Backpacking in Beijing

Backpacking in Beijing – Beyond the Great Wall

Beijing China

China can be a bit daunting for backpackers who don’t have a grasp of the language and, in truth, unless you are a whiz with languages or are going to China to study, there is little chance you will pick up more than the basics of this tonal tongue. But don’t let that stop you. The backpacking hub which exists throughout China has all the assistance you’ll need to get by.

First Stop in Beijing – The Great Wall of China

Beijing is the jumping off point for China’s (and arguably one of the world’s) most iconic sights, and therefore often the entry point for many backpackers into China. You will no doubt want to conquer the Great Wall early on and there are more than enough tour companies offering to take you to this ancient site. Before you book, check which part of the wall you will visit, as some spots are more touristy than others, and check what is included in your tour price (will you spend most of your time at the wall or a silk factory en-route).

Impressively, the wall is almost 9,000 kilometres long and dates back as far as the 5th century B.C. Whichever way you see the wall, it will be an unforgettable part of your trip. Mutianyu is a recommended area to visit, about 1.5 to 2hrs drive from Beijing. Get up early for the all-important shot of you and the wall without the throngs of other tourists, but it has the added bonus of a toboggan-style slide to get you to the bottom once you have finished your sight-seeing – worth every one of your 50RMB (about £5).

Beyond the Wall – The Forbidden City and More Beijing History

Beijing China Temple

Wall visit ticked off, you might be wondering what else to do in Beijing. Fear not. This ancient capital of China is packed with historic sights. The Forbidden City is probably the next most popular. It is located just beyond Tiananmen Square, so both sights can be done in one go. To see the flag raising or lowering you will need to visit the square at sunrise or sunset. Be early; remember the crowds. Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square (440,000 square metres), but is most well known outside China since it made world news in June 1989 when the People’s Liberation Army turned on the democracy movement.

The best description of the Forbidden City is huge and for those with only a passing interest in Chinese history and its temples, it can honestly start to feel a bit same-y after a while. But stick with it, because the sheer size of the city, which took one million labourers to complete between 1406 and 1420, makes this a sight to behold.

If you’re not all templed-out, the Lama Temple, Temple of Heaven and Confucian Temple are all worth seeing, but perhaps spread your visits out so that you can fully appreciate the sights without them merging into one in both your mind and photos. The Lama Temple is noteworthy because of its stunning 18 metre sandalwood Buddha (reputed to be the largest sculpture carved from a single piece of wood), and the Temple of Heaven’s blue, circular roof marks a change for the norm.

Seeing the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is a great escape from the heat of the city. To the northwest of Beijing you can’t help but be dazzled by the sight of Kunming Lake and the exotic, oversized lily pads. This vast expanse of water is best seen from a boat on the lake. Hire a pedalo or take one of the tourist boats, but don’t expect to have the gardens or the lake to yourself. At weekends the Summer Palace sees in the region of 80,000 visitors, 50,000 weekdays. Such is life in a city that has nearly 20 million inhabitants. Take your patience with you and you will be fine.

Old Meets New – Modern-Day Beijing

Beijing China Temple Statue

The Beijing skyline is awash with cranes, indicative of its present and future. The Bird’s Nest Stadium wowed the world during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is a must-see at night.

Elsewhere, super modern shopping malls are sprouting up quicker than seems possible. Sanlutin is a popular, modern bar area that you will probably frequent more than once to experience the wonderful Chinese nightlife which can easily push on to daybreak, but you might want to stick with tradition when it comes to food. Try any of the backstreet joints down Beijing’s 'Hutongs' (small alleys). Don’t worry, most menus come with pictures. The dumplings can be exquisite and, importantly, cheap. You should splash out at least once on the local dish, Peking Duck, which is even nicer than the stuff you get at home.

If you’re looking for more than Sanlutin’s Bar Street at night, visit an acrobatic or kung-fu show for truly mesmerising and almost unbelievable feats.

Getting Around Town – Beijing Metro

Getting around Beijing couldn’t be simpler. With a super cheap metro system (2RMB – around 20p) which serves most of the main sights, and with English signage, you will have no trouble at all. If you want to take a taxi or rickshaw, simply get your hostel to write your destination in Chinese. For taxis, insist on a metered fare. Simple.

With so much to do beyond the Great Wall, you will want to pencil a few days in for this wonderful city. Old or new, Beijing will surprise beyond your greatest expectations.