After South Korea, we are supposed to spend the summer in Australia, but JB’s brother is getting married in September in France… so we decided to rework our itinerary and come back to Paris, then stay in Europe for a few months. Before returning to European soil, JB had the good idea to draw us a slightly exotic itinerary: Jeju => Beijing (2.5 days) => Astana (stopover) => Paris.
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
How to get there
Jeju is an increasingly popular destination in Asia and there are many direct flights from major Asian cities to/from this small Korean island. The Jeju – Beijing route is direct with China Eastern Airlines, 226€ per person with 1 piece of checked luggage.
Since we have an onward ticket to Paris 3 days later, we don’t have to pay, nor ask in advance for an entry visa (JB explained here the conditions to obtain this free transit visa which is valid until 144h – 6 days). We almost had a little difficulty because we did not think to print the hotel reservation, nor the plane ticket Beijing – Paris – and we couldn’t access our emails (Google services do not work in China, moreover, the wifi of the airport asked for a password). Luckily JB had these emails offline on his phone. Anyway, print all this, don’t be too relaxed like us 😀
Transport Airport => Hotel
At the airport, I am relieved to see that I can withdraw money from the Bank of China ATM free of charge. To be broad, we withdraw 1900yuan (243€), the ATM only gives us 100yuan bills (it’s the biggest bill that exists). We buy a SIM card without difficulty at China Mobile (100yuan, 10Gb for 7 days). We are surprised that the employees speak very good English.
But it’s when you step outside that everything gets complicated. The hotel (Beijing Prime Hotel Wangfujing) told us that there was a shuttle n°13 to Wangfujing. But we do not find it. And nobody speaks English. And then, we look more attentively at the panels and understand that it isn’t any more the n°13 but the n°10. That it is necessary to buy the ticket at one place, then to look at the detailed map on a blue booth in front of the bus platform, to know at which station we have to go out exactly. It looks complicated like that but if you go to Beijing, when you will be there, you will know exactly what I’m talking about.
We are then dropped off at the Jinbao Street Route station. We are still 1.5km away from the hotel, a 25 minute walk. We have really the laziness to walk with all this luggage. Our attempts to stop a cab and to ask him to bring us to the hotel fail – because the cabs do not want to make such a short race (that would have brought them 20yuan max, that is to say 2,56€ if they put the meter).
A cab at the stop beckons us, the driver speaks English. He proposes to take us to the hotel for 80yuan, and then, after negotiation (JB is now super good at trading), we agree on 50yuan (out of price for China, but it’s a very good price for tourists). In fact, the driver wants especially to take advantage of it to sell us a round trip to the Chinese Wall the next day for 700yuan. Too bad for him, we have already booked a tour the next day.
I visited Beijing when I was barely 15 years old. I went to China for a music festival in Tianjin with my conservatory. I kept a great memory of it, we paid a tour to visit Beijing for a week and took all our time. Beijing was not polluted at that time, the people were adorable, especially because we were just a small band of innocent children. Every time we got into a cab, the drivers, despite the language barrier, tried to show us what there was to see in the city, and they insisted on giving us change to the nearest yuan. In front of our hotel, there was a restaurant too good, with all kinds of barbecue skewers. It was really an unforgettable trip in a perfect world!
But this time, I am a little nervous about traveling to China. Everybody talks about the pollution, the crowded Chinese wall, where you could be stuck for 30 minutes without being able to move forward 1 cm… That’s why JB booked a hotel (Beijing Prime Hotel Wangfujing) in the center of Beijing, 5 stars… if the culture shock is unbearable, I can always stay at the hotel.
And then… nay! We are very lucky. The city is less polluted than usual, and it rains even at the end of the day, making the air very pleasant and a little fresh.
Bonus: we expected to see people spitting everywhere, but in fact they spit when they travel abroad, but they don’t spit in their own country. Clever!
Guided tour to the Great Wall of China
After a very good night where I slept like a baby (1 hour of difference with Korea gives me 1 hour of sleep more), we get up quietly and wait for our guide in front of the reception at 9:30 am.
The tour costs us 298 yuan/person. We could have taken a shuttle for 240 yuan the round trip. But since nobody speaks English here, we found simpler to book the tour via our hotel, and that we are picked up in front of the hotel. We are only 10 in a van, and the guide explains us very well the various constructions of the Great Wall of China, made by 5 Chinese dynasties. The part that we visit today is the most quiet (Mutianyu), but also the most recent (600 years). One can of course visit the part which is more than 2000 years old, or the part which has not been restored etc. but the frequentation will not be the same.
After 1h30 of road, we finally arrive.
The entrance ticket is included in the tour, but the cable (almost obligatory) isn’t. We choose the cable to go up, and the slide to go down, which makes 120yuan/person.
The temperature is 37°C. But the chairlift is open (as for skiing), it’s quite funny. You can see that I have an anti-UV mask – a Japanese invention – and a hat that you don’t see, it’s not because of the pollution but because the sun hits too hard and it burns my skin.
The Great Wall can already be seen
Everything is so peaceful, so beautiful, so green 😀 Nothing to do with the Great Wall near Beijing that I visited when I was little.
Arrived at the top, we have two choices, go to the right and endure this difference in level:
Or being a small player and go to the left, just to say “I stepped on it” 😀 Being a sports disabled person, obviously I chose to go to the left, even if it goes up a little bit.
The towers that you see every 100m or so are the only places where you can get some shade. There is a very pleasant current. Before, these towers were also used to pass messages. Just make a fire (with wolf droppings to have more smoke) and add herbs to give nice colors => the message is transmitted from one tower to another.
The idea is just to walk and walk eh, there is no destination because the Great Wall is more than 8000km, we can go on like this for years. Our guide told us well to return to the same place to take the good cable (there are several cables in fact), otherwise we risk to go to another city ahahahaha
We’re not comfortable here?
Then we go down by slide. We have to queue for 20 minutes, but the descent only lasts 5 minutes. It looks like a toboggan, with a brake which is very efficient.
Once downstairs, it will rain ropes for a good hour. The cable is interrupted, the other tourists of our group are stuck on top and are forced to walk to the bottom. As a result, as we are already very late, we do not have to make a shopping stop that was planned in the tour (all tours include one or more shopping stops, if we do not want a shopping stop, the tour can cost 2 to 3 times more).
Still very fit, after dropping off at the hotel, we ask the concierge of our hotel to call us a cab to get us to Tiananmen Square. But it’s raining and no cab is willing to accept such a short ride (it’s just 2km away but 50mn on foot). And then, I don’t know by what miracle, another concierge comes to speak to us only in Chinese and we manage to understand him: we have to take the subway, line 5, to Tiananmen.
Equipped with Apple’s Maps app (because of course Google Maps, Google etc. are out of order in China), we follow the directions without difficulty to get to the subway station. There, big surprise! The subway is less crowded than in Paris, and cleaner than in Paris. What a relief! I thought I was going to be squashed like a fly. There, it’s the subway at rush hour:
When you get out of the subway, you see a nice building, without knowing what it is.
And then we understand that we have to walk, go around the barriers and then go through a checkpoint to reach the square. You have to show your passport to enter. We had left ours at the hotel, fortunately we had a scan on our telephone which was enough.
We are surprised to see a lot of Chinese sitting on the floor, walking around… There are some food trucks selling drinks and snacks. I think that everyone is waiting for the sunset.
We then go to the restaurant Qanjude Roast Duck right next to Tiananmen Square, without prior reservation (type Quanjude (Tian’anmen Branche) on the iPhone Maps app). It has become a chain now, they have restaurants all over Beijing. It’s this restaurant that invented the recipe of the Peking duck. Ah ah! We feel so privileged to discover the original recipe. So, we didn’t understand the menu very well, but the manager of the restaurant chose for us: the whole lacquered duck with pancakes, cucumber and pepper in addition. We can take some extra dishes (giblets, soups etc.) but we are only two, so one duck is already a lot.
The Chinese rather come here as a family and order about ten dishes.
JB doesn’t know the principle at all and is delighted to see a chef come with a duck and cut it up in front of us. I think he asked how we wanted him to cut the duck but we didn’t know what the options were either so we waved him over to do it the way he wanted.
Everything is cut in small pieces (except the wings). All the giblets, neck and head are kept by the restaurant and they will use them to cook other dishes (extra charge). So we are only allowed to eat the duck breast and the thighs. And of course, this is the very definition of the duck larqué, the skin is extremely crispy.
The preparation of the Peking duck begins as soon as the animal is born. It is fattened by force-feeding for two months and then slaughtered as soon as it weighs about 3 kilos. It is then inflated with air under the skin, emptied of its entrails, boiled, coated with honey and dried. During roasting, the meat of the duck is cooked from the inside by spraying it with boiling water. In the traditional recipe, the duck is killed 24 to 48 hours in advance. By making an incision in the rump and blowing, the skin is peeled off the meat and the duck is then coated with a mixture containing honey and is finally hung in a well-ventilated room.
It looks like there’s not much to eat but I assure you that we had a lot of trouble finishing. A broth is given to us too (it has a very fine taste).
To eat the lacquered duck, we put a little sauce on the pancake, some duck breast + a little cucumber + onion + pepper, we roll it up and we eat.
It’s good, but I confess… with HONTE, that I prefer the recipe of the lacquered duck from Tang frères (the supermarket in Paris) ahahahha because the duck here isn’t well marinated, it lacks taste.
A few minutes later, we are given the duck bones, fried. We don’t really know how to eat them (there isn’t much meat left on them) so we just take a picture.
It was not the meal of our lives but we are very happy to have lived this experience and discovered the original recipe.
Day 3 :
Today, we have an appointment at 7:30 am at the reception to do the city tour with other guests of the hotel. It’s been a long time since we have done an organized tour. After 2 years of touring around the world with a lot of backpackers, the company of our companions for a day (and customers of 5 star hotels) is like a breath of fresh air. They are here for (short) vacations, they are much more zen, less critical, less price-conscious and more mature/older. While backpackers are often very sensitive to every scam, every yuan overpaid, and criticize more openly that they visit by comparing it to others. In exchange, backpackers have more funny stories to tell:D
It’s Saturday, it’s 37°C. The guide encourages us to buy a lot of water before entering the Forbidden City to hydrate us because we will not have necessarily time to stop to buy some. Here is the world that there is one Saturday in front of the Forbidden City. I believe that the number of tickets sold is “limited” to 80,000 per day.
In spite of all these people, our guide is super efficient, she counts us every time we pass a door.
Because of the world, we often go through the next door to go faster and avoid the crowd.
The colors are incredible, certainly, it’s renovated, but everything is perfect in every detail.
Some will find the visit much too quick, but with this crowd and the sun beating down, we are delighted to leave this place quickly.
Photo in backstage mode, that we laugh a little: me in “Asian tourist” mode 😀 to escape the sun and the heat, it hits too much.
We are then taken to a shopping stop. We are explained how silk is made and shown another technique I have never seen before: using the cocoon of the silkworm, pulling on it to create such a soft, anti-bacterial and heat-regulating material for the down. Ohlala, it’s so soft! I feel like I’m going to crack, until the saleswoman shows us a comforter they sell. I touch the inside and realize that between the demo model and the comforter sold, the silkworm cocoon has probably been replaced, at best by cotton, at worst by synthetic. Hence the oddly attractive price: 300yuan for a down comforter. In any case, they have a very good selling technique, several tourists cracked and ended up buying a silk Hermes style fake scarf.
We then visit a temple: Temple of Heaven. The color blue is the color of heaven, and there are many of them on this temple.
You can’t visit the interior though.
We have lunch in a restaurant next door. In the middle is a round turntable. That way, no risk of a chopstick battle to pick up our favorite dish. The quantity is a little bit right for the number of people, and the quality is average, but nobody complains, everybody is happy to have something to eat, and not to have to wait for the dishes too long. Even our poor Indian companion, a vegetarian, who will only eat white rice, has a smile on his face.
We make a second shopping stop where we are shown cultured pearls. This time, nobody buys because it is frankly not very beautiful.
There are two entrances, and we won’t know until later. One entrance for groups, where you have to take 3 boats to get to the main palace and then walk 30 minutes to the exit. And an entrance for individuals, where you have to walk 30 minutes to the palace and then walk 30 minutes back (all in the shade). But the guide presented it to us strangely, like “do you prefer to take the boat or walk? Obviously, everybody prefers the boat (with an extra charge of 120yuan/person), but without knowing that the boat takes a way 3 times longer (and 3 times more time), and walking isn’t so unpleasant because we are all the time in the shade.
The advantage of taking the boat is to see the size of this summer palace, built for the last Queen Mother of China, and having power for many years because she put on the throne 3 kings much too young to govern.
The other advantage is to enjoy much more of the dreamy scenery by the lake. But here it is, if you take this path as a private person (without a guide), it will be too difficult, because there is no indication and there are 3 different boats, do you need a ticket or several tickets? I don’t know.
The summer palace is my favorite place of the day. I remember walking down this long corridor when I was a child, whose decoration and color are still well preserved. At that time, there were not many tourists, and I think we spent the whole afternoon here, reenacting scenes from our favorite Chinese movies with my friends from the conservatory. I really liked this place very much.
Now, it remains very beautiful and pleasant to visit, especially at the end of the day. I recommend that you spend the whole afternoon here. There is a subway not far away, come by subway (by car, count 1 hour of trip + traffic jams) and walk around, sit down at the level of the corridor.
We take again the bus to return to the hotel. Everybody falls asleep on the way back. The other tourists intend to go to the street food, but seen the quantity of water which falls on Beijing, they give up the idea and return also to the hotel.
I really liked this city tour, a bit fast but efficient, and especially our guide. She is really conscientious and gives very useful information. For example, she advised us to go to the famous street food seller Donghuamen Night Market, but just to see because the products aren’t fresh and that we risk to have a stomach ache (it isn’t an information that a guide like Lonely Planet for example would give).
She also showed us how to check the tickets. Passing the hand on the letters L on the right edge, and on the collar of Mao Zedong, one feels a little relief. If, on the contrary, it is smooth, it is a counterfeit bill.
It warns us against street vendors who sell cheap products but in exchange give you back fake bills. The same goes for street food.
In addition, the guide counted us I-know-how many times today, in addition to being all the time thoroughly and positive. At first, JB was reluctant to go on a guided tour, but the service and quality convinced us.
We take a little nap, before leaving at 11pm to catch our plane to Paris at 2am.
Our stay in Beijing was short, but it’s better this way because we had more difficulty than in other countries, to find our marks, and to understand how it works, to communicate. The blocking of Google’s services (which are essential to our freelance activities), has definitively removed China from the list of countries where we can settle for a month as digital nomads. But we will surely come back there, on a guided tour, to visit the other cities of the country.
Part 2: Practical Tips
4587 yuan for 3 nights, 2 full days of visit or 588€ for two people
- Beijing Prime Hotel Wangfujing: 70€/night/double room, no breakfast link Booking here
- Quanjude Duck Roast: 238yuan for a huge lacquered duck (enough for 3 people)
- Airport Shuttle => Wangfujing district : n°10, 25yuan/person
- One day tour: Great Wall of China (up to Mutianyu): 298yuan/person – purchased at the hotel reception. Included: van + entrance fee. Not included: Cable car outbound, slide back (120yuan/person), lunch (approx. 60yuan)
- City Tour: 375yuan/person, purchased at the hotel reception. Visit the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, two shopping stops. Includes: entrance fees, lunch, transportation. Not included: water (between 3 and 5yuan/bottle), the boat (120yuan/person).
- Wangfujing => Airport via the Didi app (the equivalent of Uber): 78yuan for a 4-seater car, or 10€
- If you want to privatize a 4-seater cab: between 700 and 800yuan/taxi round trip to Mutianyu.
- For the city tour, the tariff (before trade) that we were given was 100yuan/hour/taxi 4 places.
- Subway tickets: 3yuan/route
- SIM card: 100yuan for 10Gb, valid for 7 days
- Meal at the hotel: 100yuan/person/meal (we were too tired to bother looking for a restaurant). Of course you will find cheaper by going to a food court for example.
- We asked for quotes to have a tour (group of 8 people max) for our 2.5 days on site but the rates were in the 330$/person (hotel and meals excluded) ! I advise you to do like us: book a good hotel and central (Beijing Prime Hotel (like us, link Booking ), Zhaolong Hotel, Beijing Jade Garden hotel, North garden hotel, Sunworld hotel, Howard Johnson paragon hotel, Beijing international hotel) then book guided tours via this hotel, it will be much cheaper this way.
- With my international option, the withdrawal at Bank of China was free of charge.
- Touch the bills to detect counterfeit bills. Real banknotes have the letters L and Mao Zedong’s collar embossed
- The 4G connection is essential. Chinese people don’t know a single word in English, you need to use instant voice translation applications like VoiceTra (free) to communicate.
- The subway is easy to take, it is the means of transportation that we recommend to visit Beijing by yourself. However, prices vary depending on the destination. When buying a ticket, you should always give the name of the destination station to the ticket seller. When you buy on the machine, it’s a bit difficult because you have to select the amount of the ticket you want to buy (and you don’t know which one to buy).
- JB has written an article on what works/does not work in China. Remember to install a VPN before arriving in China, and print important emails if you ever use Gmail.
- Don’t forget to download the WeChat app before your arrival in China, it will help you get internet at the airport
- Use the iPhone Maps application and the Bing search engine which work very well in China (without VPN).
- If you stay more than two weeks in China, it’s worth learning how to count (it’s super easy I swear) and recognize the number signs (type chinese number hand gestures on Google). It will be more fun especially when you stroll to the market.
- Don’t hesitate to buy pollution masks at the convenience store (Family Mart at the airport sells them) and check pollution reports regularly to see if you need them or not.
- Needless to say, tap water isn’t safe to drink, do not eat too much street food and be very careful with your belongings.
- Here is the contact information of the English speaking cab driver we met on the 1st day. The tariffs which he gives seem to us OK, moreover he speaks well English. You can negotiate to get a better rate. On the right, you will find the name & address of our Prime Hotel.
- Do not get into a cab without negotiating the rates. They won’t put a meter for tourists like you. Another customer of our hotel had to pay 300yuan (38€) for a 1.4km ride, which is only worth 20yuan in real life. Use the Didi application instead for cab rides, rates are fixed in advance. If ever your application switches to Chinese, don’t hesitate to ask the hotel reception to pay in English for you.
- Drivers will not understand the written address in Latin phonetics. It is imperative that you show the name written in Chinese. As soon as you arrive at your hotel, take the hotel map, where the name and address will be written in Chinese.
- Here are the names in Chinese of the tourist attractions in Beijing + the names of the “pieces” of the Great Wall of China to show to your driver if needed. Click on the picture to zoom in.