A few days in Palau was enough for us – we were more than ready to get back to civilization. We had a three day (exactly 71 hours) stopover in Beijing, which meant no need to apply for a visa, since China allows you to transit for 72 hours or less without a visa (there are many conditions – check them before you book!). Getting from Palau to Beijing required three flights, from Palau to Guam, Guam to Tokyo, and Tokyo to Beijing. Unfortunately, there was no business class awards available on the dates we wanted, so these were all in economy. How sad to travel in economy after all our business class flights! But I guess we’ll have to get used to normal life again at some point.
To break up the flights, we decided to take a 23 hour layover at Tokyo Narita Airport. Aeroplan lets you have unlimited layovers lasting <23 hours, so we were able to get layovers in Tokyo and Cairo in addition to our three destinations (Bangkok, Palau, and Beijing).
As the name implies, Tokyo Narita Airport is located in Narita, about an hour by train from central Tokyo. Since we didn’t have that much time, we decided to spend our 23 hours in Narita, where the city centre is an 8 minute train ride from the airport.
Our flight left Palau at 3:00 am, and after a six hour layover in Guam we arrived, very sleep-deprived, in Narita at 3:40 pm. We took the train one stop to the centre of Narita and walked to our hotel, the APA Hotel Keiseinarita-ekimae. The hotel was relatively expensive at $90 CAD for the night – especially given the size of the room. The room was tiny (the whole room was barely bigger than the bed), but very cozy and clean. Compared to our hotel in Palau, it felt like the ultimate luxury!
After a short nap, we headed out to find dinner. We walked along the main street before finding Ramen Bayashi, a nice little ramen place that’s decorated wall to wall with airline paraphernalia. The crowd was probably half Japanese and half foreign pilots and flight attendants, so we knew we found a good place. The ramen more than lived up to expectations.
Since our flight was only leaving at 3:00pm the next day, we had the entire morning to explore the streets of Narita. After a quick breakfast at McDonald’s (we couldn’t resist) we walked the length of the main street. It’s a surprisingly charming little street, about a kilometre long, filled with restaurants, street food, and various touristy shops. The stores are all nicely decorated and very accessible, and the food made us regret buying McDonald’s.
We also ran into a small flea market (our favourite!) where we were able to make some small purchases, despite the difficulty of haggling in a foreign language.
The street ends at the Narita-san temple, which is free to enter and walk around.
It’s also surrounded by a bunch of food stalls selling interesting street food. But instead we stopped at Ramen Bayashi again. One ramen stop was not enough!
From there we walked back to our hotel and took the train to the airport, where we boarded our Air China flight to Beijing!
Our flight was a little delayed so we landed in Beijing at 7:00 pm, about 30 minutes later than scheduled. Customs also took a while, so it was pretty late by the time we got to the taxi line, which was also very long. Every line in and around the Beijing airport seems to be a lot slower than it should be. We waited in lines for a total of three hours during our two experiences at the airport (flying in and out), so make sure to come early and exercise patience.
I had a screenshot of our hotel’s name in Chinese, but for some reason the first taxi driver we went to didn’t know where it is. We let him go and were approached by a thousand fake taxi drivers, but we ignored them and found another real taxi driver, who called our hotel (I had their number) and got directions from them. Make sure you carry your hotel’s number! This is apparently a common practice in China – you give the taxi driver your hotel name, they don’t recognize it at all (all translations are unreliable, I guess?), and then they ask for the number or business card. The whole situation can be quite stressful, given that you just arrived in a foreign country and cannot speak the language. And you are being harassed by fake taxi drivers claiming they know where your hotel is. Be prepared! Once we finally got in a good taxi that called our hotel, the drive took about 30 minutes, and cost a little under 100 RMB ($20 CAD).
While in Beijing we stayed at the Novotel Peace Wangfujing, a 4.5 star hotel in the upscale Wangfujing district. Normally this hotel would be way outside of our price range – the breakfast alone cost over $30 per person! Somehow, I was able to find a great deal on hotels.com for $99/night, including tax and a free buffet breakfast for two! In reality it cost even less, since I got a 4.5% cash back rebate by booking on hotels.com through the link on greatcanadianrebates.ca, as well as hotels.com giving you a free night after ten paid nights. After staying in cheap places for the majority of our trip, it was an amazing treat to stay in this super-luxurious hotel.
Most people think of China as a warm Asian country, but the north of China (where Beijing is located) gets pretty cold in the winter months. On our first full day there (February 29) it was a few degrees above zero, which is pretty normal for that time of year. This caused us some trouble while packing: we didn’t want to pack too much heavy clothing for the month long trip, but we also didn’t want to have to purchase too much clothing in China to stay warm. We compromised by wearing our sweaters on the plane and squeezing our matching down coats from Uniqlo into our luggage, which take up very little room when rolled up.
Michelle, in spite of being born and raised in Canada, has a remarkably low tolerance for the mild cold. So we started off our first day with some shopping at the APM mall on Wangfujing street, a few minutes walk away from our hotel. It’s a huge mall with all the Western stores that’s fun to walk around, although the stores all have Western pricing. Like the malls in Bangkok, the top floors are filled with restaurants. Given that Beijing is a New York sized city, and that our area was filled with Prada and Gucci stores, we expected that we’d need to work to find cheap restaurants. But surprisingly, unlike the stores, the restaurants are extremely cheap, even the nice restaurants in the high-end malls. In fact, we found that restaurant prices in Beijing were on par with those in Chiang Mai, Thailand!
After our short shopping stop we decided to go to the Houhai Lake district, which the concierge at our hotel recommended as a nice area to walk around. It’s possible to take the subway there, but it was much faster to take a taxi. Taxis in Beijing were pretty cheap, with rides around central Beijing usually costing 20-25 RMB ($4-5 CAD), so we took taxis everywhere and only used the subway once.
Houhai Lake and the streets running along its shores were very nice during the cold morning, but it was strangely empty. Instead we saw a sign for Year Hutong (alley), which was a nice “hutong” experience, filled with lots of smaller restaurants and shops. We found a fun store filled with hundreds of thermoses, mostly in the shape of Minions or other movie characters, so we did some good gift and souvenir shopping! After making our way down the Hutong we found ourselves on the large Gulou street, near the Drum Tower. We walked along the street until we saw a busy restaurant that looked interesting. Like most restaurants in Beijing, you order by checking your choices on a sheet of paper. We were the only non-Chinese there, but they were able to accommodate us. They had one bilingual menu, and we would point to what we wanted and they would tick it off on the Chinese menu. We came prepared with a piece of paper that says “vegetarian, no meat, no fish” in Chinese that someone at the hotel wrote for us, so that they wouldn’t give Michelle meat (the English menu wasn’t that easy to understand). Anyways, the food was great. We had ordered way too much (maybe 6 dishes), but it was fun to sample all the different dishes. Luckily the grand total was 60 RMB ($12 CAD). Food in Beijing is as cheap as it is in Thailand!
After lunch we walked around a little more before getting a cheap taxi back to the hotel. Later in the afternoon we took a taxi to the Temple of Heaven. We bought the combined ticket that gives you entry to all the temples (it was only a few dollars each), and spent an hour speed-walking in the cold. The Temple of Heaven was nice, but not that great. Most people say that it’s a must-see, but I would disagree.
For dinner we went to Grandma’s restaurant, in the APM mall. The entire fourth and fifth floors of the mall are filled with restaurants (real restaurants, not fast-food), so there’s a lot to choose from. We had read good reviews of Grandma’s online, and we certainly didn’t regret our choice. The line was about thirty minutes, but they give you a number so you can wander around the mall. Both times we went (we decided to go again the next evening!) we didn’t hear them call our number and consequently missed our seats. They were very accommodating though and agreed to seat us anyway.
The system of ordering was the same as at the other restaurant. Nobody spoke English, but they had a bilingual menu and were happy to help us. Our poor language skills and terrible chopstick abilities made us stick out like crazy, but every one was willing to give us a hand. A nice Chinese woman who spoke English actually approached us during our meal to teach us some better chopstick skills! Her adorable non-English speaking grandmother was very amused at our failing attempts.
The food itself was really good and extremely cheap for a nice restaurant. We got about 6 dishes for 60 RMB ($12 CAD), and that was two dishes too many. It was so good and cheap we returned the next night, where we had a two person feast for only $8!
The next day it was an abnormally warm 10 degrees. We decided to celebrate by spending the day at the Great Wall, the biggest attraction (in our opinion) in the Beijing area. Most tourists go to the Badaling section of the wall, which is only a 45 minute drive away, but we decided on the Mutianyu section, about 90 minutes away, because it is a little more scenic and a lot less crowded.
It is possible to reach Mutianyu by public transportation, but it is very time consuming and difficult if you don’t speak Chinese. Instead we decided to hire a car/taxi for the day. I had read online that you can negotiate a price of 400-500 RMB ($80-100 CAD) with any taxi driver, but I decided to see if our concierge could get us a good deal. He was able to get us a car and driver for 600 RMB ($120), including all tolls and parking fees. I accepted, since I figured any driver hired by a 5 star hotel would be better than a random taxi driver. In hindsight, I should have tried to save $20-40 by getting a taxi. Our car was nice, but the driver talked loudly on his phone for half of the car ride. He also took a convoluted route on small roads, probably to avoid tolls.
Our driver dropped us off at the visitor’s centre where we bought our tickets. There are three separate tickets to pay for: the entrance fee, a shuttle to bring you from the parking lot to the base of the mountain (very cheap, and saves you a lot of time), and transportation up and down the mountain.
There are four ways up or down the mountain.
– You could walk, but it is a long, difficult uphill hike that isn’t particularly scenic. It’s best to save your energy for hiking on the wall itself.
– There is an enclosed gondola, which brings you to Tower 14 of the wall. The Mutianyu section has 23 towers, and it’s a steep uphill climb from 1 to 23 (and downhill in the other direction). It would probably take about 5 hours to walk the whole thing, so most people walk around the central part of the wall, where the chairlift and gondola is.
– There is a chairlift, which brings you to Tower 7, below the gondola. It’s about an hour walk from the gondola to the chairlift if you walk fast and don’t stop to take pictures. If you visit the Great Wall in the winter and decide to take the chairlift, make sure to be extra bundled up, since if the chair lift were to break down you could be stuck there for a while.
– Right next to the chairlift there’s a Toboggan track, which you could take if you want some adrenaline. Obviously this is only an option for going down, not up.
We chose to take the gondola up and the chairlift down. The gondola and chairlift are owned by separate companies, so you need to buy two one-way tickets, which costs about $5 more than buying a return ticket for either one. We would definitely recommend taking this route. We walked downhill from the gondola to the chairlift, which took us about two hours. Surprisingly, most people did not take this route. If you get a return ticket, you’ll have to walk up and then backtrack down, or vice versa. We even saw a group walking from the chairlift to the gondola, which is only a good idea if you enjoy a very steep uphill climb.
All together, we spent 155 RMB ($31 CAD) each for the entrance fee, shuttle, gondola up, and chairlift down.
Walking on the wall was amazing, and I’m happy we got a warm day. It’s way bigger and grander than it looks in pictures, and there were almost no other tourists! We would often have big sections all to ourselves. It is much greener in the summer (it was mostly brown when we went, on March 1), but it was nice to not have any crowds.
When we got home, we spent the night walking around “snack street” off of Wangfujing, where we got to see (but not eat) some “interesting” street food.
After a long day of exploring the wall, we headed home for an early sleep. Our flight left the next afternoon, so we wanted to wake up bright and early to explore. We decided to go to the top tourist attraction in Beijing, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. It was interesting, but honestly we didn’t love it. If you’re short on time in Beijing, I wouldn’t feel bad about skipping it.
From Tiananmen Square we took the metro (really cheap – only about 20 cents each) to the Silk Market, which used to be a place where you can buy ridiculously cheap knockoff products with lots of room for negotiation. However, it has recently changed and it’s all nice stalls selling expensive products with little negotiation. A big waste of time. We left quickly, got a taxi back to the hotel (we had to walk around for a while before we found a taxi that was willing to use the meter), packed up and headed to the airport. Our flight to Chicago was a very long 13 hours, but when you’re in business class the time goes by too fast!
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