Beijing: 72 hour sample itinerary

A Sample Itinerary for 72 hours in Beijing:

Day One—Visit everything you want to see around Tiananmen Square

  • Forbidden City
  • National Museum of China
  • Railroad Museum
  • Mao’s Mausoleum
  • Hall of the Heroes of the People
  • Temple of Heaven park
  • Roam around Dashilar and Qianmen hutongs.


Day Two—Visit the Great Wall

There are all sorts of tours you can do, or even ride public transport to Badaling or Mutianyu yourself. Research what type of wall experience you want—something close and popular, like Badaling, something remote and unrestored, like Simatai, or something in-between, like Mutianyu. If you book a full-day tour, it may take you also to the Ming Tombs.


Day Three—Finish seeing Beijing or take a day trip outside

You can visit anything you didn’t see the first day in Beijing.

Or you can take a day trip to the Ming Tombs, the Marco Polo bridge and historic town nearby, or visiting the Dragon Gorge.


Evening Activities:

  • Eat Peking duck while in Beijing. You can find it almost anywhere—small restaurants serve it on the street for only a few dollars, while expensive restaurants serve duck for 50 USD apiece.
  • Watch either Chinese acrobats, visit the Beijing Zoo to see Pandas, or Chinese opera.

Hop on a plane a head to your next location! Jordan and I were in Beijing for a total of 68 hours and did all of the above except for evening activities, and that’s mostly because we were saving our money for the next destination on our trip.


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Last day in Beijing

Our last day in China was spent seeing the few places around Tiananmen Square that were left on our list: Temple of Heaven, Mao’s Mausoleum, a hutong or two, and Dashilar.

The Temple of Heaven is really a large park, on that costs about 10 yuan to get into per person. In the summer I’m sure it’s really lovely, but it was mostly brown with bare branches as we strolled through.


Constructed between 1406 and 1420 by Emperor Yongle, the religious complex wasn’t actually named Temple of Heaven until around 200 years later.

Inside the park are three main features, which we made a beeline for: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Echo Hall, and the Circular Mound Altar.


The Good Harvest temple was where the emperor would go to pray for harvest and bounty for the Chinese people. The temple is made completely from wood without a single nail._mg_1567

In ancient China the emperor was considered to be the Son of Heaven, and twice a year a grand procession from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven would be undertaken, the officials all wearing fancy clothing. _mg_1583

Here on the Earthly mount was the high point of the winter solstice service, where the Emperor would sacrifice to the gods and sun and moon. Everything had to go perfectly, down to the most minute detail, or it would be a bad omen for the coming year.

It’s about 20 minutes walking back to Tiananmen, and we walked past several hutongs. Hutongs are tiny little alley-way neighborhoods, with houses built so close together that sometimes you have to curve and duck around the roof’s eaves. Beijing used to be full of these historic neighborhoods, but in the name of progress and modernization they are being torn down, the roads widened, and shops put in its place. Much of the Dashilar and Qianmen hutongs were knocked down right before the Beijing 2008 Olympic games and rebuilt to look historic and fancy. Now shops line the wide spaces of Dashilar, and Qianmen isn’t that far behind.

_mg_1536Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum was built in 1976 at his death. Mao is till a much-revered figure in China, and thousands still flock to see his mummified remains. Although our guidebook said we had to have our passports ready, no one checked any identification. We did have to check our bags across the street and enter the building without hats, but that was all.

Inside the entry foyer Chinese guards stood at attention, a massive oil painting of Communist China as the backdrop. Many Chinese had purchased flowers before entering and laid them on the small shrine in the foyer. We followed the ropes and stanchions around the corner to the hall where Mao lay, illuminated by low lights and lying on a bed of velvet. Of course, no photos are allowed, so we don’t have any to show.


Although in the West Mao’s reputation is wholly bad, in China it’s a little more complicated. His Great Leap Forward was disastrous for the economy (and therefore harmed millions of people), but he did unify China and give them a hope of a better future. Media is strictly controlled by the government, so many of the less educated, poorer people don’t know about the bad things Mao did. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was fairly honest when he said to look at Mao’s contributions as 70% good and 30% bad.

At this point, the sun was setting and we needed to head back to the hostel to gather our bags. On our way we noticed (again) all the people bundled up on their scooters with a full quilted blanket covering their legs. As the weather got colder in Korea, we shivered every time we rode on the scooter. That wind chill really drops the temperature and freezes our legs. Although Jordan had huge gloves to cover his hands, it still left his chest and spread legs in the way of the wind. So we laughed and exclaimed how smart those massive, thick blankets were, how we wished we’d seen them in Korea. Jordan even took a photo and sent it to our former coworker who bought our scooter.


Our flight left Beijing international airport at 8:30 pm and we were on our way to Mongolia. We spent a total of 68 hours in Beijing on our 72-hour visa.


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The Great Wall

We piled into our tourist bus at 6:20 am, shivering in the cold and hoping the sun would rise soon.
“It’s snowing,” Jordan said, looking out the window. “I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s so cold, but it does mean the Wall will be beautiful.”

“As long as it’s not too windy,” I replied, burrowing close to him for comfort.

We had originally planned to take an off-the-beaten-path tour far from Beijing, where we could walk on restored and unrestored parts of the wall. But, because of the snow, the powers that be decided it was too dangerous, and off to Mutianyu we went.


When Jordan and I had been researching this part in our whirlwind Beijing trip, we knew we didn’t want to go to Badaling. That’s the iconic place, but it’s filled with tourists all the time and is completely restored with handrails and more. Jordan wanted a more “authentic” experience at the Great Wall, and because of weather, we settled for Mutianyu. Recently restored, it’s a great place for families and less-adventurous hikers (like myself).

After two and a half hours, we arrived at the entrance ot the Wall. Our guide got us tickets and tried to convince everyone to take the cable car up the mountain to the wall. Jordan hates hidden costs and preferred to walk anyway, so he refused. “I am not paying $15 a person that they didn’t warn us about,” he told me, and set off for the stairs.

“We only have three hours. You may not make it to the wall,” our guide warned.

“Hike” has different meanings for Westerners and Asians. We’ve found that we either walk faster, have longer legs, or stop and take fewer photos, and so cut our hiking time down significantly. We’ve also discovered that while “hike” to us means a meandering dirt path with occasional slopes and steps, in China and Korea it means endless concrete stairs. Endless. Infinity. Forever. I just about died on the way up those stairs. I had to stop and wheeze around 6 times, while Jordan waited patiently for my heart rate to go back down.


Still, we made it to the top in 40 minutes. And let me warn you before we go further: Jordan didn’t doctor these photos in any way. No snipping or tucking to get better angles or views. There just really weren’t many people at all.

Snow dotted the stairs, and we surveyed the mountains with all the amazement we could muster in the 25-degree-Fahrenheit weather. The Great Wall was never actually a continuous wall, though the full amount spans over 21,000 kilometers. It started as an earthen mound to block invading Chinese and Mongols about 2,000 years ago, and spans 17 provinces. Beijing, however, is the best access point to visit a section.
The “original” Wall began during the Qin dynasty around 225 BC under Emperor Qin Shihuang. Most of the workers were people from conquered tribes and other Chinese, forced to work for 10 years or until they died in a construction accident. Legend states that the bones of the dead workers were used as building materials. The Qin dynasty was harsh, as you can tell, and didn’t last long after that. The Han dynasty took over after that and continued work on the Wall off and on until about 220 AD. It wasn’t until a thousand years later, when the Mongols became a threat, that work on the wall resumed (and became more stone-and-mortar). The portion we saw was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Emperor Yongle was also harsh. He was the same guy who forced all the middle- and ruling-class families to move from Nanking, the current capital, to Beijing. He also forced about two or three million people to build and rebuild the Wall, threatening to kill the workers’ families if they didn’t complete their conscription.

The Wall actually didn’t do much good militarily, and never protected Beijing from Ghengis Khan or other Mongols. But it did work well as a road, which made trade easier, and the emergency beacon systems between towers did highlight military movement well.

When the Qing dynasty took over in 1644 and the Mongols stopped being a threat, there wasn’t a reason to maintain the Wall, and it fell into disrepair.
This is Jordan yelling, “Look at all this space! There is no one here! No one!”

In fact, its state worsened during WWII specifically, and Mao Zedong encouraged Chinese living near the Wall to use its blocks as building materials for their houses. Only in 1984 did the Chinese government order that parts of the Wall be restored.
We walked from the stairs’ entrance to the wall to the cable car entrance, just amazed by the lack of people. At tower 14, near the cable car, though, we saw lots of people slipping and sliding on the ice. We had to grab the wall and slide along the patches of ice, sidestepping other tourists falling on the faces or sliding on their bottoms to get along the Wall.

I took the cable car down because I’m a wimp, and Jordan enjoyed the Wall for another 30 minutes before flying down the stairs and joining the tour group for lunch. We met several other tourists, mostly visiting China for a week or two, and then piled back in the bus to head back to Beijing. We had been warned by our friends that China can be pretty wild and completely alien to Westerners, but so far we thought Beijing and the surrounding areas really easy to navigate and much cleaner than expected. I think part of the reason is that it’s November, when few tourists roam around, and it’s Beijing, probably the most Western-friendly city on mainland China. If we went west to Xi’an or south to the Yellow Mountains, I’m sure it would be a different story. And that was it! The Great Wall far exceeded our expectation and we were thrilled to experience Beijing’s first snow of the season on the Wall.

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Beijing and the Forbidden City

China has this lovely 72-hour visa-free transit stopover for a few select cities, Beijing being one of them.

We’re kind of zig-zagging our way across Asia to get the cheapest deals and see the most in a short amount of time, so here we are, in Beijing for 72 hours. To be honest, part of me is thrilled—we saw the Forbidden City today! We’re seeing the Great Wall tomorrow! But another part of me feels a little guilty. I hate traveling so fast. We have just enough time to see the top tourist sites, take photos, and leave. It’s not the type of traveling either of us like, and it honestly feels a little disrespectful to the country we’re running through. To fully appreciate a magnificent structure or complex like the Forbidden City, one has to spend time with the culture, the people and the geography of the country. Otherwise, you’re just skimming opportunistic photos and ignoring the wealth of what made the tourist site so amazing to begin with.


Anyway, enough of my soap box. This time around, because of visa restrictions, we weren’t able to do any more than spend 72 hours in the country and not leave Beijing. So we’re making the best of it and hoping to one day return and see the rest of China.


This morning we rolled out of bed after our loud, hung-over Russian roommates left for showers, grabbed breakfast, and hit the town. Because we’re staying in the Qianmen district, we can walk to most of the big tourist sites near Tiananmen Square.

We were worried it would rain all day, ruining our chance to see the top three or four tourist sites, but thankfully it only sprinkled a little bit.

I’d of course seen Tianenmen Square in photos, thanks to 6/4, and had even listened to a journalist speak about how he and his film crew had covered the uprising. But seeing it in person was pretty amazing. The most amazing part to me, and I think this covers most historic places, is how normal it all seems, like it’s just another square, filled with tourists, everyone bustling around in coats and scarves and gloves, as if in 1989 the world wasn’t rocked by the student protests surrounding the famous square. It’s hard to reconcile the history in the textbooks with the feel of the drizzle on your hat and the slick stones beneath your feet and the clamor of Chinese tourists enjoying their capital’s monuments.



We did have to go through a metal detector and run our bag through a scanner, though, and the guide book said that police are always present at the square, especially in June. Chinese tourists, ones visiting Beijing for the first time, just like us, accosted us for photos. They don’t know English and we don’t know Mandarin, but they’d clap, squeal, and step between us, begging us to smile for a photo. We’d smile and agree. This has happened to us before, actually, in Thailand and Korea when we’d stumble across Chinese tour groups. So we knew the drill.

The Forbidden City is huge (the largest palace complex in the world), and you can take several hours to poke around the different segments and palaces inside the walls. Because it was raining, we stuck to the main path through the center of the City.


Beijing wasn’t actually founded by the Han Chinese, but by smaller ethnic Chinese groups. Mongol invaders, who settled parts of northern China, made Beijing into a true city. After the Han Chinese took back the area, an emporer from the Ming dynasty made everyone move to Beijing (and when I say made, he literally forced thousands of people to move from Nanking, the current capital of the empire, to the barren wilderness of the north and settle in Beijing). Emperor Yongle of the same dynasty established the Forbidden City from 1406 to 1420. A total of 24 emperors lived in the Forbidden City, from both the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Forbidden City really was forbidden—only the emperor, empress, concubines, and eunuchs lived in the palace complex, and many spent almost their whole lives without venturing outside the walls into the rest of Beijing. Those who sneaked in risked death doing so.

Most of the buildings we saw weren’t ancient, but built in the 1700s due to fires. We passed plenty of huge brass and copper pots that used to hold water in case of any fires.


After passing through the Mandarin gate, we entered an enormous courtyard. Sometimes the emperor would invite court officials and even a few commoners for a celebration.

_mg_1172Built in the 1400s, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the most formal of throne rooms, where the emperor would receive congratulations for his birthday, coronations, and honoring military leaders.

Next we saw the Hall of Middle Harmony. It is much smaller and where the emperor rested between viewings and receive court officials. We learned that the emperor rarely walked anywhere (the complex is quite large, anyway) and would use sedan chairs to be carried in.


Tall of Preserving Harmony is large and open, used for banquets honoring religious festivals, weddings of princesses, and once even many of the elderly in the Imperial City.

_mg_1162Here’s the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, where the empress would receive guests and hold her own court over the concubines. Half of it was used as the bridal chamber for the empress and her husband when they married—they would spend three days together before he went back to ruling eunuchs and court officials.

We liked the Imperial Gardens the best, at the far northern end of the palace. Jordan’s standing under a double tree, over three hundred years old. Cedar and Cypress were wound together to symbolize joy in marriage.

By then we needed to get indoors because 1) it was raining and 2) it was cold. So we left the palace out the northern end, hopped on the tourist trolley, and rode it back to Tiananmen Square where we entered the National Museum.

Our Lonely Planet guide said we needed our passports, but the ticket lady hardly looked at our drivers’ licenses when giving us tickets. About half of the exhibits we wanted to see (modern, Communist information) was closed due to an event in the galleries. We went to the basement instead to see artifacts from ancient China.

I don’t really feel like I learned that much about ancient China, besides seeing how well-preserved 2,000 year old pottery was. It does make me more curious, though, and I think I need to learn more about Chinese history. We did learn about the ancient dynasties and how the emperors centralized power, proved to harsh, peasants revolted, Mongols or other Chinese ethnicities invaded, and everything went kaput. Then the cycle repeated. Eventually, though, by the Ming dynasty (Starting in the 1300s) most of China was unified under Han rule. The other ethnic groups (and I think there’s 46 in China today?) lived on the outskirts of the great cities of Beijing, Nanking, and Shanghai.


We did get to see a terracotta warrior and his horse, which was pretty awesome, since we’re not visiting Xi’an. And that concluded our first day in China! Next on our list was the Great Wall!


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