I spent a week in Beijing, China, and would recommend it to travelers as a great introduction to Asia. It’s a safe, yet exotic city, with a strong tourist infrastructure. It’s an ancient city and civilization that also offers the latest in luxury hotels and modern lifestyle if you seek it out.
The city is perfect for both families and for single travelers, offering a range of activities and sights for either type of traveler. Travelers visiting China need a passport with at least six months available before expiration. Visitors also need a Chinese visa, issued by the Chinese government. These are obtained from Chinese embassies or consulates in the U.S.
I went to the Chinese consulate here in Los Angeles about two weeks before my trip. I paid for rush service, so I went in the morning, dropped of my passport and paperwork, then returned 2 days later. The fee is $130 plus a $30 rush fee. The normal processing time is four working days. You must also submit two passport-type pictures with your application. The application is in English and as they deal with millions of travelers each year, the system works well.
There are Chinese consulates or embassies in Los Angeles, California, Chicago, Illinois, San Francisco, California New York, New York and Houston, Texas. If you don’t live in one of these cities, you can use a service to get the visa for you by mail.
Although direct flights to Beijing are available from the U.S., I do recommend a stop in Hong Kong. This amazing city is very different from Beijing and also offers a wonderful introduction to Asia. Many airlines stop over in Hong Kong and the airport there offers a special one day tour of the city, which includes a great bus tour, time to walk around and a return rail ticket back to the airport.
To stay in Beijing, I would recommend the luxurious Peninsula Palace, part of the Peninsula Hotel chain. With the favorable exchange rate, rooms start at $245 at this five star property. The hotel is right in the heart of Beijing, in the Wangfujing district, filled with shops, restaurants and places to walk around. The Peninsula Palace is also only a few blocks from both Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City, making both an easy walk.
8 Goldfish Lane Wangfujing
Spend some time walking around and exploring this incredible city. Tianamen Square is one of the largest public squares in the world. The area is home to the tomb of Chairmen Mao and the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
On the Chang’an Boulevard, west of Wangfujing
The Forbidden City is the ancient palace complex, next to Tianamen Sqaure, once home to the Chinese emperors, and formerly a place where mere commoners never walked. This is a large area, with many buildings, and it’s like a giant museum. One horrible disappointment, to find a Starbucks inside the walls of the Forbidden City, at the last courtyard before the exit. It was a blast of commercialism inside this historic site. Admission is 40 yuan, about $5.
Drum and Bell Towers
The Drum and Bell Towers areancient monuments in the center of Beijing. The Drum Tower was the ancient clock of the city, with drums beaten to mark the hours. Admission is 6 yuan, less than $1. The climb up the 200 almost vertical stairs is quite a work-out, but the view from the top of the tower is quite a reward.
Drum and Bell Towers
Gulou Xidajie, Dongcheng District
The hutongs are the ancient neighborhoods of Beijing, dating back to the 1500’s. Many are being destroyed to make way for modern buildings and entire blocks were leveled to prepare for the Beijing Olympics. Outside the Forbidden City gates, there are many tour guides and bicycle rickshaw drivers who offer tours of the hu-tongs. Don’t take the first one, talk to a few drivers, make sure you understand their English, and agree on a price before leaving. $10 per hour, plus a nice tip is fair. This was one of the highlights of my visit. My new friend the rickshaw driver and I went on a three hour tour of the city, while he pedaled along and explained everything.
For dinner or lunch, do as I did, have your driver to take to a real, local place to eat. We had dinner at a restaurant in the middle of one of the hutong neighborhoods. Everything was in Chinese, all the other diners were Chinese families from the neighborhood. This was real Chinese local food, made for locals, not for the tourists. This is how to really experience Beijing.
The Great Wall of China is one of the wonders of the world and there are several sites close to the city. We went to Mutianyu, which is the further of the big two areas, but less crowded. Be careful about returning to Beijing from the Great Wall during rush hour, we got caught in daily traffic returning to the hotel and sat for two hours, during a trip that took one hour going the other way.
The other thing I really liked about our trip to the Great Wall, was the drive out there, about two hours through all kinds of Chinese cities and towns, a great glimpse of real life outside Beijing and the tourist areas. You can take a private car tour, arranged by your hotel, or a group bus tour. Public buses also go from Beijing. A ticket is 35 yuan, about $5.
Great Wall at Mutianyu
Tourist Bus No. 6 from Xuanwumen, Qianmen and Dongsi Shitiao; or take Bus No. 916 from Dongzhimen to Huairou, and then change to a local bus.
Chinese government official Beijing travel guide – travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/beijing