When I booked my flights home (NZ) for Christmas, budget dictated that I would have a long layover. However, this suddenly became an added bonus when I discovered China allow you to visit for up to 72 hours visa-free. My 12 hours in Beijing quickly changed from an annoyance to an adventure. I would get to explore one of the biggest cities in the world while waiting for my flight home. These flights are becoming increasingly common as China attempts to boost tourist numbers. So for those of you who are interested or considering it yourselves, here's how I spent 12 hours in Beijing. I cleared immigration really quickly by using the '72 hour visa-free' line which consisted of about 3 other people -it's on the far left, don't get caught in the other line! My luggage was checked right through so all I had with me was a small backpack. I quickly got some cash out and was on my way into the city.
Everything is incredibly well signposted in English and there are even English announcements on all the trains and subways (apparently this is since the Olympics). So I had no trouble finding my way into the city centre and to my first destination: Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City.
The huge structures which house the Museum of China and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong reminded me a lot of Russia. The square itself is a huge concrete area with a lot of people taking selfies. The North side of the square leads to The Forbidden City so it made sense just to continue walking. I passed through several royal-looking gates which were pretty impressive but at one point it became necessary to buy a ticket to go further.
It was 40 CNY (about €5.50) which was the off-peak price which goes up to 60 CNY during the peak tourist season. Even as someone who is usually not a fan of paid attractions, this price was definitely worth it. I spent the next hour and a half wandering around the complex of intricately decorated gates and temples. There was plenty more to see and I could have spent a lot longer exploring but was wary of the quickly fading light.
I took the North exit from the Forbidden City and crossed straight over the road to the entrance of Jingshan Park. A ticket costs just 2CNY. The park looked like a really peaceful place for a wander and some quality people watching. But time wasn't on my side and so I headed straight up the walking path to the pavilions atop the hill (about a 7 minute walk). The tallest point in the park had amazing views of the city, particularly a great bird's-eye view of the Forbidden City. It was a beautiful spot to enjoy the sunset.
With the sun heading over the horizon I decided to move on. I negotiated a rickshaw from the exit of the park to take me to Wangfujing Street, which I had read about. It is one of the main shopping streets in Beijing but after a few blocks of huge malls and Western brands I was starting to feel a little disappointed. Then the lights of a small alley caught my eye and I was drawn into Wangfujing food street.
This market started with some souvenirs and soon opened out into a lively food market selling an array of delicious and disgusting looking food items. Not feeling too adventurous with a 12 hour flight ahead of me, I opted for some dumplings and was extremely satisfied for my 25 CNY.
It was now completely dark and getting quite cold so I decided to head back to the airport to wait out the rest of my layover. There are a few other things I would have liked to have seen e.g the Lama Temple and the Olympic stadium. But with limited daylight hours and energy I ended up only spending about five hours in the city. It was still a huge improvement on sitting alone in an airport and gave me a taster for a country I will need to come back to!