Beijing: The Must-See Sights

Many people go to Beijing mainly to see one of the world’s wonders, the massive Great Wall of China. This was a huge reason for my decision to vacation in China as well, but I also just wanted to experience the country, or at least parts of it. China has a long history with such a profound influence on the rest of eastern Asia. Aside from the Great Wall (which is located a bit outside of town) the city of Beijing itself has plenty of historical landmarks.

The Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, Summer Palace, and Temple of Heaven are generally considered the main “must-see” attractions in Beijing city. Beihai Park and the Tibetan-style Lama Temple are also popular attractions. All of these sans the Summer Palace are centrally located.

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Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City.
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The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven.
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The smaller but cute Imperial Vault of Heaven.
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The White Dagoba at Beihai Park.

There’s already a lot of information out there on Beijing’s main tourist sights, but I’ll try to provide some helpful tips. I stayed 6 nights in Beijing and really could have stayed longer, though it was enough to cover pretty much everything I wanted to do. I also went in winter where it got dark very early (at 5 pm) and all of Beijing’s major sights require daylight and often a few hours to really take in (the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in particular are huge, not to mention the Great Wall). They also require a lot of walking. Be sure to have good walking shoes and be prepared for extreme weather if going in the winter or summer (lucky for me early January was mild this year). I got pretty tired out having to wake up early and cram a lot in before 5 pm, but I went a bit slower toward the end of my time in Beijing.

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My feet weren’t as happy as this dragon thing (dragon/elephant?) after 6 days of constant walking around the sights in Beijing.

The pollution in Beijing is a huge problem, and the city was covered with haze the first few days I was there. To be safe, the N95 mask is supposed to protect against pollution so it is probably a good idea to have at least one. I wore a mask sometimes, but I didn’t really like wearing it so I often took it off. I didn’t notice any effect on my allergies from breathing in the air short term, but those with asthma or more sensitivity could have issues. While I have seen air pollution in Korean cities, the pollution in Beijing seemed to be quite a bit worse than anything I’d seen in Korea (granted I don’t live in Seoul).

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Thankfully, the pollution cleared after a couple of days which made the air breathable and the skies blue. I visited the Summer Palace on a clear day and it was gorgeous.

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The temperature dropped somewhat after the air got better but I think it was a worthy trade-off.

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Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum in Tienanmen Square. Be sure to bring your passport to go into Tienanmen square, everyone has to have an ID check.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the meal options at the main tourist sights generally aren’t that good. From what I remember the Forbidden City only had one food area and it was basically cafeteria food meals so it’s a good idea to bring snacks and eat lunch after touring the palace. Public restrooms in China also rarely have a Western toilet and often do not have toilet paper or soap, so absolutely have sanitary wipes and tissue stocked (I was very annoyed when I ran out of either and forgot to buy more). This holds true even in many airport and mall bathrooms.

The entrance fees for Beijing’s sights were actually very reasonable, which surprised me. The Forbidden city is 60 yuan (9 USD) during high season and 40 yuan (6 USD) in low season (a plus of visiting China in winter). However there are sections of the palaces and the Temple of Heaven that require additional entrance fees should you choose to visit them, but they are usually low.

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The Imperial Garden behind the Forbidden City.
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Tienanmen Square lit up at night.
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The Lama Temple. While it’s popular the crowds aren’t too bad here.

I used an English audio guide for a small fee (and a deposit) at the Forbidden City and Summer Palace. There are plenty of people claiming to be guides, but this can be a scam in China. I believe some of the tourist guides are legitimate but I prefer audio guides anyway. The palace audio guides detected where I was and then described the history and purpose of the building.

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And also why these fierce lions are everywhere in old Chinese architecture.

Very little English is spoken in Beijing, and I knew this before going there so I bought a roaming plan for my cell phone at the airport, though its also possible to buy a Chinese SIM card. Having internet meant I could use Google Maps to find places and figure out where the nearest subway stop was. I never used the bus in Beijing because no stops are in English, so the subway was my general means of transport. If a subway station wasn’t near I would find the nearest one using Maps and hail a taxi, then point to the station on the Beijing subway map (which was in English and Chinese) so the driver could take me there.

Getting the Chinese visa from Korea seems to be easier now than it was in the past. As a US citizen, my visa was very expensive but it’s now multiple entry for 10 years (I specified on the visa application that I wanted the 10 year visa), allowing a 60 day stay for each entry. There used to be a requirement of having 6 months left on  your Alien Registration Card to get a Chinese visa, but that is no longer the case (I didn’t have that long on mine). I got my visa through Soho Travel, an English speaking travel company with an office in Hongdae in Seoul. After emailing them asking about the visa they sent the visa application and a list of other required documents (passport, ARC, and a certificate of employment from my school).

I brought the documents and visa fee to their office on a Friday after school (they are not open on weekends) and got my visa the next Friday after.

I stayed 6 nights at the Beijing Drum Tower Youth Hostel. This hostel has capsule-style dorm rooms and regular private rooms. Capsule A’s have an ensuite bathroom while Capsule B’s have a shared bath. Prices vary depending on the time of year but the ensuite capsule was about $20 USD a night (including tax) and the regular capsules are a few dollars cheaper. The double rooms are also fairly cheap. Location is great, very central and just a few steps away from a subway. There’s tons of restaurants and cafes on the street and it’s a 10 minute walk to the Hou Hai lake area, which is a popular Hutong (traditonal Chinese house) neighborhood. It’s also on the same subway line as the Beijing North railway station (for the Badaling Great Wall) and the airport railroad. The hostel has a restaurant/bar that serves mostly Western food, I had breakfast there twice and dinner once and all meals were good, however not all the items on their menu are actually available.

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View of the Drum and Bell tower, taken from the hostel’s roof.
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The Hou Hai area at night.

The main problem I had with the place was the temperature in the room. The capsules do not have their own heating or air conditioning, there was some ventilation so the heating from the hall could come into the room but it wasn’t really enough. The staff did offer an extra blanket which helped a lot. I noticed that the non-ensuite capsules seemed to have more ventilation and are smaller so they may be better, but I never stayed in one so I can’t say for sure. Also, the capsules (being capsules and all) are very small, I’m only 158 cm so I was able to stand up straight but tall people would have to have their heads bent the whole time, so I wouldn’t really recommend it for anyone tall unless it’s a really short stay.

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