No visit to Beijing is complete without spending at least 3-4 days there. I completely whiffed on that one, spending a total of about 40 hours in Beijing. But another thing everyone says you have to visit is the Forbidden City. Located in the middle of Beijing, just north of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City is a massive complex of almost 1000 buildings, countless artifacts, and some sweet roofing (see above).
My last morning in Beijing began pretty early. I had adjusted to the time difference well, thanks to my go-to sleep aid (I’m not a doctor, this is not medical advice). My hotel, based on a thorough 4 minutes on TripAdvisor, was the Red Wall Garden Hotel. It’s the #1 rated hotel for Beijing, and I completely agree with this ranking. The rooms are classically Chinese but with modern touches (very fast wifi) and friendly service. The rates are incredibly reasonable and included breakfast. I believe if you book 3 nights or more with them they will include free pick-up from the airport (I’m not a travel agent, this is not medical advice).
A lot of readers complain that the bed in my hotel pictures is always unmade. The above is for you.
The hotel has a fabulous courtyard, belying the size of the hotel. From the street/hutong, it doesn’t seem very big, but it’s a fairly large complex. There’s a great courtyard with a fabulous restaurant with dining options outside, but seeing as it was winter it was too cold, and come to think of it I only had one dinner in Beijing and it was at DaDong.
I “slept in” and had a lite bite at the hotel’s restaurant and then walked by the Ferrari dealership on my way to Starbucks.
My obligations complete as an American Tourist, I made my way over towards Tiananmen Square. One of the things that fascinates me is the Tank Man Incident in 1989 during the student uprising. It’s an amazing and heartbreaking display of courage. What is incredible to me is that most Chinese don’t know the story of this brave man and many younger Chinese aren’t even aware of the protests in 1989. Well, at least that’s what people say, I didn’t want to ask anyone and cause an incident. Regardless, for some reason the idea of visiting Tiananmen Square seemed very foreboding to me as a result. I walked west from the hotel along a grand boulevard, walking past the Wangfujing shopping area, went through a tunnel, and there I was…coughing and hacking.
The pollution was apparently very bad that morning. This picture was taken at about 9:30am. I couldn’t even see to the other side of the square! Granted, it is the 4th largest public square in the world (at 109 acres) but wow the air quality was bad. I turned my attention to the entrance to the Forbidden City (behind me in the above picture) through the Tiananmen Gate.
There were honor guards all over the place. The guards were younger and for the most part military, but closer to the actual entrance were some that just appeared to be members of a local Communist organization.
This was a Sunday morning, so there wasn’t very much activity yet around the Forbidden City. What I later found out is that weekend was the first weekend of the Chinese New Year travel period, meaning school was out and everyone was making preparations to travel home to their families (it’s estimated that 400 million people will travel during the month-long celebration. You read that number right, more than the population of the USA). I passed through the Tiananmen Gate to begin my visit to the City.
(Yes these pictures are heavily touched up. The grayness of the pollution made capturing colors nearly impossible, I tried my best.)
In the main ticketing area, I was very pleasantly accosted by groups of schoolchildren who wanted to practice their English and tell me how much they loved Kobe Bryant. I must’ve posed for 10-15 pictures with some of the happiest kids I’ve ever seen. As I looked around the ticket booths, I felt very…white. I appeared to be almost the only foreigner waiting in line for tickets. Tickets received, I passed through another big gate and entered the Forbidden City, something unheard of for a commoner for the better part of 300 years.
I tried to stop and read as many historical placards as I could, but unfortunately forgot much of the detail, so this part will be mostly pictures.
The massive sloped carvings in the foreground of the above were apparently carved entirely out of a single piece of marble. It set a high precedent for an extreme display of skill and art, which the rest of the City met easily.
I realized I was making it through the City a bit too quickly, so lingered in the gardens for a bit after grabbing a coffee from a nearby tourist stand.
Then I went back to take a selfie.
I then ran into a group traveling from Chicago who were extremely nice, we enjoyed a quick chat, wished each other well, and I made my way out of the city to the north.
The Forbidden City was incredible. I will go back someday when I have time to do it right: slowly and with a guide.
There’s a great big moat around the northern edge of the City where I lucked out with (I think) a great black and white shot of the Northwest Tower.
Bidding a farewell to the Forbidden City, I remembered I needed to pick up another charger for my iPad, so I headed east towards the Wangfujing shopping area and their massive Apple Store.
I walked into the Apple Store, was high-fived for some reason by at least three store associates, and realized what kind of messed up cultureshock I invited upon myself, leaving a monument to Imperial China and walking directly to a monument to Imperial Industry. I called my mom to chat for a bit (not about the cultureshock, just in general), picked up my charger, and started heading back to my hotel to pack.
The way home
My itinerary back home needed to go through a third country (due to the TWOV program I discussed here), so I had a Japan Airlines flight to Narita’s airport, where I booked an overnight at the Narita Hilton for 20,000 Hilton points.
I packed up all my stuff and hailed a cab for the airport. I don’t speak Mandarin, and the taxi driver didn’t speak English or Spanish (I tried both), but I tried to at least communicate to him through gesturing and nodding and smiling a lot that I liked his country and the people. I think he eventually thought I had a crush on him, so that was probably awkward. Anyway, we pulled up to the airport and I turned for one last polluted view of Beijing.
I found the check-in area for Japan Airlines, located towards the right of the absolutely massive entrance hall. I loved the architecture, it reminded me of Barcelona’s airport but on a much bigger scale.
I was able to check in for my flight, then visited a few different lounges. None were particularly impressive, but they did all serve beer, so that was good.
I eventually made my way down to our gate, where the lovely 737-800 awaited us.
It was a quick and nice flight to Tokyo, complete with the flight attendants bowing seemingly every 3 minutes.
I hopped on the shuttle to the Hilton Narita where I promptly forgot to take any pictures (sorry). After a workout I went down to the restaurant to grab some dinner. Shocked and robbed later (that country is ‘spensive), I went back to my room for an early night.
Breakfast was great the next morning, the buffet at the Hilton Narita is absolutely massive, and there were some appealing signs on each table.
I found the sweets to be fair, obviously.
I’ve been to Narita before, so checking in to my flight wasn’t quite as exciting. My upgrade to business hadn’t cleared, so I was looking forward to an 11 hour flight in coach. Oh well, I’ve always said I’ll never miss a great trip because of coach. I was in the First Class check-in line (due to my Executive Platinum status, which I miss very much) when an older Japanese gentleman cut in front of the entire line and walked up to an agent. I protested a bit and he waved me off. I was about to get all OH NO HE DI’N’T-ey but he looked at me and said “everything ok”. Well, turns out his family was going to America in business class and he had secretly booked himself a ticket to surprise them. They were all laughing and hugging each other after he had a short discussion with the desk agent. It turns out he upgraded the entire party to First Class! I had no idea what the guy did for a living, but throwing down a credit card on what I think the agent said was the equivalent to $12,000 of upgrade fees had to be pretty cool.
Those who have played this game before realize what this meant for me. Since his entire party was upgraded to First, some seats in Business opened up! I happily accepted my upgraded boarding pass and made way to the Sakura First Class Lounge. I had access to the Admiral’s Club, which is very nice at Narita, but it doesn’t compare to the Sakura lounge that’s across the gate area from the Admiral’s Club. I also didn’t get any pictures of the club, but I have some from a trip I took to Vietnam a few years ago that I’ll get to posting sometime soon.
The flight from NRT-DFW was fairly short, smooth, and mostly missed by yours truly due to sleeping, but you can bet your butt I had another loaded Sundae.
I look forward to going back to China someday with my wife and/or family. The culture is great, the people very different but mostly kind and quick to smile. I acknowledge that these trips are fairly insane, spending almost equal amounts of time on the plane as I did on the ground, but I’m proud to admit that I’m just scouting places right now. I can’t wait to show them off to that special lady that I find someday.
For those of you who remember my original itinerary starting in Philadelphia, crazy thing happened in DFW, wouldn’t you know that I accidentally took a long nap and missed my connecting flight back to Philadelphia? Oh well 😉