My Paradise: Bustling Beijing

by Shannon Kroemer
Stripes Okinawa

When most people envision paradise, a scenery of warm beaches, turquoise waters, and pretty drinks with umbrellas comes to mind. After living on the island of Okinawa for over two years, my family’s paradise looked a bit different. We wanted to take a trip that included a bit of history, a crisp chill in the air, and articles of clothing that we hadn’t worn in ages: hats and gloves!

Visiting Beijing has always been on the top of our bucket list. There is something alluring about the rich history and culture associated with the area. Based on discussions with others who’ve visited Beijing, we wanted to avoid the drastic heat in the summer; we get enough of the sweltering temperatures on Okinawa! We also wanted to stray away from Chinese holidays accompanied with all the crowds. After much research and discussion, we decided on a five day visit in mid- November.

There are various options for traveling to Beijing. We opted out of a tour and went on our own adventure. My husband and I, along with our 12-year-old son, were confident we could tour the city independently after doing copious amounts of research and studying a few travel books!

Living in Japan truly helped prepare us for the hustle and bustle of Beijing. We were very accustomed to not understanding very much of the language, and adjusting accordingly. I highly recommend having addresses in English and Mandarin. Most hotel and tourist websites have the address listed in both languages.

Once we arrived, we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel near the Forbidden City. I cannot recommend this area enough. Many of Beijing’s most popular attractions are within walking distance. Our hotel was also a five-minute walk to the subway system.

One of the biggest bonuses about traveling in Beijing is the affordable transportation. While it can be very crowded at times, the subway system is incredibly easy to navigate. Furthermore, taxis are cheap! Just be sure you insist that the driver use a meter.

After checking-in to our hotel, we walked down to the Dong Hua Men Night Market. This is a tourist area filled with exotic foods like fried spiders, scorpions, starfish, and more! Not to worry, there were plenty of other options like rice, noodles, fruits, and desserts. If you are an adventurous foodie like my husband, check it out. It is a very unique outdoor food market and has something for everyone. While it is not authentic Chinese food, it was fun to take in the sights and smells. We had plenty of other opportunities to visit local restaurants and taste delicious authentic food throughout our trip. The Dong Hua Men Night Market is all about the experience!

Great Wall

We woke up early the next morning excited for our first full day in Beijing. First, we grabbed breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s because our son loves to check out foreign takes on food chains. Next, we bundled up and were off to see the Great Wall of China. This was at the top of our list and we didn’t want to wait! We did not book our China trip through a tour company, but we did schedule a tour of the Great Wall of China. There are a variety of full-day tours to choose from, though I highly recommend Tour-Beijing.Com. Several tours and locations are available and they were very accommodating. Our private tour included a driver, a guide, lunch, and two sections of the Great Wall.

The first stop was the Great Wall at Mutianyu. This part of the wall is less crowded and incredibly scenic. We took a cable car to the top and were immediately in awe. It’s difficult to describe the surreal feeling of actually walking along the Great Wall of China. Witnessing its splendor and magnitude in person is absolutely breathtaking and humbling. The brisk fall air, the mostly bare trees, and peaceful serenity was more than we could have envisioned.

After lunch we ventured to the Great Wall at Badaling. Although this is considered a more touristy section, it was relatively quiet. Perhaps this was because we arrived shortly before the last admittance. We were blessed with fantastical views of the winding wall as the sun began to set. Watching the horizon beyond the Great Wall fade from
yellow to orange as the day came to an end will always be one of the most astounding sites I’ve ever witnessed.

Forbidden City

The following day we walked to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Wear comfortable shoes, as this requires a great deal of walking. Tiananmen Square is a political center with a lot of history. Be prepared for several merchants approaching you with souvenirs. This is a wonderful opportunity to test out your bargaining skills. Tiananmen Square has several attractions for site-seers and history buffs, including the National Museum of China and Chairman Moa’s Memorial Hall.

Cross the street and you’ll enter the South Gate of the Forbidden City. We knew the Forbidden City was going to be large, but it is truly enormous. Expect large crowds and a bit of pushing and shoving to see some of the main attractions. The construction and architecture within the city is spectacular. We visited for several hours and still didn’t see everything the Forbidden City has to offer. It is a unique ability to visit a place that was enveloped in so much mystery and awe by the people who were never permitted to enter this magnificent palace.

The next day we hopped on the subway and rode all the way to the Summer Palace. This remarkable site may be called the “Summer Palace,” but let me assure you that it is stunning in the fall. Walking the grounds in the cool autumn temperatures made for an enjoyable afternoon. One could easily spend an entire day viewing all the sights, relaxing in the park, and snapping photos of all the scenic spots. There were plenty of places to find a peaceful, and secluded, park bench to reflect and take in the beautiful surroundings.

Panda paradise

The Beijing Zoo is on the same subway line as the Summer Palace. We knew we couldn’t leave China without seeing pandas! It is probably best to go in the morning to see the pandas more active and to avoid the crowds, but we arrived in the late afternoon. There was a throng of people in the panda enclosure, however, we were patient and able to get a great spot to watch them happily enjoy their bamboo. It’s no wonder these adorable creatures are the national animal of China!

On our final morning we jumped back on the subway and visited the Temple of Heaven. It was a quick ride and the entrance was right outside the subway station. Immediately upon entering the park there was a great deal of activity. We were greeted by music and people dancing beneath the trees. The idyllic park and the angelic temple is a true testament to why this was built for the emperor to worship the Heavens. We were amazed by the temple’s brilliant colors and astounding architecture.

The Temple of Heaven was our favorite spot to peoplewatch. There were many newlywed couples taking their wedding photos. We were impressed by the number of women wearing beautiful white or red wedding gowns and posing with their adoring husbands. In the park surrounding the temple, there were many quiet spots to observe the wildlife as people jogged or rode their bikes through the secluded paths. It is a place genuinely enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. We couldn’t have planned for a better way to conclude our Beijing vacation.

A piece of paradise can be defined in a variety of ways depending on whom you ask. Our paradise included a once-in-a-lifetime walk along the Great Wall, visiting some of the most iconic historical sites in the world, eating authentic (and not-so-authentic) Chinese food, and experiencing the unique culture and customs of a city enriched in tradition.

Beijing encompassed several essential factors that were crucial in deciding on a vacation spot. We made tremendous memories that will be forever cherished. Bustling Beijing is certainly an adventure worth having.

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