Beijing’s a big place, and sometimes it feels like going anywhere outside your own neighbourhood is a sort of day trip. Still, it’s definitely worth making the effort to get up early and spend a day outside the city – there’s a lot to see and do, from simply getting into the countryside to investigating some of the cultural attractions around the city that are famous all over China.
Having a driver or your own car will make life easy, and although there’s an infrastructure of transports links, for a couple of these places you’re best to go by car. If you’ve got a driver, that’s ideal, but it’s probably worth shelling out to rent the services of driver and car for the day just to save yourself some hassle, particularly if you’re with the family.
You should also consider taking two days and spending a night; for instance, there are more and more places out along the Great Wall offering lodging and fresh, local food in the mountains – great for giving the kids a chance to run around in real nature. If you can, we highly recommend avoiding weekends and holidays. The huge drop-off in visitor numbers will make you glad you did.
Great Wall of China
You can hit Beijing’s most famous tourist attraction in a few different spots – Badaling is the closest and most crowded. While it’s worth going there at some stage, we recommend Simaitai for a pleasant day out with great views, far fewer people and a decent spot of exercise. It can still get busy at the weekend though, and you won’t escape the vendors until you’ve walked for a while.
Parts can be quite steep, though there’s a cable car if you’re just looking for the views or have young children. You can head to Tianqiao (Heavenly Bridge), where the part you’re allowed to walk on ends, and then return in about three hours total. Going the other way takes you to Jinshanling, about 10 km away. It’s steep at times but the spectacular views are worth it.
Take the 980 bus from Dongzhimen to Miyun, changing there for the Simaitai bus. It’s about 80 km away, so make an early start. Otherwise, a round trip taxi should cost about RMB600 – have the driver wait, or meet you at Jinshanling.
It may be 140 km from Beijing, but thanks to the 30-minute high-speed train Tianjin is in practical terms now so close that plenty of people now commute between the two cities. One of the original Treaty ports, it has a history as a city experienced with foreign trade (it had its own foreign concessions) and is known for its cultural life and for being a calmer place than the capital. The municipality has 13 million people, so it’s not exactly some backwater though.
Attractions include the Drum Tower, the former Italian Concession, Ancient Culture Street (not really so ancient, but fun, with river views), the world’s sixth-tallest Ferris wheel and more temples than you can shake an incense stick at. Your best bet is to just wander around though, Tianjin is unspectacular but pleasant. The local street food specialties are the goubuli baozi and the mahua, their version of youtiao.
As a big city, there’s also a thriving range of bars, international restaurants and live music and if you want to make a night of it you’ll have no problem finding a good hotel.
Take the high-speed train from Beijing South Station – they run all day and the journey takes 30 minutes non-stop. It should cost you about RMB60 one-way.
The Ming Tombs are more famous, but we suggest you visit them as part of a trip out to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. In fact, visiting the Qing burial chambers instead means two separate day trips, as the Eastern Qing and Western Qing tombs are for historical reasons nearly a 100 km apart. The latter are about 240 km away and harder to get to, but have the advantage of being in an excellent hiking area. In both cases, this would be a good time to shell out for the services of a driver if you don’t have your own.
Despite looting, both sites are incredible complexes, city-like burial chambers with four emperors accounted for in the Eastern and five in the Western, as well as hundreds of others including a staggering number of concubines. It’s a stirring way to get a taste of the power and wealth of the ancient imperial world, and in good weather the surroundings are also attractive, particularly around the Western.
Eastern Qing (150 km): Take a special tourist bus from Xuanwumen Church or Qianmen (check, as this may only run on weekends), or take the Zunhua bus from Sihui long-distance bus station. Get off at Simen and take a short taxi ride. Western Qing (240 km): Shell out for a very expensive taxi ride or (we suggest) borrow or rent a car and driver for the day.
The massive population of Beijing and the surrounding area means that anywhere celebrated for its countryside virtues is in danger of being quickly over-run by tourism and losing exactly those virtues. The Ming village of Cuandixia about 60 km away is hanging on for the moment, and remains charming. You should still try to get out there on weekdays though, and if you don’t mind going during colder weather it can be very peaceful in late autumn.
Small, narrow streets and healthy food grown in the fields around you are the attractions here, with many people choosing to stay the night in basic but cosy accommodation – a host of places to eat and stay have sprung up over the years, including B&Bs which offer a night on a traditional kang – usually a warm and toasty experience. It’s a functioning village, not a replica, and people are extremely friendly.
It’s in a valley surrounded by mountains, with excellent hiking paths, so after wandering around checking out the traditional Ming and Qing dynasty courtyard homes, take a 20-minute walk to the spectacular Yixiantian Gorge, worth the trip in itself. You’ll find it hard to believe how close you are to Beijing.
If you’re not staying the night, it’s close enough to consider paying a few hundred RMB for a taxi that will wait for you out there; otherwise, take Bus 929 from Pingguoyuan subway station.