China… it instantly depicts dumplings and a hike on that Great Wall. We only had three days in Beijing but were determined to make sure in this time we could complete our bucket list dream to see the Great Wall of China.
Well, that plus dreams of Chinese dumplings, direct flights from Auckland, and the combined allure of exploring the Hutong alleyways of Old Beijing… It was definitely one for the bucket list.
From Beijing, we loved hiking to the Great Wall of China, visiting the Forbidden City and eating. In Shanghai, we only had a brief stop but it was enough to be blown away by a mega-city, and leave us wanting more. Read on to find out if three days is enough to see Beijing, and more importantly a few things to know about travel to China…
- Great Wall of China
- Forbidden City
- Getting around Beijing
- Chinese food
- Where we stayed
- Know before you go
Beijing has served as the capital of China for more than 800 years. It’s not hard to explore sights showcasing it’s historic past, or to get lost in the modern side of one of the worlds busiest cities. After all, the population of Beijing is over 20 million.
Clearly the Chinese capital has some of the most iconic cultural sights of the world. However, as well as the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City (I’ll detail those separately) there are lots of other things to do in Beijing. If you only have a few days, don’t worry – that’s enough. And some of the best things we found to do in Beijing were free, and more about soaking up the atmosphere…
THINGS TO DO WITH THREE DAYS IN BEIJING
- Climb to the top of Jingshan Hill: This is in walking distance of the Forbidden City (and the hutongs where we stayed). Jingshan Park is beautiful to walk through and the views from the top are breathtaking, looking to the side of the Forbidden City. It costs 2RMB to enter the park.
- Explore the old hutongs: Beijing’s hutongs are a maze of narrow alley ways linking the old single-story traditional courtyard houses. Again it’s easy to get lost admiring these living roads of China’s history. (Quite seriously, you will get lost).
- Hike the Great Wall: The main reason for most peoples travels to China, and doable with three days in Beijing. Read about it here.
- Visit Tian’anmen Square: This the worlds largest famous big square, a bit like Time Square in New York. It is built to accommodate one million people, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
- Stroll through Wangfujing Night Market: If you’re into street food, you must come here. There’s bright lights, red lanterns, stinky tofu, freshly cooked insects and all kinds of other Chinese treats.
- Get a beer on Huguosi Road: A traditional snack street in Beijing with a history of more than 700 years. Go after a days exploring and relax with a beer for some people watching (and snack eating).
If you only have three days in Beijing that may sound like a lot, but even as a couple of jet lagged Kiwis the excitement of exploring Beijing is contagious. There is a lot more to see in Beijing, and even writing this is making me think about how to book another trip…
Shanghai is off-the-scale massive. It’s enormous. The name alone evokes an instant image of mega-city uncannily combined with ancient civilisation. It is home to the second tallest tower in the world towering over an already modern skyline. Even the drive from airport to your hotel feels exciting.
THINGS TO DO IN SHANGHAI
- Walk along the Bund: This is non-negotiable. The Bund is a huge promenade style waterfront in the centre of Shanghai and the best place to admire the skyline.
- Visit Yuyuan Garden: If you have time, this is not far from the Bund and is the only surviving Ming Dynasty garden in Shanghai. Note: it is extremely popular so don’t expect spacious green spaces all to yourself.
- Eat and walk around Tianzifang: A tourist cafe and shopping area in Shanghai in the old French quarter. A good place for souvenirs and shops selling everything to do with tea and tea therapy.
- Eat Xiaolongbao: Duh, you are in Shanghai! Don’t leave without claiming some soup dumplings for your Chinese food bucketlist.
HIKING TO THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
This was the underlying reason for our trip to China. We wanted to see this most famous Wonder of the World for ourselves!
However, we also (like with many of our trips) wanted to do it a little differently, and were not keen on the thought of a tourist bus delivery straight to the main section of the wall. I wanted the adventure of ‘climbing’ the wall. After researching, I found a tour that would pick us up from Beijing, drive to Jiankou. From there we could hike up the the wall and walk along to Mutianyu – the section of the Great Wall boasting the most beautiful scenery.
Knowing we only had three days in Beijing we had looked ahead and booked a tour with China Highlights, and although it was pricey it was worth it and we knew it was a once in a lifetime experience.
HIKING FROM JIANKOU
The hike itself from Jiankou is beautiful, and starts on small paved paths through the last villages, before winding up the hills through bush trails and paths.
It is a surreal feeling after hiking steadily upwards for the first two hours, to suddenly look up and see The Great Wall looming literally above you! The first part of the wall is the Zhengbei Watch Tower where the base is connected to the wall by an old style wooden ladder. An exciting first connection with The Great Wall of China!
The views from the top of Jiankou, and the highest watch tower are breathtaking, and a welcomed rest after the climb to sit and marvel and take it all in!
In total, the hike takes about 5 hours to complete the distance of 10 km (6 miles) from Jiankou section to Mutianyu section.
THE FORBIDDEN CITY
Quite literally the largest imperial palace in the world.
The Forbidden City really is a city in itself — all 7.8 million square feet of it. It was built to serve as a seat for the Chinese government during the Ming Dynasty, from 1406 to 1420. Since then, it has housed 24 Chinese Emperors, from both the Ming and Qing Dynasties, with China’s last emperor living there until 1924.
Wondering how it got it’s name? Well, at that time it lived up to the name, and was forbidden to commoners.
Nowadays however, it is the second most visited sight in China (after the Great Wall of course). It is certainly awe-inspiring to wander through!
Cost: Entrance fees to the Forbidden City depends on the season:
- November to March (low season) tickets cost 40 Yuan (USD $6 per adult)
- April to October (high season) tickets cost 60 Yuan (USD $9 per adult)
Entrance to the Treasure Gallery and/or Hall of Clocks costs an extra 10 Yuan per adult (USD $1.50) per gallery.
- High season (April to October): 8:30 am to 5 pm.
- Low season (November to March): 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
Note: The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays except for national holidays).
GETTING AROUND IN BEIJING
Because we only had a short time in Beijing, we stuck with two options for transport: walking and taxis. The area we stayed in, the Wangfujing Street and Forbidden City area made it easy to navigate on foot. One of the most interesting and cheapest outings was a walk in Jingshan Park not far from our hostel.
It’s easy to wave down a registered taxi in Beijing, or have your hostel call one. Taxis are cheap and there are lots of them. Tipping is not expected. And, three days in Beijing is enough time to gather your confidence in asking for help with directions!
Bicycle hire is becoming more popular at some hostels, and I regret not giving this a whirl. Beijing is set up with bicycle lanes in some areas (although cars don’t always appear to keep out of them…) so this looks like it could be a good way to get around for short distances.
Tip: Always carry a written copy of the name of where you are staying in Chinese characters. This is invaluable for showing taxi drivers or even helpful locals who can explain to a taxi where you need to go.
Apart from the Great Wall, the Bund and the Forbidden City, my China photo album rapidly turned into an album full of food selfies… It couldn’t be helped! Three days in Beijing is definitely enough time to sample a huge range of Chinese food. The food is seriously amazing.
Some of our favourites…
- Dumplings: no explanation needed
- Sichuan Pork: poached spicy slices of pork
- Chow mein: stir-fried noodles
- Gong Bao Chicken: diced chicken, dried chili and fried peanuts
- Peking Duck: famous from Beijing
- Beijing Hot Pot: ✔️✔️✔️✔️
- Black fungus: ❌ ✔️ (a point for interest!)
- Ma Po Tofu: sautéed tofu in hot and spicy sauce
A universe unto themselves! There are so many different types, names, fillings, and ways dumplings can be cooked in China, but quite seriously… You can’t go wrong with dumplings.
PEKING DUCK: ✔️✔️✔️
We had to wait for almost an hour in the restaurant we had been recommended to try their speciality Peking duck. But oh my goodness it was worth it!
BEIJING HOT POT: ✔️✔️✔️
Paper-thin slices of meat and vegetables that come out full of flavour after even just being dipped into the hot pot soup! Mouth-watering.
ONE CHALLENGE IN CHINA…
Ordering food! We wanted to try only local restaurants, and had set off from New Zealand with the goal of not touching any Western food in China. Instead, making the most of every opportunity to try something new…
We may have underestimated how easy that would be, as we assumed it would be straightforward to copy locals and point to what kind of food we wanted. Not so; locals assumed instantly we wanted Western food, and were shy to try and communicate!
However, we did stick with our goal and with the help of both Google translate and brilliant acting skills that would rival some of the best, we tried so many new kinds of food and found a few new firm favourites in doing so.
WHERE WE STAYED IN CHINA
- Beijing: Sitting on the City Walls Courtyard Hotel [Awesome location in the Wangfujing Street & Forbidden City area; simple in-house restaurant; shared common space to relax pre-check in].
- Shanghai: Hotel Equatorial Shanghai [Amazing breakfast!! Beautiful rooms; easy to find. Friendly staff; handy to get taxi to and from to explore or five min walk to subway].
AND DON’T FORGET…
Ahem… If you are trying to visit China on a transit visa for only a few days, do NOT forget that a transit visa must enter China at one airport and exit to a third destination country. It will not work to transit to a second Chinese city, OR as a return flight transiting from only your home country. Do your research.
This is actually written from our second visit we have made to China. The first involved a slight hiccup, where our flights were booked to transit a second Chinese city (Shanghai). This time the trip was shorter. It may have only included three days in Beijing; but it was well worth it. And it was just enough time to hike that Great Wall!