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Layover in Beijing: How to See The Great Wall of China!
I had 9 hours, no cell or wifi service, no sleep… and a burning desire to fulfill a bucket list dream: Walking The Great Wall of China. I was alone, had never traveled in Asia, was unable to speak or read a lick of Mandarin… AND I DID IT! And so can you!
Don’t get me wrong – I was downright terrified of everything that could go wrong. I researched several blogs and message boards – the idea of visiting The Great Wall during a layover was both encouraged and straight-out laughed at. There’s a lot of variables, but it IS possible. I was able to spend 3.5 hours hiking the wall, and made it back to the airport with 2 hours to spare! Here’s the steps on how to do Beijing LIKE A BOSS:
Book a Flight that Lands Early in the Morning
Rush hour traffic is a real concern – arrive early to avoid getting stuck in it in either direction. If you have no other option, make sure your layover is longer. (My flight landed at 5:20am local time, with a connecting flight at 2:05pm.)
Bring plenty of Cash
When I visited in August 2013, China was flagged as a “high risk” country by my bank (Chase), meaning that my account would be shut down if I swiped my card while in the country. Even though I had told them I would be visiting, it didn’t matter. I relied solely on CNY cash (Chinese Renminbi Yuan, also known as RMB) for all transactions inside & outside of the airport. My guide recommended 500CNY (80-100USD).
Arrange a Private Tour Service by Car
I booked a Private One Day Tour from Tour-Beijing.com with Beijing Champagne International Travel Service (formerly known as Beijing Xinhua International Tours). They picked me up directly from PEK airport and drove me straight to the wall.
There are group tour busses and public transportation, but if you’re limited on time, it’s smarter to pay for a guaranteed straight-shot escort. (Many of the group tours make multiple stops along the way at tourist shops, and do not pick up from the airport.) For $160 US Dollars, I received:
- Private Car
- Airport pick up & drop off
- 1 Driver
- 1 English speaking Tour Guide
- Historical & Cultural information
- Photos taken of me with my camera
- Custom Itinerary
Yes $160 is a bit much, but in my opinion, was completely worth a SAFE hassle-free journey and a once in a lifetime experience. If you have more time, you could even stop at other sites. Completely customizable! I paid for it prior to the trip through PayPal. Of course I was worried about being scammed or kidnapped, but felt pretty good after I’d read up on the company on Tripadvisor.
We arranged everything through email before I arrived. Do NOT rely on a wifi signal at the airport – it’s difficult to get (more on this later). My guide was waiting for me at the exit with a sign with my name on it. This was our itinerary, which allowed plenty of time for any mishaps. They said I could stay longer at the wall, but I was really concerned with not missing my flight, so I stuck to a more conservative schedule. It worked out perfectly!
– 5:20am – 6am: Meet at airport.
– 6am – 7am: Transfer to Mutianyu Great Wall.
– 7am – 10:30am: Visit the Mutianyu Great Wall.
– 10:30am – 11:30am: Transfer back to airport.
Though several message boards said tipping is not customary, I was still awkwardly asked by my guide to tip the driver at the end. This may make me an American sucker, but I obliged, and gave the guide a tip as well.
Go to the Mutianyu area of the Wall
There are several areas of The Great Wall that are open to tourists. Mutianyu is significantly less crowded than other parts, and does not require driving near downtown Beijing. Several message boards had listed Mutianyu as 2.5 hours away. Nope. FACT: it is only a 1-hour drive from PEK through the countryside!
I took the open-air cable car up, walked through several towers, and rode the toboggan slide back down. I was literally the first person on the wall that morning. At 7am, they started the lift up and we hopped on! It was a rather rickety & squeaky journey, but I’ve ridden comparable rides at various ski areas.
The toboggan slide was awesome! I will never forget the wind in my hair as I “sledded” down the mountainside, The Ming Dynasty’s monument at my side. How. Freaking. Cool. Braking and steering is easy, you can go as slow or as fast as you like. Here’s a video of the slide (posted by stefano_travel)… it’s sped up at times. Seriously, don’t worry – children do this. Have fun!
How to Exit the Airport: 72-Hr Visitor’s Visa
You must have proof of a connecting flight (show your ticket). Keep your bags checked through (show your baggage tag). Take your carry-on luggage with you. Get stamped and go – your stamp will allow you 72 Hours to tour the country as a visitor FOR FREE!
1. Fill out an Arrivals/Departures card. Some airlines give you this on the plane. If they don’t, there is a table next to the Immigration counters with cards. Since you are leaving for just a few hours, you don’t need to fill out the visa number or local address section. Fill out the rest.
2. Follow signs to the Exit/Immigration counters. Do not go to the International Transfer Desk – that goes to T3, not an exit.
3. Get in the “Foreigners” or the yellow “Special” Lane. (It was recommended to me to do the “special” lane, but it was not open while I was there.) Show your passport, departures card, connecting airline ticket, and baggage tag. Tell the security officer your plans. Get STAMPED! WOO!(The security officer pointed out that my flight left later that afternoon. I nodded yes, explaining I’d be back in a few hours. He straight out laughed at me, shook his head in disapproval, and stamped my passport. Obviously he didn’t think I could make the quick turnaround. This was terrifying, but I proceeded.)
4. KEEP YOUR DEPARTURE CARD. This is key on getting back into the airport.
5. Proceed to the airport exit. Your tour guide will be waiting for you with your name on a sign. Hop in the car just outside the doors. Store your carry-on luggage in the trunk. Enjoy The Great Wall!
6. Return to the International Departure/T3 area with all your paperwork (boarding pass, passport, departure card). Proceed through security. YOU DID IT!
How to Get Wifi in the Beijing Airport:
The wifi is free, but only available in certain terminals. I was unable to sign up for it where I exited the airport. It was only upon returning to the airport that I found an information desk with a live person at it that would give me permission. As a non-Chinese citizen, it is required that you use your passport to obtain temporary permission to use wifi.
1. Visit the information desk to obtain permission & paperwork.
2. Go to a kiosk, scan your passport in, enter information that the desk gave you.
3. Obtain a receipt from the kiosk with username & password.
4. Open Safari or another web browser & sign in.
Usage is timed & limited to certain areas of the airport, so be mindful. I could pick up signal in the main lobby, and at my gate. I was able to use my email and Skype no problem. YouTube & Facebook are not available in China.