If you have the chance to travel to Beijing or come across a flight with a layover, I highly encourage you to do it. Scheduling a tour is the most convenient and stress free way to capitalize on your time. Below I’ll share travel tips and information on how to make the most of your time in Beijing, learn a little about the food, the culture, and of course information on the Great Wall of China.
First off, once you collect your luggage from baggage claim in Terminal 3, you’ll happily see a row of mini locker rooms, perfect for a quick change before heading out. Luggage storage is available on the first floor by gate 9 in the arrival hall and also on the second floor near gate 8 in departures. One benefit of a tour, with a reasonable amount of luggage, is that you can take it with you.
From Beijing the two main areas of the Great Wall are Badaling and Mutianyu. Badaling is more popular, which also means more tourists. I’d advise you to travel to the Mutianyu area instead which is only a bit further, about 1.5-2 hours from the airport depending on traffic. A friend made this recommendation so I had to share it as well! Public transport is a means to reach the Great Wall, but again via a recommendation, it’s not easy. In the essence of time and to ensure you enjoy every minute of your trip, booking a tour with the Layover Tour Beijing is your best option!
I chose the Mutianyu Great Wall tour, and they also offer tours for layovers anywhere from 4-12 hours in length, so the company will cater to your time and interests. I can’t express enough how great of an experience it was. Upon arriving, I was immediately greeted by Willy, one of the owners. We then set off on our way in the private car equipped with wifi. Willy eagerly answered any questions I had (there were many haha) and provided a lot of historical and cultural information on the Great Wall and China in general.
After we parked there was a short uphill walk to purchase tickets for the cable car to the top. You also have the option of taking an open-air lift up and toboggan ride back down. One important fact to mention is that the cable car company and the toboggan company operate separately, so you can’t go up via one method and back down another without purchasing tickets from both.
The ride up is quite steep and scenic, which allows anticipation for viewing the Great Wall to build. We luckily had a clear day with lower pollution levels, so the views were great. I made it a point to not edit any of these photos so you can see the hazy skies of China. Checking pollution levels in Beijing is just as common as looking up weather temperatures for the day and part of daily life.
Again, choosing the Mutianyu area of the Great Wall allowed for many tourist-free photos and a peaceful experience to truly absorb the magnitude and magic felt at such an amazing feat of architecture. This area is also older than the Badaling section, dating back to the 6th century when it was first built. During the Ming Dynasty the Mutianyu Great Wall was rebuilt, and much of what was completed by 1569 remains today. The wall spanned the horizon for miles, in an up and down wave of stone streams and towers surrounded by dense skies and a dark, lush forest.
Since some areas of the wall are quite steep, I’d recommend wearing good shoes and bringing lots of water during the summer months. As we explored the various towers, Willy provided historical information on the Great Wall and happily took photos, suggesting the best spots for photo ops. It was nice to have a guide during the whole tour, with the freedom to explore as well.
After touring the Great Wall, I of course asked to try some of the local cuisine. Willy took me to an area unbeknownst to tourists, completely local and authentic. The first stop was not distinguishable as a restaurant from the outside, with only a small walk-up window.
Inside, two cooks were making homemade sesame buns and chopping green peppers, greeting us with sincere smiles.
We ordered a Chinese burger, which was comprised of meat, a type of salty soy sauce, and fresh green peppers and cilantro. Generally vegan, but trying local food for the sake of research, I couldn’t help myself and enjoyed every bite. (For a look at my attempt to recreate this dish take a look on my SK Parfait Facebook page.)
I felt like a female version of Anthony Bourdain, standing there stuffing my face with this Chinese concoction, while locals gathered one by one, watching me with intrigue, enormous smiles, and ever so slight laughter after learning about my solo travels in search of cuisine and culture.
This burger cost about $1 and could easily monopolize any dollar menu. The Chinese Yuan to U.S. dollar is currently 1 USD = 6.5 CNY. You might also hear local currency referred to as the renminbi, or the money of the people. Another interesting point to mention is the lack of a cash register at any of these small food stands. Each location simply had a QR code on the window, to easily scan and pay for the purchase via a platform called WeChat.
WeChat is the primary app for social media and more including messaging, discussion boards, shopping, e-commerce, and payment services. Some platforms like Facebook are blocked in China, so WeChat provides an output for exchanging texts, photos, and voice messages. The application allows for easy money exchange between users and businesses as a digital wallet and banking system.
Back to the food, the Chinese tealeaf eggs deserve notable mention, where hard boiled eggs are soaked in tea and soy sauce.
Next, the Chinese street food called the jianbing, or breakfast pancake, is a mung bean flour crepe spread with a fresh egg, a special salty chili sauce, wrapped around a crunchy wonton sheet, and lastly topped with scallions and cilantro.This was also very flavorful, had a unique multivariate texture, and was easy to take on-the-go.
After tasting all of the unique food, we arrived on time back at the Beijing airport. It was a wonderful day learning about China, visiting the Great Wall, and also trying some of the local cuisine. I highly recommend hiring Willy with Layover Tour Beijing as you’ll feel like you are traveling with a friend, not a tour company!