1. The Forbidden City remains forbidden – Beijing

25.07.2015

Just six month after leaving Vietnam I was able to return – courtesy of a cheap offer from Air China. It would have been mad not taking advantage to fly from Dusseldorf to Ho Chi Minh city via Beijing. The flight itinerary even allowed me to have a short stay in Beijing to explore the city (better than staying at the airport for 8 1/2 hours).

I heard mixed reviews about Air China, but for €530 I couldn’t expect too much I thought, and it is not the journey but the arrival that counts when flying.
Boarding in Dusseldorf was a bit chaotic, and like other Asian peiple Chinese seems not to like queueing properly. I made it onto the plane. The set up was 2-4-2, and having a window seat it meant that only one other seat was between me and the way to the toilet. The leg room was more like a RyanAir flight. It was definetly less room than with my usual carrier, KLM. A tall person would find it a bit uncomfortable during a long flight, but it was ok for me. Every passenger had his own entertainment system, with the latest movies in English and Chinese available. The two meals served were good, nothing special. During the flight the stewardess provided arrival cards for the airport though I was advised for staying for 24 hours I didn’t need one. I learned then not to believe them in regards of Visa requirements….

We arrived at Beijing International Airport ahead of schedule. The first interesting sight was the temperature control. Passing the ansfer desk younwalk through what looked like a passport control, but it actually was a way to check the body temperature of the passenger – trying to identify any sick people. In addition of trying to keep bad people out they attempt to keep viruses out of the country as well.
After that there are three kind of desks: first there is a single desk for people from ASEAN countries, next to it where the several booth to get the Visa stamp, and on the far left was the transfer desks for flights within 24h. Firstly I learned that even for the 24 Visa waiver you need to fill in the yellow ‘Alien’ card.
I showed the now filled in at the single desk for ASEAN passengers (no need to queue at the long full visa desks, which is quite helpful)

Little bridge over the canal near the City

Little bridge over the canal near the City

 

. I was then taking the internal train to get to the arrival hall. Thankfully my luggage was sent through to HCMC, so no need to carry it with me.

Before you leave the baggage claim area there are two exchange booth. I would suggest NOT using them. The exchange rate was not good (€1: 6,07 RMB, instead of 6,32) and they charge a fixed fee of 60 RMB – that is nearly €10. As I wanted to exchange only €50 it would have been a 20% fee. I know at exchange rates are never great, but this was the first Asian airport with such high fee.
Thankfully there are several bank branches at the arrival hall. I went to the Agriculture Bank. They charge no fee and the exchange rate was much better. I saved 90 RZM, so worthwhile to wait.
As I didn’t fancy taken my backpack with me into town I went to the left luggage desk to leave the bag behind. I was charged 45,- for 7 hours. They scan the bags and put it away, you actually don’t access any lockers.

Next step was the train into town. It costs 25RMB one way to get to the final station Dongzhimen. You can buy single tickets, but I got a kind of Oyster card from a friend, loaded some money on it, and didn’t have to worry about buying tickets for the different trips with the underground in Beijing.
Obviously I missed the train by a minute, and had to wait 15 minutes. Whoever had the grand idea to have a massive glass roof about the station should be arrested. It felt a bit like a greenhouse. Not the most comfortable place to wait for a longer time.

The ride into town takes around 40 minutes, and you get a first impression of the surroundings of Beijing before it gets down into the tunnel. I got off at Dongzhimen, and made my way to the line 2 (blue), and changed at Jianguomen to get to line 1 (red) that would bring me to Tiananmen Square – from that direction ti would make sense to get off at Tiananmen Square East and not West. The good thing is everything is clearly labelled at the stations, with the colours of the different lines quite clearly visible on pillars and signs. The temperature at the station was actually very nice, and the ride was smooth. I was rather impressed. Also, while the train journey into town was not the cheapest, travelling within Beijing is very cheap. I paid only 4 Rzm one way to Tiananmen Square.
I was a bit surprised about the security though in Beijing- at several points my bags were send through a scanner. I even saw a few of them along the road towards the Forbidden City.

Finally I arrived at my destination at 2pm. The heat of the city welcomed me immediately when I got outside, it was a bit like hit by a hammer. I just followed the crowd towards the Forbidden City, which is only a short walk from the station. Opposite the entrance I got a nice view of the infamous Tiananmen Square. I was planning to actually got onto the square later on, but didn’t do it in the end.

Instead I was looking for the ticket booth, and it took a few minutes before I realised that I had to get through the massive gate. Getting through I was welcomed by a rather impressive square, it was a fantastic first impression, with statues and fountains around the square, and the square itself was surrounded by walls. Heading through another pair of a massive gate I was then at the main square ahead of the entrance of the City. I spotted the ticket booth and thought initially that I was lucky – there was no queue. Well, my luck turned into bad luck when I was advised that no more tickets were sold – the city was full. I heard that there is a limit of visitors, but I also read that this number would only be met during holidays – and despite being a Saturday I was under the impression it was no holiday. So my plan for the day was ruined. I was a bit upset with yself that I changed my mind and didn’t head to the Chinese wall.

I tried to do the best out of it, and headed out of the main square, and walked around the City, following the walls. I got some glimpse of how wonderful the city must look from the inside, if you take the outer section as an indication. There was also a nice canal opposite the wall, with rowing and pedal boats on it. You could actually walk into a park there as well, but I just followed the walls.
During the walk I realised how big the Forbidden City is – it seemed endless. After a while the canal was replaced by blocks of houses, some newer, some older houses I had in mind when thinking about old Chinese towns.
I finally arrived at the northern part of the city, where a canal was lined against the wall of the Forbidden City – it was actually a lovely stop as you could watch locals fishing as well. However, along the northern was a very busy road with quite a bit of traffic – so walking that part was no as pleasant. I still followed that stretch, passing the exit part of the Forbidden City where I saw the lucky ones who got in. As it was a bit too hot I missed two larger big parks in that area.

Before turning right again to follow the Eastern Wall , I decided it was time for an ice coffee. I was hoping the coffee here was as good as in SEA, so I walked into a little café. The A/C felt like the nicest thing of the day, unfortunately the coffee wasn’t as good. And I was surprised at the price – 30 RMB Beijing surely wasn’t cheap (I know – it is the touristy bit, but in comparison to other Asian countries this was expensive).
I followed the road along the eastern wall, where lots of restaurants and shops are located. Aware that I am only at the start of my journey I didn’t buy any souvenir, and instead went into a food place off the main road. I had a massive portion of dim sum, but again I was a bit surprised at the high prices in a simple food place. The dim sum were at least tasty – and plentiful.


I was soon enough back at the road that was passing Tiananmen square, and it was time to head back to the airport.
I thought I would take the same route back (first Line 1, and then line 2) to get to the airport train, but by mistake departed one station too early. Obviously, I only realised that after walking through the station to the other platform which I thought it was line 2 – well, it was line 5. Thankfully the different underground line cross paths at several points, so I could avoid walking all the way back, I took the line 5, and then get to line 2. So I would highly recommend taking one of the little maps for the underground system – it will be helpful.

I somehow made it to the station for the airport express, arriving back at the airport I collected  my bag straight away. I then got to know the security checks at Beijing airport – this must be the slowest I have ever experienced. The one in Edinburgh looks like an express check. Little did I know how bad it really is on my flight back. As you have to take the train from the check-in area to the international departure, and then going through security, I wouldn’t plan it too tight before heading to the gate. It is much faster at most other international airports I have experienced in Asia and Europe.

At 8:30, over 8 hours after arriving in Beijing the plane took off and I was on my way to my actual destination – Ho Chi Minh City.

I had some kind of expectation of Beijing – I was actually looking forward for my overlay there. Obviously my plan to drop the Chinese Wall for the Forbidden City back fired as no tickets were available, and I just managed to see a tiny bit of the area around it. I know it is a very touristy area, but I found it very expensive, and overall I was not as impressed as I thought I would be, though I good a first impression of China.
I am aware that coming off a plane after an 11 hour flight, and the fact I couldn’t do what I wanted to, didn’t help and put me in a slightly sour mood and greatly influenced my experience. Not sure if you can ever fully enjoy a city only in a few hours, so I will maybe return to Beijing for a bit longer to get a different experience.

Recommendation:
If you stay in Beijing for a few hours during an overlay and really want to ensure to visit the Forbidden City it might be worthwhile to book a tour in advance. It was very disappointing to arrive and not being able to get in. Otherwise, book a driver and visit the Chinese Wall. In such short time you shouldn’t use chance to see what you want to see – otherwise stay one more day.
For money transfer at the airport avoid the exchange both in the baggage claim area, and use one of the banks in the arrival hall – you get a better rate and pay no fee.

Also, ensure you arrive plenty of time ahead of the flight. Security is very slow, so I would aim to start going towards security around 1:30 hours before the flight – you never know how long the queue is or how slow security is that day. If you transfer between flights do not expect to get from one gate to another one. Instead you go to the desk for connections within 24h, get a stamp there, then go to the security check. There is only one queue, but during my return flight I was one of those who where ushered through a door to go to the main security desks to join the normal queue (which was double the length of the queue at the transfer desk), and it took more than 40 minute to get through that. Every single electronic item, charger and individual lenses had to go out of the bags before going through the scanner – so you can expect a long waiting time. From one international gate to another one it took over an hour, so I arrived at the gate for my flight home when boarding started – despite the fact  that I had nearly two hours between those flights. Don’t even consider any transfer at Beijing international airport with less than 1:30 hours.

From all the airports I think Beijing is one of the worst airports for transfers (personally I even prefer Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris). This means unless I get a great deal with Air China, I would try to avoid a transfer at Beijing International airport. It is not worth the hassle.

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