Deciding what things to do in China on a 72-hour layover. Our itinerary centered around Beijing. The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tiananmen & the Ming Tombs.
Not only were our expectations fulfilled, we actually were blown away by Beijing.
We only had a total of 3 days to visit as much as possible in Beijing. The visas for China are expensive for Americans and a lot of trouble to apply for. They do demand a visa from every person visiting and we decided to do this 72 hours on our way to Mongolia. You can do a 72-hour visit without applying for a visa.
This is what we found we could cram into 72 hours and still get some sleep. Not the best way to visit China but we knew we would be back.
When we got the chance to go to China in a 72-hour stop-over, the first thought that went through our heads was “Of course – Beijing!”. I mean, if you go to China and don't visit Beijing, can you say you have been to China at all?
Landing in Beijing we immediately got a feeling of something different. The feeling was much different than the other countries we had visited. We knew, from that feeling, this was going to be a fast, non-stop thrilling adventure.
Things To Do In Beijing
We were going to concentrate on two main areas: The Forbidden City Area of Beijing and The Great Wall of China.
The city is huge but easy to navigate. Everything you want to see and do is easy to reach by taxi. The cost is usually less than $2.90 for anything you will want to visit. (October 2018). Taxis proved to be one of the cheapest services in China.
The Forbidden City
We decided to make our first day the one we had to spend in Beijing. The forbidden city would be our first stop of the day. The city itself covers 1,600,000 square feet. That takes some time to see and you will still miss much of it on your first visit.
This was the palace of the Ming Dynasty of China and later the Qing dynasty. The city, located in the center of Beijing now houses a museum and art area. The city was the home to the emperors of China and families for over 500 years. All staff including housing, gardening, and landscape as well as military guards. The city was also the seat of all politics.
Construction of the city took 15 years. There are 980 buildings in the 1/2 square mile area. The city is the largest collection of structures made with only wood in the world. Forbidden City is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city is under the care of the Palace Museum. Many of the artifacts are now moved to the National Palace Museum in Taipei. You will still find that there are plenty here to give you the feel of what it was like over 500 years ago.
You can walk through the city and touching the stone rails used by the ancient emperors. The city was a mystery to most of China and the entire world for many years. You can now see and touch the entire city they were in such awe of.
The Forbidden City Park Grounds
The area around the buildings is unique in its own right. The park areas are huge. They have benches to sit beneath the trees that are as old as the city itself.
We sat for an hour watching men and women practice a ballet routine involving a small racquet and a ball. Every movement they made was crisp, quick and in sync together. They made movements over the head, behind their back, and through their legs. Staying in sync they never dropped the ball.
The movements choreographed to music playing on a cassette player. When a song finished another one would start and a different routine started. I am sure that these were well known. When a person left another took their place and already knew the routines.
This took place under a grove of beautiful trees. The research I did led me to find out they are “Consort Pines” and some as old as the city itself.
The tree trunks twist and make unique spirals as they grow. There are many of these trees in the Royal Garden area of the city. This area was a special place for the family to have tea and entertain important guests.
Beijing: Jingshan Park
We left the Forbidden City and exited through the north gates into an area known as the Jingshan Park. The park is 25 acres in size and was built 500 years before the Forbidden City itself.
The parks intended purpose was to be the Royal Garden of the emperors. Later the park was the resting place for the dirt excavated from the moat that surrounds the city. The dirt makes a 150-meter tall hill that gives great photographs of the entire Forbidden city complex. There are now 5 sections with a pavilion in each.
The last Ming emperor lost a battle to the rebel forces of Li Zicheng. After the battle, he went to the top of the hill and hanged himself.
The north moat separated the city and the hill. A street has run alongside the moat. Climb to the top of the hill for a grand view of the entire city.
The park is a very popular place for locals. The park is somewhat overlooked by people passing through Beijing. I only found it by looking at a map of the Forbidden City.
The park is a great place to get photographs. You can photograph the park and local people singing, dancing and performing Kuiaban. Kuiaban is a form of oral storytelling much like the rap lyrics of today. The teller usually uses two wooden clapboards to provide a beat to the tale.
It is also a popular photo-shoot area. Jingshan Park is a fun and interesting place to see, so be sure to visit it along with the Forbidden City.
Nearby Tiananmen Square
The next stop, historical Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world.
Standing in the place where the revolution took place was inspiring. I remember watching this take place as a child in America. The people protesting, and the spot of the most famous photograph in history. I remembered in the news on television of the single man stopping the Chinese tanks in 1989. That photograph has been seen by more people than any other in history.
The Great Wall of China
This iconic landmark is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Getting up to the Wall is difficult in several ways. There are three main sections of the wall that are open to the public. The one you choose will determine the number of people you will share the space with. The difference can mean a Trip To The Great Wall or a GREAT Trip To The Great Wall.
Do keep in mind that hiking the wall is not the only difficult part of the trip. Walking up to the area where you can catch a cable car to the top can be a difficult task for some people. The wall is not built on any flat area and follows the contours of the mountains. There are 1000s of steps and walking can be difficult.
When you ask anyone in China how old the wall is, they will tell you 2000 years old. While some of the work began that long ago. The majority of the construction occurred between 1400 to 1600 about 500 to 700 years ago.
The Three Sections to Choose From
All three of the sections listed below have been rehabbed and contain cable car lifts. You will still be able to see and walk on the older sections of the Wall if you like. You must be careful and watch your footing. The stones have deteriorated and are smooth and slippery in some places.
We have visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan in Myanmar, The Pyramids in Cairo along with the Temples in Luxor during the last 15 months.
Each of those sights is great in their own right and you should make it a point to visit them all. The Great Wall might be the greatest engineering feat in history based on the scale and time it took to create.
That opinion is not shared by others, I am sure. As a destination, I would not rate it No. 1. The 4200 temples and pagodas in Bagan is my first choice along these lines.
3 Sections of the Great Wall Near Beijing
The main sections of the Wall are close to the Beijing area. Following is a bit about three areas to visit. Each is a two-hour to three-hour bus trip depending on the section you choose. I have visited the Badaling and Jinshanling sections. I will never return to Badaling for the reason below.
1. Badaling Wall – This section is only 50 km. from Beijing and being the closest it is the one that is most packed with people. During a weekday visit, I could not find a section that was not covered in people. You will only have three to four hours to spend on the wall and the people can make it impossible.
2. Jinshanling – This is is a preferred section to visit but it still provides a distinct problem. There are far fewer people who visit this section. The tour bus will drop you off at one end and pick you up at the other. The section covers 10.4 kilometers or around 7 miles.
10.5 does not sound like a long distance but, the steps and hills make it difficult. This is not the section to visit unless you are in tip-top shape.
Choose this section if you want to have more alone time. Be sure you can cover the distance in the allotted time or the bus will leave you there miles from the city.
3. Mutianyu Wall – We choose the Mutianyu section and it was good for our fitness level. Accessing the wall is easier as well. The total length covers only 5.4 kilometers and it is easier to visit.
Most of the year the mountains are about 96% covered with trees and vegetation that provides beautiful views. The most striking view is from Tower 23 at the end of the section overlooking the Mutianyu Pass.
The hike does take a good effort to complete the steps required in your allotted time. Remembering you must travel to that end and back to the drop-off point in the allotted time.
The Great Wall Guard Tower
This section has two options to return back to the bottom of the mountain. You can return on the same cable car that took you to the top. The other options is a toboggan ride back down. The toboggan trip is thrilling and I would recommend it.
The neatest part is that you can choose to take a toboggan ride back down. The trip down is a thrill you don't want to miss.
Tell your tour guide that this is what you want so he can steer you toward the correct place for tickets to go up.
Fabulous Ming Tombs
North of Beijing about 25 or so miles are the fabulous Ming Tombs. Located near Tianshou Mountain, they are also known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty.
The emperors of the Ming Dynasty are buried here in distinctive mausoleums. The area covers over 120 square kilometers (45 Miles).
One needs far more time to spend there than we had. These are some of the best-preserved relics in China. Millions of tourists visit them each year.
Each of the emperors has his mausoleum, all are very similar and yet distinctive. There can be a small distance or in some cases miles between each tomb. You need at least 1 or 2 days if you wish to visit the entire site.
The tombs, save one, are built in the shape of a large oriental hand fan. The only one not part of that group is the Siling Tomb which is all alone in a different area of the park.
These tombs represent great archaeological relics of China. They show you the harmony of the Chinese people and their culture. These are a must see if you have more than three days to find things to do in Beijing
Our Impressions of China
We did not have the ability to spend enough time in China to give you a complete, in-depth opinion. The was a non-stop rush when we visited Beijing and is hard to form an opinion of a country when rushed. I would love to have visited some of the smaller towns of the country as well.
We found that Beijing was much more like a Western or European city than most of the others we visited in SE Asia. I am sure that we would have found Tokyo to be that way as well.
We did not get quite a welcoming feel as in other places. The people were not rude but not as outgoing as other countries. People were more fixed on where they were going and did not take as much time to say hello. That is not uncommon with any large urban population.
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At the Forbidden City, we did have one beautiful little girl come up to us with two handfuls of cherries. She wanted to share while her smiling father looked on. Many times the children are a little taken aback since we look so different from the rest of the population. It did not bother this young lady.
Accommodations and Food
Last we did have such a great experience at Lee's across from our hotel Dragon King Hostel. The restaurant is open from only 4:30 pm to 10 pm and you will usually have to wait 15 or 20 minutes for a table.
They offered about 15 types of grilled, flavored and bar-b-que chicken wings, and had the same in mutton, chicken, shrimp, beef, pork, and yes chicken feet.
They had fresh scallops in the shell with cheese, soy sauce, and wasabi flavoring. I have never tried wasabi but had heard of it so often I had to try. It was unique, much like horseradish but much much stronger. Wasabi will definitely clear your sinus passages and really warm you up and, the wasabi scallops are very good.
Find the place and eat a great meal while you are in town, We were only in town for three nights and two of them we spent at Lee's. We also had the cheese scallops and they were excellent. Unless you are a lover of hot/spicy food, I would steer clear of the wasabi.
We would love to have visited more places in China such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tibet. The time allotted to us only gave us this brief glimpse.