For a long time, my bucket list included the Great Wall of China. It seemed far out of reach–a world away, but before we ‘settled down’ to have children, I told my husband that we had to hit Asia at least once. So, we cashed in all of our frequent flyer miles, and headed off to some of the most exotic places we’ve visited so far. After incredible visits to Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Macau–we’ll save those tales for another time–we headed for our last stop: Beijing. I was extremely worried about the language barrier in Asia, particularly in China. We’d gotten through Europe and Central America with English and my limited Spanish vocabulary, but with both a different written and spoken language than I was used to, I didn’t want to take any chances. So, we hired a guide to help us navigate the unfamiliar waters of China. We lucked out with a wonderful local. We were able to both make an amazing new friend and visit the city from a local’s perspective. Daphne Chen, proprietor of Daphne Chen Day Tours, spent two days taking us all over the immense city, covering a pre-planned itinerary we had laid out together prior to our arrival. She was awesome and made the language barrier so much easier, less stressful, and our overall trip more enjoyable.
Daphne was a phenomenal tour guide. Of all of the tour guides we had on our trip through Asia, I found her to enjoy her job the most, I understood her English the best, and her recommendations were all spot-on. She went out of her way to ensure we had a comfortable trip and even gave us suggestions for what to do on our day of departure before our flight. Her driver was equally wonderful, and I definitely suggest using one. It’s hard to get around Beijing without one (everything’s so spread out), and he made it easy and dealt with the traffic in a very safe way (I can’t say the same about some of our taxi drivers).
On Day 1, we headed out to the Great Wall at Mutianyu first. This section was perfect. It was a photographer’s dream, and it wasn’t crowded like I’d heard some parts of the wall (like Badaling) can be. Visiting the Great Wall and hiking along the ancient stones was everything I’d hoped it would be. It felt like an out-of-body experience. At 5,500 miles long, you could stretch the Great Wall across the United States back and forth and still make it nearly back a third time before you ran out of wall. It makes you feel quite insignificant in comparison. We took the chair lift up and the toboggan down–the toboggans are a must; we had so much fun on them. They’re completely safe and a fun way to end your visit.
Afterward, we went to lunch at a nearby restaurant called School House. This wasn’t my favorite restaurant in Beijing (the restaurant was geared toward tourists with a more westernized menu like cheeseburgers–I prefer to eat like the locals when I travel), but it was clean, convenient to the Great Wall, the best option in that area, had a neat story behind it, and we had a reservation for the patio outside. So, we ate with a view of the wall climbing up the mountains–you can’t beat that.
Next, we headed off to the Olympic Park. I couldn’t resist visiting Beijing and not seeing the famous Birds’ Nest and Water Cube. It was a quick visit to the area–we didn’t go inside either of the sites–but it gave me what I’d wanted to see. The Bird’s Nest, while viewed as an eyesore to some locals, seemed more like an iconic landmark to me.
Afterward, we headed off to the Temple of Heaven. The Ming and Qing dynasties’ emperors held religious ceremonies in this complex, and it is a must-see while in Beijing. The space it covers is immense, and it was interesting to see the locals out enjoying the public spaces around it–playing cards, walking, and running around with their children. It was a fun contrast to the very dignified historical use of the site itself.
Finally, we finished off our day of touring at the Donghuamen Food Market. I had just wanted to look around. Loving photography, I had to take in–and capture–the sites of this place. There were definitely some weird foods, but it was geared more toward tourists than locals. I didn’t see many locals eating the odd assortment of items on display. Daphne didn’t recommend eating anything here, and I had to agree with her. Some people may feel daring enough to try the friend spiders or centipedes, but it just wants for me. To each their own!
Instead, for dinner we had chosen to try Peking Duck at a local favorite: Dadong. Daphne had suggested this and said she could make a reservation for us if we liked. I wasn’t sure that I would like the duck (I’m not usually a fan), but I’d read it was the food you must have in Beijing. This was one of the top restaurants to try it, so I figured why not. Dadong made a delicious duck, and it was not greasy or fatty at all. Daphne walked in with us, suggested some menu items, and ordered for us before she left. We took her recommendations, getting the half duck and Kung Pao Shrimp. I highly recommend both. She also asked them to show us the 3 ways that you would typically eat the duck when it came which they obliged in doing. Watching them carve the duck up table-side was also very interesting; there’s a whole art to it! Afterward, we got a taxi back to our hotel. Daphne said as long as we had our hotel’s name written in Mandarin we wouldn’t have any issues, and it worked fine. We just walked up to a taxi stand at a nearby hotel and hopped in the first one that came.
On Day 2, we were off to visit the Forbidden City and Tienamen Square (another bucket list must). Unfortunately, the main part of Tienamen Square was blocked off due to fear of protests (there was some type of summit going on while we were there), but we could still see it from across the street at the entrance to the Forbidden City. The construction of the Forbidden City and the grounds were awe-inspiring. I could have spent a few weeks exploring it rather than a few hours. The Forbidden City takes up a huge section of land–its perimeter is over 2 miles long, encompasses 9,999 rooms, and has approximately 800 buildings. You could spend a lifetime studying its history and the Ming and Qing dynasties who occupied it.
Afterward, we headed to Ding Tai Feng for lunch. This was a fabulous dim sum restaurant–my new favorite food (I have yet to find anywhere nearly as good in the United States). Daphne gave us some great suggestions from her favorite menu items and ensured we didn’t have any language barrier issues with ordering before she left us to enjoy or meal. I savored every bite of the delicious, flavorful morsels.
Once we’d had our fill, we were jetted off to the Summer Palace by our ever-reliable driver. It is the largest royal park in China, covering a vase expanse of lakes, gardens, and palaces. The grounds are a joy to walk on a nice day with gorgeous architecture and artwork. Like the city of Beijing itself, the sites we encountered always seemed to be larger than we’d imagined, and the Summer Palace was no exception. A few hours visit was enough to get a feel for the place, but you could wander the grounds for months and still encounter something new.
Finally, we concluded our day with an Acrobatics Show at Daphne’s suggestion. Always ensuring everything was easy for us, Daphne walked us in and set us in our seats before saying her goodbyes. The show was about an hour long, and the last act was unreal. I definitely recommend setting aside an hour of your time in Beijing to catch a show. I’ve seen Circ du Soleil shows at home, and they had nothing on this performance. The pure, raw talent of the acrobats was breathtaking to watch. After the show, the driver–who was always cheerfully in the right place at the right time–drove us back to our hotel.
Our two very full days of sight-seeing time concluded, we ventured out on our own on the third morning to do some shopping before our flight that afternoon. Armed with the addresses and names of the locations we planned to visit written in Mandarin for our taxi drivers, we headed to the outdoor weekend Panjiayuan Flea Market (also known as the Dirt Market in English). Lined with locals selling various wares to bargain over, it was a lot of fun. We found much better souvenirs to choose from there than the typical tourist kitsch.
From there, we caught a taxi down to the Silk Market which was much more commercial, indoors, and boasted over 1,700 retail vendors. I much preferred the Dirt Market to this very touristy location. In the Dirt Market, we had been left to browse and show interest in what we wanted to without being bothered. In the Silk Market, the vendors sought us out–sometimes loudly and a bit aggressively–trying to get us to purchase their wares. It was still fun to look, though, and we did purchase a few items.
Finally, we headed back to the hotel to collect our luggage and head to the airport for our flight home. It was jam-packed 2.5 days in Beijing, but it gave us a taste for the city and a definite desire to return to take a bigger bite out of all it had to offer.
To view a video tour of our Beijing adventures, click here.
I haven’t been in contact with Daphne since our trip, but if you are headed to Beijing and are interested in more information on her services, her website is: www.daphnechentours.com.