Of all the cities that I visited, Beijing is the one that I would most heartily recommend to someone visiting China. When I was planning my trip, I purposefully left Beijing for last, anticipating that it would be a great way to end the trip, and it did not disappoint. I was only able to see a fraction of the sights in and around the city, but the things that I saw could have easily justified the entire trip.
The city has a very well-developed public transit system that makes it a breeze to get around even if you don’t speak Chinese, much like Shanghai. And better yet, a single subway trip only costs you 2 CNY (about $0.33), making it even cheaper than Shanghai, which charges different prices based on the destination.
Walking is also a great option for short trips since it allows you to see more of the city and get a better feel for it. The main downside is that you subject yourself to the pollution, which is as bad as people say. The city is pretty safe, even late at night. On one night, I got lost trying to find a nearby Walmart, and I found myself wandering down some random hutongs. I ran into one of many group dancing events before eventually making my way to Walmart (where I saw more foreigners gathered than anywhere else on the trip). Never once did I feel threatened or in any way unsafe.
The city seems to have a very vibrant expat scene that I was able to take part in one night. I met up with a friend that I met in Xi’an for dinner and drinks in the university area (NW of the Forbidden City). The restaurant we ate at was packed with people discussing all matters of topics – politics, the US, traveling, etc – and for some reason or other giving away free beer (Tsingtao) the whole time. We joined up with 2 expats from Guyana and 1 from France that have lived there for > 5 years, and proceeded to have a great time. All the while I was asking myself why I didn’t start traveling sooner.
I had a little less than 4 days in the city and all of the accumulated fatigue from the prior 2 weeks, so I limited myself to visiting 4 sights: the Olympic Green, Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Summer Palace.
The pollution was pretty bad on the day I visited the Olympic Green, so everything had a hazy look to it. Nonetheless, the area was full of tourists (mainly local sightseers). The buildings have not aged well over the years; they look pretty drab on the outside, but it is still hard not to be impressed when you see them. Bird’s Nest is now home to a Segway track when it isn’t hosting a local sporting event, and the Water Cube houses an indoor water park. There really isn’t much to see inside either building, so I didn’t spend too much time at the stadiums.
I thought the imperial palace was a letdown. It’s cool to see this walled-off city within a city, but most of the buildings inside are closed off. The ones that are open have some cool exhibits on display, especially the clock hall, but I felt like I had seen a lot of it already in the other cities.
This was the last place on my agenda, and it was absolutely perfect. Maybe it’s because I was exhausted by this point and the Summer Palace was so peaceful; maybe it’s because it reminded me of a mini version of West Lake, which was beautiful; maybe it’s because I knew I was at the end of a demanding trip; whatever the reason, I loved the time I spent here. There are quite a few things to see at the palace, like the Marble Boat and Bronze Pavilion, but I mainly just walked around Kunming Lake, stopping frequently to sit on a bench and let my mind wander. It was perfect.