Being capital of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is the nation’s political, economic, and cultural center. Located in north China, close to the port city of Tianjin and partially surrounded by Hebei Province, it also serves as the most important transportation hub and port of entry. It is now known as one of the most popular travel destinations in the world, with about 140 million Chinese tourists and 4.4 million international visitors in a year.
24-hour Visa-Free Transit
The 24-hour Visa-Free Transit in China, also called the 24-hour Transit Without Visa (24-hour TWOV for short), regulates that visa is not required for air, train, and ship passengers transiting in mainland China for a stay of no more than 24 hours before heading for a third country or region. It is also possible to get a 72 or 144-hour transit visa with similar terms and restrictions.
Since our fight from Canada landed in PEK at 4:25pm, and our connecting flight to our final destination in Japan departed at 3:45pm the next day, we had nearly 24 hours layover time. I had booked a hotel near Wangfujing, hired a chauffeur for the next day, and had all detailed information of our planned layover in Beijing in both English and Mandarin, putting all chances on our sides. We only carried a small backpack each and had our luggages sent directly to our final destination. After reading loads of forums about mixed situations that happened to Canadian travellers during this political dispute, we were quite surprised that the whole process went so effortlessly (at least it did for us). We got our transit visa approved in no time, and passed customs successfully. We exited the airport and walked to the taxis. I was glad to have our hotel printed in Mandarin –it made up for an efficient, timely and appreciated communication with the driver.
Wangfujing Street is the rich affluent shopping area of Beijing including many famous western brands and stores. After walking down the main street, we arrived to the snack street.
Wangfujing Food Street is Beijing’s local foodies paradise. Amongst locals and tourists, we meandered through the crowd, our eyes wandering with curiosity on all to see such as scorpions, snakes, bats, and tarantula on sticks. We weren’t brave enough to try much (after being sick in the Sahara Desert, I sadly tend to be more hesitant of what I eat when I know I’ll be away from restrooms for a longer period of time – however this is a personal experience and I encourage everyone to try street foods), but I couldn’t be on Wangfujing Snack Street without trying out a scorpion. So I did it! The feeling of the fried legs touching the roof of my mouth was scarier than the taste itself. JF had 2 and I’m sure he would had have more. I was content with my one bite. It’s those little things on my bucket list that make me so happy to check off. 🙂
When I was travelling in Tibet back in 2010, the food was interestingly a hard one for me to grasp. I like to think of myself as an adventurous foodie, trying whatever is served in front of me. Having this culinary curiosity, I got the chance to try some marvellous (and very interesting) flavours around the world. But from my experience in China, Chinese cuisine never really much agreed to my palate. I’m not talking about American Chinese foods, but the real, authentic Chinese cuisine. Maybe one of the hardest thing is understanding the menu (which will likely be solely in Mandarin). The photos helped, but don’t necessarily reveal what kind of meat nor ingredients are part of the main dish. I found that there’s some sort of parfum, an interesting fragrance in the plates that we ordered. My partner ordered 3 meat dishes, and I ordered 3 veggie plates. My veggies were quite tasty, but I could only have one bite of his (plus I’m not much of a meat eater). I would definitely love to go back to China and explore more of their culinary world.
Great Wall of China
Previously, back in Canada, I hired John Yellowcar whom I found on TripAdvisor. John is a Beijing, English speaking native who’s been chauffeuring visitors around the city for nearly 20 years. My correspondence with John the weeks prior to our trip reassured me. He gave us valuable information on taxis, airport customs, translation, etc. John picked us up at our hotel the morning of January 1st at 6:45am in his clean and spacious vehicle. At our great astonishment, the roads were empty due to New Year’s Day (January 1st). It took us around 1 hour to reach the Mutianyu entrance of the Great Wall. John helped us get tickets and directed us to the entrance where we had the liberty to venture on our own. By 8am we were in the gondola heading up to the stoned path.
John picked us up at 11:30am where he had dropped us off. We headed back to the airport in no time. By 1pm we were back in PEK going through customs. Hiring John allowed us to see a great wonder of the world with a peace of mind. I would highly recommend him, or any great driver, if you have a layover in Beijing.
PEK Airport doesn’t stand in my top favourite airports. But it’s not bad. Bathrooms are decent, offering both western and squat toilets. Although not very big, PEK offers a few shops and restaurants. Wifi is free, but remember that Internet censorship in China is among the most extensive censorships in the world due to a wide variety of legal and administrative regulations (social medias, YouTube and Safari didn’t work, although we managed to play Words with Friends). If you have a long layover, I strongly encourage you to look at ways to get a Visa-Free Transit to explore some parts of Beijing rather than spend it at the airport.
Safety in Beijing
It’s hard to have an opinion of a place while only being there for a day. But the general impression I got though, is that the streets felt much safer than what I expected. There wasn’t a time during this layover I felt threatened nor hassled. I am unsure if the police presence in the streets near Wangfujing were in conjonction with the western New Year’s, but the crowds were happy, the merchants helpful and friendly, and the streets rather clean. Even though I was traveling the streets with my boyfriend, I felt it would have been safe enough for me to travel solo. Again, I chose to travel by taxi and hired an English speaking private chauffeur, to ease things and save on time. And like in any other big cities in the world, you always have to exercise normal cautions.
The cleanliness of the streets, the kindness of the people and safety of the neighbourhoods definitely improved my perception of China. If you ever have the chance to have a long layover in Beijing, jump on the opportunity to explore the beauties of the city’s ancient past. I know I will come back. Hopefully for longer than a layover.