Tour groups are the laziest form of traveling. There, I said it. They lead you around like lemmings taking you to all the cool sites a city has to offer plus they do you the "favor" of taking you to special shopping locations.
In Egypt it was a "Perfumery" in China it's a "Chinese Tea Shop". It's all a scam to make you open your wallet. When I'm on vacation I don't want to sit around on a tour bus and listen to a guide tell me about the world outside the bus window. I want to experience it for myself! Free yourselves of the shackles of the tour groups. You can go to all the top attractions for a fraction of the tour group price. Leave the tours for the suckers who don't want to have any real adventure on their vacation. Here I've trimmed the fat on a recent vacation to give you: The Best 3 Days in Beijing.
Day 1: Great Wall of China & Peking Duck
The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling
Lots of travel books say you must visit Tianemen Square before you head off to The Great Wall of China. Hogcock! I say you see one of the Wonders of the World first and get to the large cement patch later. There are many places to see the wall. Good old Tripadvisor suggests The Great Wall at Mutianyu as the top attraction in Beijing. This is a terrible idea. Never go there. It's the Disney version of the Great Wall of China. If Disney ever decided to recreate the Great Wall of China it would look exactly like Mutianyu: Impeccably clean, hundreds of souvenir hawkers lining the streets and amusement park rides. Instead, go to a part of the Great Wall that time forgot.
In the morning take a cab over to Beijing Downtown Backpackers and do their Great Wall Hike. Every other day Beijing Downtown Backpackers takes a small group of people and drops them off at the Jinshanling section of the wall. This is a lesser known section of the Great Wall of China and most of it dates back to the Ming dynasty.
After an hour drive to the Great Wall you are led to to a path up to the Wall and you hike at your own pace through 22 Guard towers until you hit Si Ma Tai. The view from this section of the Great Wall is stunning. The hike isn't for the faint of heart either. There are inclines that are tougher than any setting you can put on your treadmill. The experience of stepping foot on this crumbling artifact and not hearing another soul speak your language is a memory you will not soon forget. On one side of the wall is Mongolia and the other is China. This was the highlight of my trip. Tickets for this trip are 280 RMB or $45.
Almost as famous as the Great Wall of China is Peking Duck in Beijing. There are many places to get this delicious bird. The place I would recommend is Da Dong Restaurant. It's a little pricey, but the duck is simply wonderful. They cook the duck in a new method that makes the fat crispy and lean. The chefs cook the birds in an open fire kitchen in the middle of the restaurant. Once your duck is cooked to perfection one of the chefs cuts your duck table side into 102 perfect slices of meat. No part of the duck goes to waste. Reservations are recommended and have fun flipping through their 160 page menu. Half a duck goes for about 100 RMB or $16.
Another great option for the national dish is Bianyifang (5 Chongwenmenwai Dajie, Chongwen, 3rd. Floor of the China New World Shopping Mall). You won't find too many tourists here as this restaurant is on the third floor of a large shopping mall. The chefs here claim to be from the same cooking methods from the Qing emperor Xianfeng. They cook their birds in a closed oven instead of a half-open oven where the duck hangs to cook (like Da Dong). My advice: Try both and join the debate of which restaurant has the better duck! For an appetizer I recommend the Duck breast with apricots. Half a duck goes for about 100 RMB or $16 as well.
Day 2: Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, Jingshan Park & the Hutongs
Take the subway to Tiānānmén Xī or Tiānānmén Dōng station
Tiananmen Square gets a lot of publicity. What with the student protests, deaths and the fact that no one in China knows anything about it. The truth is: It's a long flat piece of concrete. Besides the dozens of people trying to sell you designer hand bags there isn't much to do other than line up to see the body of a deceased emperor. For real, his body is actually on display. My advice would be to do a lap, reflect on the people who gave their lives for what they believed in, pass on the dead body and head across the street to the Forbidden City. Free admission.
The Forbidden City
Take the subway to Tiānānmén Xī or Tiānānmén Dōng station
This place is gorgeous! After you enter the city and buy an audio guide you find yourself transported back to a time when emperors roamed these courtyards and gardens. They have said there are 9,999.5 rooms in the Forbidden City but I lost count after 50. The Forbidden City was off-limits to the outside world for 500 years. In those years, no one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor's permission. Sounds like a Twilight Zone episode to me. There's a lot to see here but you won't miss much since your audio guide is triggered by GPS technology making sure you don't miss a thing. Take a moment to check out the interesting rock wall in the gardens towards the back. Can you make out all the faces etched into the wall? Admission costs 40 RMB or $6.
You've just walked the entire Forbidden City. Cross the street from the underground tunnel and enter Jingshan Park. The hill you climb up was made from the earth that was displaced to make the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City. The climb up to the top of the park pales in comparison of the Jinshanling hike you did yesterday but you'll still feel like Rocky once you reach the top. Waiting for you on top is a beautiful view of The Forbidden City and a temple. The views alone are worth the price of admission (2 RMB or 30 cents) alone. Take a moment and reflect on all the ground you just covered on foot and take note of the smog in the air. On weekends there are groups of Chinese people exercising and flying kites. Take it all in before you head back to the crowded subway. Admission is 2 RMB or 30 cents.
A thousand years before Beijingers lived in high-rise buildings that surround the ancient city they lived in small shared buildings and courtyards. Each building would house a few families and they'd often have to share the one kitchen and bathroom. The hutongs are still in use today and offer a sobering look at the day-to-day life of the lower class that live in one of the most populated cities in the world. Pedicab tours are available and often include a ride to the Drum Tower. This is a popular tourist attraction and the pedicab drivers can be a bit aggressive. Make sure to haggle on the price and try to get them to drop you off somewhere near a subway stop.
Day 3: Summer Palace & Temple of Heaven
Subway to Xīyuán or Běigōngmén
How did you like Forbidden City? It was nice, right? Like a real city shoved into the bigger city that is Beijing, right? Well, if you liked that then you will love the Summer Palace. This 290-acre park makes The Forbidden City look like a mini-mall. There are tea houses and shops to explore in a recreated Chinese street. If you are a fan of imperial landscaping then you will enjoy the palace temples, pavilions, bridges and gardens. All of which are in pristine condition considering the palace was damaged during the Second Opium War in 1860. The marble boat is a tourist favorite but other than a symbol of a failed leader there are much more to see than just a fake marble boat. The Long Corridor along the northern shore of the lake is the other crowd favorite. Walk in the corridor or along the side of it and head up to Longevity Hill. Stop in at the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom at the top of the hill and keep an eye out for a family of cats that live there. Pedal boats are available at the docks along with regular boat rides in the summer. There is an obscene amount of history to see here. Take your time and don't rush yourself. It could take you up to 6 hours to see all the major sights. The trip out to the Summer Palace is an easy 35 minute subway ride to one of the many entrances. There are audio guides available as well. Admission varies but if you get a combo pack with all the attractions it will set you back 50 RMB or $8.
Temple of Heaven Park
Subway to Tiāntándōngmén
Beijing is an outdoor city. If you're here in bad weather you may want to get an umbrella or a poncho because you will not want to miss out on this next attraction. Temple of Heaven Park was built in 1420 and is currently the largest building for religious worship in all of China. It has been visited by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to heaven for a good harvest. In fact the building that everyone called the Temple of Heaven is actually called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest but I guess that doesn't have as good a ring to it. All the buildings within the Temple have dark blue roof tiles to represent heaven. A combo ticket costs 30 RMB or $5.
A trip to Beijing is an opportunity to see just how big and different our world really is. It's easy to hire a tour company to chauffeur you around the hard edges or you can do what so many have done before and go on an adventure at your own pace. All the attractions above would cost you under $100. Less than 100 bucks to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and two Peking Duck dinners! Do yourself a favor and take the subway (all signs are in English and cost 2 RMB per ride), eat at strange and exotic restaurants, meet new people and, most importantly, be your own tour guide.