Having lived in Beijing for nearly 5 years, I knew it would be hard to plan the perfect itinerary for a 36 hour tour for my Mother in Law and especially so considering that we would have our 6 week old son Charlie in tow! I ultimately decided not to over-schedule us and chose what we found to be a good combination between the bucket list landmarks and my favorite local places that were still around… since it’s been 15 years since I last lived there!
High Speed Train to Beijing
One of my favorite things about living in China is how well developed and fast the high-speed train network has become. When I last lived in China it would take me a 12 hour overnight sleeper train to get from Beijing to Shanghai. Now all you need to do is take the subway to Hongqiao Railway Station, pick up your tickets, go through security, board your train and 5 hours later you are in Beijing. Really amazing just how accessible these high speed trains make the entire country and especially locations that previously couldn’t be considered for a weekend getaway if you wanted to avoid airports.
The downside though when you take a late train and get into Beijing past 11pm is that many exits are closed and the ones that are open don’t have elevators. So we had a less than pleasant time making our way out to the street. Once out of the station, it was pretty easy to call for a Didi (local uber) to our hotel, which was as centrally located as possible being literally next door to the Forbidden City. The picture below was the view from our hotel rooms. This should have been quite impressive to my Mother-in-Law but unfortunately she didn’t open her curtains in the morning so had to suggest she do so.
Grand Hotel Beijing
The Grand Hotel Beijing is relatively old and probably shouldn’t be considered a proper 5 star hotel but it’s location and views of the Forbidden City made it the best choice for such a quick trip. The traffic can be so bad in Beijing that we wanted to minimize our dependency on transportation. The biggest roll of the dice with this hotel is whether or not your room will smell like an ashtray. Smoking is still extremely common in China and often still allowed indoors, so we were lucky that both our rooms were acceptable. (Though there was still a faint staleness of smoke.) The beds weren’t the best either but as tired as we were it didn’t really matter and we had an early morning for a big day on Saturday.
The Great Wall
As far away as the Great Wall is from Beijing, at least the one we wanted to go to (Mutianyu), I highly recommend avoiding any type of tour group. The last thing you want to do is have to wait around for others on the tour, be rushed at places you want to spend extra time, or heaven forbid be taken to a jade museum that happens to also have all the souvenirs you never wanted. So we found a service on Trip Advisor that offered a driver that spoke English for a flat fee that covered us for the day and would let us have full control over our schedule. It wasn’t the nicest car, and it was a sedan so we rode three deep in the back seat, but the driver was really friendly and he was punctual so we were able to hit the road as planned. Unfortunately, the planned time still wasn’t early enough and we still got caught in the weekend exodus traffic.
Once we got out of the city we managed to find some back roads that while longer in distance, they were less congested and allowed us to see a bit more of the outskirts of Beijing. Luckily our driver “knew a guy” so we were able to drive past the parking lot for everyone else and up into the local village that was at the foot of the Great Wall. This was clutch because just as we arrived Charlie had a massive blowout that required all hands on deck. Once we got him all sorted we headed up the road to find a cable car up to the wall.
Lauren will dispute the description and call it false advertising as while there was a cable, the seats attached to said cable were not in any kind of “car”. She reluctantly allowed me to go with Charlie in our Baby Bjorn carrier and it turned out just fine. We got to the top and it was a beautiful sunny day without the normal blanket of smog. Lauren’s mom was in awe of how the Great Wall snaked across the horizon. I found a little makeshift cafe that was just on the side of the Great Wall and got a table for Charlie and I to hang out while Lauren and her Mom explored some of the Wall’s guard towers. In the blistering heat it didn’t take too long for them to head back and we were off back down the mountain, with me in the Cable “Car” and them taking the toboggan slide down.
Liqun’s Roast Duck
We had to hurry back from the wall because I wanted to try and get to the Temple of Heaven before dinner but alas the traffic didn’t cooperate. Plus, after seeing how hot it was outside we didn’t think spending more time in the blistering sun was a good ideas, especially with the Forbidden City the next day. So we went straight back to the hotel to get cleaned up and then enjoyed a leisurely walk through a park that was one block east and parallel to Tiananmen Square.
This took us down to a neighborhood called Qianmen, or front gate, which is a collection of small Hutongs or alleys that have many old Siheyuan or courtyard homes. It looked quite a bit different from the days when my buddy Dylan and I would ride our bikes with the intent to get lost and have to find our way back. We found our way down to where we were to have dinner and there was already a wait only 30 minutes after they had opened.
Nevertheless, I knew Liqun’s Kaoya Dian was worth it so we got on the list and then started to explore the alleys while we waited. We found some cool old doors with traditional decorations to bring good luck and fortune so I just had to get a picture with Charlie. We let the time get past us and ended up missing our turn to be seated so by the time we got back we had to get back on the list.
It didn’t take too long and gave us an opportunity to watch them roasting the ducks right there at the entrance to the restaurant. It was fascinating to see them deftly lift the ducks into the oven, rearrange them and eventually bring the dark brown roasted delicacy out to be hung and cooled prior to service. This was the first place that I realized having an Uppababy Vista stroller was not a smart travel idea. It was no fun getting it into the little room in which we were seated but once at the table we had a magnificent feast of duck and all kinds of other traditional Chinese food. It had been so long since I had proper Beijing Roast Duck that I couldn’t get enough. Since there were only a few of us, we were seated at a large table with another group who were students. It was fun to listen in on their conversations and be taken back to those days. Once we had polished off the duck it was time to get going to Tiananmen Square
We made our way out of the Hutong alley and towards the Qianmen Gate that sits just south of Tiananmen Square and the entrance of the Forbidden City. There was a tremendous amount of security there that I didn’t recall from my previous visits so long ago. I’m not sure if that’s now just standard, if it was to manage the summer crowds of tourists or if there was something going on such a visiting foreign dignitaries. We opted to avoid the security lines going into the square and just walk along side. Plus, just at this point Charlie started to let us know that he required attention and luckily we managed to avoid a full on blowout. However, that did mean that we had put him on the ground next to Tiananmen Square and change his diaper right there for all the inquisitive Chinese to see. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad so I was able to get it done quickly and Lauren had a bottle of milk ready to go for the rest of the walk back. It was an awesome first day but we were exhausted and needed all the rest we could get for the Forbidden City the next day.
Sunday morning we all seemed to get going a little slower than planned so by the time we walked over to the Forbidden City the lines go get in were already a sea of people for as far as the eye could see. It must have taken us a solid 30-45 minutes just to get through the external security and more or less be carried by the crowd into the front gate, known as the Meridian Gate, that opened up to large area where the ticket windows were located just to the sides of the actual entrance, or the Gate of Supreme Harmony. We had purchased tickets online in advance because I had heard they had to start limiting the visitors but we still had to find the line from which to pick them up. By the looks of the crowd, it seems that the ticket limit was only set to manage safety and not for the purpose of improving the visitor’s experience. I tried one line and it was wrong and then Lauren suggested that I stay with Charlie and her mom in the shade and let her go get the tickets. She finally came back after what felt like half an hour with tickets in hand. I was feeding Charlie a bottle and we all had a laugh about how we were all already exhausted and we had not yet even entered the Palace!
We walked through the Gate of Supreme Harmony down the center of the open expanse towards the first main structure, the Hall of Supreme Harmony. While, weather was really harsh with the bright sun and the intense heat, the cloudless and pollution free sky presented some amazing photo opportunities. So I suggested that Lauren continue up to the main building with her mom and I would get Charlie out of the crowds and walk in the shade along the side walls.
This way I could also get some better pictures without so many people since most everyone was also staying out of the sun and were concentrated in the path through the main palace buildings. But before we separated I insisted that we try to get some good pictures of Charlie. Unfortunately, as hot as it was, he wasn’t particularly photogenic so after some appropriate prodding from Lauren we gave up and continued walking through the complex.
I managed to get some great pictures and even one without a single person visible, which was miraculous considering how many people were in fact there but I guess they all wanted to get out of the sun even more so than we did.
I pushed my way through the crowds and found a small shop to buy water but they were sold out! I was actually starting to worry about how hot Charlie was getting as I was starting to get light headed and we only had one bottle left. It was at this point that I tried to call Lauren and could not get a phone signal or get a message out. There were so many people that the cellular networks were not working and then I really started to worry whether I would find them in the massive crowds. Plus at this point I had pretty much given up on any sightseeing or pictures and my papa bear instincts just wanted to get Charlie out of there.
That was just when my height came in handy as Lauren was able to see me from a distance and make their way over to the building from which I was taking cover from the sun. They shared my sentiment and we made our way through the rest of the complex as quickly as possible. This still required us going along some pretty amazing palace buildings like the Palace of Heavenly Purity as well as through the Imperial Gardens. Then we were finally able to go through the Gate of Divine Might and exit just south of Jingshan Park. Earlier in the morning I had thought that we would go up to the top of Jingshan Park, which has an amazing view of the entire Forbidden City complex, but that definitely not happening. We immediately proceeded out to the east, found a vendor selling water and only once we were in the shade of the trees along the north side of the moat surrounding the Palace did we start to feel less claustrophobic. We stopped to take a picture with one of the corner towers in the background and proceeded to head back to the hotel.
However, after walking the length of the Forbidden City in the sweltering heat, the last thing we wanted to do was walk all the way back! So as we walked, Lauren and I debated the relative risk of getting in a taxi without a car seat vs keeping Charlie out in the heat for another 45 minutes while we walked back. It proved to be irrelevant as there were no taxis available and the only option that we had was to all hop in a small motorized cart. Under normal circumstances this would not be an option but at this point we simply needed to be out of the heat. So I asked in mandarin how much it was and did not even bother negotiating as the price wasn’t too outrageous and he could see our desperation. 10 minutes later we were at the door to our hotel with a bit of time to clean up before heading back to Shanghai.
Return to Shanghai
Once we were on the train, Charlie didn’t seem phased in the slightest by the adventures of the morning and as you can see by the photo here, was as happy as could be. It was a much more interesting train ride for Lauren’s mom as this time she could see more of the country side, which is one of my favorite aspects of traveling by train. It is really easy to forget how much of a bubble we live in and just how different the rest of the country looks in comparison to Shanghai.
If you only have 36 hours, I think these are definitely the key places to go and if you don’t have the constraints of a smaller child then the other additions that I would suggest you might be able to fit in are Jingshan Park, the Temple of Heaven and Houhai lake. In hindsight though, I wish I’d taken a day of vacation and allowed for us to have a full 48 hours.