As the capital of China, Beijing seems to have it all—history, art, culture, entertainment, innovation. While I’ve been a few times, I was always just passing through or filing paperwork somewhere.
At long last, my most recent trip through the city gave me a few days to actually experience the wonders it has to offer and I was determined to fit into 3 days as much as humanly possible:
Day One: The Great Wall
After arriving late at night on a long-haul train, I snagged a few hours sleep and immediately took off for the Great Wall. Having been to the tourist hotspots of Badaling and Mutianyu in the past and battling the crowds of locals, I finally had the time for a proper Great Wall experience. Many hostels and tour groups offer transport to more remote sections of the wall that are totally worth it. This was by far my favorite Great Wall visit to an unnamed section roughly 2 hours from the city.
In a group of 9 people, we were dropped off at an access point and given 3 hours to hike 7 towers to the edge of Mongolia and back. Being mid-August, we were lugging jugs of water in temperatures of 102°. The hike itself was beyond difficult—the wall is steep, the steps countless, the towers deceptively far apart. The thing is, it’s not supposed to be easy. There is a saying in China that “One isn’t a true man or a hero until he has climbed the Great Wall.” Truly experiencing the Great Wall means putting your heart and soul into it, and in this case pushing your body as well. By the time we were making our way back, whenever anyone stood still you could see their legs involuntarily quaking—a sensation that lets you know you’re giving it your all.
It really was the perfect day, too. The views were stellar, the people were amazing, and we ended the trip exhausted feeling as if we’d truly achieved something in our time there.
Day Two: Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square/Night Markets
The next day I woke up so sore that climbing out of my bunk made me audibly groan in pain but I was determined to beat the lines at the Forbidden City, so an early start was a must. Popping a few aspirin, I headed out only to find lines already forming at security. Not security at the Forbidden City, mind you, but on the sidewalks leading to the area, because just entering different parts of the city means bag checks and body scans in Beijing. Following the crowds of thousands, I eventually found my way. The City has a cap of 80,000 tickets a day and they do occasionally sell out in the summer (it is, after all, the most visited museum in the world), but once beyond the gates it’s easy to break away from the sea of people. The city itself is truly massive covering 180 acres with 980 buildings. The courtyards are huge and the architecture breathtaking, though I’ll admit that after an hour or so it just seems like more of the same at every turn.
Leaving around noon, I headed back through Tiananmen Square to take in the monuments, then spent the evening wandering through some local walking streets. Like everything in Beijing, they looked small on the map but turned out to be enormous and had so much to take in!
Day Three: Summer Palace/Lama Temple
The next morning I hopped on the subway and took the hour-long trip out to the Summer Palace, nearly 750 acres of gardens, lakes, and temples. Dating back to the Jin Dynasty, winding trails snake their way through the trees leading to distinct temples hidden in the valleys while towering pagodas sit atop the highest hills. Truly the most serene place I’ve been in China, each turn reveals rippling koi ponds, footbridges rising over lotus leaves, or pebble-strewn paths to nowhere.
The Buddhist Incense Tower, the most distinct pagoda of the complex, formerly offered awe-inspiring views of Kunming Lake & Nanhu Island, but the air quality in and around Beijing has all but made that a thing of the past. Still, the Summer Palace holds treasures like the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures, which is just as relaxing as it sounds.
After a good three hours of exploring, I headed back into the city for a late lunch before exploring the Lama Temple. While one would expect me to be templed-out by now, I can’t resist a temple that’s actually active rather than a simple relic of the past. Hearing the drums & the calls to prayer, breezing through drifting clouds of incense—it’s a whole different experience. My visit was unfortunately quite short, as I was soon headed off for another long-haul train.
The train itself was a welcome relief, because after 3 days of non-stop walking, my legs had turned to jelly and needed the entirety of the 22-hour journey to even begin recuperating. If you have a chance to visit Beijing, try and give yourself at least 5 days so you can pace yourself and see a bit more of the city, but know that you can certainly power through it on a tight schedule as well!