A week in Beijing

An itinerary and some things I found useful from a trip to Beijing with short layovers in Istanbul.

A week in Beijing

An itinerary and some things I found useful from a trip to Beijing with short layovers in Istanbul.

Katherine and I just got back from a trip to Beijing and it was a really great trip.

When I was doing my research for the trip I found that I didn't know many people that had visited China recently. So I thought it might be useful to document our itinerary, a few things we found useful, and a few things we learned during our time there. I might update this with photos at some point.

Itinerary –

To keep things easy I'm going to include our itinerary and travel days here as well. I've included some commentary but the bold words have the location highlights by day if that's all you're looking for.

Day 0 – December 25th – Detroit to Istanbul. Our route was from Detroit to Istanbul and then to Beijing on Turkish Airlines. We had a 10ish layover both ways in Istanbul which meant a few hours to explore the city. We started our travels around 9:30 pm Eastern from Detroit on Christmas night.

Day 1 – December 26th

We got to Istanbul around 3:30 pm. Our original plan had been to sign up for one of Turkish Airlines' free city tour options which bus you into the city, take you around, and then bus you back. But we found the tour booth at the airport empty and figured it was either an off week or that we got there in between tours. Plan B had always been just taking a taxi into the city ourselves which is what we did. Katherine had spent a summer in Turkey back in college so had a sense of where we could go to spend a few hours. We took a taxi to the Kybele Restaurant Hotel in the Sultanahmet region of the city. After some tea and a snack, we walked down to look at the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Camii) and the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii). We didn't have a lot of time so just admired both structures from the outside and walked through some of the neighboring streets. It was dark when we got there and it was quite a treat to see these structures under the moonlight.

Taxi fare to and from the airport is in the 30 to 70 euro range depending on whether you want a smaller regular taxi or the 6+ seater van type taxi. We didn't attempt to bargain. There's a straightforward approved taxi line at the airport but getting one to get back requires a little wandering or asking the local tourism police who are stationed near the larger tourist sites.

Day 2 – December 27thAfter another 10ish flight we made it to Beijing around 5 pm on the 27th. Including the time difference, we got to China almost 2 days after we left home. We stayed at the St. Regis (thank you periodic consulting travel and Marriott points) in the diplomatic corridor of the city. By the time we made it to the hotel we had been traveling 30+ hours and it was past 7 pm. So we decided to lay low, grab a drink at the hotel bar, get some takeout from one of their restaurants, and finalize our plans for the next day.

Day 3 – December 28th – This is really where we started exploring the city. We didn't have an actual agenda beyond getting a feel for what it was like to be out in the city and to try some interesting food. We did breakfast at the hotel most mornings since it was easy, free, and also had a lot of options.

We thought we'd try and visit the National Museum which was about 15 minutes away from our hotel. When we got there we realized, after some back and forth over translation apps with a very helpful attendant, that tickets to the museum could only be purchased online, and at present they were sold out for the next 7 days. So no luck on museum access for us and a lesson learned that it's better to try and buy tickets in advance and online anywhere you go.

With that failed attempt, we thought we should go check out one of the old hutongs that Beijing is known for. They are narrow streets or alleyways that house both residential and small commercial activities just set aside from the main streets of the city. It appears that these hutongs were how the city was organized in days past but many were demolished to make way for more modern streets and construction.

Katherine had bookmarked a hutong with a cat cafe because we are clearly cat people and they offer a chill space to have a cup of tea and get your bearings while you have small animals walking around or on top of you. It turned out that this cat cafe (Gudaomaone) was in the more popular ones called Xiaojuer Hutong in the Nanluoguxiang neighborhood. So after spending 30-45 minutes with the animals we wandered through the alleyways for a couple of hours. I don't recollect the name of the small street cafe we ate at because many of them look alike but I remember that we tried the hot scalded tripe and braised noodles. Both of these turned out to be things popular with the locals as well.

I also stepped into what appeared to be a small storefront with large sheets of jerky and tried a few. There doesn't appear to be a whole lot of English speaking happening here so you kinda just have to go try things and wander around.

That was about it for Day 3. Day 4 was going to be a long one so post hutong exploration we decided to go on a walk and then call it a night with a nightcap at the hotel bar (Press Club Bar).

Day 4 – December 29th –

We had a private guide for this day and saw a number of the major historical attractions of the city. I'll stick to just bullet points for this section because there is plenty to read on each of these online.

  • Tiananmen Square
  • Forbidden City
  • Summer Palace
  • Temple of Heaven
  • Drum Tower and Bell Tower (just saw these from the outside)

There isn't much English signage at these locations so having a knowledgeable guide was great. As you can imagine there are centuries of history, context, and symbolism to digest.

A couple of other things we did in between seeing these sites were to visit a government-run tea store and do a dumpling-making lesson with a local family who lived in a hutong near the Drum Tower. The tea store had a good, quick introduction to six kinds of tea with a tasting but there was a hard sell after that. The tea and tea sets they try and sell you are quite expensive, probably the only really expensive thing we encountered in the city, so caveat emptor.

Day 5 – December 30th –

We spent time with K's friend and her family (also the reason K planned this trip for us). Her initial plan was to take us to a popular Beijing roast duck chain Siji Minfu but the wait times there were almost 4 hours long so we decided to find someplace else.

Instead, we went to a popular Yunnanese chain [Yunhaiyo, or Cloud Sea Cuisine] where we tried a great variety of food. Yunnan province, where K's friend grew up, is in the southern part of the country much closer to countries like Myanmar and India so the climate and nature of cuisine are different. (One example of a surprising but simple dish we tried was stir-fried/scrambled eggs with jasmine flower buds.) I didn't think we'd chance upon Yunnanese cuisine so this was a fun surprise.

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Prince Gong Mansion which was an interesting view into what our audio tour guide referred to as "princely mansion culture". The site was very crowded the day we visited but I'm glad we did because it had a different and more intimate feel than the sites we saw on day 4. Like a palatial vacation home vs. an actual palace.

We then walked towards the same hutongs near the Drum Tower and Bell Tower as on Day 4. We stopped at a few places including a streetside halal kebab store, a local confectionary store, and a few stationery and clothing stores where K picked up a few souvenirs, mostly gifts.

We wrapped up the evening at a nice little hotpot restaurant [Yufu Yuxai] at South Luoguxiang that was slightly removed from the crowds. More tripe along with some other hot pot favorites like bamboo shoots were joyously consumed.

Day 6 – December 31st –

Some more time with K's friend on the 31st. We finally had our first taste of the famous Beijing roast duck! Her friend picked another popular chain [Zongbu Hutong, I think] but one that going to be a little more accessible than the ever-crowded Siji Minfu. The roast duck lived up to the hype. Melt in your mouth and a very accessible textural variety throughout the meal. We also tried a few other things as part of this meal like a popular sour and lightly spicy soup and duck feet cooked in a (punch you in the face briefly) horseradish mustard. A little bit of shopping for small jade ornaments and gifts nearby followed.

To close out the day and the year we went to a NYE party at the Atmosphere Bar which was on the 80th floor of the Shangri-La Hotel and only about a 25-minute walk from our hotel. This was one of the surreptitious evenings that resulted from us just going with a suggestion from the hotel concierge when we asked for potential NYE options. Our usual vibe is more low-key and neighborhood but sometimes you just have to trust the process and see how things work out. It was a strange and entertaining evening with a cover band from Canada, a dance troupe from somewhere else out west, and plenty of champagne. We had another long day on the 1st so called it a night shortly after it was officially 2024 in Beijing.

I found a small late-night food spot on our walk back where I pointed towards some noodles which turned out to be noodles with picked long beans—a good late snack before crashing. A fun memory was noticing that the beat-synced lights at the NYE party were visible from our hotel room. The party went on for probably an hour after we were back in the comfort of our hotel room.

Day 7 – January 1st –

The Great Wall! New Year's Day was reserved for a day trip out to the Great Wall. It took us a little under 2 hours to get there with a brief stop at a government-run jade store. Like the tea store, this place also had a brief demonstration and spiel but the sales pitch wasn't as much of a hard sell and there were some affordable display options.

We visited the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall which from what I've read is one of the best-preserved parts of the wall and has fewer tourists than some other sections like Badaling. Truthfully, we just went with the hotel's recommendation on which section of the wall to visit and didn't do much additional research. The trip there involved a 90-ish minute drive, followed by a short shuttle bus and then finally an open-air chairlift to get you to the wall. There is also a closed cable car option but our tour guide bought us the chair lift tickets which I'm assuming were cheaper. (PSA - they appeared to need cash to buy tickets to the chairlift which was surprising because almost nowhere else except one other restaurant asked for cash. We're not sure if this was because our tour guide didn't know we had Alipay but keep this in mind if you happen to visit.)

You can spend a couple of hours walking the stretch of the wall. We probably walked over a mile before we felt we had a good enough sense of the wall and its history before we turned back. You can feel a strong sense of ancient history as you walk across the walk and its small fortifications. And surprisingly there were many cats on or near the wall which added to the experience.

We had lunch at a restaurant near the base of the wall before making our way back. We had some roast dumplings (as compared to the boiled/steamed ones from Day 4) and some other things including Kung Pao chicken (similar flavor perhaps a little less sweet but the proportions of chicken to peanuts to peppers were almost equal). It took us a solid 2+ hours to get back after traffic and we laid low the rest of the evening with some takeout and a nightcap at the hotel.

Day 8 – January 2nd –

Our final day in Beijing. We felt like we had seen a lot and eaten a lot so didn't have a major itinerary but did want to try one more roast duck restaurant. We had found one called Liqun Roast Duck that's tucked in a hutong not far from Tiananmen Square if my orientation is correct. We discovered this particular restaurant through a YouTube foodie named Max McFarlin's channel. A lot of other fun, under-the-radar recommendations on his Beijing videos that I'd recommend if you're trying to explore. This restaurant was great and small, but you could tell that they have a bit of a tourist audience in addition to the locals. There was one relatively fluent English-speaking host who came out to walk us through the menu shortly after we entered. The food was delicious and the duck was carved not far from our table which was fun to watch. I'd recommended a half duck if you're just two people though (that's a lot of protein!) so we took some to go.

That was it for Beijing. We checked out later that night to make our way to the airport.

Day 9 (and 10)January 3rd

One more stop in Istanbul. We got to Istanbul around 7 am when it was still dark out. We had a coffee and a croissant at the airport before taking a taxi to the city. We got off near a water ferry stop near the Galata Bridge where you take a ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side (Harem). This was a quick 20 minutes one way and you can stay on the ferry to get right back. Going in between two continents in one country pleased the nerds in both of us. 😄 There was a slight chill in the air but standing on deck watching the water and the minarets of mosques in the distance made for a great way to start to wrap up our trip.

After that, we took a quick tram ride towards the Hagia Sophia where we stood in a long but very fast-moving line to enter the mosque. I almost didn't do this because the line seemed so long but thanks to K gently telling me to stick with it, we stuck on and were rewarded. We didn't have a whole lot of time to spend here but it was just enough to give me a taste of the history that this structure has seen over the centuries. Hard to process so quickly but I'm looking forward to making it back. After a little more walking, a quick step into a small street-side restaurant for a couple of doners to go, and we got another cab back to the airport.

Two things to note - public utilities like the ferry, the tram ride, and public bathroom access seem to require a local card called Istanbulkart. You can get them outside of the transportation sections and they were relatively cheap. One card with about 100 Turkish lira was more than sufficient for everything we needed for our few hours there.

The other interesting thing is that there isn't much of a system for the taxi drivers there. You ask a guy for a ride and he says yes but then walks over to his buddy 100 feet away who then becomes your ride. After 10 minutes in this new buddy's car you find yourself having finally made some progress through the narrow Istanbul streets but then you're stopping again and this guy passes you on to another one of his friends who does eventually get you to the airport. There was a bit of time when we wondered if we were getting scammed but turns out it was all kosher just confusing. We only paid one person an agreed-upon amount once and made it to the airport well in time. But it's enough of a strange experience that I want to call it out. I get the sense it isn't isolated and at some point, I'll have to find a Turkish acquaintance who can explain this practice.

That was it. After another couple of hours at the airport and then another 10.5-hour plane journey we were back in Detroit.

Air travel is pretty crazy when you think about it. We left China, and made it home to Detroit, after having spent some quality time in Istanbul, all on the same date.

Some things we found useful -

  • Alipay – This was truly the most useful (super) app for our stay. Most people we talked to mentioned WeChat but if you're not a Chinese national without national credentials, a bank account, etc, we didn't find a way to use WeChat for things like payment. We connected one of our American credit cards to Alipay and were able to use it for a majority of our financial transactions. There is a transaction limit on here, so if you're purchasing something more than a few hundred dollars it is worth checking if the establishment accepts credit cards. We did run into some trouble once at a jade shop where neither Alipay nor our credit cards functioned (they weren't quite set up for CCs) and our friend ended up paying on our behalf.
  • Didi – This is the local equivalent of Uber/Lyft and since Alipay is a super app, Didi was embedded right into it. We used this for almost all our transportation outside of airport rides and tours and it was easy to use. Also very cheap compared to say the United States or France. The interface is pretty similar to the other ride-share apps with the added feature that local yellow cabs also show up as a ride-share option. The app allows you to translate 90% of the content on the screen to English so there was little in terms of language guesswork. I don't think any of our cab drivers spoke any English (and all we knew how to say was thank you) but outside of a little occasional pointing, we didn't have any issues. One little detail that almost tripped us up on NYE was that if your vehicle is a yellow cab, they need the last digits of your cell phone to start the ride. Easy enough once we figured out what we were trying to say to each other.
  • Cash – Katherine got us about $200 in cash for the week. We largely used this for tips for drivers (airport pickup and drop-off, tours), tips for our tour guide, the chairlift to get up to the Great Wall, and maybe a couple of meals (the cost of the meals, no tips). Outside of specific instances like this, we didn't see any use of cash or for that matter credit cards.
  • VPN – OK so this one was interesting. Based on some advice from many kind souls, including some on Twitter, we had prepped our phones with LetsVPN. Relatively inexpensive and easy to use. The caveat is that unless we were on local wifi like the hotel internet, we didn't really have to use a VPN at all. Every app I tried like Gmail, Google Maps, Signal, and WhatsApp functioned just on cellular roaming. Once we connected to the hotel wifi, certain apps wouldn't function without a VPN. I'd definitely recommend still getting a VPN before based on conversations with other visitors to the country it seems unpredictable if our experience will be representative in the future.
  • WeChat – I didn't end up using WeChat at all during this trip but did set it up beforehand. Katherine used it to keep in touch with her friend locally. Setting up the app requires someone to refer you in a sense and there are some restrictions to this (e.g., something like - if you're not a mainland China resident, you can refer only one person in 30 days). So plan accordingly for WeChat. Plan B for me was going to be having our hotel help with this.
  • Accommodation – We stayed at St. Regis and while I don't think you necessarily need to stay at higher-end hotels, I'd suggest looking into a space that caters to foreign nationals unless you speak the language (in which case you're probably much better prepared than me). It was useful to be able to get some minor questions answered and also have access to a great concierge service who would do things like call up a local restaurant to make sure they were open, or get us reservations for a New Year's Eve event, organize tours and what not. Relying on the internet isn't quite the same given that most of what you need is accessible through Chinese language websites or WeChat.
  • Communication/translation – We used Google Translate but I'd probably recommend getting another translation app as backup. Staying in a hotel that caters to international visitors is also helpful if you want to reduce your burden a little since much of the staff there speak English. That said, everyone who did not speak English elsewhere was very accommodating. It takes some work but given how supportive people were it was very worth it.
  • Museum or other location access — Most tourist destinations or other attractions like museums allow you to book tickets in advance. Many seem to require you to book tickets online in advance. Some of these may require access to parts of WeChat we couldn't get to so some research may be required if you're not going through a hotel or a guide or friends like us.


Subscribe to Rahul Shankar

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.