With only 72 hours in China, this was one of the easiest travel budgets we’ve had to make yet (thank God!). We spent the three days exploring the city including both historical sites such as the Forbidden City and Great Wall and also trying to find the best local brewery and American food in town. I have to be honest, I’m not a fan of the food in China. Not one bit. I tried I really did; we tried the duck, we tried the dumplings, we tried the soup that the lady behind us insisted that we just can’t possibly leave China without trying. It turned out to have large lumps of fat floating in it. No thanks. Thankfully Slow Boat Brewery came to our rescue New Years Eve with one of the best burgers and pale ale’s I’ve ever tried. But then again, we also thought the same thing about a burger place we took Jeremy’s family while in Tokyo. Jeremy and I were chowing down praising the Lord for this delicious piece of beef and claiming that it was one of the best burgers we’d had. Only to be met by the skeptical glares of our family who broke the news to us that it was in fact, not good. Not good at all. I guess that’s your sign that you’ve lived overseas for too long. You think mediocre American rip offs are the best thing since that time you found peanut butter M&M’s in the local foreign mart.
You simply can’t even think about visiting Beijing without making the trek out to the Great Wall. Now, there’s several different areas of the Great Wall that you can visit from Beijing. The most well known spots are Badaling (most well known and most grand; also the most busy), Huanghuacheng (on the water), Mutianyu (mountain scenery, less crowded), Jiankou (known for dangerousness and steepness), Gubeikou (most places are deserted and unrestored), Jinshanling (very primitive and majestic; only recommended to experienced hikers), and Simatai (very well intact but very difficult hike; known for Wanjing Tower and Stairway to Heaven). If you are planning on going, I would look at each, check the distance from Beijing and choose accordingly since each area offers something uniquely different from the next. The first, Badaling, is by far the most popular, the most grand and therefore the most crowded. The next choice on our list was the Mutianyu area of the Great Wall which was highly recommended by both guides and friends who had been there previously. It’s not as large but the Mutianyu area of the Great Wall is the less crowded and slightly more destitute area of the wall we were looking for.
I’m not sure if it was the time of year, the early 5am wake up call (which put us out the door by 6 and at the wall at 8:30 am; a two hour trip by bus, subway and taxi) or the Mutianyu area that we picked but we could only see about a dozen people on the entire wall when we arrived. By the time we left however, around 10:30, the wall was a bit more busy with maybe 100 people or so. Regardless, we felt as if we had the entire wall to ourselves, not ever having to push through crowds, wait in line or worry about swarms of people in our photos. We were able to take our time, strolling along large portions of the wall, mesmerized by the vast size of it, sprawling as far as the eye could see. I’ll be honest though. While it was an amazing site, it was one of those that you show up and think ‘yup, it’s exactly how I thought it would be’. That doesn’t mean it was any less fantastic, just one of those sites that is more or less how you pictured it to be. Regardless, there are certain things that you just simply can’t go your lifetime without seeing and the Great Wall is one of them.
One thing you can’t overlook on your trip to Beijing are the Beijing hutongs or small alleyways that are formed by lines of old traditional courtyard residences called siheyuan and are scattered all over the city. Sadly, many of these hutong areas are being torn down for development but thankfully there are still a few left. We headed for the Bell Tower area of hutongs and weren’t disappointed. Once you break away from the crowds and enter into these old neighborhoods, it’s easy to get swept up in the sites and smells of the past. Pack your walking shoes because you’re going to want to spend hours weaving through all the Beijing hutongs.
The day had come. We were heading to the airport to start our three week vacation and leaving Korea for good. I was almost giddy with excitement and nerves by the time we reached the airport. We had arrived hours before our flight partially due to excitement and partially due to the fact that we simply had nothing left to do in Seoul. We had finished our to do lists of accounts to close, bucket items to cross off and favorite foods to have one last time. We were ready to go. That is until we got to the ticket desk and were told that they could not let us board our flight because we would be violating the 72 hour China visa regulations.
Those who know me know that I do not handle last minute drastic changes very well to say the least (does anyone out there?) We were planning on taking advantage of the 72 hour layover visa option available like we had during our visit to Shanghai. If you have a flight leaving China within 72 hours of arrival and continues into a third country (aka not the one you just came from) immigration will let you into the country for no more than 72 hours without a visa (which costs a whopping $200 per person for Americans). Well we had a flight from Seoul to Beijing. Then another one two days later from Beijing to Kathmandu, Nepal. No problem, right? Wrong, oh so wrong. Here’s where it got sticky. The flight from Beijing to Kathmandu had a layover in another Chinese city. According to our airline, this voided the opportunity for the 72 hour layover since we touched down in China again, even though we were not going to leave the airport for the two hour layover. We would have to change our flight so it directly left China.
This was a huge upsets that was only magnified by the fact that we had only 40 minutes before our flight was boarding and most of the ticketing counters were closed seeing as how it was already past ten o’clock at night. You could see the sympathy in the ticketing agents eyes as we went to the only open ticketing counter and looked at their flights which only offered flights with layovers back in Seoul, also not allowed for us. Thank goodness for airport wifi because with only ten minutes to spare, we booked new flights on Kayak.com and were able to sprint (literally, unabashedly, flailing of the limbs type of sprint that is only seen in airport terminals) to our gate which would take us to Beijing. Moral of the story is to check, double check, even triple check visa regulations before booking that flight.
But alls well that ends well. And we booked new tickets that took us from Beijing to Hong Kong instead and were able to see one of the most infamous skylines in the world as our consolation prize for hours (ok, it was about an hour, but the longest hour of my life) of stress and struggle with the airline companies. Since our layover in Hong Kong was short, but thankfully we didn’t need a visa, we decided to head straight for the Star Ferry and across the harbor in order to see the skyline.