I recently had the opportunity to travel to Beijing for an IB conference hosted by the Western Academy of Beijing. Due to the flight schedule we had some lag time and decided to make the most of it. Here are the highlights: Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines has direct non-stop daily flights to Beijing and, while long (between 10-11 hours depending on direction and prevailing winds) this has to be the way to go coming from Addis. A word of caution, the entry form you fill out ask for a record of polio vaccination and yellow fever. We were never asked to provide evidence of these vaccinations but worth noting just in case. Where to stay: Our choice was the Metro Park Lido, this was a conference hotel that included transportation to and from. I would summarize the experience as saying “good value for money.” The whole complex is a bit dated but I don’t expect of need much – rooms were clean, there was a pool, and a gym with your basics. On the plus side, the location was convenient in terms of being walking distance to a few good restaurants and an art district. Taxi fare between the hotel to the airport was approximately 60 Yuan at the time of writing (Nov, 2014). Things to do:
- The Great Wall: Always good to know people who are “locals”, and through friends we managed to link up with Charlie the driver. For 500 Yuan, he took the three of us to see the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Charlie was fabulous – funny, punctual, and spoke good English. The word Sarah used to describe him was “adorable.” For those wanting to contact him his cell is +86 (137) 1839 3038. It was a great day to be up on the wall, good visibility, clear skies, and not too many people. We took the ski-lift up and the go-cart type contraptions down. Lots of fun. You can take as long as you want up on the wall, but we called it quits after 2 hours just in time for lunch at a great little place that specializes in dumplings at the base of the wall. Yum Yum.
- 798: no, not a secret code but the name of an artsy district in the Lido area. We got dropped off on our way back from the Great Wall, but it is only a ten minute walk back to the MetroPark Lido Hotel. Basically just make two right turns and you are there. 798 has lots of funky cool little stores, art galleries, and trendy cafes and restaurants – anything from caged red dinos to graffiti and everything in between. You can easily spend a couple of hours there. Interesting that graffiti is acceptable within the confines of the “art area” but didn’t see it anywhere else around Beijing. Food for thought.
- Speaking of food, we decided to end our day in Beijing with some Peking duck. It seems that everyone and their mother has an opinion about the best Peking duck establishment in town. In the end we went with Charlie’s recommendation – a place called Jing Zun. This is in the San Li Tun area, another funky little neighborhood full of bars and eateries. Word has it that most of Beijing’s expats congregate there on a weekend. The duck was #awesome. Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, served with a steaming pot of Jasmine tea (after I sampled all the local brews and decided I didn’t care for any one of them). Peking Duck can’t be healthy for you but once every 20 years is delicious, entertaining, and makes for a great night out!
- Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven: the last items on our Beijing bucket list so to speak. Due to the APEC summit (and restrictions on odd/even license plates to limit cars on the road) Charlie the driver couldn’t take us. He organized for one of his buddies who promptly picked us up at 9:00 and took us to the Temple of Heaven. To me the Temple of Heaven was basically a mix between a green space (parkish like in setting) with some cool looking temples that have recently been renovated. Glad I went but also possible to skip on if time is an issue. Next stop was Tienanmen Square. Awesome in many respects. Apparently the world’s biggest public square, steeped in history, and with imposing buildings all around. For those not aware of the layout, Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City are all lined up – this is why it is useful to have a driver drop you up and pick you up. We basically walked around Tienanmen Square, then straight through to the Forbidden City and were to be picked up at the exit to the Forbidden City. That was the plan at least. What we didn’t realize was that the line to purchase a ticket to get into the Forbidden City was way too long for our patience so we just walked around the outside wall instead, found a hole in the wall noodle place, slurped away and called it a day.
So what do I think of it all? Based on my very limited experience Beijing strikes me as big, crowded, polluted and almost ritzy glitzy but not quite. Due to the APEC summit factories were ordered to shut down, cars ordered off the road, and pollution as a consequence was much lower than usual. Personally, nothing is worth life in a face mask and I am not much of a city guy so to me the drawbacks of a city like Beijing outweigh the benefits. To each their own I suppose – happy I went, great experience, Great Wall bucket list checked, but don’t really feel the need to ever go back.