Our launching point for our Trans Siberian adventure started in Beijing. We chose Beijing as our starting point because it was relatively easy and affordable for both of us to meet there from our respective departure cities. I was departing from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and my friend was departing from Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.
Tip #1: Keep you sharp objects in an easy to get place. My flight to Beijing had a connecting flight in Guangzhou. My flight leaving Ho Chi Minh City though was delayed. If you have a connecting flight in China, keep in mind you’ll have to go through passport control, grab your luggage from baggage claim, and go through customs, re-check your bag, and go through security again before you can get onto your connecting flight. This whole process takes awhile so as soon as I got through passport control, grabbed my bag, and got past customs, I didn’t have much time to spare before my next flight. I got to the transfer desk to check my luggage in again but was told there wasn’t enough time to get my luggage on board so I would have to get it through security. I ran to security where my bag was put through the x-ray machine. At which point I was stopped again because I was carrying a pocket knife and nail care kit. I was able to find my pocket knife but my nail care kit which included nail clipper, file, and little nail scissors was stuffed somewhere in the abyss of my bag. And of course, I had to deal with a particularly grumpy and impatient security person who kept yelling at me. I was in middle of looking through my bag in a panic to get the nail kit out so I could make my flight when the grumpy officer pulled my bag away from me and told me that I wasn’t going to make my flight so I should just stop trying. I speak Chinese so I was speaking with the officers in Chinese. Anyways, I was running on very little sleep on high on stress and anxiety from the pushy and rude security officer that I burst out crying. Yes. I was actually one of those people who started crying at security. Super embarrassing. There were some nice security officers though that did try and comfort me and even stood up for me but alas to no avail. By the time all this happened, I missed my flight and had to rebook.I was pretty lucky that flights from Guangzhou to Beijing are frequent so I was able to get onto another flight a couple hours later. Needless to say, I was forced to go back to the transfer desk. And then I had to face the same people at security again. This time around though, the mean security officer avoided me and the nice security officers made sure I got through smoothly. Definitely up there in most embarrassing moments while traveling.
Tip #2: Get all your electronics in order before you get to Beijing. As far as internet freedom goes, China’s not going to be winning any awards anytime soon. Facebook, Google (including Gmail, Google Hangouts), Instagram, Viber, and a whole plethora of websites are all banned in China. So when I ultimately missed my connecting flight to Beijing, I was unable to contact my friend to inform her. I should’ve known better. After all, studying China’s internet freedom (or lack thereof) was kind of my jam back in college. China recently cracked down on VPNs (virtual portable networks essentially re-route your IP Address to trick the system into thinking you’re browsing the internet in a different country which gives you access to banned websites) so I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to download one once I was in country. For anyone who wishes to access their Gmail, I would highly suggest doing some research and downloading a VPN before arriving in China. Not being able to access my email was probably the most hassle I experienced while in China. If you have a smartphone though, emails can sometimes go through so I just kept my phone connected to the internet and would receive emails occasionally. As for sending emails, I drafted emails and put them on the queue to send. It would take awhile, but my emails eventually made it through. And strangely enough, while I could not access Facebook while in China, Facebook messenger worked for me most of the time. It just goes to show you never know what to expect when it comes to China’s Great Firewall so it’s better to be prepared for the worst.
My friend and I essentially only spent 3 days in Beijing (not counting our travel days). Not very long since both of us had been to Beijing in the past. I actually studied abroad there for a semester back in 2010. And went back for a short visit in 2011. A lot has changed since the last time I was there though. Like much of China and the surrounding areas, they’re experiencing rapid growth and development so you can basically see change right before your eyes.
I got to Beijing pretty late so I took a taxi to my hotel. If you arrive in Beijing during the daytime though and feel so inclined, there is a subway line that goes to and from the airport and city which is pretty convenient and affordable. Since I was only in Beijing for a few days, I opted to buy single subway tickets. If you’re going to be in Beijing though for longer, it might be worth it to purchase a metro card, which can be purchased at any ticket counter. Single subway tickets can be purchased at any ticket machine and prices are according to distance which range from 3 rmb to 6 rmb if you’re traveling within the city. All ticket machines can be switched to English and all stops are announced in Chinese and English. Stations are all in Chinese as well as in pinyin. Public transportation is pretty easy to navigate in most cities in China, in my experience. Beijing of course is no exception. While in Beijing, we mostly used the subway and bus system.
Anyways, here’s what I saw during my short stay in Beijing.
- Central Perk. Like any true Friends fan, when I found out that Beijing had its very own replica of Central Perk, the coffee shop that Chandler, Joey, Monica, Rachel, Ross, and Phoebe frequented, I knew it was a must do while in Beijing. I was not disappointed. The cafe is a pretty dead-on replica of the Central Perk from Friends. AND it has a replica of Joey and Chandler’s apartment attached. When we went there, there were plenty of customers there. They play episodes of Friends at all times on the television in the cafe. We ordered some drinks, a cupcake, and settled into the orange couch for a couple hours to enjoy our drinks, talk, and enjoy some Friends episodes. The cafe had the perfect atmosphere and it even had its own smelly cat. Central Perk is located on the 6th floor of a shopping mall called Chaowai Soho (616, Bldg A, Chaowai SOHO | CBD, Chaoyang Distrtict,Beijing, China). It’s about a 10 minute walk from the Dongdaqiao subways station (line 6).The mall looks pretty deserted and is a little creepy but don’t worry, Central Perk is there.
- NLGX. Also known as Nanluoguxiang hutong. When I studied abroad in Beijing, this was a bit of a hidden secret and still had the rustic feel of a Chinese hutong (an alleyway in a traditional residential area). It wasn’t the easiest to get to since there wasn’t a nearby subway station so you really had to make an effort if you wanted to get there. Now though, there’s a subway station that stops right at NLGX. A lot of hutongs have been destroyed to make way for development, but some exist and have been transformed into little shops, restaurants, and cafes. Some of the shops and restaurants that I saw a few years ago are still there but NLGX is much more shiny, new looking, and crowded then from when I was last here. Still, if you want to do some shopping, NLGX has some great little shops. We used to be able to bargain at some of the shops but it looks like it’s not so easy to do anymore now that the area has become more commercial. The subway stop is called Nanluoguxiang (line 6 and 8). Guxiang means drum tower, which is located nearby as well. I didn’t take any pictures while here but it’s a cool little spot if you like alleyways. There are also a few other cool hutong areas in Beijing that might be less crowded but I can’t remember where or what they’re called but just as an FYI for anyone who is interested.
- Temple of Heaven. I love this place. This time around was my 3rd visit and it’s still as cool as the first time I went. The Temple of Heaven has some awesome ancient sacrificial buildings but what’s even more awesome is that it also serves as a park to Beijing locals. I recommend going early because that’s when all the locals go to do their morning exercises. It’s definitely worth seeing. The park opens at 6 a.m. and the scenic areas open at 8 a.m. I love people watching though so there’s a lot to see before the sacrificial building areas open. The park is really an awesome public space where people can exercise, play cards, do sidewalk calligraphy, and hang out with their friends. The Temple of Heaven is off of Tiantan Dongment Station (line 5). Leave from exit A and you’ll find the east gate of the park.
- Bird’s Nest and Water Cube. These olympic sites from the 2008 Beijing Olympics have gone to the wayside a bit so they’re not really the pretty sites that they probably were back in 2008 but still cool to see. And if you’re interested in what happens to olympic sites after the fact, then this site is a very good example of underused olympic spaces. The Bird’s Nest and Water Cube is located off of the Olympic Sports Center Station (line 8).
And if you have time I recommend checking out:
- The Great Wall. I LOVE the Great Wall. I’ve been there 3 times and I would totally go again given the chance. My suggestion though is to avoid the Badaling section of the wall. It’s the closest to the city and therefore the most crowded. I’ve been to the Mutianyu section of the wall. And I’ve also walked from the Jinshanling section to the Simitai section where there’s a zipline at the end. The Jinshanling section is the most preserved section of the wall meaning it has the most original features. The easiest way to get to those further sections of the wall is to hire a tour company or you can brave the public transit. There are buses that go out near those sections of the wall but you’ll still need to hire a car to take you all the way to the wall. If you choose this route, be sure to bargain hard and be sure to arrange for the car to pick you up if you hire them for a whole day. If you want to guarantee that you’ll get to the section you want and don’t want to worry about getting swindled, definitely opt for a company that does the arranging for you.
- Jingshan Park. This park is across from the Forbidden City and gives you some awesome views at the to Prospect Hill. And if you’re interested in a little bit of history, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Chongzhen, committed suicide by hanging himself here. The tree still exists that Chongzhen hung himself from which you can find in the park grounds. The park isn’t super close to any subway lines but there are plenty of bus lines. If you want to take the subway, you can get off at Dongsi (line 5) or Tiananmen East (line 2) and walk a bit to get there.
- The Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is the largest existing preserved royal garden in China. It’s super pretty AND it has the really great lake where you can take boats out on the water. You can get there by the Beigongmen or Xiyuan Station (line 4).
My friend was able to rack up a lot of hotel points before our epic trip so we were able to stay in a few nice hotels using her Hilton points during our trip. While in Beijing we stayed at the DoubleTree Hilton which is right off the Da Guan Ying Station (line 7). If you have the extra cash, I definitely recommend it. It’s a very nice hotel and very close to a convenient subway line. Otherwise, Beijing has plenty of affordable hostels.
Preparing for the Trans Siberian
Make sure to get everything you need before you hop on the train. If you’re heading towards Ulaanbaatar, you can pick up everything you need there, but it may be a little pricier depending on what you need. While in Beijing, I picked up another t-shirt and linen sweater. We also got food and snacks for our train ride while in Beijing.