measure won me over. I could see two Asian cities for the price of one (and it was the cheapest way to fly anyway!) So I bit the bullet and booked my friends and myself via this route.
But with such little time what can you do? Is it even worth it?
I would say…YES. Mainly because after my experience, Beijing and possibly other areas in China will certainly hit you with a huge amount of culture shock. By coming in for free you essentially get a little ‘taster’ visit to see what it is like without committing lots of money. ‘But you’ve been to Asian countries before? Why is China’s culture shock different?’ Well for starters this is what may shock you in terms of Beijing:
-The pollution – I am not even kidding, I really underestimated how much the pollution would affect me. You could physically see it, you could smell it and boy could your lungs feel it. After two nights my chest was coughing up dirty phlegm (TMI but all about honesty on this blog!) and my throat was in agony. Admittedly my immune system isn’t the strongest so the combination of a cold may have exacerbated the effects, but the pollution certainly is a shock to the system (literally).
-The assertiveness – In Beijing, it’s basically every man for himself. This is because Beijingers typically find putting in the effort to be extremely kind and polite to others a waste of time, as it is fake, superficial and only family and friends deserve the effort. So expect to be pushed, shoved, stared at, glared at…you get the picture 😉 This is in no way a huge rant about how people in Beijing chose to live, I’m simply pointing out it is very different to that of the UK and in fairness maybe they are right about politeness being fake.
-The disorganisation – Zebra crossings? They don’t mean anything. Oh you’re waiting in line for something? Queuing doesn’t exist here. Did you ask for a non-smoking room? Well, we don’t really enforce that here. Basically, everyone here is somewhat more laid back in a sense, certain things that really matter back in the UK, do not matter at all here. So try not to be uptight about things and just go with the flow 🙂
-Security – Every time you enter the underground/metro, your bags go through an airport style x-ray scanner. Every street you walk down will have officers and army men patrolling. At the airport expect a full body search even if you do not set off the scanners. Again, very different to back home, it’s certainly reassuring knowing that the trains and planes you will be getting on will be pretty much 100% safe…however is it a little over the top? Who knows what country has got everything right :’)
As you can see, Beijing is very different to that of UK cities London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle etc and it can really be a shock to the system. I had researched in advance and had prepared for all of these little lifestyle differences, but even so, I was still shocked and well out of my comfort zone. Despite that I still had a great experience, I am just content that I didn’t spend hundreds or thousands to go for a long period. I may do so in the future, but I’m glad that I now know how different things can be.
So what did you do? What do you advise?
Well I’ll explain my little itinerary for you below, however experiencing everything firsthand, the itinerary I prepared did not go 100% to plan like it normally does in other countries I’ve been to. Not being totally clued up on the nature of disorganisation here and the assertiveness of people in busy areas, I did not prepare for those curveballs basically 😉 But now I totally know what I would do with my time and would actually say three nights is perfect if you want to see the Great Wall and the city but two nights is perfect if you just want to see the city or the Great Wall – honestly depends on your preference.
The Great Wall of China
I visited the Great Wall on a weekday morning. I visited the Badaling section which is the cheapest and most easily accessible by public transport. You hop on the S2 train at Beijing’s North Station, which can be reached by Xizhimen Metro station. The journey took around an hour and the scenes out of the train window were gorgeous. Unfortunately the weather when we went was actually quite cold and rainy, however, it actually made the wall look pretty beautiful and mysterious in the mist as you can see. We took the cable car up and had a little walk around the wall and took in all of the views, seeing this masterpiece in real life is really something! Plus the climb is certainly more thrilling and tougher than a workout at the gym 😉
So do I recommend visiting the Great Wall whilst in Beijing? Yes absolutely! However, I personally do not recommend visiting Badaling, only if you are really strapped for time and cash. Why? Well:
-Badaling is the busiest section, it is very hard to climb certain sections with people pushing and shoving on steep parts – a little unsafe actually!
-Getting on the train requires sprinting and fighting – There is no formal line to get on the train, just a mob of people waiting outside the doors to the platform. When those doors open, everyone runs, even if children fall over…everyone still runs.
-The train schedule is not as accurate and as regular as advertised. The trains back and forth are every 3 hours, not every hour as advertised. Meaning you really have to time your visit well and hope the train you picked does show up.
So what do I recommend? I recommend visiting Mutianyu or Simatai and spending the whole day at one of those sites – rather than trying to cram Badaling into half a day and failing 😉 Harder to get to yes, but still possible on public transport and much quieter. If you are uncomfortable with public transport and doing it yourself, there are regular tours at cheap prices of £20-£40! Travel China Guide here easily breaks down all the sections for you and explains how to get to them.
After visiting the Great Wall we had a good walk around the centre of the city. We walked around Tiananmen Square and then all the way up to Wangfujing Street. The square was really impressive and Wangfujing was both interesting and quite chaotic! We found many interesting shops and eateries that you could probably spend years exploring fully! I did not have much Yuan on me but there was so much to be bought!
However, my original plan included seeing the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. But due to the disorganisation of the rail services, we did not get back until quite late from Badaling Great Wall. This is why I recommend one full day for the wall and one full day for the city. The Summer Palace looks stunning in photos despite being near the city and the Forbidden City has so much history and magnificent structures it was so heartbreaking to miss it. Places such as Tiananmen Square and Wangfujing can easily be done quickly in an evening or two. Again I really recommend Travel China Guide for researching information about the Summer Palace and Forbidden City! Of course, there are other sights to see but those two I really recommend to fit in during the daytime.
So it’s a bit chaotic and it didn’t go 100% to plan for you, do you still recommend Beijing and the rest of China, will you go back?
Yes, I still do. As I said, my experience could have been so much better with hindsight. Basically, I need to return to Beijing to do it properly. However, if you were to follow my advice I am sure it would go perfectly for you! Without prior experience or advice, you really cannot prepare yourself for Beijing unforuntately in my opinion. Also I’d like to add that other parts of China are probably completely different to Beijing. Mannerisms and attitudes are probably different, the sights are obvioulsy different and the experience itself would probably be very different. But if you are like me and are a bit reluctant to part with your cash for a visa, you can use the 72 hour transit in other Chinese cities! I really will try and take advantage of it for when I go to Japan in the future. Some cities actually allow for a 144 hour transit! If you are ever flying to destinations in Asia or Australasia and China is an option for transit, take it. It may be your only opportunity to see the country cheaply! Finally just because I found Beijingers and their city to be very different to what I am used to, and not understand them and the city…that does not mean it is a bad thing or they are bad people. It is just different! These kind of experiences are what teach you about the world where a textbook or documentary cannot. Experience is the best form of learning at times, and that certainly applies to the world. Coming here taught me to be a little less judgemental and actually try and understand why everything was so different rather than dismiss it as ‘well in the UK things are not like this!’ However…lets just say I was more than happy to fly into Tokyo and be rewarded with the most polite and orderly society on the planet *hallelujah* (and of course it’s my favourite place on the planet…)
|On the train to The Great Wall – Yes we somehow outran everyone and got seats *winning*|
I hope you enjoyed this rather detailed post about Beijing. I try to blog about some things other travel bloggers may to reluctant to blog about, such as things not going to plan, places not being as perfect as travel magazines present them to be etc. I was brutally honest here and hope it finds you all well. Would you give Beijing and/or China a go? Have you gone anywhere in the world that filled you with culture shock? What are your thoughts on different cultures?