It’s Sunday, December 9th, and we have officially touched down in Beijing for the SG13 tour with China Travel Guide!
Since we took an evening flight from Chongqing, our initial leg simply involved meeting the friendly representative outside arrivals, who showed us an English message from our guide Linda, instructing us to wait in the lobby for a 7:45am pick-up to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.
As we waited just inside, I spoke with Linda on the rep’s phone, exchanged greetings, and confirmed our schedule for the next day. We’ll look forward to meeting her early tomorrow!
After a few minutes, we took our first breaths of the crisp, sub-zero winter air, across to a shining people carrier ready to drop us at the Great Wall Hotel. En route, the city gradually came into view through the dark, foggy backdrop, with thick layers of frost bordering the roadsides.
The journey took no more than half an hour, and as drove towards the third ringroad, I sensed a distant familiarity with our new surroundings, as all my previous visits to Beijing date back more than a decade!
On first impresssions, the Great Wall Hotel looks and feels great. There was no issue with our reservation, and the hotel is very spacious, with attractive decor, and cosy rooms with all the necessary amenities.
So it’s good night for now, and stay tuned for all the action from our first day out!
Monday December 9th
The alarm clocks sounded at 6:30, and we just about managed the 7:45 tour group rendezvous in the lobby, after a plentiful western style buffet, and a quick return to dress up warmly.
There was no clue as to how many fellow tour members would be joining us, but I was pleasantly surprised to find we numbered sixteen in total, with mostly North Americans, Australians, and Europeans.
We soon recognised Linda, who approached our small unfamiliar cliques, introduced herself, then handed us each a pair of China Travel Guide name tags, one bearing our names, the other a contact number for Linda, whom I then added on Wechat.
Soon, we walked to the tour bus waiting in the carpark, a modern, clean and comfortable vehicle with cosy stitched leather seats.
Our first destination was the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, an hour and a half’s ride from the hotel, but which passed quickly thanks to the warm and helpful talk hosted by our smiling, friendly host, who addressed the group through a microphone stood at the front.
Throughout the journeys, she charmed the audience with her witty humour, local knowledge, stories of Beijing life, and useful tips on how to avoid falling victim to petty scams, such as recognising counterfeit banknotes, or real Taiwanese equivalents of much less valuable compared to the Yuan.
We arrived at Mutianyu around 9:30, and soon realised this is the best season to visit if you like a quiet atmosphere completely free of queues and bustle.
Linda returned quickly with all our tickets, one for entrance, another for the shuttle bus, and the final a choice of either a return cable car ride, or the chairlift up followed toboggan ride down.
Despite temperatures hovering around zero, the climb up the Great Wall under the bright sunshine means you needn’t feel concerned.
By the time we reached the main peak where a wall of bricks impedes access to the wall lying beyond, I had long since shed my outer layers down to a bare t-shirt!
I felt China Travel Guide struck the balance just right between personal freedom and collective schedule.
From the moment our tour members went their separate ways to explore the wall, we had the best part of three hours to see everything at our own pace and leisure, before meeting again near the main entrance after our own choice of venue for lunch.
Once everyone had reassembled, Linda poured out a bottle of Shandong red wine, and we enjoyed a quick toast before taking our coach back into the city towards the Silk Market.
En route, we stopped by the Olympic Park to picture the Bird’s Nest and swimming complex. Just across the road, there’s a unique series of buildings that collectively form the shape of a dragon. I will leave a photograph so that you can see for yourself.
Our second destination for the day was a two hour stop at a shopping centre by the name of Silk Market.
While Chinese tours generally expect you to empty your wallets in stores selling wares of highly dubious quality and value, there was no obligation or pressure to buy anything.
Although I’m pretty averse to shopping, it was actually quite fun checking out all the shops, and we still ended up buying sets of clothes on our own accord.
Bargaining skills definitely come in handy, but even the most gullible shouldn’t end up too out of pocket, as the management requires the owners to respect a set upper threshold in prices.
Still, feigning disinterest and moving on generally works great. Many quotations of 300 yuan fell straight to 100 by the time our feet crossed out of the door threshold.
Even for people with an aversion to shopping trips, I quite enjoyed two hour stay, without finding the time spent there excessive.
Last on our day’s schedule was the Legend of Kungfu performance at the Red Theatre.
We arrived a full hour before the 7 o’clock curtain raise, but this offered swift entry into the venue, and a free choice of seats where our group could all sit together.
China Travel guide reserved the front right area just before the stage, so we had a perfect spot to enjoy the action up close.
For those who might join a Beijing tour one day, I won’t spoil the experience by revealing much about the show, other to say it was one of the best entertainment performances I have ever had the pleasure to watch, as testified by the fact the cast took the stage for the 9506th occasion, and have performed around the around, and for high level dignitaries, such as diplomatic missions and Nobel winners.
While there were incredible displays of kungfu skills, endurance and athleticism, the main thread was the deeply moving story of a boy whose mother left him at the monastry, how he trained body and mind throughout his life to finally attain zen, and become abbot when his old master passes away.
This was no doubt a great highlight of my travel experience in Beijing!
On the coach back to the hotel, Linda instructed us to meet in the lobby again at 7:45 the next morning. While a few group members perhaps desired a later start, there were no words of complaint when Linda told how she must travel two hours in each direction to and from her home!
This was our final day on the tour, but for the tour group as a whole, as many would continue their trip onto Xi-an after we left.
Our schedule today involved considerably larger and more crowded attractions, which were Tiananmen Square, the forbidden City, Shicha Hutong (Old residential street), a Peiking duck restaurant, and finally the Temple of Heaven.
After our early morning pick-up, Linda handed everybody a walkie-talkie with earpiece so that we could listen to her introduce the sights and make sure nobody went astray.
Despite the fact December is out of season, there were still many visitors in Tiananmen and the Forbidden City, so I can only imagine how crowded these locations become over July and August, the busiest times of the year.
In fact, Linda told us there are so many people visiting Mutianyu Great Wall in the summer holiday, that tour groups spend the entire day at this attraction, with no time for anything else. Especially during August, there are multiple hour long queues to enter, take the shuttle bus, then ride the cable car to the crowds above!
Again, there was plenty of time to see the main attractions inside the forbidden City, but no chance to explore the entire complex, a feat which could potentially take days on end, it’s so expansive!
Walking out of the North Gate, Linda coordinated a quick pick-up with the coach driver, who briefly pulled up by the roadside, then swiftly headed off as soon as we had scrambled on board.
Next was a traditional old Beijing Hutong, an old street where people still continue to live in preference to the high rises.
Linda handed us over to the official hutong guide, and instructed that our tour company would deal with tips for all the rickshaw drivers and guide, so there was no need for any of us to worry about anything.
The highlight Travel China Guide arranged was a home visit to Mr. Zhang and his wife’s hutong residence. His family has lived in the hutong over four generations, though his daughter married and now lives in a modern apartment. They still visit them in the hutong once a week.
Inside, the whole property has a tight floor space of around 50 square metres, and their bedroom, living room and study occupy the same open area with no walls or doors in between. There is no private bathroom, so they share a communal one outside with their hutong neighbours.
We sat inside for about half an hour. The guide told us about their lifestyle, translated questions from group members, conducted a short paper cutting activity, before finally giving us a few minutes to explore the home.
Mr. Zhang was a professional government artist before he retired many years ago, but he continues to create attractive paintings on rice paper that he sells to visitors at a very reasonable price, an offer that a few took up.
Lunch was at the beautiful Xiheyaju restaurant. We walked in through a small opening by the roadside, and discovered a traditional courtyard building where the attentive staff served us a very lavish helping of peiking duck, along with a great variety of classic Chinese dishes.
It was pushing three o’clock by the time we finished, so we boarded the coach for our last attraction on the SG13 tour, the Temple of Heaven.
Linda told us the parklands take up four times the surface area of the Forbidden City, so there is no way to explore all the wonderful gardens inside. However, the main reason tourists visit is to see the iconic temple where emperors once visited twice yearly to pray for good harvests.
After some group photos with ‘Linda’s family,’ everybody had a half hour to look around the temple and surrounding museums, more than enough to take everything in.
We had a friendly chat with Linda, added each other on Wechat, and thanked her for warm generosity as host.
Though everybody would take the coach back to the hotel for an evening’s rest, we decided to go our own way and visit Wangfujing Street by subway instead.
After two full days with Linda and Travel China Guide, I only have positives to share from the experience.
Our airport pick-up was smooth and efficient, the hotel was great, we used the same clean and modern coach throughout the stay, the driver was safe and dependable, Linda was a fantastic host who provided great information and entertained us greatly between stops.
All of the attractions were worth visiting, and there wasn’t a single extra expense demanded of any tour member.
The whole tour schedule went ahead as schedued, entry into all the attractions was swift and efficient, and the timings allowed us plenty of time to explore the highlights, with no feeling of either being rushed, or staying for an excessively long period.
As for the Beijing winter climate, the temperatures were very cold, with a biting wind on the second day. Nevertheless, the skies were cloudless throughout, and as long as you come prepared, the advantages that the off peak travel season brings more than compensates for the chilly weather.
No matter whether you are visiting China for the first time, or taking a domestic holiday as part of an extended stay, I couldn’t recommend Travel China Guide enough as a way to experience the highlights of cities all over China, as they are one of the most friendly, efficient, and transparent tours available, allowing you to concentrate purely on enjoying your holiday from start to finish!