The Great Wall of China – Jiankou to Mutianyu

When planning our three week trip to China last year, some sights were an absolute given. The Great Wall of China was a must-see for both my boyfriend and I, and as we were flying into Beijing, it was one of the first things we would do on our journey across five cities. 

We soon realised, however, that it wasn’t a case of just ‘seeing’ the wall. The UN World Heritage Listed site spans more than 20,000 kilometres (12,427 miles) and comprises walls, watch towers and shelters. There are different sections ranging from a 40 minute drive from Beijing to more than two hours away, and the type of wall differs from fully restored to completely inaccessible. 

Which Section?

So you’re going to visit the Great Wall, but which section is best? There are at least 10 options from Beijing, but here’s an overview of the most popular parts: 

  • Badaling: the most touristy, completely restored. Avoid if you can, according to locals.
  • Mutianyu: restored, but slightly less crowded than Badaling. You can walk a distance then turn around, or continue to Jiankou. 
  • Jiankou: wild, unrestored wall with challenging hiking. Going from Jiankou to Mutianyu is a popular (but not busy) route.
  • Jinshaling: minimally restored, less crowds but further away.
  • Simatai: a mix of restored and wild wall, night tour options.

*Note: The path between Jinshaling and Simatai was closed when we visited in September 2017 and it’s not clear if it’s reopened. 

The section you choose will depend on how much time you have, your fitness and personal preference. Badaling is the closest to Beijing so great if you’re pushed for time – it’s also the best option for anyone with limited mobility. Mutianyu is a bit less touristy and well restored, but not for those wanting to see original wall. Jiankou has been dubbed the most dangerous section, completely untamed and requiring a hike through a village. Some say Jinshaling is the most beautiful but it’s two to three hours from Beijing so you’ll need a full day. Others say Simatai is the most peaceful. Tour company China Highlights, with whom we booked unrelated train tickets, has a good overview of the different sections.

My boyfriend and I read various blogs and Chinese tour company websites to try decide which section to choose. We wanted to avoid crowds, hike a section, we had a full day available and we wanted to see unrestored wall. As the Jianshaling to Simatai section was closed, we chose Jiankou to Mutianyu. 

Tour group, guide or solo?

When it came to the Great Wall, my boyfriend wanted a guide while I wanted to do it solo. I figured with enough research, printed maps and allowing lots of time, we’d be fine. My boyfriend, on the other hand, said it was the first day of a three week trip in a country neither of us has been to before. We’d chosen a wild section of the wall that was reportedly the most dangerous and if we got lost or injured, it could set us back for the rest of the trip. He had a point. I reluctantly agreed to a guide, although I resented the extra cost and sharing the experience of seeing the wall with a stranger when we were both fit and seasoned travellers. 

On the plus side, we would had a private vehicle, could choose our departure time and didn’t have to use our brains on the first day of vacation. After reading some TripAdvisor reviews, we emailed a few companies for quotes and availability before booking Beijing Walking. It cost US$300 for two people, payable in cash on the day. 

Hiking Jiankou to Mutianyu

Here’s what to expect specifically on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route. You could hike in either direction, but as Jiankou is higher, it’s easier to start there and go downhill. The path is about 9km (5.5mi) and can be broken into three sections:

  • Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower 
  • Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu
  • Mutianyu to cable car/exit 

1. Xizhazi village to Jiankou Tower 

Our guide Joe met us at our Beijing hotel precisely at 7.30am. It took nearly 2.5 hours to reach Xizhazi village thanks to traffic, but we weren’t on a deadline. The drive was mostly highway, but became mountainous and jungle-like in the latter half. Both my boyfriend and I fell asleep at times, still recovering from our red-eye flight.

Our vehicle stopped at Xizhazi village, but there was no obvious town centre. We used restrooms next to some old exercise equipment before driving for another few minutes. We arrived at a small car park, although the area looked more like small farms than the start of a hike. Choosing the Jiankou to Mutianyu route for the least tourists, I was disappointed when another car pulled up next to us. It was a young couple with a baby and they didn’t have a guide. They set off while we got our backpacks ready and put on sunscreen. As soon as I got out of car, I noticed it was harder to breathe. It was a warm day too.

 Xizhazi Village: the start of our one hour walk to reach Jiankou Tower.
Xizhazi Village: the start of our one hour walk to reach Jiankou Tower.

From memory, we took off about 9.45am. We began our walk at good speed, following our guide along the zig-zagging, uphill path. It wasn’t long before we caught up to the couple, who’d stopped at a fork in the path. Our guide pointed the way and they continued, while I paused so we’d get some distance between us. My legs were fine but I was puffing and panting, and felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I was really surprised, as my fitness levels are good and I hardly felt like we were high up. But I was dripping with sweat within 20 minutes.

We saw the couple again, once more uncertain of the way. Their baby started wailing and they followed us for at least another 10 minutes. I was so mad! They’d saved a few hundred dollars by just hiring a taxi – then took advantage of the private guide we’d paid a premium for. Their child’s screams were destroying the serenity. My heart began to sink. 

 Hike from the village: the first glimpse of the wall feels incredible!
Hike from the village: the first glimpse of the wall feels incredible!
 Jiankou Tower: you'll need to pay a farmer to borrow a ladder.
Jiankou Tower: you’ll need to pay a farmer to borrow a ladder.

I was still stopping every 10 minutes or so to try catch my breathe. There were at least three times when the path forked with no signage about where the Great Wall was. It was getting increasingly humid in the trees and behind my knees was getting itchy. There were bugs too. But finally, we lost the couple and their screaming infant. And after 45 minutes, my boyfriend and I got our first glimpse of the wall! I was so excited! We wound our way up the steepest part yet, then we were suddenly at the base of tower. Exactly as we’d read in other blogs, there was a farmer with a ladder. We paid him 5¥ each and voila – we had reached the Great Wall! 

There is no way you could climb up the tower without the ladder, unless you maybe had a few people and could climb on each other’s shoulders. The farmer had a selection of beer, Red Bull and water for sale too. I was grateful to have a guide for this part of the hike only, as there really was little signage or clear paths to reach the tower. 

2. Jiankou Tower to start of Mutianyu

Standing on top of the tower was an extraordinary moment. After spending almost an hour hiking uphill in jungle, it was incredible to emerge in an open space and witness the Great Wall for the first time. I looked out in all directions, admiring the Chinese ingenuity and remarkable history before me. It became clear what an impressive defence structure the Great Wall once was. 

 Jiankou Tower: you'll have a 360-degree view on top.
Jiankou Tower: you’ll have a 360-degree view on top.

After a good amount of photographs, water and towelling down, we began hiking the Jiankou section. There’s only one direction you can go – towards Mutianyu – as the other way is completely inaccessible. The path, while overgrown and a bit uneven, is easy to follow. Trees and shrubs will brush you constantly. The wild section didn’t last long though. We weaved up and down but the wall was mostly downhill from Jiankou tower. That didn’t stop my legs quivering and turning jelly! There was no shade either, except in towers. For perhaps an hour, we had the wall largely to ourselves and I felt reassured we’d chosen the best route after all. 

 Jiankou: it's called 'wild' wall for a reason - it's unrestored and trees are unkept! 
Jiankou: it’s called ‘wild’ wall for a reason – it’s unrestored and trees are unkept! 

About halfway on the Jiankou section was the Ox Horn, a very steep part that goes up and down the side of a mountain. Our guide told us 10 people fall to their death each year, which I can only assume is fall and slip as there was no cliff face as such. Our guide took on a detour, saying the Ox Horn section was closed as the downhill part was too dangerous. We left the wall for the first time, heading slightly south then parallel to the wall through light forest. Again, there was no signage or paved path so this may be difficult if attempting to do the hike on your own. It was maybe 10 minutes before we resumed walking the wall. 

 Jiankou: the steep loop is called the Ox Horn - our guide took us on a detour slightly south and off the wall. 
Jiankou: the steep loop is called the Ox Horn – our guide took us on a detour slightly south and off the wall. 

3. Mutianyu to cable car/exit 

The end of the Jiankou section and the start of Mutianyu was marked by two men with umbrellas selling snacks and drinks. We’d hardly seen another soul for an hour but the crowds started here. Hilariously, tourists were posing with a sign that said ‘I Climbed the Peak of the Great Wall’ despite that spot not being the highest (Jiankou Tower is the highest point). From here, the walk was simply down a lot of steps. I felt for those who were travelling in the opposite direction to us, as the staircases were steep and still no shade. People were wearing fashion boots, sandals, jeans, and even summer dresses. I was still sweating just going down steps, and my legs shook whenever we stopped at a flat section. The last 10 minutes or so was particularly picturesque – it was every image of the Great Wall you’ve seen come alive! 

 Mutianyu: the restored path is much more even and clear than wild Jiankou. 
Mutianyu: the restored path is much more even and clear than wild Jiankou. 

Our party of three reached the Mutianyu cable car at 1pm, and I was surprised we’d gotten there so quickly.  We’d hiked quite fast, which I assumed was necessary to cover the distance but I didn’t expect our Great Wall experience to end so early. I would’ve rather have slowed down, and perhaps stopped for 10 minutes somewhere to have some water and take in the views. Our guide gave us the option to either take the cable car down down or walk another 40 minutes to the bottom. However he explained the local restaurant he intended for lunch wasn’t near the Wall and stopped cooking at 2pm. 

 Mutianyu: Our guide Joe said Chinese tourists were to blame for this trash, but I wasn't so sure. 
Mutianyu: Our guide Joe said Chinese tourists were to blame for this trash, but I wasn’t so sure. 
 Mutianyu: a restored section and the most popular with foreign tourists. This is near the cable car. 
Mutianyu: a restored section and the most popular with foreign tourists. This is near the cable car. 

Part of me was sweaty and thirsty, and my legs were stiffening whenever we went uphill. But I also hate taking shortcuts. My boyfriend felt the same. We decided to take the cable car down, given we’d covered a good distance, the rest of our holiday would be quite physical and also, we wanted to experience a good local restaurant on our first day! 

The cable car cost 100¥ and took three minutes. It was nothing special, convenience only. I was surprised to see how touristy the area was at the base was compared to the seemingly empty village where we’d started our journey. Here, there were restaurants, market stalls, even a Subway and Burger King. There were busloads of tourists, especially those who were older, likely retired, and had little desire to walk far. I cringed at the long line for the restrooms – only to realise the women were waiting for a Western toilet rather than use the squat toilets. I walked past all of them, shaking my head, used the bathroom, and remembered why I prefer independent travel. 

We took a shuttle bus down to the car park, met our driver, and then drove to our lunch venue for an incredible feast and a few beers. We arrived back in Beijing around 4pm, giving us enough time to shower before heading out in the hutongs that night! You can read more in My Must-Do in Beijing

It was absolutely surreal seeing the Great Wall in real life and the best thing is, I can do it all again with another section! While I don’t think a guide was necessary for the main Jiankou to Mutianyu route, there was no way we could’ve identified which paths to take from the village to the wall. The Ox Horn detour may have also been proved tricky, based on the lack of clear paths or signage. 

Was it Dangerous?

Not at all. The greatest dangers on the Jiankou to Mutianyu route were getting lost on the village trail, sunburn or chaffing. That said, we didn’t do the Ox Horn section and the September weather, although warm, was ideal as there was no wind or rain. If this was reportedly the most dangerous section, it’s a very tame wall indeed! 

 Jianko (immediately after the Tower): far from feeling like 'the most dangerous' section.
Jianko (immediately after the Tower): far from feeling like ‘the most dangerous’ section.

What to Bring

Bring sunscreen, water and a hat (I accidentally left mine in our vehicle). We visited in early September and it was 31°C (75°F). I’m not usually a big sweater and I’m from Western Australia, known for its hot climate, but I sweated! The only shade is in the towers and you’ll be walking steep hills, steps and/or long distances. I would also bring a small towel to wipe off sweat (a hotel hand towel would be perfect). By chance I had some baby wipes, and thank goodness because there was nothing else to soak up the sweat. 

What to Wear  

It was a warm day so we both wore active wear (okay, I wore a Lululemon runsie but it’s so comfortable!). Part of me wished I was in crops or a t-shirt to give better coverage from shrubs and branches but it was the trade-off to stay cool. If the forecast is cooler, bring layers. I had a light, long sleeve shirt but I left it in the car as it was obviously going to be a warm day.

 Mutianyu: you'll walk down this coming from Jiankou.
Mutianyu: you’ll walk down this coming from Jiankou.

While some blogs recommended hiking shoes, this was absolutely not necessary for Jiankou to Mutianyu . Given this was meant to be the most dangerous route, it’s safe to say you don’t need them anywhere on the wall. Sneakers were perfectly fine, although I’d avoid tennis shoes or Converse for example, as you want something that will absorb the impact of all those steps. 

Next Time? 

When I next visit China, I’d absolutely return to the wall! I would love to see some water or lake areas, see the wall at night or even camp there. I’m hoping the Jinshaling and Simatai sections will an option, as these are reportedly the most beautiful and peaceful parts (although I wasn’t at all disappointed with our views). It’s unlikely I’d do the Jiankou to Mutianyu route again, but only because I like to experience new things. However, as mentioned, I’d probably go slower and stop for water and snacks somewhere just to take in the views. 

QUESTION: If you’ve visited the Great Wall of China, please add your experience and tips below! 

My Must-Do in Beijing, China

My boyfriend and I’s arrival in China was far from glamourous. We’d caught a red eye flight from Perth, Australia, had a layover in Singapore and upon landing in Beijing, I raced to find a toilet due to – I suspect – some artificial colours and flavourings in the Singaporean Slings we’d had on our flight. Beijing Airport was hot and busy compared to the wintery scenes we’d left in Perth.

We reached our hotel in the central and touristy Wangfujing area via the airport train and subway, and took in the sunset from the rooftop club lounge. Sure, there was smog on the skyline – but we were pretty damn excited to start our three week adventure. I’ve travelled to Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and India but China was different. Its capital of 21 million people was modern, organised and clean. You can read more in 10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

The city is also flat, meaning you can easily get around on foot or use the excellent subway system to explore. Even if you only have two days in Beijing, you can make a day trip to the Great Wall of China and then spend a day taking in the city. For a suggested plan, check out Our Three Week China Itinerary which includes four days in Beijing. Remember, you won’t be able to Google addresses, entrance fees or opening hours unless you have a VPN. I simply switched to Yahoo search and used the excellent offline map app Maps.Me.

Here’s my list of my must-see places in Beijing!

1. Tiananmen Square

This is probably the most well-known landmark in Beijing, the city square infamous for the student protests of 1989 dubbed the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre.’ When visiting the square, it’s hard to imagine the scenes that played out almost 30 years ago, as it was seemingly spacious when we were there on a warm autumn day. 

While the city square is public space and therefore open all the time, there was strict security and road blocks when we accessed Tiananmen Square from the southern point at Qianmen E St. It wasn’t always clear which line to join, there are large tour groups and I felt like we kept showing our bags and passports at various checkpoints. But once you reach the actual square, simply walk around and observe.

  • Cost: Free. 
  • Tip: If you see large lines and barricades, it’s people lining up to visit Mao’s Mausoleum. Check your bag before lining up at the facility across the street. We did it, and it’s pretty special – but be prepared for a 1-2 hour wait for just seconds of viewing time. 
 Tiananmen Square: the infamous site of the 1989 student demonstrations, facing the Forbidden City.
Tiananmen Square: the infamous site of the 1989 student demonstrations, facing the Forbidden City.

2. Forbidden City

You must see the Forbidden City when you visit Beijing! This world heritage listed site is an extraordinary testament to Chinese civilisation, spanning 130,000 sqm (32 acres). Now officially called the Palace Museum, it was an imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the Qing dynasty (1368 – 1911). It’s literally like stepping into another world, and it’s incredible such a huge space survives unchanged in the heart of the city. 

If you arrive at Tiananmen Square from the south, simply head north and you’ll reach the entrance to the Forbidden City. While some reviews said to pre-purchase tickets and allow six hours, my boyfriend and I had two hours spare and decided to chance it. We reached the entrance on a Saturday about 3pm, kept walking and reached the ticket area at 3.15pm (yes, the site is that big). There was a sign saying to buy tickets using a QR code but it was no problem to buy tickets the traditional way, although you’ll need to show your passport (do this everywhere in China). There was a short line but it only took a few minutes. We also rented an audio guide at a separate station (to the north) for 40¥ (AU$8), which helped us learn about the significance of each building and notice some features we would’ve otherwise missed. 

 Forbidden City: it's truly like stepping back in time
Forbidden City: it’s truly like stepping back in time

We walked slowly, took photos and went into a gift shop, although we didn’t see the west palace as it was closed. The imperial garden is stunning and busy, but not shoulder to shoulder. Its greenery was a welcome respite from the barren concrete of the main areas. You could buy food and drink too and rest if you need, although seating may be difficult to come by. After an hour, we’d reached the end of the Forbidden City (4.15pm), although you could stay much longer if you have a particular interest in Chinese architecture and artefacts or stopped for lunch. Again, we didn’t rush – we just kept selfies to a minimum and didn’t study every single building and object.

  • Cost: 60¥ (AU$12) high season (April – October), 40¥ low season (November – March).
  • Opening hours: 8.30am – 5pm (4.30pm in low season), closed Mondays except July – August.
  • Website: The Palace Museum
  • Tip: go later in the afternoon if you can, for fewer crowds.
 Forbidden City: the gardens offer some shade and respite from the concrete areas, but are still busy.
Forbidden City: the gardens offer some shade and respite from the concrete areas, but are still busy.

3. Jingshan Park

Why must you visit this park in Beijing? To get panoramic views of the Forbidden City and beyond! If you’ve walked through the Forbidden City from south to north, the park entrance is literally across the road when you exit. The main lookout was signposted, and you’ll need to walk up a lot of steps but only for a few minutes. Then join the crowd and enjoy the views! The remainder of the park looked lovely too, but we’d skipped lunch and it was approaching 6pm so we left. We exited the less-busy west gate and got a taxi straight away (38¥ to Beijing Railway Station, as we had to collect train tickets). The image at the top of this post is the main lookout at Jingshan Park!

  • Cost: 2¥ (AU$0.40!)
  • Opening hours: unsure, but they were still selling tickets at 5pm. 
 Forbidden City: as viewed from Jingshan Park (the smoggy skyline is real)
Forbidden City: as viewed from Jingshan Park (the smoggy skyline is real)

4. Great Wall of China

I’ve done a separate post about hiking the Great Wall of China, but honestly – go there. It’s a day trip from Beijing, with many different sections ranging from 45 minutes away by car to more than two hours. We chose the wild Jiankou section to the restored Mutianyu path. It was like stepping into a photograph and having a 360-degree view! If you only have a day in Beijing, you could always visit the wall early, return mid-afternoon then explore the city in the evening. 

5. Hutongs

When I was researching Beijing, I read about ‘old laneways’ and knew I had to visit! My boyfriend and I were lucky that my sister had lived in China and organised for us to meet one of her friends. He suggested we visit the hutongs for dinner and drinks, and boy, did we drink! The alleyways were like a dark concrete maze of houses, eateries, bars and strong-smelling public toilets. While I can’t give any reliable details about where the hutongs start and finish, I can recommend heading to Peiping Machine Taphouse and The Tiki Bungalow to get your party started. The tiki bar isn’t easy to find, but just get to Jiaodaukou Street near Beixinqiao subway station and explore the area from there. For those who prefer, there are plenty of organised hutong tours too. 

  • Cost: Free.
 Hutongs: Houses, courtyards, restaurants and bars are hidden behind the walls. 
Hutongs: Houses, courtyards, restaurants and bars are hidden behind the walls. 

7. Wangfujing Street

Every city has its main shopping street and in Beijing, that’s Wangfujing Street. I love shopping – not so much buying as looking, exploring and people watching. I always dive into book stores and stationery shops, and shoe stores. On Wangfujing Street, you’ll find the usual international clothing chains like H&M, Zara and Gap, along with MAC Cosmetics. But there are also lots of Chinese confectionary stores (great for random snacks or to take home as gifts), a good food court in the ground floor of the book store and designer stores. It’s also home to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street – marked by a large gate and the smell of food wafting down to the main street. More for novelty than serious eats, you can find bugs on sticks, noodles and what I called ‘swirly potato sticks’ – essentially skewered, home style potato chips. If you need a SIM card, head to the small China Unicom stand inside the mall closest to the snack street. 

  • Cost: Free
  • Tip: The snack street closes at exactly 10pm – don’t be idle! 

7. Temple of Heaven

It was a rainy old morning when we walked from our hotel to the Temple of Heaven, but that meant less crowds. We reached Tiantan Park about 12pm and followed the signs to the temple. It was built in 1412 and I found the architecture so striking, especially when imagining royalty travelling from the Forbidden City to the site for ceremonies. The main attraction is The Great Hall of Prayer (north) with nearby buildings containing various artefacts and information, although from memory only some of it was in English. We walked south to reach The Circular Mound Altar before exiting. We spent just over 90 minutes there altogether, but you could take some time to explore the park surrounding the temple – it’s a beautiful place to read a book, do tai chi or have a picnic.

  • Cost: Park entrance 15¥ (AU$3), extra 20¥ for the temple (buy outside the temple).
  • Opening hours: Park 6am-10pm, Temple of Heaven 8am-6pm in high season (July – Oct).
  • Website: Temple of Heaven (map)
 Temple of Heaven: The Great Hall of Prayer is its most iconic structure 
Temple of Heaven: The Great Hall of Prayer is its most iconic structure 

8. 798 Art District

After being immersed in imperial culture, it was refreshing to see a vibrant, youthful side to Beijing in the 798 Art District. My boyfriend discovered the area when he was researching drone stores and it looked really cool. We had limited time so took a cab there from the Temple of Heaven. We showed the taxi driver the name in Chinese using Maps.Me, and the 40 minute journey cost around 50¥ (AU$10) with Sunday traffic.

 798 Art District: You'll find large sculptures throughout the streets. 
798 Art District: You’ll find large sculptures throughout the streets. 

798 is an old factory area that’s been converted to artist studios, cafes, galleries and stores. The neighbourhood is big – not quite Forbidden City size, but definitely big enough to spend a few hours walking the streets and admiring the art, grabbing some street food and going into studios. I highly recommend heading here to check out Beijing’s art scene, and even if you’re not into art, the huge street sculptures and people watching are sure to entertain you for a few hours. 

  • Cost: Free.
  • Website: 798 Art District
  • Tip: If you see bags of rolled up, wafer-like sweets, buy them. They’re delicious! 

Next time

While we saw a lot in our three days (including a day trip to the Great Wall), we couldn’t fit in the imperial garden Summer Palace, a Beijing brewery tour or visit Hou Hai (Back Lakes) which is meant to be most impressive at night I would also love to return to the hutongs and see more of Beijing’s neighbourhoods too. It’s no problem, because I know I’ll be returning to Beijing as soon as I can! 

Where to stay

We stayed at New World Beijing, a five-star modern hotel in the Wangfujing area, Chongwenmen in Dongcheng district. It was perfectly located in the middle of all the attractions we wanted to see, only 15-20 minutes to Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven and Wangfujing Street. The club room was excellent value at AU$210 per night, including a sizeable breakfast buffet, generous evening drinks and canapés and most of all, a spacious rooftop for drinks or relaxing. Staying in a club room means you can also request a 4pm check-out.

 New World: the club lounge is excellent, offering breakfast, evening canapes and drinks.
New World: the club lounge is excellent, offering breakfast, evening canapes and drinks.

At the end of our trip, we stayed at Park Plaza Beijing (AU$114/night). Located at the opposite end of Wanfujing Street to New World, the hotel was older but still perfectly fine. The area was much more business-like, surrounded by other hotels and high-rise buildings. If you can afford it, stay at New World! 

Getting there

Beijing is well served by air and train. The airport express train was 25¥ (AU$5) and took about 30-40 minutes to Dongzhimen, the main subway hub. From there, we took the subway to our hotel (Dongzhimen to Chongwenmen station, 20 minutes) followed by a short 10 minute walk. Our departure flight was early so we took a cab – from memory, it was maybe 120-150¥ (AU$24-30) from our Dongcheng hotel heading into peak hour.

There are five main train stations in Beijing, namely Beijing Railway Station, the West, North and South railway stations and Badaling station. Be sure to closely check which one you’re arriving or departing from! 

Getting around

  • Subway: It’s fast, reliable and cheap. It was just 3¥ (AU$0.60) for most of our short, one-way journeys. Note the subway isn’t 24 hours, with most services stopping at 11pm-12am.
  • Taxis: They’re cheap, plentiful and professional but communication can be difficult. Always have your destination in Chinese, even for a big hotel. I used Maps.Me for directions when our cab driver mistakenly took us to New World apartments instead of New World Hotel (thankfully only 10 minutes away on foot).
  • Foot: It’s really easy to get around Beijing on foot. We walked 7 to 13km (4.5 – 8 mi.) most days we were in Beijing. It’s flat, and footpaths or roads are mostly wide and level (making them fine for luggage and baby strollers too).
  • Buses: We didn’t use these as subway, taxi and foot were adequate. But there were English numbers on the front and bus stops were obvious because of shelters.

Currency

The Chinese Yuan Renminbi can be expressed in a number of ways, from ¥ to CNY or RMB. It’s all the same. While we could use our credit card at major hotels, most attractions and transport were cash only or if they did accept credit card, it was only locally-issued ones. Bring lots of cash otherwise there are ATMs available. As a rough guide, 100¥ = AU$20, US$15, £11 and €13.

QUESTION: What are your Beijing highlights?

10 Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing, China

People had mixed reactions when I told them my boyfriend and I were going to China. They ranged from congratulatory and enthusiastic, to puzzlement and even cautionary. My sister, who’d live in China for a year, was predictably the most excited for us along with a colleague who’d also visited some years ago. But more commonly, people either perplexingly asked why we wanted to visit China or worse still, told us how much they disliked the country. The descriptions ranged from “dirty” to “it’s like India, but without the warmth of the people.” Ouch.

I wasn’t deterred by the negativity, in fact, I got even more excited as the trip got closer. While my boyfriend and I had been to Europe just five months earlier, it was more holidaying than travelling. This time, neither of us had been to the country before and we had no idea what to expect. Our first stop was Beijing, which I’d been told represented old China. Just weeks before we departed, television screens were filled with a city glowing orange with pollution. Media portrayal included mass population, poverty and a dismal human rights record. 

Our flight from Perth, Australia to Beijing via Singapore landed around 3pm and by 5pm, we were exiting a subway station and walking along a footpath to our hotel in the Wanfujing district. The atmosphere was peaceful, with only a few cars and people around as the sun began to fade. The street names were in English, and we easily reached our hotel after 10 minutes. It was nothing like India.

The four days that proceeded were incredible. I didn’t fall in love with Beijing immediately, but I quickly absorbed and enjoyed all that was around me. History, culture, food, excellent transport, bikesharing, art, the absence of Western media (a true holiday when you’re a journalist), the open spaces and public places. It didn’t resemble anything I’d imagined from television or people’s stories. Many of these themes continued throughout our three week China trip, and I loved the country even more than I’d anticipated. 

Here’s what struck me most in Beijing, to the point where I began this blog post on our journey because I wanted to counter the narratives I’d heard before we left. I’ll concede we stayed in the central tourist areas, did a lot of research and preparation before we left (such as downloading city and subway maps), and also love being out of our comfort zone. But even without these things, it’s hard not to be impressed by China’s capital. 

Things I Didn’t Expect in Beijing

1. It Wasn’t Crowded

Were there a lot of people in Beijing? Yes. Train stations were busy, and roads were filled with vehicles often coming to a standstill. But I never truly sensed I was in a city of 21.5 million people (almost the entire population of my home country Australia). I didn’t see any exceptionally large crowds and never felt boxed in. Beijing was far less busier than New York for example, and train stations were no different to London’s Kings Cross. The most common question when I returned from China was “It was really crowded, right?.” No, it wasn’t. This is probably linked to my next point. 

2. Sprawling but Not Dense

While my boyfriend and I flew into Beijing, our journey into the city centre was by train. Departing the airport, there were masses of tall apartment buildings but sprawling areas of greenery between them. This became less so as we got closer to the city, but it was immediately evident Beijing is a city of highways that has developed outwards rather than upwards, much like Los Angeles or Paris. Even in the central tourist area we were staying in, our hotel only had 12 floors and was one of the taller buildings in the area. The city was also very flat, making it the perfect concrete jungle to explore on foot. 

3. Organised

Beijing had a level of organisation that rivals Ikea or The Container Store. Many places had a clear entrance and exit, even in a small area like bag check or cloak rooms. This may partly be because of security checks at the entrance (see my next point), so wanting to control the flow of people. But the subway system was excellent. Exits are clearly marked A,B, C and so on (identical to Hong Kong) and often divided further into B1, B2 and so forth so you have an exact reference point to meet somewhere or reach a location. If only more cities would adopt this system! Traffic is mostly cars with a few buses, tuk tuks and scooters. The scenes got a little hairy at some intersections, but drivers largely followed the rules. 

4. Security

I’d expected the military presence we saw around tourist locations like Tianamen Square, but I didn’t anticipate the level of other checks. Our hotel had a passport scanner and staff checked our visas, we had to show our passports when entering the train station, staff scanned my body with a hand-held metal detector at most checks, and sometimes my handbag would go through an x-ray machine only to be scanned again five minutes later. There were security cameras across the city, and I later saw a news story about how China is introducing live facial scanning technology. 

5. Lack of Pollution

There’s no denying pollution is a huge problem in China and Beijing is no exception. However, I was surprised (and somewhat concerned) that at no time could I sense it. I could clearly see the dull, hazy grey band of smog across the horizon, but I could never smell it and my breathing felt the same as it did in Australia. After a day of sightseeing in Beijing, I didn’t feel any dirtier than after a day walking around New York City. When my boyfriend and I tried to raise the topic of air quality with our Great Wall tour guide, who’d quit journalism over having to write pro-government stories, he told us Beijing simply had ‘fog.’ 

 Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn't feel affected.
Beijing: the pollution was visible on the horizon but my breathing didn’t feel affected.

6. English Prevalence 

One of the biggest shocks in Beijing was seeing numbers in English! Everything from platform numbers to bus numbers, times and prices. I felt ignorant but then recalled my experiences catching local buses in Thailand. As mentioned, we did largely stay in the tourist areas of Beijing, but the prevalence of English continued throughout our trip. It gave me confidence we could catch buses across China. Many street names had English and Chinese characters too. Spoken English was a different story, ranging from fluent to none at all. A few times we asked for help with directions, and young people would apologise for their ‘bad’ English before clearly explaining where we needed to be. My Mandarin comprised hello, thank you, water and cheers. 

7. Punctual 

As well as the clear organisation of train stations, roads and attractions, much of Beijing operated like clockwork. Trains departed to the minute, our hotel breakfast closed exactly 10.30am, lights went off in market areas at precisely 10pm and our tour guide for the Great Wall of China met us at exactly 7am. For the rest of our trip, it became a game to see whether boarding for a train opened exactly 20 minutes before departure (in almost every case, it did). A friend of my sister’s, living in Beijing, warned us that planes in China were often heavily delayed but of our four internal flights, we only were late once departing 15 minutes after the scheduled time. 

 A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 
A Beijing train station: Trains left to the minute and the train number was easy to identify, thanks to English characters. 

8. Clean

I didn’t expect Beijing to be like walking in a trash can, but the absence of litter was noticeable. Roads, footpaths and public spaces were clean and tidy although – as with most capital cities – I suspect this wanes further away from central areas. The notable exceptions were public toilets (see below) and The Great Wall of China, which in some areas was littered with plastic drink bottles and empty food wrappers.

9. Public Toilets

I relax my obsession with staying hydrated when travelling but it wasn’t a problem in Beijing or the rest of the five cities we visited in China. Public toilets were everywhere and well sign-posted. As a local resident told us, you simply need to follow your nose. And bring toilet paper if you want some. Like the extensive labelling of exits at train stations, I wish other cities in the world had as many public toilets as Beijing did! 

10. Accessibility 

Beijing deserves a solid congratulations for having accessibility that, in parts, is better than my home city. I know this, because I’d debated whether to take a backpack or suitcase to China and I was glad I chose the latter. It was effortless to walk along footpaths, get around train stations, and enter accomodation. The prevalence of ramps and lifts was impressive and I recall hauling my suitcase up a lot less stairs than I did in Europe just five months prior.

When we left Beijing after four nights for Xi’an, I felt like I’d just begun to discover a city. I wasn’t ready to leave and was glad we’d return for a final night at the end of our trip before flying home. My expectations certainly weren’t low, but I was surprised by just how much I liked Beijing. It set the tone for the rest of our trip, which my boyfriend and I consider is one of the best we’ve done to date. Are you considering a trip to China’s capital? Check out My Must-See Attractions in Beijing.

QUESTION: Which place has surprised you most in your travels?

Our Three Week China Itinerary

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw how cheap the flights were. Perth, Australia to Beijing was just AU$280 return with Singapore Airlines! It was November 2016 and I’d spotted the deal at 5.30am on my way to the gym. I quickly forwarded the alert to my boyfriend, who was still asleep. I got home around 8.30am just as he woke up and I frantically asked him if he’d seen my email. He yawned and rubbed his eyes which indicated no, so I gave him the rundown.

The sale was for September 2017, so 10 months away. The date worked for us as we would return from Europe in May 2017 and have three months to save. We did our mandatory checks for booking flash sales (what’s the weather, are there any national holidays and what’s the average hotel price). By 9.30am, we’d booked two of the four remaining seats. We were going to China for 19 days!

It turns out the airfare was a company error but Singapore would honour our bookings. Six months later, we returned from Europe and sprung into action. China was just four months away! 

Planning our trip

The first task was deciding where exactly we wanted to go, as neither my boyfriend or I had been to China before. Obviously we were flying into Beijing and wanted to see the Great Wall, Shanghai would be easy to get to, and my boyfriend was set on seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. I wanted to eat Sichuan food so its capital Chengdu was added to the list. I’d grabbed some catalogues from a travel expo and was enchanted by photos of pillar-like mountains in Zhangjiajie, so that went into the possibles too. We had the first draft of our China holiday.

Organised tour or solo?

My boyfriend and I had limited time and wanted to see as much as possible so we looked a few organised tour companies, including Intrepid and G Adventures. However their China tour dates didn’t quite line up with our flights and what’s more, the itineraries weren’t that attractive. There were multiple long train rides (necessary to keep costs down) but also things like ‘traditional performances’ and visits to ‘local culture villages,’ which I generally loathe as entirely constructed experiences.

In the end, my boyfriend and I devised our own three week itinerary for China. It was the best decision we could’ve made! We allowed roughly four nights in each city, booked trains and flights, and then pencilled in essential sightseeing (for example, some attractions were closed certain days). While it was a physically demanding holiday, there was also plenty of food, beer, culture and luxury. If you’re considering doing a self-guided trip of China, I really recommend it! It was much easier to get around than we expected, with trains modern, punctual and organised.

I’ll share specific posts about each location in the weeks ahead, but for now, here’s what we covered in three weeks. 

our three week itinerary

Days 1 – 4: Beijing 

  • Day 1: Arrive in Beijing. Hit a rooftop bar and watch the smoggy sunset with local beers. 
  • Day 2: Drive two hours to the Great Wall of China. At night, head to Beijing’s hutong area for dinner and drinks.
  • Day 3: Walk around Tiananmen Square before heading to the nearby Forbidden City. Continue to Jingshan Gardens for sweeping views of Beijing. At night, head to the shopping and food precinct Wanfujing Street.
  • Day 4: Visit the Temple of Heaven and surrounding park. Check out art and street eats in Beijing’s 738 Art District. Check out My Must-Do in Beijing for more details!

 Great Wall of China: a must-see when going to Beijing
Great Wall of China: a must-see when going to Beijing

Days 5 – 8: Xi’an, Shaanxi

  • Day 5: Catch a high speed train from Beijing to Xian. Have dinner in the Muslim Quarter.
  • Day 6: Cycle around Xian’s city wall before spending an afternoon at the Terracotta Warriors. Craft beer at night.
  • Day 7-8: Hike Mt Huashan, staying overnight on the mountain. Watch sunrise and continue hiking before returning to Xi’an. *See note at end of post.

Days 9 – 13: Chengdu, Sichuan

  • Day 9: Fly to Chengdu. Head to Jinli Street for Sichuan hot pot and street snacks. 
  • Day 10: See pandas at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding. Check out the world’s biggest building New Century Mall. Go on a night time food tour.
  • Day 11: Explore the city, taking in Tianfu Square, Chengdu Museum, the People’s Park and pedestrian street Chunxi Road. Check out craft beer and Anshun Bridge at night.

 Chengdu, Sichuan: I wanted to eat as much local cuisine as I could! 
Chengdu, Sichuan: I wanted to eat as much local cuisine as I could! 

Days 14 – 17: Zhangjiajie, Hunan

  • Day 14: Fly to Zhangjiajie and have dinner downtown.
  • Day 15:Head to Zhangjiajie National Park, before driving an hour to the Glass Sky Bridge and Grand Canyon.
  • Day 16: Return to Zhangjiajie National Park to see the mountains featured in the movie Avatar.
  • Day 17: Take the world’s longest cable car to Tianmen Mountain. Walk the Glass Sky Walk and visit Tianmen Cave. Late flight to Shanghai. *See note at end of post.

 Zhangjiajie National Park: I saw these mountains in a catalogue and knew I had to visit.
Zhangjiajie National Park: I saw these mountains in a catalogue and knew I had to visit.

Days 18 – 20: Shanghai

  • Day 18: Explore Shanghai on foot, visiting the former French concession, Xintandi, YuYuan and the famous Bund. Have dinner and drinks in former French concession.
  • Day 19: Learn to make noodles or dumplings in a local cooking class. Head to Nanjing Road for retail therapy before cocktails from the 87th floor Cloud 9 Bar in Pudong.
  • Day 20: Return to Beijing via high speed train.
  • Day 21: Depart Beijing.

Cost

Not including airfares, the trip cost us around AU $5500 plus we each spent roughly $1500 extra mostly on food, drinks and admission fees. Here’s a rough breakdown of costs: 

  • Accomodation: $1800 (3x nights 5 star hotel, 7x nights 4 star hotel, 4x nights hostel, 1x night overnight train). Not included = 3 nights in Zhangjiajie (part of package tour).
  • Internal flights & trains: AU$2000
  • Guided/package tours: AU$1400 (four days in Zhangjiajie) + USD$300 (Great Wall day trip)
  • Activities (i.e. cooking class, food tour): AU$200

I was surprised by how expensive internal transport was, particularly airfares. There were cheaper train options, but they were often much slower and we had limited time.

My boyfriend and I agreed afterwards our China trip was one of the best we’ve ever done! There was a good mix of sightseeing and relaxing, and we didn’t feel like we were moving around too much or rushing any location despite the internal flights and some early starts. I would’ve loved more time in Shanghai but there’s always the next holiday! 

resources

I highly recommend the following websites when planning a trip to China: 

In coming weeks, I’ll share the highlights (and disappointments) from each destination along with my general travel tips for China, such as which apps to download and why you should bring a thermos.

*Note: There was very little information online about hiking Mt Huashan and Zhangjiajie, and most of it was inaccurate. If you’re planning to visit either of these places, I’ll be sharing our experiences in detail in the weeks ahead. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date.

QUESTION: What’s the best airfare deal you’ve scored?