Two Days in Beijing

Two Days In Beijing & Where I’m Going Next!

Derek China, North Korea 58 Comments

Two Days in Beijing

While I knew that I would be back in Bucharest on August 18th, just nine days after leaving Ukraine, my flight out of Kiev this past Saturday took me to a destination far, far away from Romania. It was going to be a busy week.

First, I landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport where I enjoyed a relatively comfortable five-hour layover before boarding Aeroflot SU200 at 1:00pm, a direct seven and a half hour flight to Beijing’s Capital Airport.

The flight was uneventful and involved mostly sleep as I tried to fight off the remaining remnants of the illness I had been battling for a week in Ukraine. And somehow I managed to sleep for most of the flight, which left me feeling quite good as I stepped off the plane and into mainland China for the very first time.

Immigration was quick as I asked for, and instantly received, the “72 hour transit visa” that citizens of 45 countries are now able to obtain upon arrival in Beijing and Shanghai. A few minutes later, at around 1:30am, I found myself standing outside breathing in the heavy Beijing air that I had heard so much about, before I jumped into a taxi.

After twenty minutes, and because I had already done some research on places to stay in Beijing, I arrived in the Santilun district of the city, checked into my hostel and went straight to sleep.

First Impressions of Beijing

For the past two days in Beijing, I have wandered around the city as much as possible. I have visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, I have become lost in the hutongs (lanes and alleys that make up certain neighborhoods) and I have checked out a few palaces and markets and random neighborhoods as well. It’s been a quick visit but a decent introduction to this country, a country that I have openly stated is last on my list of countries I have a desire to really travel around (more on this in a minute).

My initial reaction to Beijing probably won’t surprise anyone. It’s polluted. I’ve actually yet to see the sky during my stay, or at least any blue sky. The city has remained covered in a depressing light brown layer of smog the entire time.

The streets seem to be mostly wide avenues that create massive city blocks, so as you walk around you don’t feel as if you are in the ‘downtown’ of a city of 20,000,000 inhabitants. It’s just huge block after huge block, where you walk on wide footpaths and must cross many major intersections. Speaking of walking around Beijing…doing so in August is absolutely exhausting with this heat and humidity. I’ve been drenched in sweat about 80% of the time I’ve been here!

Forbidden City, Beijing

The people I’ve encountered during my wanderings have been friendly, if not a little sneaky and dishonest, and more people speak English than I was expecting. The food I’ve eaten – ranging from noodle soup to roast duck to other random dishes that I randomly chose from the photos on the restaurant menus and don’t really know what they consisted of – has been decent. The prices are about average, nothing that I would classify as very cheap but it’s not too expensive either (hostel room – $15 USD / meal – $6 USD / metro ride – 33 US cents).

With that said, you do have to watch out when spending money as even the staff in the hostel try their hardest to get some extra money from you as often as possible. People will make up anything in order to convince you to part with your money right away. While I was standing outside of a restaurant trying to decide whether or not to enter, a waiter came outside and told me that I should come inside because they had their best dish ready and they were closing in twenty minutes. I didn’t enter in the end but about two hours later I walked by again and they were still open. So, don’t take anything too seriously over here and from what I’ve heard, you usually have to haggle for just about everything.

Chinese food in Beijing

As for the ‘sights’, the history of the Forbidden City and the Ming and Qing Dynasties is interesting but seeing the actual Forbidden City now was quite underwhelming. I would probably say the same about most of the temples and palaces I’ve visited. Getting lost in the markets and hutongs was definitely more exciting to me.

While I’ve had a good time over the past two days, and despite knowing full well that two days doesn’t even give me a tiny, tiny, tiny speck of an idea of what this city or country is all about, I must say, though, that my short stay did not exactly change my original thoughts. I still don’t have much of a desire to visit more of this country and I can’t see myself adding it to my travel itinerary any time soon.

I know some of you love traveling, or even living, in China and many of you will tell me I’m crazy and that I should definitely spend more time here. And while I’m happy that your experiences in this country were so positive and while I understand that there certainly is no shortage of places to explore in this vast land, again, it just doesn’t appeal to me much. Not sure why exactly, that’s just how it goes.

Where I’m Going Next…

Anyway, I won’t have a chance to experience more of this country this time around. That’s because, early tomorrow morning, I’ll board a flight that leaves Beijing for…

Pyongyang, North Korea

That’s right! The idea to visit North Korea came into my head about six weeks ago and while it is true that you can only visit this country on an organized tour, I thought it would be quite interesting nonetheless. An opportunity then arose to join such a trip and that was that. I’m heading over there for five days and after the orientation meeting last night with the group, I’m even more excited about the upcoming experience. I’ll even have a chance to witness the Mass Games during my stay. I know that traveling to North Korea can be a controversial topic but I’ll be writing more about this, as well as the details from my trip, once it’s all over and I’m back in Bucharest.

Until then, I hope you all have a great week everyone!

**I won’t have internet at all during my five-day stay in North Korea so I will reply to all comments and emails and catch up on Facebook and Twitter once I am back out on the 18th.

How was your experience in Beijing? Or do you have any interest in visiting Beijing, China in general and/or North Korea?


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Comments 58

  1. Hi Earl. Love this blog, as it’s given me a lot more insight into planning my travels to places like Eastern Europe, the Middle East, etc. Just a bit curious that you aren’t interested in going back to China, given its virtually endless collection of breathtaking natural sites and the sheer diversity of its land – judging China just through Beijing is like judging America just by going to Washington, DC. A bit disappointing, considering your worldliness.

    I do agree that the people can be difficult, and you must always be on your guard against constant up-sellers and touts. It’s just a bit absurd that you gripe about the pushiness of the people while brushing off being kidnapped in Bangladesh like it was nothing.

    1. Hey Kevin – There are so many places in the world and China just isn’t high on my list of places I want to explore. It’s different for everyone but I just don’t feel any ‘pull’ to spend much time there, that’s all. There are plenty of places that I love that others don’t necessarily enjoy or ever want to visit 🙂

  2. Hi Earl!
    I really like your blog and all your stories, was very shocked to read you didn’t like China though! China was the first asian country I visited and I found it amazing! Stayed 10 days in Beijing and few days in Shanghai, I think you just didn’t have enough time to see the city properly! Most of the best sights are a bit out of town. I stayed in the hutong area right next to Jingshan park and the food there was the best I ever had!(and I travel a lot) Also me and my boyfriend managed to have dinners there for £2each and portions were very generous! Also if you’re ever back there go and have peking duck at Da Dong – it’s poetry, but expensive for Beijing – we spent around £20 for a whole duck between us (with trimmings and 2 beers) but other than that food was very cheap. Go to see The Wall – it really is GREAT, go to Mutianu section, very picturesque, and getting there can be a bit of an adventure (there were no tourists on the public bus we took and we relied on friendly locals who didn’t speak any english)You must go to Shanghai before you discard China – it is a country on its own. Don’t go back in August though, we went in September and had plenty of blue skies in Beijing. Shanghai will always be sooo humid and foggy you will pray for aircon 🙂 but it is full of beautiful architecture and wonderful street markets (Dongcheng is really fun). People did stare at us A LOT as we are both tall and I’m quite blond. Many people asked us for photos with them and their friends, but it was quite funny to pose with strangers :). Everyone was very understanding and helpful. I’m planning to visit Yunnan and Sichuan provinces and would love to go back to Shanghai. Not too fussed about Hong Kong but might see it on a lay over trip to Fiji one day 🙂

  3. HI
    Did boarding on airlines from USA to go to china gave you any hard time as far as 72 hrs visa goes. Some one told me and I called airlines too that transit visa is only for 24 hrs to Beijing. Pl help

    1. It depends on nationality but for US citizens, you get 72 hours transit visa in Beijing and you can fly into China from any other country/city.

  4. China was a real different experience for me. I have always wanted to see china but for a slightly different reason then most. My dad fled to China from Russia during the revolution. So I had this dream of following his footsteps rom Russia to Shanghai. Which came a reality last year. Now I have seen China, from Harbin, Dalian, Beijing and Shanghai I will only be going back to China to hike the wall and possible get into Tibet next year. I found China’s major cities very polluted, in fact it was so bad one day that I could not see the birds nest from the water cube. The people are so funny and mostly really friendly all be it a “little Pushy”. They found my wife interesting as she is very blond and white skin and were so intrigued with me as I am over 6ft with dreadlocks, tattoo’s and piercings. They would stop in front of us and take photo’s. Sometimes sneakily and others not so. I loved the temples, the not so “touristy” ones were very peaceful, the forbidden city was hectic and everyone there was trying to rip you off and even got angry at us for not buying there products or taking their “official” tour. Its a really strange place but interesting as well.

  5. I spent 6 weeks in China many years ago when I hadn’t traveled much. I loved it, but I have no desire to return and I’m not sure why exactly. I much preferred Laos and India.

  6. Pingback: North Korea

  7. Can’t wait to hear about your trip to North Korea. I saw a documentary on the country; apparently the tour guides won’t let Westerners wear ratty jeans because the NK propaganda says Americans can’t afford any new ones.

    1. Hey Linda – Not sure about that one as the foreigners on our trip wore everything from ratty shorts and jeans to nice pants and everything in between!

  8. North Korea – this will be interesting. Thanks for those insights on Bejing, a place which still is on my never-ending list of places to visit 😉

  9. I was in Beijing in May this year, and I had the same impression as you with regards to the city. I wasn’t too impressed with the sights in the city, but the Great Wall blew my mind, albeit I went to a less touristy section of the wall. Like you, I wasn’t too keen on China before my trip, but after 2 months backpacking there, I can say that it hasn’t really impressed me much, except the Tibetan towns/villages in western Sichuan. It’s very different from the rest of China and less touristy as well.

    Looking forward to reading your posts on North Korea.

  10. I was in Beijing two months ago, and hate to say this, but I really didn’t like. Exact same sentiments as you. The clearest days were the days that it rained and pushed all the pollution down, the sites (i.e. Forbidden City, Summer Palace, etc), were never ending and yes… completely underwhelming… oh – and quite expensive for Asia. Same as you, China has never really been on my travel radar, but I went there strictly to start the Trans-Mongolian (which was AMAZING!)… I did, however, meet some other travellers who raved about the Yunnan province, bordering with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. But I hear ya… I won’t be rushing back to China anytime soon.

    And North Korea – so cool! So controversial. I too would love to visit but am torn by the politics of it all. I look forward to hearing about your experience!

  11. North Korea! I’m jealous right now 😉

    I can understand what you say about Beijing. I live there and can totally see how it can be overwhelming and that you got the feeling people wanted to make money of off you.

    Also, that fact that you are not really interested in visiting; that was me 3 years ago 😉

  12. Hi Earl, and anyone else who is in or going to China. I would like to suggest visiting Xi’an. I lived and worked there for 4 weeks on an archaeological excavation. I had the fantastic opportunity to excavate some of the terracotta soldiers you see on tv, and climb to the top of the dirt mound that is the 1st Emperor of China’s tomb (Qin Shi Huang) as seen in the movie “Hero.” The tomb remains unexcavated today, as there is a superstition against disturbing the 1st Emperor’s tomb. Also, the funds are not available to properly preserve and protect the tomb once opened. However ancient sources tell of rivers of mercury and constellations of diamonds in the tomb. There must be some truth to those legends because soil testing revealed thousands of times the normal amount of mercury in the soil around the mound.

  13. Hey Earl,

    I’m actually in Beijing at the moment and have been for the last 2 months (although I’ve travelled around a bit). The city definitely has it’s good and bad points, unfortunately I think the bad outweigh the good, but there are definitely things worth seeing. Check out my blog if you’re interested in a few suggestions. Look forward to reading all about N.Korea too.

    Backpacks & Broken Cameras

  14. Nice one Earl. Our paths may even cross in the next few months as I’m heading to a few of the same places as you. Hope you make it to the Mass Games!! Look forward to your stories. Jonny

  15. North Korea?? dude be careful!! Hope you’ll have a great travel around this country, hope to read you August 18th

    May the force be with you!!

  16. How interesting, I can’t wait to hear (and see) all about your trip to North Korea. I’ve heard so many differing stories, I’m curious to hear your tales when you return. I hope you have a great time!

  17. Visiting China at this time of year can pretty much be a bad timing because its around the hungry ghost festival, it’s actually going on right now in Singapore, which is why there’s a lot of incense burning etc. Though Beijing is already polluted to begin with, hungry ghost fest period brings out the worst >.< Have fun in N. Korea!

  18. I visited China in a February, and all I saw in Beijing was clear blue skies… oh well… but yes, all the rest you said I experienced as well, but I already had an impression made since I went there after living in a few months in Taiwan. A lot of similarities in their culture but you get to differ clearly between a Taiwanese and a Chinese, being Taiwan more westernized. Dissapointed that it still didn’t appeal to you. Maybe you’ll ran out of countries soon! Also, I wanted to say kudos for the North Korea trip… couldn’t be more jealous, cuz it is my top 5, although people say I’m crazy. Who wouldn’t wan to visit one of the most remote countries in the world!?

  19. Hi Sean,

    I would like to hear about were you went during your travels in China as i am about to head there myself.
    Any major things stand out that you would reccommend?

  20. Hi Earl,

    Long time reader.

    I remember when someone suggested you visit North Korea in a post you did a while back asking “where should I go next?” You replied that you wouldn’t be interested because you don’t like group tours. So what changed?

    I’m also interested to know how you stay focused on doing work while online instead of wasting time on things like Facebook, twitter and general surfing. Since you get so much done despite traveling I’m really curious how you maintain such a good work ethic. Lots of people have trouble with this.

    Thanks and can’t wait to see what comes next!

    1. Hey Theodore – That’s a good point and to be honest, I started talking to a few more people who had been to North Korea and they all recommended it, even though it was part of a group. So, I did some more research and decided that I wanted to go despite having to go on a tour because it probably wouldn’t be a typical bus tour.

      And I have a post coming up in the next few weeks about my daily online schedule and how I keep it all organized and try my best to avoid wasting time online!

  21. I’ve never been as far north as Beijing, however the little taste of Shanghai I’ve had was really enjoyable (I still never saw any clear skies in my time there either).

    The biggest surprise for me, was how despite the huge population of China, it didn’t feel anywhere near as busy as say somewhere like Dhaka, Bangkok or Saigon…

    Looking forward to the tales from North Korea. I’ve heard they’re so serious, it’s comical!

  22. North Korea???? Wow I was fantasizing about going to North Korea to find a wife as I looked at a documentary a few weeks ago. (Not sure why…it’s the brain) You know, I saw your link whilst looking for some travel tips via search, which brings me here now, and this was the same way I found your site a year and a half ago before I began traveling myself. (problematic email since closed, and so followed the join at this site) Always fun reading your page. Be good, be safe, and be happy my friend. Ciao

  23. Hi Earl, I am headed to China on the 26th of august for 6 weeks. I am going to be trying to fit in as many different experiences that the country can offer but I really only am looking at a day or 2 in Beijing because it doesn’t really appeal to me. Most of my trip is keeping out of the big cities to be honest.

    I am in the process of starting up my own blog and will be documenting the whole trip so for anyone out there keen to follow my travels (or to help me get some followers) you can check them out here
    Might even change your view on China…

  24. I read every post on your website with great interest. Just one comment though – I believe the brown smog is not actually smog. When I was in Bejiing, a person who lived there told me that it was dust from the Gobi Dessert. Once I knew that, I thought it created a kind of mystical aura over the lights of the city at night.

    1. Hey Shirley – That could be although I heard from locals that the smog was indeed smog but not from Beijing itself. It is smog that has blown in from the surrounding industrial towns and cities. Who knows!

  25. Always fun to travel with you so I’m on the edge of my seat with excitement and anticipation of your posts from North Korea. Oh! The places we’ll see.
    Bon Voyage!

  26. Earl, my thoughts about Beijing and China are similar to yours. I’m glad I scheduled some days before my North Korean trip to see Beijing and Xi’an, but I can’t say that I’m rushing to go back for more.

    On the other hand, my North Korean trip was awesome. There really is no other place like it on earth. It’s wacky, bizarre, interesting, friendly, and safe (some people will be shocked to read those last two). Have fun, and be sure to take the time to buy your guides/minders a few beers in the evenings. This is the best time to get to know them and their thoughts.

    If you are interested in my North Korean experience, you can read about it here:

  27. Will visiting North Korea prevent your entering certain other countries? I’ve heard you have to be careful about this…not sure how true it is. I’ve heard they really do look at your passport and see where you’ve traveled…but by the time you read this, you will have that North Korea stamp in your passport, so you’ll find out soon enough, I guess.

    1. Hey Julie – Not at all, visiting North Korea has no effect whatsoever on any other travels. And I can now say that in North Korea, they don’t look too closely at your passport and in fact, they don’t stamp your passport either. But there are no restrictions on visiting so it wouldn’t cause any issues anywhere else.

  28. I spent a week in Beijing a few years ago and felt the same as you… but then again I had terrible food poisoning for several days so that probably put somewhat of a damper on things. That being said I would love to go back and visit China’s southern region someday, I’ve heard it’s beautiful.

    Enjoy N Korea… that is too cool! I didn’t even know you could take organised tours there.

  29. Hope the smog does not set back your recovery. I wonder if they have any smog in N. Korea? Maybe you could sneak in some kind of tiny spy camera! Anyways, good luck! Brian.

  30. Good luck in North Korea!
    Will you take a hidden camera with you, to picture what is forbidden?

    We have heard a lot about North Korea beautiful nature, forests and lakes.
    Hope you can take some picture of these sights too.

  31. Wow. I didn’t know you could visit China without a visa? That’s great news!

    I spent about a month in China – from Beijing I traveled down to Hong Kong – in April and like Sam the weather was fine. Not hot. Not too cold. As for Beijing: I found the wide avenues, and intersection after intersection quite lifeless and almost impersonal. Like I was just in some artificial city or something? I found the locals in Beijing to be quite nice and friendly, although a couple of times I felt I was being taking a ride for.

    North Korea sounds awesome! I don’t think too many people have had the experience of going there so would also be interested in hearing how that goes for you.

  32. Ha! 72 hour transit visa is possible. Argued with all my friends here in Cambodia over this issue. I read that it was possible elsewhere and now I can tell them all I have it on good authority that it can happen. Now I won’t have to bother with all the “send my passport back to the US” rigamarole. Thanks Earl.
    Have a great time in North Korea.

  33. Earl,
    I’ve been enjoying your travel stories and am planning on organizing my life in a fashion similar to your own. I’ve been to every continent except for Antarctica and I am moving back to Europe to look for work in teaching and translating. I was in Beijing way back in 1998. I arrived on a flight that went from Sydney to Shanghai and then Beijing. I remember I had printed out the card for the agency called Monkeyshrine that organises travel on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad. The card was written in Chinese so I could hand it to a driver upon exiting the airport. Once at the agency and having gotten everything sorted, the travel agent gave me another card in Chinese that had the name of a hostel on it. The taxi driver took me there and I found myself in an eight-bed dorm room with bathroom. I met a traveller from Germany who had been working in Kyrgyzstan. He had booked a journey to North Korea and was excited to be leaving in a few days. I wish I had kept in contact with him.

    As for North Korea, I have considered visiting it. The only problem is that the government-approved guides would only show me what they want me to see. I would like it if tourists could spend money on their own and do homestays similar to what travellers find in Cuba. This way money can go directly to citizens rather than the government.

    I wish you good luck with your trip and look forward to reading your stories and seeing your pictures.

  34. I liked Shanghai and other cities I visited much better than Beijing. In addition to the pollution, Beijing felt “touristy” – not because there are that many foreigners necessarily but because the locals immediately label and treat you as one when you are there. In other cities there is much less bother of people trying to rip you off – except if you go to the markets, of course, where haggling is standard. I also felt like I got a much better experience when I was either with my foreign friends who have lived in China for a while (for an expat experience more than a local one) and who know the ropes or, even better, when I was with some Chinese friends in their city – where I didn’t see any other Westerners during my entire time there even though the city is the capital of the province and one of the biggest in the country! I have heard from other travellers to China that it is one place where having a local guide really helps if you don’t speak the language, which few people do. Taste differs though, and you do need time to learn China’s ways.

    Looking forward to hearing about North Korea!

  35. Wow; that was unexpected, Earl! I was in Beijing in April 2009 and the weather was actually quite lovely; blue skies, clear air…but I was told this was unusual. I did more or less the same with food as you (either choose from a picture, say “I’ll have what he’s having” or failing that, ask for the only thing I knew the name for in Mandarin: egg-fried rice). North Korea’s an interesting choice. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on it when you get back and the inevitably controversial comment thread!

  36. China can be tough and experiences there differ wildly. Although I loved my two months in China and was surprised by the friendliness and variety it offered, it was not the easiest place to travel in. If you decide to go back one day have a look at my posts about traveling there to see what the place can offer, alternatively just use google 🙂

    Good luck in North Korea, that will be unique!

  37. Very interesting. I did the DMZ tour when I lived in South Korea. Interesting and a little scary when my boyfriend at the time had guns pulled on him for trying to take a picture. You should seriously think of spending an extra week in South Korea. Really a great place to visit and the food is awesome. Have fun and look forward to hearing about it.

  38. Oh so That’s North Korea! Interesting choice. Controversial, true..but definitely an experience to try! looking forward to read your thoughts about the country.
    Regarding Beijin…i booked a ticket for December, even though China wasn’t originally on my list, one of my ex colleagues is staying there for a while and i decided to pay him a visit. I will be landing at Shangai and reach my destination by train. I’m quite curious to see if i was mistaken about China or not (i was uninterested in the Country until 2 weeks ago). My idea is to visit Beijin surrounding areas and see what they can offer. I’m relieved to see that the daily budget is not too much, especially for the accommodation…Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think that everyone is entitled to have an opinion, and you don’t have to like a place at all costs! Glad you’re feeling better and i hope you’ll have an amazing time in Korea!

  39. I look forward with interest to reading your account of North Korea. I’ve read a few accounts of people travelling there in organized groups and everything is contrived by the regime there to give the best impression possible, right down to the regime using actors to play the roles of people you come across.

    Will you be going to the DMZ and entering the meeting room they have there? That would be my reason for going to North Korea. That and to see the country while it is still closed and get the North Korean side of the story if that is indeed possible.

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