Whew! Visiting Beijing was probably the most interesting destination of our two-month trip abroad. So interesting, I’m not sure if I’d ever go back anytime soon. As most know, the culture in Beijing, China is just all around different. Let’s start with the obvious. There’s no social media allowed. For me, this wasn’t the end of the world. Yes, it would be inconvenient not being able to share my trip with friends and family, but this was something I could do after leaving. The toughest pill to swallow was not being able to access Google. Read more about how we got around, the food I ate, and the places we visited below!
When I initially learned that Google was inaccessible I was a little bummed, but not totally upset. However, after I realized that this also meant I would not be able to access Google MAPS, I felt a sense of panic come over my body. YIKES! Throughout our entire two month trip, Google maps had been a huge lifesaver. I couldn’t imagine having to travel without it! Of course, the first thing I did was try to figure out my alternatives. Apple Maps was supposed to be accessible, but for whatever reason it wouldn’t cooperate. I later read somewhere that they were having some technical issues… perfect timing! One would think that there must be some other map apps out there that were comparable, but I’m here to tell you folks… there’s nothing like Google Maps.
I know some of you are thinking, “what about getting a VPN?” We did, so that was helpful. My husband and I were able to download a VPN service and utilize the free trial period to make it through the duration of our trip. If you don’t know what a VPN is, it’s basically a way to trick the powers that be into thinking your phone is in some place that it isn’t (like the US), so you can access websites that are prohibited in the country you’re physically in. A little sneaky, yes. But hey… you gotta do what you gotta do. The VPN was helpful in helping me scratch that social media itch, and I was even able to use Google Maps for a bit, but because Google Maps is prohibited in China it’s not as up-to-date with public transit and such. So we were still left to do without.
We stayed at The Great Wall Sheraton Hotel Beijing, which is actually no longer owned by Sheraton. Outside of the hotel there was a constant rotation of cab drivers, so catching a cab out of the hotel wasn’t too painful. The hotel staff would help pair you with a cab driver and you’d be on your way. Sometimes it seemed as if the cab drivers didn’t want to take us to certain places because of how close it was, which meant they would pass us over and move on to the next person. Which was odd, but I guess I understand why. Shorter distance=less money. Once we were out and about, catching a cab back to the hotel was a JOB, you hear me?! There are a ton of cab drivers in Beijing who aren’t real cab drivers. It’s important to avoid ones that aren’t. If I’m going to be kidnapped abroad, at least I know it wasn’t because I got in a car with a fake cab driver. Wondering how to spot the real from the fake?
Look for these 3 things:
- A meter
- Displayed taxi driver license
- The first letter of their license plate should be “B”
- Traditionally painted taxi cab
Growing up in the US with our weird and crazy race relations, it’s hard not to wonder if something is happening because you’re black. When we first realized that catching a taxi in Beijing was tough, we initially wondered if it was because of our appearance. Well, I’m here to tell you I think that was only part of the reason. I think that the larger part of the reason was because we were FOREIGN. In Beijing, you won’t find a lot of people that speak English very well. Including the cab drivers. So my guess is that if you were purple, blue, brown, or white (anything but visibly Chinese) you would have had the same issues catching a cab. There would be times we wouldn’t even want to go out because we knew it would be difficult to get back (but we usually went anyway). My guess is that they just wanted to avoid any issues with communication.
To help with the communication barrier, I would often translate the address or location before leaving the hotel to make it easier on the driver. The only time this didn’t work was trying to find a restaurant. We drove around for 5 years trying to find this place. It got to the point where we just decided to hop out of the car and start over with another driver.
What would I do differently next time? That’s a tough question. I guess the only thing I could have done was hire a driver? But who wants to spend all that money? I’m sure it would have been much more expensive than cabbing everywhere. I wish we could have used their transit system, but without the help of Google Maps, this seemed almost impossible. No walking directions, no transit directions… just a mess. I guess learning Mandarin would help too, but I’m afraid I can’t commit to that.
Places to See:
The Great Wall of China
Is it even possible to visit Beijing without a trip to the Great Wall?! I was most excited about getting the opportunity to visit such an amazing place, rich in history. For me, this was the main draw for visiting Beijing over Shanghai (a place we also considered visiting, but had to pick one because of the 144 hour visa rules). We booked a private tour online that included transportation to and from the wall and even snacks! Our driver was very kind, showed us a short YouTube video to help us understand the history of the Great Wall and how it was built, and even stopped to show us a nice scenery on the way back. He picked us up at 7am and by the time we got downstairs, he was already there waiting for us.
There are a few different areas of the Great Wall that you can visit. The most popular section is the Badaling. We decided to visit the Mutianyu section because although it was a little further out, it’s much less touristy and way less crowded. The drive wasn’t bad. It was a quick 1 hour and 15 minutes or so to get there. Did I mention there was WiFi in the car?! And it actually worked really well! I was impressed!
When we arrived we were amongst the first there. Our driver escorted us to the ticket area where we purchased our entry ticket (¥180 each). On the way to the buses that take you to the cable car ride, there are a number of shops and a few places to eat, but because it was early not many of them were open.
Visiting the Great Wall was pretty amazing. It felt as if my high-school history books were coming alive! Some areas of the Great Wall were pretty steep and loaded with stairs. Others, not so much. The sun was barely out but whew, was it HOT! By the time I left, my whole chest and back was covered in sweat. I know it seems tempting to visit the Great Wall in a cute dress or fit for nice pictures (like I did), but if you plan on spending more than 10 minutes there in the summer, wear some work-out clothes and thank me later. Prior to getting there, I didn’t realize how much of a workout I was in for but I quickly learned (the hard way).
Leaving the Great Wall was one of my favorite parts. Not because I was ready to go, but because of the cool tobogan ride you get to take on the way down. I’m a huge roller coaster fan, so this was like a mini roller coaster experience for me. I had TOO much fun! After the tobogan ride, you take a bus back to the main entrance. Our bus was filled with a bunch of school-age kids. This was our first encounter as what I like to call a “foreign celebrity.” I noticed one of the kids trying to sneak and take photos of us, so instead of pretending like I didn’t see her, I decided to invite her over to take a selfie with me. This quickly led to every one of them wanting to do the same. After we got off the bus, the other kids in the front wanted pictures too! Then the teacher asked us to take a photo with a group of them. I’m telling you, if you want the experience of feeling like a celebrity… go to Beijing (this was only the beginning)!
On the way back to the main entrance, the shops were in full swing. I purchased a t-shirt for my nephew and was able to barter a pretty good price. The initial cost was ¥160 and I was able to talk them down to ¥60. The trick is to simply walk away. As you’re leaving, they’ll keep yelling lower prices at you. Worked like a charm 🙂
Temple of Heaven | Forbidden City | Summer Palace
I’m grouping these together because they all seemed to run together in my head. All of them filled with amazing scenery, detailed construction, and overwhelming beauty. It’s crazy to think that all of them have been around for so many years. You could seriously walk around all of them for hours if you wanted. The Forbidden City is suuuuper touristy. Well, to be honest, all of them are. But I was amazed at how many people who appeared to be locals were at these sites too. For me, it was like seeing New Yorkers at the Statue of Liberty. A little odd. Anywho, we visited the Forbidden City (and the Temple of Heaven) on our last full day. Throughout our visit we had been getting stopped by strangers who wanted to take pictures with us. At first it was kinda cool. Knowing that you may be the only black person they ever meet made me want to be more generous, you know, give them a good impression of black people outside of what the media portrays. But then it got to be too much. My husband and I were being stopped what felt like every few minutes to take pictures with families, grannies, and children. It was nuts.
At the Forbidden City, I got to an area where I wanted to take a picture. A couple walks by and insists on taking a photo together. I accept and the lady walks over and stands right next to me. We take a few, then her husband says something in Mandarin and must have told her to put her arm around me. That’s when I knew I had reached my wits’ end. At that point it was just tooooo much (can’t you tell from my awkward smile below?!). If you ever want to feel like a celebrity, go to Beijing.
If you’re looking for nightlife, Sanlitun is where you wanna be. It’s a tiny bit touristy, but we did see a lot of locals hanging out in the area. It’s a street that’s lined with bars and clubs with loud (sometimes live) music + dancers so if you’re into that sort of thing, this is for you! As you walk along the street there’s staff from each bar trying to get you into their club. They’ll be yelling out drink specials and pointing at the dancing ladies to get your attention. This is the first place I’ve ever been where drink prices were negotiable! Who would have thought?! We picked a random club and decided to go in for a bit. Had a few drinks and decided to spend some time walking around and people watching (always fun). Oh, and you can be a celebrity here too. My husband jumped in a random group selfie and the guys couldn’t have been more excited to have been photo-bombed!
I’m always in the mood for a burger and fries. Being in Beijing was no exception. I was so happy to have found this spot. It was certainly worth the trip! It’s located in a shopping center, so it’s not visible from the street. My cab driver let me out and insisted that I was in the right place. Because I didn’t see it, I didn’t believe him initially. I thought he was just trying to get rid of me! But I decided to walk around for a bit just to make sure. I’m glad I didn’t freak out because I finally found the spot!
It’s a cute little restaurant with indoor/outdoor seating and either there used to be or there still is a tattoo shop upstairs. The wifi info is clearly visible so you don’t have to hunt or ask for it! The staff spoke very little English, but it was fine because they have an entire menu in English so you can just point and order! I decided to go with the Parmesan fries (¥32), the Animal Style Burger (¥40) and an oatmeal cranberry cookie (¥15). Both of them were delish! I read some reviews online that mentioned they had small portion sizes and I have no idea what they’re talking about. By the time I finished, I was about to pop because I was so full. Maybe it was the fact that the container for the fries was over-sized? That might make someone think they were being shorted. To go with my meal, I ordered a pineapple soda (¥35) that was just okay. In order to get the flavor I had to give it a good stir, as it seemed like all of the flavor was at the bottom. The cookie however, was definitely freshly made. You could taste the freshness! Not to mention, it was served warm and had a really nice texture. It looked like it contained walnuts too!
In all, this place was great, had it been closer to the hotel I would have gone again!
Vegitiger was my first meal in Beijing. This my friends, was a GREAT first choice! It’s located in a shopping mall and seems to be a pretty popular spot, as there were a good amount of people inside. They have a veeeerrry extensive menu with a lot of options to choose from. I ordered from the summer menu, but they have a regular menu as well. I decided to start with the Purple Sweet Potato + Orange Peel Balls. At the time, this seemed like a good idea. Plus, I was feeling adventurous. These were good, but not great. I liked them better without the orange peels though. One of the complimentary items they give is a tray of pickled veggies and fruit. This was a hard pass for me. I tried it, but didn’t like it enough to keep eating them. For my drink, I ordered the iced orange tea, which actually wasn’t really “iced” (a little on the warm side). The flavor was good, but seeds kept getting stuck in the straw so I had to ditch it.
Now for the main course… the Kung Pao Veggie Chicken (¥39) was delicious! It was topped with peppers and peanuts and I ordered a side of rice to go with it (¥4). It was the perfect intro to Beijing! For dessert I wanted to order the brown sugar guokui, but they were out so I decided to go with the Shanxi Jujube Cake (¥22). My first bit of this dessert was a little questionable. Mainly because I had no idea what it was, and still don’t! I looked a little like a bean paste, so I’ll just go with that. The more I ate it, the more I liked it! In total i spent (¥117). Not bad for all of the food I ordered!
Gung Ho Pizza
Just like burgers and fries, I’m always down for pizza! Gung Ho Pizza is located on the back side of a shopping center (opposite of the street) and they offer gluten free, paleo and of course, vegan options. The menu was clearly labeled and I ordered a half and half pizza. On one half I had the Peking Popeye (smoked tofu and spinach) and on the other half I got the A’Roma Therapy (fresh durain and cheese). In all they had about 5 different vegan options, so there were a few to choose from. I missed my chance to taste durain in Thailand, so I decided to give it a go here. Well folks, you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. There really isn’t an in-between. It’s got a smell that’s a little hard to describe. Kinda, sweet, but garlicky at the same time. I can see why it’s not allowed in some places.
For dessert I ordered their apple crisp, which was good, but not nearly as good as mine! The ice-cream however was pretty tasty!
Tianchumiaoxiang Vegetarian Restaurant
Remember when I mentioned earlier that we got in a cab that drove us around forever trying to find a restaurant? This is the place we were in search of. I’m happy to say that it was worth the headache as we finally found it!
The host was friendly and spoke a bit of English. She started us with a bowl of seasoned dried beans. Anyone know what these are called?! I liked them.
For dinner I ordered the sweet and sour mock fish (¥40), the veggie chicken kebabs with Malaysian Satay Sauce (¥42) with a side of white rice. Y’all, I ate each and every bite in complete and utter disbelief. Everything was so flavorful and it legit tasted like meat (more so the kebabs). For some this might be a turnoff, but it was fine with me! They were lightly crispy around the edges and cooked to perfection! There was so much food, there was enough to take home for dinner the next day! In all, I ordered three servings of rice (I’m the rice queen, okay?!) and spent ¥97. Everything was delish and if I ever went back to Beijing, I would eat here everyday!
- If you’re utilizing the 144 hour travel visa (like we did), be sure to read up on all of the requirements before going. We witnessed a family that was denied entrance because their layover in another part of China caused them to exceed the 144 hour length of their stay. They had two small kids with them and I couldn’t imagine how expensive it probably was to change all four of their flights to compensate for the 4 or 5 hours they had exceeded. When it comes to foreigners in their country, the Chinese government doesn’t PLAY!
- Consider life without Google and be prepared to get around without the use of Google Maps. Don’t get smacked in the face with reality like we did!
- Learning a little bit of Mandarin might be worth considering!
- Be prepared to become an overnight celebrity. I learned it’s okay to say no to those who want to take pictures with you. It’s perfectly okay to have boundaries!
- Do your research! As a vegan, I didn’t go anywhere without researching food options. Especially because of the language barrier. Happy Cow will definitely come in handy!
Have you ever been to China? What was your experience like? If you haven’t been, do you want to go? Let me know in the comments below!