How to Enjoy Beijing in 4 Days
(note: This post was updated in 2019; also see How to Go to China for $299 Inclusive.)
Beijing was our last international stop on our round the world trip, and we had high expectations. With the exception of a 45-minute wait for a taxi at 2:30 AM at the airport, we were not disappointed. It was the place we had the most fun, saw the most unusual sites, ate the most bizarre food and shopped til we dropped. Here’s what we did for 4 days in Beijing.
Everyone Needs a New Suit
First stop on our fast three days was the Sally the Tailor. After much research on TripAdvisor, we headed to Yashow market and Sally Tailor (2019 note: Sally the Tailor can now be found in the Silk Market, among others.). We looked through many catalogs at Sally’s and meters and meters of gorgeous cashmere material. Steve and I both got measured for custom-made suits. We answered zillions of questions about button holes, buttons, belt loops, zippers, and things I never imagined. With a little negotiation on the price and a quick deposit, we headed off for our Beijing adventure. My women’s business suit was $150, Steve’s was $175 which included an extra pair of pants and three custom shirts.
Three days later we picked the suits up–impeccable!
Tour Guide Is a Must
Next up, we took a tour of Tiannamen Square, Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. We had no idea we were at Tiannamen Square on the 25 anniversary of the massacre. Neither did our guide!
A Visit to Tiannamen Square
Buying a tour this day was an absolute necessity and worth every yen we paid. When we met with the tour guide and asked about the intense smog, she dismissed it saying that we were lucky to see the hazy sun. This smog was worse than the worst day in Los Angeles…after three days, I even ended up with swollen glades that didn’t dissipate until we got out of Beijing.
Coincidentally, we were at Tiannamen Square on the 25th anniversary of the student protest, yet there was no evidence of it. When asked about the protests, our tour guide, 26, reluctantly talked about the protests.
This was her take on the historic protests: she stated that a few students were killed, and they were protesting the closing of the universities. She said that the government had decided to close the schools and the students got them reopened by winning the protest. A few students were killed because of their bad behavior.
Sadly, the news and the facts of the event contradict her (hundreds killed, students protesting new communists measures, schools were never closed.) I tried to Google while there, but could come up with NO articles about the protests, tank man, or the anniversary. Of course, when we got out of China, I reviewed all that info.
A Visit to the Forbidden City
We then went into the Forbidden City which is right next door to Tiannamen Square.
It used to be a private place for the emperor, empress, and the concubines. It’s now public and renamed “Museum of the Emperor.” A portrait of Chairman Mao greeted us on the exterior wall. Our tour guide explained that Mao’s portrait was like the Mona Lisa, and his eyes were always watching us to protect us. Along with the plain clothes cops everywhere, I certainly felt watched over!
The temples and buildings were gorgeous. We could see behind the concubine wall where the concubines lived from the age of 5 and the gardens where they could visit. It was a bit frightening the limited amount of space they had for their lifetimes! We never would have figured any of these things out if we hadn’t been with a tour guide.
The entire area is packed and there was no signage that we could see nor understand. I do not suggest visiting the Forbidden City without a guide.
Visiting the Oriental Pharmacy
From the Forbidden City, we went to the government run, oldest pharmacy.
I was excited to see what an Oriental pharmacy would hold. Elephant tusks? Tiger nails? Whale bone? We had a 15-minute lecture on the value of herbal medicine and acupuncture with an undertone of the evils of western medicine. It was followed by an evaluation by a Chinese doctor of our individual health and the option to buy herbal treatments. The doctor asked very personal questions that western docs have never asked me. Of course, she wrote me a prescription for over $100 worth of secret herbs, which I shared with my acupuncturist when I got home. I was thrilled to get the same diagnosis from the Chinese doc as from my home acupuncturist. We finished up with 10-minute neck and shoulder massages and then headed to the Great Wall.
Visiting the Great Wall of China
A quick stop at a jade factory, where prices were astronomical, and we arrived at the Bandaling section of the Great Wall.
Once again, our tour guide paid for herself again. The lines were very long, and she was able to maneuver us into the shorter “special” line. She also pre-advised us on how to get into the tiny, egg shaped cars we’d ride up to the Wall within. We would have to squeeze 6 people, knee to knee, into these egg space ships which reminded me of the ride up the St Louis Arch.
An hour wait in line, a cable car ride up, and arrival! Steep, amazing, thick, tall. We thought that after an hour drive out of the city, we’d be out of the smog. The smog was even worse at the Great Wall! I’m sure the views were incredible, but the smog was horrific. None the less, we scampered up and down the wall, trying to get the best angles on pictures that we could. Just like the Forbidden City, the place was packed.
We were also movie stars! Many of the local tourists had never actually seen foreigners, and they insisted on getting their pictures with us. It became a bit annoying, so in return, Kelly and I started photobombing. We had a blast, and so did the victims! Laughing and laughing, we overcame the smog and really enjoyed the wall. Our faces showed up in a good 20 pictures.
Shopping in Beijing–What We Bought; What We Paid
The next day, we returned to pick up our suits and then shopped til we literally dropped. Here’s a list of what we purchased, among other things:
- Prescription glasses with transition lenses: $45
- Crocs $4
- custom made duvet covers $20
- roller bag $35
- earrings $4
- silk decorative pillow shams $4,
We had a fun time bargaining, and Kelly learned a lot about sales, including the art of walking away with respect.
Eating Scorpions, Snakes and Dim Sum in Beijing
On our last night, we knew we hadn’t quite yet experienced much of Beijing. We forewent the ride in the traditional carts, but we couldn’t bypass the very touristy way to eat Beijing’s famous bizarre foods. We figured, no trip to Beijing is complete without a few scorpions and spiders, right?
After asking our concierge for the “real scoop” on funky foods, he sent us on our way to the Night Market. (Note: 2019, the Night Market is no longer operational, but there are places to eat these foods. Ask the locals.) Taxi cab drivers know this place as well. It seems the Chinese government has attempted to acknowledge some of Chinese delicacies, and it sponsors a strip of carts which serve 30+ traditional Chinese treats in order to preserve the cultural heritage of these foods.
When we arrived, we discovered this outdoor market crawling with other tourists (Chinese too!) and a mix of Chinese teenagers. None the less, we jumped right into the adventure. Being a vegetarian, I found many choices to indulge, including vegetable pancakes and a French fry and egg sandwich. Steve, on the other hand, adventured into scorpions, snakes, and sea urchin. With the exception of the sea urchin, he declared everything tasted like chicken despite his distorted facial expressions. Most he would try again, but the sea urchin was a no-go from the first sniff of its putrid insides.
Some of the things we didn’t try took “on a stick” to a whole new level. Starfish, maggots, cockroaches, octopus heart, pig bladder, tarantula, and last but not least, snake. The visual appeal of looking at all of these choices was fascinating, and by the time we got to the dim sum cart, we were more than happy to try some of the more moderate flavors. Sadly, all of these flavors would have washed down nicely with some local beer. But, none was allowed in this special eating zone.