Posted June 5th, 2012, 09:32 PM
Last year, my partner and I spent three days in Beijing on our own and with a private guide, prior to the start of a tour with Viking River Cruises. Here's the summary of what we did in Beijing during that time that I posted on the Viking China thread when we returned. Obviously, we were trying to see things that were not included on the Viking tour, so you won't find the Forbidden City in this list.
Note two great dinners that we had (Peking Duck at Made in China, and private dining at the tiny Black Sesame Kitchen in the hutongs, one of the best meals we've ever head). Also included is the name and contact info for our guide, who was great.
Beijing is a fantastic city; have a great time!!
As I noted in my Imperial Jewels post-trip comments above, my partner and I spent several days in Beijing prior to the start of the Viking tour. Specifically, we arrived late on a Thursday afternoon; Viking “Day One” was Sunday. This gave us Thursday evening as well as all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday on our own. We used that time to see some places of interest to us that were not included in the Viking tour as well as to have two fantastic dinners. By the time the Viking tour started, we’d already had a wonderful time Beijing. In a snapshot, here’s what we did:
Hotel and night one. Viking had us in the Ritz Carlton Financial Street, which is a fine hotel but a bit removed from the center of the city. For purposes of convenience, we opted to spend our first three nights at the Grand Hyatt, a fabulous hotel that is only a ten-minute walk to Tiananmen Square and very close to two subway stops. (It’s a pricey hotel but we got a great AARP rate many months in advance.) After we settled in on Thursday, we walked over to Tiananmen Square for the evening flag lowering ceremony at sunset. It’s an impressive ritual – all traffic is stopped on the avenue between the Square and the Forbidden City, a platoon of soldiers marches over from the Forbidden City and the flag in the Square is then lowered and meticulously folded. There were thousands of people on hand, mostly Chinese. The minute the ceremony was over, soldiers ushered everyone out of the square and locked it down. It was amazing. Welcome to China. (There’s also a daily flag raising ceremony at sunrise, but we weren’t up early enough for that!) BTW, you have to go through airport-like security to enter the Square. We saw Chinese men being wanded, but apparently the police did not feel that two middle-aged western women were any sort of threat, and all we needed to do was put our bags through the x-ray machine.
Friday and Saturday. Although Beijing is do-able on your own (the subway is easy to use, and taxis are plentiful and cheap, though be sure to have your destination written in Chinese as the drivers don’t speak English), we opted to hire a private guide for these two days in order to ease our getting around quickly and maximize what we were able to see. After some research here on CC and on Trip Advisor, we hired Sunflower Lee ([email protected]). Aptly nicknamed “Sunflower” for her wonderful disposition, Lee was great and took excellent care of us; it was like spending two days with a friend. If we ever went back to China, we would not hesitate to hire her again, which is as good a recommendation as we can give. We planned our itinerary in advance with her, and adjusted it once we were in Beijing.
On Friday morning, we met Lee at our hotel and took the subway to the Temple of Heaven Park, which was one of the highlights of our time in Beijing. (I would strongly recommend seeing this during any free time you have before or after the Viking trip.) Apart from the famous Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and other buildings, what made this place so special is that retirees gather there in the morning in groups to dance, sing, practice Tai Chi, do calisthenics, play chess, etc. So different from Americans. It’s a very happy place; we joined a line dance, and we easily could have spent the day there.
But we didn’t as we had more to do – we walked back through the Park to the subway and took it to the Lama Temple, also well worth seeing, particularly the 26-meter-high Buddha carved from a single piece of white sandalwood. Lee then took us to lunch at a local dim sum restaurant, a wonderful place we’d never have found on our own. By the time we’d finished eating, it was well into the afternoon; jet lag had hit us and a rest was in order. Back to our hotel for a couple of hours (including a swim in the Hyatt’s extraordinary pool, worthy of Las Vegas).
We had a dinner reservation that evening at Black Sesame Kitchen (described below), located in the hutongs; the directions to the place were complicated, and Lee insisted on meeting us later that afternoon to escort us there. On the way, Lee took us around one of the beautiful lakes in the middle of the city, and then gave us a walking tour through the hutongs before seeing us off at Black Sesame Kitchen. (Walking through the hutongs at night after dinner on our own was another memorable experience, as we watched local residents out and about buying food from stalls, etc.)
On Saturday morning, as planned, Lee met us with a car and driver and we drove out to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. This section of the Wall is about a 90-120 minute drive from Beijing (depending on traffic), and a far less visited part of the Wall than is Badaling, where you will go with Viking. Also, unlike Badaling, where you drive right up to the Wall, at Mutianyu you have to take a cable car up to the Wall. We spent several hours on the Wall at Mutianyu, and the whole experience was absolutely spectacular. We enjoyed Badaling with Viking as well. The two sections of the Wall are different enough that we were very glad to have been able to visit both, and we were particularly happy to enjoy Mutianyu at our own pace.
On our way back into Beijing, we stopped to walk around the Olympic Park. We’d read that the Viking buses sometimes slow down here for a photo op (ours did as it turned out), but we wanted to actually walk around the Bird’s Nest. Not surprisingly, it was even more impressive in person than on TV. Lee told us it was not worth the money to go inside the stadium. We went anyway (stubborn Americans!) and realized she was correct. As impressive as it is outside, that’s how ordinary the stadium is inside. So don’t waste your money going inside. (That night, we had a great Peking Duck dinner at Made in China, described below.)
On Sunday, truly on our own now, we moved over to the Ritz Carlton, got settled in there, and then took a taxi over to Beihai Park, a huge imperial garden in the center of the city. The park has a beautiful, large lake, and throngs of Beijingers were out on pedal boats, strolling the grounds, picnicking, and having a wonderful Sunday afternoon. There are many pavilions in the Park, and one of the highlights of the Park is the White Dagoba, built on an island in the lake. You climb up a very long, steep set of stairs to get there, and are rewarded with wonderful views of Beijing. Overall, during the course of our time in Beijing, we were struck by how much beautiful green space and water there is in this city.
Two great meals. Thanks to the recommendation from a “foodie” friend and the good fortune to be in Beijing on a Friday, and having made reservations months in advance, we were able to enjoy the “Friday Wine ‘N Dine” private dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen (http://www.blacksesamekitchen.com), located in the hutongs. This is a cooking school opened by Jen Lin-Liu, but on Friday nights, there’s no school, just cooking, and a maximum of 20 lucky people get to enjoy a ten-course gourmet Chinese meal made by two extraordinary chefs in the two-wok kitchen right in front of you (watching the cooking is part of the fun!) and served family style over the course of three hours, with all the wine or soda you care to drink. It was not only the best Chinese food we have ever eaten (including the most perfect dumplings we’ve ever had), it was one of the best meals we have ever eaten, anywhere, period. If you are going to have a free night in Beijing on a Friday, we can’t recommend this highly enough. (Reserve as early as you can!) It’s a meal we’ll remember forever. I’m getting hungry just typing this.
On Saturday, we ate dinner at Made in China, one of Beijing’s best-known Peking Duck restaurants, and conveniently located in the Grand Hyatt where we were staying. We’d made a reservation in advance through the concierge, who pre-ordered half a duck for us. This was sufficient for two people, along with a couple of other dishes. You can see the ducks roasting in the open kitchen, and of course your duck is expertly carved table-side for you and served with pancakes, plum sauce, green onions, celery, garlic (great on the meat) and sugar (excellent with the skin). It was delicious, as were the other dishes we’d ordered, and the service was fine.
Beijing is an amazing city, and we had a wonderful time there even before the Viking tour started. If anyone has specific questions, just ask.