Touring Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, And The Great Wall

Introduction
Review: American 787 Business Class Dallas To Beijing
Review: Sheraton Grand Beijing Dongcheng
Touring Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, And The Great Wall
Review: American 787 Business Class Beijing To Dallas


I’ve been to Beijing many times, and at least five or so times have done a day tour including Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and The Great Wall. I did it the first time because I was genuinely interested in it, and then over the years I’ve come back with many different people (parents, friends, etc.). Not surprisingly, everyone who goes to Beijing wants to see those three things, so I go with them.

The thing is, of the five or so times I’ve done the tour, I’ve never had a tour guide I’d recommend, and that’s despite going off the TripAdvisor recommendations. The guides I’ve had have consistently taken smoking breaks, talked about girls the whole time (“I want to date Megan Fox, do you know her?”), fell asleep several times during the tour, and sort of just plopped down and let us explore on our own.

So when we organized this tour I asked the concierge at the Sheraton Grand Beijing for help, since I didn’t have one specific tour company I felt like returning to. As you might recall from that review, the concierge told me that they only had one tour company they can work with, and that they couldn’t do the tour the way we wanted (which was the most standard possible tour, visiting three of the biggest landmarks in the vicinity of Beijing). Eventually I convinced them it was possible, and the tour began at 7AM.

I should have known it would be a bad tour when the guide started with “your tour purchase includes me, the driver, and admission to everything. However, gratuity, which should be about 10%, isn’t included.” They’re not even that obnoxious in the US…

Then he proceeded to talk to us about sunglasses, and how he doesn’t wear them during tours because it would be “disrespecting his guests.” Ironically he told us this while in the car, smoking a cigarette, with the window rolled down. Right, it’s you wearing sunglasses which would make us feel disrespected…

We then did a drive by of Tiananmen Square, rather than actually visiting it. He explained that it was very busy so wasn’t worth walking around in, but that we could see it all from the car… alrighty then.

Then we found ourselves in the Forbidden City by around 7:20AM. Rather than being dropped off at the front gate he had a “shortcut,” which involved us walking about an extra mile.

We got to the gate at around 7:40AM, and after standing there for 20 minutes he informed us that he couldn’t buy tickets for another 30 minutes, until 8:30AM. Why the hell start a tour at 7AM if the gate doesn’t open until later?

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This was perhaps the most amusing part of the tour, which I think westerners aren’t prepared for when they come to these major tourist attractions in Beijing. People assume that these attractions will be full of western tourists, when in reality most of the tourists are from rural areas in mainland China, who may have not seen many westerners before.

So without exaggerating, for the next 30 minutes people lined up to take pictures with us, as if it was a meet-and-greet with Justin Bieber. We must have taken pictures with over 100 groups. It was insane.

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The Forbidden City has a fascinating history and is massive, and I consider it to be the most enjoyable part of these tours.

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After wrapping up at the Forbidden City it was time to drive to the Great Wall. Our guide asked if we wanted to stop at a jade factory first, which was “included with our admission.” When we declined, he asked if we wanted to stop at a teashop. No thanks as well! I’ve done enough tours around the world that I always say no to these intermediate stops which are complete tourist traps where they try to sell you crap. It reminds me of that one time in Bangkok

He suggested we go to one specific section of the Great Wall which would have less traffic, because he said traffic would be very bad otherwise. Two hours into the drive (which is significantly longer than it has taken for me to get to any other part of the wall), he asked if we wanted to stop for lunch.

It was almost noon at this point, and we started our tour at 7AM. We were hungry, so we agreed. When we pulled up to what looked like a massive factory with probably two dozen buses parked out front, I thought to myself “oh crap.” Sure enough we had to walk through a huge showroom before we got brought to a dining room with probably a thousand tourists in it.

It’s not that I’m opposed to having a lunch at an authentic/cheap restaurant, but this was anything but authentic. It was the equivalent of a cafeteria meant to serve thousands and thousands of tourists a day. No thanks. The food looked really unappetizing, and we ended up buying some ice cream from the cooler downstairs. Somehow even the ice cream tasted like cardboard.

Then we finally made it to The Great Wall, which is of course impressive.

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It reminds me a bit of this scene from the movie “The Guilt Trip:”

The history of it is fascinating, but once you’re there, you sort of wonder how far you’re supposed to walk. It’s not like you’ll be able to walk any significant distance of it, given how steep the steps are. At the same time, the first half mile or so is super crowded. So while I’ve always enjoyed seeing The Great Wall, I enjoy reading about the history of it more than I actually enjoy visiting it repeatedly in person.

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After that it was a roughly 90 minute drive back to the hotel.

Bottom line

There are of course certain sites people want to see when they first visit a city, which is why I’ve ended up doing this tour so often. This one was especially bad in terms of the guide, though I think in the end we all still enjoyed it.

Generally I’m someone who’s more interested in the vibe of a city than in the actual landmarks. I like to call many of them “Wikipedia/Google Images landmarks,” because viewing them online and reading about the history online is more enlightening to me than actually visiting repeatedly.

I do think that the Forbidden City is interesting to actually see.

Meanwhile Tiananmen Square is really just a square with a fascinating history, but isn’t actively interesting to visit.

As far as the Great Wall goes, I think most people envision the below, when in reality there are thousands and thousands of people in close proximity, which probably takes away from the charm a bit.

Great-Wall

It sort of reminds me a bit of this Bored Panda piece with 20 pictures of “Travel Expectations Vs Reality.”

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Comments

  1. I perversely enjoyed this trip report. Nice to see someone write about how uncomfortable, annoying, and self-centered the tour guides can be. And how jaded you were about it, after so many trips.

    So many times we just read about how phucking awesome a place is and how amaaaaaazing everything is. Thank’s for showing us your real experience.

  2. I can understand wanting to do a tour to go to the great wall given the distance, but why even bother with a tour to Tiananmen and the forbidden city? They are super easy to access via the metro or a cab from your hotel and are right next to eachother. I easily visited both using the metro on my first trip to beijing w/o any real knowledge of the city.

  3. I feel like the tour guides recommended on Flyertalk have exceeded my expectation from Bali to Beijing.

  4. That is usually why I try NOT to have a guide with me to visit places. However, sometimes even if they are truly annoying they are necessary. Not an easy decision to make.

  5. Ben – highly recommended Catherine Lu tours next time you take someone to Beijing. http://catherinelutours.com/
    Used them for a solo 2 day tour when I went on the AA mistake fare last spring. They were awesome. Tour guide extremely professional and knowledgeable. Very interested in discussing cultural things rather than sunglasses! Took me to two awesome lunch spots and gave me the option at the end of the second day on whether or not I wanted to go to the market. Was more than happy to pay 10% !

  6. When I did that tour, the tour guide stopped every one of us individually after we got off the bus and asked how much gratuity we were going to give them.

  7. The Great Wall is really amazing, whether you visit it from a spot with thousands of people around (like Badaling) or from a spot with no one around (like Simatai). BUT, I must say that I much preferred Simatai where we were practically the only ones there (other than that lady who kept following us to try to sell us bottles of water!)

    I wrote an article about 10 tips for visiting the Great Wall if anyone is interested!
    http://www.randomtraveller.net/2015/03/10-tips-for-visiting-the-great-wall-of-china/

  8. I had a WONDERFUL half day tour of Beijing with Intrepid Tours last September. It started with a visit to the Temple of Heaven Park, which is where hundreds of Chinese go every morning to do their morning exercises–tai chi, dancing, pushups,etc. as well as play board games or just get together to socialize. We joined in a dance class that was fun. After the park visit, we went to an authentic, inexpensive restaurant for a basic, tasty lunch. Then we took the subway to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. After touring there, we ended up at a nearby park with a giant Buddha statue (I can’t remember the name of the park.) The tour was led by a woman that had been doing it for over 10 years and one of the most interesting parts of the tour was hearing about her life in Beijing. I think the price was about $50. and that included lunch, subways, and admissions. It was the highlight of my trip.

  9. Sorry for that Lucky, I think I have booked through Viatour and had better experiences in Beijing, although I did get stuck with the jade and tea sales pushes. And I must also mention Leo, a guide who conducts a free walking tour of the hutongs that I thoroughly enjoyed on my last trip to Beijing, which you can find on Tripadvisor; highly recommended!

  10. I second @turgutbey’s comment. Since it’s not easy to get to the Great Wall on your own, I can see doing a tour there, but why on earth the other places?

    And there are parts of the Great Wall that aren’t full of tourists – Jinshanling is a bit far, maybe 90-120 minutes by car (I thought that’s where you were going given how long you said the drive was) and besides the group I was in, I probably saw 10 other people. I took a tour with Beijing Hikers (a friend who lived in Beijing recommended them). Look them up for next time you’re there. No stopping at “factories” to sell you thing, the lunch on the way back was a local place and really good, etc.

  11. Not sure how much you paid for that crap. Generally speaking if you can endure the jade factory part the standard rate is 100 yuan or something 5 years ago. Also the lunch part. It’s literally crap (very authentic Chinese food cooked by a single father who cannot afford meat). Should not exceed 300 yuan now. Of course you’ll need to pay the forbidden city gate ticket on your own.

  12. I’m guessing you tipped anyway.

    No Chinese tourist would ever tip.

    I hope you told the hotel how bad it was.

    Funny, my guide in Beijing was awesome. Shanghai not so much. The goodbye there took a little longer as she was surprised that I wasn’t tipping .)I did in Beijing)

  13. Sorry to say but this reinforces why I have zero desire to return to China. I’m really looking forward to a trip to Taiwan this fall. It seems to have most of what I like about China and none of the things I intensely dislike about mainland China.

  14. dude i am suprised that you are surprised. You travel for so long and you trusted the concierge in China? Come on man be for real, that is a mistake that even noobs from FT dont make. The whole world knows that hotels get kickback and would only recommend crappy guides. If you want to have it done properly just hire a local one on one recommended guide that people rave about on FT or MP not tripadvisor.
    Aunt Stacey from Minneapolis will find the jade factory and authentic crap lunch amazing when comparing to her daily MC or Fridays lunch.

    In any case I dont feel sorry for you man, if you did it alone you would have done much better.

  15. I third @turgutbey’s comment – you can easily do Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City without a tour guide. Lucky – you need to learn to get out more – meaning there is more to experience in cities/places than arranged transportation from the airport to your hotel, from your hotel back to the airport. Learn to walk around, tour the streets on foot, etc., etc. That’s where you come across the true treasures of a destination. A little fresh air (though not in Beijing) and exercise would do you some good! Get outside your sheltered comfort zone of chauffered driven rides everywhere.

    I had a very good Great Wall tour guide arranged through the Grand Hyatt while I was in Beijing. He was a very cute (and gay) young man. He was a true delight and really enjoyed his job and was very passionate about it. Sorry, can’t remember his name right now.

  16. One really cool thing is going to Tiananmen Square at sunrise or sundown for the raising/lowering of the flag. It is a really neat sight to see.

    If you are with people who are physically fit, going to Jiankou (the “Wild Wall”) is 100% worth it. I hiked for probably 5 miles and saw 4 other people. It takes you right into Mutianyu, the outrageously crowded section.

    I thought the Forbidden City was crowded in winter, I can’t imagine going now!

  17. Visited Beijing in March for a two-night stopover on a BA business class sale fare, taking advantage of China’s 72hr transit visa. I arranged a tour with Chinahighlights, and got picked up at the airport on my arrival to be taken to a more remote part of the wall at Jinshanling, two and half hours from Beijing. I was expecting to be part of a tour group, but I ended up being the only one, and had a driver and tour guide to myself – all for $145 for a full day including fees and lunch. With it being a dry, Saturday morning, I was expecting crowds on the wall. Seeing the new tourist plaza in the valley entrance, I imagine it can get crowded during peak periods.
    I hiked the wall for close to three hours and encountered no more than a dozen people. It was an inspiring 4km hike. Most of my pictures are like the one you display in this blog – no-one for miles. The tour guide was great – no tourist traps, no pressure. I guess I should count myself lucky (no pun intended).

  18. What gives with the last photo?

    The other photos are definitely winter and like the Great Wall when I saw it in February 10 yeas ago. The last photo looks more like late spring or even summer.

  19. You have to dedicate a tour exclusively to the Great Wall and get up there no later than 8AM before all the tourists. I shelled out 300-400 rmb and the tour guide picked me up from my hotel at 6AM. By the time I left the Great Wall all the tourists were pouring in. Get there early and lookout for the ice. It’s slippery. Ask your concierge for the hotel guide named Shawn.

  20. I found the most amazing guide on Beijing via recommendations from TA. Her Western name was Sophia. She took my family of 5 around the city for four days. She was more than amazing. Tianenmen Square and the Wall were great experiences. Even for the kids. She would take us to all the important places and give us intimate details. The wall was the best part. I remember zero traffic and the tabogan ride on the way down. She went out of her way to keep us from the ubiquitous jade shop. For shopping at markets, she said look around and tell me what you like. She would then go and bargain with them in Chinese. The vendors hated her for it. When visiting the Olympic sites, she would have tickets for one venue. She would then stand in line at another venue while we were touring the other so we never waited. She coordinated all cabs and transport was focused on giving us what I considered a very authentic experience. I felt like I should’ve been taking notes as she described the cultural sites…

  21. I have used Joe (joe7909@gmail.com) in the Beijing area several times and absolutely love him. He’ll do exactly what you want, doesn’t take you to any tourist trap shops, and took us to an AWESOME hole in the wall restaurant on the way back from the Great Wall where we ate a TON of delicious food including drinks for about $5/person.

    I’ve recommended him to a bunch of friends who have all used and loved him as well.

    Just email him, give him your dates and what you want to do, make arrangements, he’ll meet you, and pay him in cash when the day is done. I’ve used him for some 8 hour layovers at Beijing airport as well as some longer stays. Reasonable prices, great service, and I always have given a nice tip above and beyond because everything was done so professionally and excellently.

  22. I am curently in China for a few months and visited recently the Great Wall. Choosing the right date and time, in the right location, allowed me to see it with only a few people on it. After walking 15 minutes, I was alone… There are ways of seeing it like on the pictures and even take those yourself.

  23. I used Odyssey tours on a 10 day tour through China in 2014. I picked them because they were fairly priced, but most of all, they were based in-country, which I felt was important. All of our guides were good. The woman we had in Beijing was a little rigid, but I feel that is the way Beijing is in general. She also spoke the most broken English of any of our guides, but it wasn’t a big deal. We could see, many times, that she was working out our English questions in her head before she responded. Beijing was my least favorite city of the four we visited (Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Hong Kong), but it did have the landmarks. Our tour was well organized, our guide and driver both polite. Our guide was very knowledgeable and narrated for us throughout, answering all of our (many) questions. She shared our meals with us, and although we asked the driver to join us, he chose not to. I think our guide was surprised that we would chose to include either of them. At one point she told us that some other tourists had complained (not about her) to the tour company when their guide joined them without an express invitation. I can understand that, but also think it’s crazy. Why hire a tour guide if you don’t want to spend time with them and learn from them? I would recommend Odyssey and would use them again.

  24. The locals were taking pictures with you because you’re white, not because you’re a westerner. As a “westerner” who’s Asian-American, I wouldn’t be subject to the same treatment.

  25. Ben is that you in the photo (the blonde one) where you said people were lining up to have their photo taken with you? You look really different.

  26. We did Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City mid October-2015. We took a Taxi from our hotel The Regent Beijing, and while looking around for where to buy tickets to The Forbidden City, was approached by a ‘tour guide’. Something about him didn’t turn me on, so we again started looking to buy tickets when other more affable guide approached – and by the way, the LINE to buy tickets was more than an HOUR LONG. His ‘fee’ was 300 Yuan (about US$50) plus of course ticket entrance fees – which we agreed to for two hours. This guide was FANTASTIC! He got us tickets click-it-split, and I had HIM PAY FOR THEM until we got in. Great full historical and cultural tour of just the two us. He was so happy to be with us, he even bought my girlfriend a beautiful floral ‘headdress’ that while I thought a bit funny – she just loved it, and got many complimentary comments on from passerbys. After that we walked to Tiananmen Square, which made for some fun photos, and interesting history, on our own.
    Next day we hit the Summer Palace and The Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, about the same distance as the more ‘touristy’ Badging location of the great-wall, but here, almost no one to bother you. Funny though, I had been to the touristy Badaling wall many years ago, and I just thought more ‘fun’ with all the interesting tourists and local there. For this day, we hired a car & driver for the day at our Regent Hotel – we do not enjoy and have done best to avoid ‘Tours’, and frankly find that if you do it right, you really do not pay much, if any more doing it by yourselves with a few taxis and maybe a guide – than on a crowded 40 passenger bus tour where you have to go for the complete tour – as we can stay longer or move on as we wish.
    Next stop which was even more wonderful, though not as historically or culturally interesting was Singapore, at the Shangri-La Valley Wing – kind-a like dying and going to heaven! Then again – off on a cruise to Sydney, which was just wonderful to visit again.

  27. I went in January last year and very few people on the wall at that time. Took a taxi by myself.
    Also took taxi to the square and FC and just had him drop me off. Approahed by a guy who offered his guide service (really cheap) and did a great job. None of the issues you mentioned. Guess I got lucky.
    Biggest issue was hailing cab for return from city. Took an hour and got gouged.

  28. I did the same tour from Viatour for $47, they picked me up at 6am and dropped me off at 5pm after the entire tour. It was great!

  29. What a shame to hear this kind of bad experience when you are in China!
    Being a Chinese, I do wish people abroad could enjoy the trip to China for any time.
    Also, I am amazed that the concierge in Sheraton recommends such kind of tour guide.
    I have no detailed list of tour agent but I do believe Tripadvisor would give you some info.
    Also, I am happy to give advice if you are back again!

  30. I’m glad our tour guide wasn’t your worst Beijing tour experience…I felt bad because I was the one who arranged that one. When I booked it, I sought out a company that promised not to stop at a jade factory or other tourist trap-type thing. So at least there was that.

    Maybe the people at the Forbidden City wanted pics with you because they knew you were the China Southern trip report guy!

  31. You got it easy: first time I went to China, more than 30 years ago, there were mandatory tours ( or no visa and a blacklist). Tours of worker paradise factories, shop floors, agricultural tours, housing tours. It was hard to slip away without being noticed.
    But now I wouldn’t dream of anything organised. It’s not arduous or complicated to do it yourself, maybe Great Wall makes sense for first time visitors but the rest is better independent

  32. Hey Lucky

    Since you have used TWOV is past, would it okay to have onward ticket on a different booking? Like booking DFW-PVG on AA using money and PVG-HKG (24hrs later) on miles.

    Would AAgent be able to use HKG as destination even if these are different airlines? What if PVG-HKG was MU rather than CX? Can’t really find answer on the latter anywhere.

  33. Totally agree with your sentiment about vibe against landmarks. I rarely use tour groups though. I tend to find researching ahead of time and DIY works out better for me.

  34. Great posts everyone. Thanks Lucky! I have been reading for about 6 months. Going to China in a few days! Beijing, Xian & Shanghai Hong Kong. Thanks for all the great advice. Upgraded with points on Singapore and will be using marriott points and SPG points for the W hotels!!!!
    Anyone got any advice for eating gluten free in China.

  35. Easy trip to Great Wall by using subway Line 2 to JiShuiTan Station (we transferred from Line 1 coming from Wangfujing), then a short walk east to a dedicated tourist bus #877. As soon as one bus fills up, the next one is right behind. Cost is 12 rmb each way. Last bus from Beijing at 12:30 and last return is at 4:30. My wife and I made the round trip, including admission (senior rate) for a total of 134 rmb. I had to laugh when we got to the Wall; there was a cable car lift to the top. However, we were too old (71) — if you have hypertension or over 65, it’s just too dangerous! 🙂 Instead, the authorities prefer that we stress our hearts with a nice climb to the entrance, then more up and down steep inclines on the wall itself. Didn’t bother us. And, we didn’t mind the hundreds of new Chinese friends. Many acknowledged the steep climbs and descents with smiles and encouragements.

  36. That’s why it’s hard to get a good Instagram picture in China, seriously, WAY TOO CROWDED…lol

  37. We had a hotel recommendation for Beijing red sun travel company the tour guide was excellent no smoking or sleeping or anything inappropriate and we had lunch provided which was great but don’t go on the Great Wall tour!Only go on the forbidden city tour b tour . It was only 280 rmb if it is over 400 rmb it is super expensive and they are ripping you off.Lunch was great but they took us to a Chinese good luck charm shop but that was all.The tour guide explains EVERYTHING and all admission included.Far better than anything I’ve experienced in Beijing.(Hopefully they don’t have bad tour guides too)But our was spectacular

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