One of my greatest discoveries this year, has been the 72 hour visa free window in China and the Beijing Layover Tour, which makes your long layover in Beijing and probably many hours of travel more than worthwhile.
On a recent trip to Singapore, my husband and I found cheap fares via Air China, which required a long layover in Beijing. The minimum layover I saw was six or eight hours, so when I discovered the 72 hours visa free window, I quickly discovered tours specifically designed for people on layovers in the city. The difference between these tours and normal tours is that, because they're designed to accommodate layovers, they're more flexible. They understand flights may be delayed, and work with any such delays. They’re also government licensed and they warn against being duped by any private persons or companies trying to offer you a tour, because if caught, the Chinese government will not look so kindly on that.
My husband and I went with the private tour which is $138/person. Group tours are $120/person. We ended up doing two tours, one on the way to Singapore, and one on the way back. On the first leg we visited the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall was so fun. Make sure to bring cash with you, because you'll need to take the lift up to the wall, which is 15 yuan per person, and it covers your way up and down. All other entry tickets are included in your tour package.
Just be aware, the lift is actually a ski lift—not what I was expecting at all! Seeing and walking the Great Wall was more fun than I expected; but equally as fun, was taking the toboggan down. When you come down the wall, you have the option of taking the lift again, or a toboggan. Definitely do the toboggan. It’s the longest and most fun slide I’ve ever been down. They even take your picture for you so you can have a souvenir…for a small cost of course.
The well-organized itinerary allows for you to spend more or less time at each site; however, the Forbidden City’s last entry is at 3:30pm, so there is a certain time constraint. Our tour guide has been a guide for ten years and is very conscientious of time. So, knowing we’d need to manage our time in order to be able to see everything we paid to see, he made sure we ordered lunch to go. There is a restaurant at the bottom of the Great Wall, where we were able to order dumplings, which was easy to eat in the car. I can’t say it was the greatest dumplings I’ve ever had, but it sufficed.
We were back at the airport around 6pm, but our next flight didn’t leave until midnight. So, if you arrive early in the morning and plan a two site tour, I’d recommend no more than a ten hour tour. Customs and Immigration doesn’t actually take so long to get through. What took us a long time was getting the Temporary Visa Stamp. You need this before you can exit the airport, and Beijing Tour lays out very clear instructions, including pictures as to what you need to do. There is a particular form you need to fill out, and a particular desk you need to go to to get the stamp. As soon as you find the form, I’d get in line and fill it out there, instead of filling it out on the side then getting in line. Getting this stamp took the longest, because there were so many people and only one person at the counter. We’ re not sure why they do it this way, but we even saw the officers switch out two times, but they never added an extra body, and they move slowly in reviewing everything before giving you the stamp in your passport. We made sure not to make the same mistake on our second leg, and took a couple extra forms with us to fill out ahead of time.
Our second leg layover tour included a visit to The Temple of Heaven and Hutong. This too was very fun. The Temple of Heaven was once where the Emperor prayed for good harvest, thanksgiving, and to his deceased ancestors. However, now it is a massive park. My favorite part of all of this, was the outdoor exercise area. We went on a Monday morning and this area was flooded with elderly folks singing, playing instruments, and doing all kinds of physical activities. They have many different gym equipment, all of which I’d like to install in all of our parks here in the States. Our guide told us that it’s mostly elderly, retired folks here, keeping up their physical health by doing a lot of stretching and other exercises. Some of the elderly spend all day here, because they live alone. So, they bring their lunch, and they exercise and hang out with their friends in the park. I was SO impressed with the flexibility and strength of all these people. They put all my workouts to shame! I am definitely motivated to up my game!
After making our way through the Temple of Heaven, we headed to Hutong, where we first enjoyed a Rickshaw ride throughout the old town. Hutong was once a posh neighborhood for those close to the emperor, including Generals, royal cooks, royal teachers, and others. My father told me that my family had once had a home there. When you look at it now, it looks very old and cramped. It’s difficult to tell how well taken care of the homes are now. Most of them are all government owned housing now, so if there’s an issue with anything, the government fixes it or updates it. Since the housing was all divided up into small lots, units don’t have their own bathrooms, so they have to share one. There are just a few homes now, four or five I believe, that are still privately owned. The families that own them had to pay a nice sum to the government to keep them, but they were able to keep them. We visited one woman whose family bought back their house, though they only own a small portion of it now, because during the Cultural Revolution, other folks had taken up in her home and refused to move out of it. So now she just has a small area that contains a small courtyard, two small bedrooms, her own washroom, a little living area, and a little kitchen and dining area. You can tell time has taken its toll on the place and it’s difficult for me to imagine the place in its glory days. It was still interesting to see, especially for me, as I tried to imagine what it was like for my ancestors.
After the rickshaw ride and visit to the local family, we had lunch and explored the rest of the old town. On what appears to be the main strand, our tour guide made a few recommendations, and we decided on the place with Peking duck, because “when in Beijing.” It was a great decision, as the Peking duck was delicious. After lunch we strolled around and walked down a pedestrian alley way full of shops. There is a beautiful lake there where you can take a boat ride, or just sit around to enjoy the view. Do note that this old town area is even old in that no one takes credit cards, so be sure to bring local currency.
Overall, I highly recommend this layover tour if you’re passing through Beijing. If you do the tour, I’d recommend booking ahead of time and requesting Herbie as your guide. He was our guide on the first leg and he was fantastic. He’s also great at taking photos, so I think we’ve knocked out our Christmas card for the year!
Things to Keep in Mind:
I couldn't recommend this tour more--it's a great way to spend a long layover, and you don't have to worry about much, because it's so well organized, and the tour company is very communicative. I'd love to hear your experiences if you've done this tour, or if you end up doing it, so do share!
BIG LOVE & HUGS