The biggest Pro Tip that I got before leaving was to write my hotel address out in Chinese. Hallelujah for this advice because I’m almost 100% positive I would’ve never ended up at the hotel if I had to say the address aloud myself! The language barrier for someone who doesn’t speak the native tongue and traveling to Beijing proved to be quite a real challenge as soon as I deplaned.
If there was ever one regret from my childhood, it would be the fact that I didn’t continue to expand my Mandarin diction or practice speaking it after almost a decade of classes. The most frustrating part is that I can understand when someone else speaks to me in Mandarin, but I have a really hard time finding the vocabulary to respond back– not to mention having a really, really, really awful accent whenever attempting to speak. And so, many minutes of playing charades for directions ensued on this day of adventures.
With less than 12 hours to do touristy things, click through to read about the Bucket List attractions that were at the top of my priorities: The Forbidden City and The Great Wall.
The Forbidden City served as the imperial palace for almost 500 years starting in 1420. I had taken a class in university back in the day about East Asian history which covered some of the emperors that lived in the palace, so I wanted to check out what it was like to live there back in the day. There are over 900 buildings that have been preserved in the Palace Museum, and I think I may have gotten through 15 in the few hours that I spent there. It was a bit of a maze with crowds of people in every direction, so it was hard to stay focused.
My favourite part of being at the Forbidden City was climbing up one of the towers to a clear view of Tiananmen Square. The smog wasn’t too bad on this particular day, so there was beautiful view from across the road!
The original plan after the Forbidden City was to check out the Summer Palace– a gorgeous garden a short cab ride away. Instead, a friend that I was traveling with started talking to a cab driver (thank goodness someone in the group could speak Mandarin fluently!) on the side of the road to ask for direction and ended up striking a deal with this cabbie to be our dedicated driver for the rest of the day. Considering that we had arrived in China just a few days before the Chinese New Year celebrations were over, traffic was great because all of the locals were still on vacation. The drive from the Forbidden City to The Great Wall would only be an hour for us, which would normally take about 2 hours with regular traffic. We skipped the Summer Palace and opted to see The Wall instead.
I am so grateful that we got to see The Great Wall on a day where there was hardly any foot traffic (Yay for timing with CNY)! We ended up going to the Badaling section of The Wall, which I later learned is one of the most touristy sections. It’s been renovated a few times because of the heavy amounts of foot traffic it receives compared to the other parts. I also learned that I am super out of shape because we climbed 3 sections of steps (about 2000 ft in elevation) and I was winded by the time we got to the top! It was such an amazing sight to see first hand and to experience without the usual crowds of tourists.
One piece of advice I would give to someone planning on going to the Badaling section of The Wall in late February would be to bundle up! My blanket scarf from Moorea Seal was such a life saver while we battled chilly winds up the 12″ tall steps. I would also recommend gloves – which I regretfully didn’t bring – because the metal hand rails get pretty gnarly from the cold. Needless to say, I caved and bought a hot dog from one of the street vendors to try to stay warm!
It took just over an hour to climb up and down the few sections of stairs at Badaling. We also went up the “easy side”, which was not all that easy in my opinion (I mean, look at those stairs behind me!!) . I would hate to see what the “hard side” looks like! Haha!
Without the usual Beijing traffic, it took just over 2 hours to get from The Great Wall back to the downtown core of Beijing. All in all, a well spent 12 hours of playing tourist in this history-rich city.