If you’ve ever wanted to experience China, even for a short space of time, you should consider a layover on your next holiday. With the recent introduction of a free 72 hour transit visa, it’s easier than ever to get a taste of China, on the shoulder of your next trip.

I recently flew to Tokyo with friends via Beijing, and had an amazing 12 hours of action packed exploring. Here’s how you can maximise a layover to see and experience some of the highlights of Beijing. You’ll be surprised how much you can see in a short space of time.

Logistics

The Visa

Until recently it was quite a process to get a visa to visit China, even for a short transit. Now, you don’t need to stay confined to the airport, but have 72 hours to get out and do some exploring. If you land from a long haul flight, be prepared for a lot of lining up at various points throughout the airport. Not only is there passport control in multiple different stages, but you’ll also need to line up for your transit visa. Watch the signs carefully, as you’ll need to go to a slightly different place than the majority of people getting off the plane.

We got to the visa counter at 11:50pm and the customs worker kindly explained to us that if we waited until midnight, due to our onward flight time we’d be within the 24 hour window, requiring no visa at all which was a much easier process. Read more about visas here. But visa requirements can change, so be sure to check the latest information from official sources, such as the Chinese Embassy’s Australian website here.

Time

Landing at midnight, we stayed overnight at an airport hotel, got up to explore the city and made it back to the airport in time for a late night onward flight the next day. This was a perfect amount of time to see some great sights, but did mean we had to be choosy with what we got to see.

Transport

With the introduction of the transit visa, a huge amount of enterprising travel companies have popped up to cater to this new market. These companies put together tour packages in all kinds of combinations that will pick you up from the airport, take you where you’d like to go in your timeframe, often include an English speaking guide, and drop you back in time for your flight. You can join a group tour, or have a private driver and guide. Find them with a quick google search or on trip-advisor, for latest reviews.

Whilst there is a metro station at the airport, we tried both options (a guide in the morning, and finding our own way in the afternoon) and 100% recommend a guide for the whole time. For only $150 US, with ~$50 extra for an English speaking guide, you can have a totally customised private tour where you get to choose exactly where you want to go. You’ll be surprised how much you can fit in! If you’re only stopping for half a day and don’t have accommodation, no worries. Your tour guide will look after your bags in the car/van.

When it comes to the metro, it’s totally doable, and there are stations all over the city, but it’s also really hard work. Navigating the locations was easy – on a global roaming plan Google maps worked just fine – but getting tickets and asking for directions was a bit of a mission as very few people spoke English. Great confusion ensued over which was our ticket vs our receipt! The stations are also huge, sprawling underground affairs, and most of them had security scanning bags at each entry, so a lot of time is spent just getting in and out of the station.

Taking taxis is also difficult without speaking Chinese. Despite showing drivers maps or written addresses, if it’s not written in Chinese it’s going to be difficult, and many don’t even read Chinese! Some taxi drivers will see you coming from a mile away and prefer to drive someone where there won’t be a language barrier. That’s why we would recommend a driver for the day if you’re on a short layover with minimal time – less logistics and more sights to see! It’s worth it to make your day easy and fun.

What to visit

The Great Wall of China

It’s totally doable to visit the Great Wall on a layover, and still have time for some other sites. There are many sections of the Great Wall near Beijing that you can visit. The best preserved are Badaling and Mutianyu. We went to Mutianyu as it was a short drive (1.5-2 hrs) and isn’t as popular, so isn’t packed with people. However, like all major tourist destinations, the earlier you get there the better. It took about 20 minutes to walk up, a nice break after lots of flying. You can also take a cable car up and ride a slide down! It was stunning and exactly as you’ve seen in spectacular and famous photography. Despite central Beijing being a little hazy, out on the Great Wall the sky was the clearest blue, and the mountains were surrounded by beautiful, lush green forest.

At the bottom there are quite a few refreshment stops (even including a Subway!) Our guide gave us lots of great facts on the journey, and helped us out with tickets. It was great to see both neighbourhoods in the city and the more provincial outskirts of Beijing on the drive. While it wasn’t Tianducheng, the famous replica of Paris, we did drive past a number of similar large scale developments which were fascinating to see.

Forbidden City

The forbidden city is another major tourist attraction to visit in Beijing, and can be included along with the Great Wall on a layover tour. However, we chose to hike up the wall in the morning then go back to our hotel to shower and change, and you have to get to the Forbidden City early – a maximum number of visitors are allowed each day, with tickets often selling out before early afternoon.

For the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, you’ll need to show your passport to get tickets, so it’s best to keep it with you all day.

798 Art Zone

Instead of the Forbidden City, we went to the 798 Art Zone, a very cool cluster of former military factories that are now art galleries, studios, cafes, craft beer breweries and bars. Design stores and marketing agencies also fill the laneways, in amongst the street art, sculptures and industrial-chic Bauhaus-style architecture. You could almost think you were in a trendy neighbourhood of Berlin. There’s been a lot of investment in Chinese contemporary art, and we really enjoyed a few hours hopping round the galleries. If you are planning a visit, watch out for “Museum Mondays” – many galleries are closed on Sundays, Mondays and holidays.

 

Try Peking Duck

 

 

Our last stop before heading back to the airport was a Peking Duck restaurant we stumbled across that seemed like it was a hit with the locals. However, this also meant language barriers and some cultural differences trying to get a table and place an order! This particular restaurant was so popular it had its own waiting room, complete with bar snacks and refreshments to help yourself to while you wait on a little stool – something I’ve never seen before in Australia. Luckily, without speaking a word of English, the waitress kept an eye on us and showed us to our table (we had no idea when our number was being called) and thankfully the menu had pictures.

As there were only two of us, we were able to order half a peking duck, which was sliced and served with pancakes and condiments at the table, and it was delicious! Better than any we’ve had in Australia. The other moment of relief was that the restaurant took western credit cards – we’d only got a little bit of cash out for our day trip and got pretty excited on the ordering front. Despite being a beautiful restaurant setting and great quality food, it was still a really affordable meal.

Looking for Peking Duck in Beijing? The most popular spot seems to be Quanjude, with nearly 20 locations across the city, and beautiful traditional restaurant settings and might be a more tourist friendly operation than the restaurant we visited.

 

With that we were off to the airport, with plenty of time to get to our next flight.

Lessons from the trip

I had an amazing day seeing Beijing, and it was really worthwhile stopover. In one day we had a pretty varied itinerary, that gave us a great taste to come back for more. I’d love to return and try more amazing food, see the Forbidden City, explore the traditional Hutongs and learn more about China’s fascinating history.

The biggest lesson for me was just how much of a cultural difference there is between China and the west, even in simple things like getting around. English isn’t nearly as common as travelling to other major tourist destinations (from European cities to Tokyo), and even at a ticket office in a popular spot like the Great Wall or the metro station at the airport, you can’t always rely on being able to speak English. It made me really understanding of Chinese tourists coming to Australia, and why they are so often in large tour groups. I was really grateful to our tour guide for the Great Wall part of the trip, making transport easy and helping us buy tickets and give handy tips like the best gate to enter from. When we left the guide and ventured out on our own via the metro, it was hard work! If I go back to Beijing again, I will definitely take the layover tour for the whole day, or enlisted the help of a local to ensure I get the most out of the trip and don’t spend so much time struggling with logistics.

It’s easy to find tour groups annoying when you’re just trying to go for a lunchtime run past the Opera house or racing to get from your train to work, but once you’ve been trying to find your way around China, you know exactly what it’s like to be in a country were everything is so different!