Beijing is huge, and everywhere we went is at least an hour by car. Use the subway if you can. People warned us there’s a lot of walking involved and too many attractions to cram in a few days, but we managed well by averaging 2-3 places per day with my father who is 75 years old and had two strokes. It is for this reason that we avoided package tours that take tourists around in buses under a fixed itinerary. After agreeing on a more flexible schedule, our guide arranged for a driver and his non-English speaking wife to take us around. It was a lot cheaper and more important, gave us better control of our itinerary. Although we wish Mario accompanied us himself we still recommend him. He is very nice, sincere, and helpful. He steered us from very touristy places. It was good that he bought us a SIM card for our mobile for only RMB 20 so we could communicate with him any time.
At least on our first day we took the subway to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City during rush hour. It was crazy and crowded, but cheap and efficient. There are maps and signs that shows the stops. The square is very, very huge, surrounded by different important government buildings. At sunset hundreds gather around the flag pole to watch the soldiers perform the special ceremony of lowering the flag.
Following the advice of other travelers, we visited the less crowded Great Wall in Mutianyu, instead of the more accessible one in Badaling. A family friend counted at least 50 tourist buses when he visited Badaling. Mutianyu is about 2 hours from our hotel. We opted to go up by cable car, although Brian was keen to use the chairlift/toboggan combo. That was his biggest regret. I didn’t like the vendors there as they blocked our way and shoved shirts at our faces. They were offering t-shirts for as low as 3 for $1, and we learned later that this is for children’s shirts. Our guide Mario bought us good ones for $3.
Almost all places we visited have more than one entrance fee. At the Temple of Heaven, for example, there was another fee to enter the inner part. The TOH is my favorite of all. After a while one gets tired of the buildings and temples. The TOH, at least, is a park frequented by locals engaged in a variety of activities like singing, playing, dancing, etc. The atmosphere is as colorful as New York Central Park and Bangkok Lumpini Park in that regard.
We didn’t do much at night as we were usually tired from all the walking and commuting. We’re glad that our guide arranged for us to see the acrobat show at discounted rates. We enjoyed the show put on by jugglers, dancing girls, shaolin fighters, and unicyclists. After the show we walked to a local restaurant where our guide Mario did the ordering for us. We had roast duck and other tasty dishes like lamb on sizzling plate, lotus root, and shredded potato.
We also did the Hutong Alley Tour, which was somewhat disappointing for me due to the lack of information. Our escort and rickshaw drivers didn’t speak English. It would have been nice to know the history of the Old Beijing.
We’d definitely want to visit Beijing again, and knowing what we know now, will allow more time like half a day for each stop whether it’s shopping or major attraction, especially because of the traffic and distance getting from one place to another.
Our biggest regret in this area is ignoring all tips that everything is negotiable, and to start at 10 percent of the first price quoted. Even half the price is still way too much. In hindsight, there was nothing there that we couldn’t buy in Thailand and Philippines, like the silk, jade, and pearls. If I knew how much the items cost in those other countries, I would have better bargaining power. At any rate, I’m still pleased I bought items that China is traditionally famous for: jade, silk, pearls, and tea. We also got cheap knock-offs as presents.
On the bright side, most shop clerks speak English and ended up translating for our escort, the non-English speaking wife of our guide.
Jade Factory – didn’t really care for it but our guide Rick brought us there for his free lunch and commission. The briefing was at least informative. We learned that all jade jewelry are hard jade from Burma/Myanmar. China has soft jade, used for sculptures. I bought a ring and my father bought me a charm bracelet.
Silk Factory – another tourist trap. Our guide promised us a 20 percent discount as he was waiving his commission, but this was not communicated to the shop clerks. It was at least interesting as we have never seen silk cocoons. We also learned that silk carpets are much cheaper in Pakistan. They have a similar carpet that costs double, but we’re not good bargainers to begin with. Favorite purchase: silk quilt blanket. Prices here are higher but the quality are better. I didn’t like it when they invited us for drinks and then made us pay for it. Our card said free gift for purchases at a certain amount, and all we got for buying 3x that amount is a packet of bookmarks.
Flea Market – I wish we had more time here and knew where everything was. Lots of paintings, jade and wood carvings, brass and porcelain items. Our guide warned us that the antiques here are cheap, but we find the craftmanship good just the same. Favorite purchase: wood carving of a sax musician.
Hongqiao (Pearl) Market and Russian Market are both good places to shop for cheap knock-offs to bring home as presents. The Pearl Market is just across the street from the East Gate of the Temple of Heaven. I bought cultured pearls, aka fresh-water pearls, as these are cheap and come in a good variety of colors and shape. I found out that silk-pashmina scarves are cheaper here than in Islamabad at RMB 70.
We bought a dozen DVDs at the Russian Market, and should have known that they can’t be legal at only RMB 10 each. The quality was okay but some movies were in Russian or Spanish with hilarious English subtitles, if it had one at all.
Our room got cramped after the extra bed for my father was added next to the king-size bed, but we all slept comfortably. There’s an foreign exchange machine in the lobby, which looks like an ATM, but will only convert US$ and Euros for RMB. We found all the hotel staff polite, efficient, friendly, and helpful.
The breakfast buffet was nice, offering a variety of Western and Chinese dishes. You can order omelette and french toast, or Chinese pancakes from the chef. I also had dumplings and spaghetti cooked in front of me at the noodle counter.
We like our hotel’s location: next to it is Sizzlers and Pizza Company. Also just around the corner if you turn left is a fruit shop, 5-storey department store with supermarket in the basement, and the subway station. Softdrinks and bottled water are only RMB 2 in the supermarket compared to RMB 8 in tourist traps.
MacDonalds is just across the street and accessible through a pedestrian cross bridge. Late in the evening (around 10 pm), especially on weekends, street vendors sell bags, shirts, trinkets, footwear, DVDs, watches, and other wares in this area. There are also local restaurants within walking distance on the right.