Beijing Weekend Adventure

Somehow I never got around to documenting our weekend trip to Beijing last fall. Yes, you read that right. We flew halfway around the world and back for a long weekend, and so spent a little more than 48 hours in the city of Beijing, China.

This was a grown-ups-only trip. We’re not that crazy. Any guesses whose idea this was? I mean, if you’ve been around and kind of know us, you know who the adventurous one is. It went like this: the resident rocket scientist/family travel agent got the travel bug. He started frequenting the explore feature on Google Flights looking for somewhere to go while we had grandparents in town to watch the boys for us. Beijing was a hard sell admittedly. I find Asia in general intimidating; I think it’s the extreme cultural differences, how we so obviously stick out, language we can’t even begin to interpret, and the long flights. So in a way, a weekend trip felt more doable, weirdly. Exhausting, yes, but we’d have to intentionally plan our time there, and no matter how horrible it was for me, before I knew it, it’d be time to head home. Also, at this stage in life, 24+ hours on a plane without kids kind of sounds like a day at the spa. Someone waits on you, brings food and drinks, endless movies, time to read or listen to music uninterrupted, basically a long date! If you don’t count the cramped quarters and my difficulty sleeping on planes…not too bad. So we booked a fancy hotel (we usually choose Airbnb when we travel, but it made sense to go the hotel route this trip which felt like a treat since 5 star hotels are cheap and well-located in Beijing), packed our backpacks (guys, half of what I packed was breast pumping paraphernalia. Half!), and off we went!

After smooth flights (from LAX to Seattle to Beijing), we arrived late in the evening while it felt like morning to our bodies. After an easy metro ride from the airport into the city–all signage thankfully in English as well as Mandarin, we walked through a light drizzle toward our hotel via a street lined with restaurants ready for our first authentic Chinese food experience. We picked a place that looked/smelled good, no English anywhere so no tourist trap here. We gestured awkwardly through our order and sat down at a table, trying to ascertain social cues by watching the other diners. Soon our food came, a hot and sour soup that we could tell was good, but we didn’t find super delicious personally, and a ramen-like noodle soup which was wonderful. Overall, good experience! We walked the last bit to our hotel and checked in. It was probably the most luxurious place I’ve ever stayed.

We slept pretty well, considering it was daytime to our bodies, but woke up to an early hour on the clock. We headed to the hotel restaurant’s breakfast buffet because, while recognizing it might not be the best quality Chinese breakfast, we could try lots of different foods and still find our American favorites if needed. It was fun!

The sun was barely rising, the sky that bluish, pre-dawn color, as we left the hotel and found our way via metro to the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven. We walked the grounds in the cloudy morning gray taking in the glorious ginkgo trees in their autumn yellow. My favorite part of all the Chinese inspired gardens I’ve visited on the west coast of the U.S. is the intricate stone tile work, so I started snapping photos of my feet on the interesting textures throughout the park and temple grounds.

There wasn’t much information on the history and use of the vast temple complex, but we read what we could find and enjoyed the interesting architecture before heading back to our hotel to meet our tour headed to the Great Wall.

When Jonathan first suggested a whirlwind trip to Beijing, one of my conditions was to book an official tour and transportation to the Great Wall of China. Since of course we’d want to visit it and, with it being a several hours by car outside the city, I wanted to avoid the potential confusion and frustration of public transit. So we booked a small group tour, just a van full of other tourists, a driver, and a tour guide. The other guests were interesting but not awkward to chat with during the drive. There wasn’t as much historical background about the section of the wall we were going to see, but we did get an included lunch where our tour guide ordered for us and it was some of the best food we had our whole trip.

By mid afternoon we got our first glimpse of the wall perched high on the top of a range of mountains. The visitors center we pulled into was like a ski town in the central U.S. and soon our guide purchased our tickets: ski lift up to the Great Wall, alpine slide down (not all that different from a ski town really). The ride up the mountainside afforded views of the glorious fall colors with the Wall perched on top like a crown.

First impression: it was smaller than I’d anticipated. Jonathan agreed. I’d always imagined the Great Wall of China as looming before a potential invader, massive and impenetrable. At least where we were, it was rather dwarfed by the mountain range, relatively small and looked almost precarious lining the top of the ridge.

Our group gathered around our tour guide in one of the guard houses anchoring a section of the Wall, and he gave a summarized history of the Wall in general. Interesting, but brief. Then we were given free reign to explore before meeting up to slide down.

We decided to walk a very steep looking portion. It was even steeper than it looked. This was what was breathtaking. Literally breathtaking, in that the steep incline was like hiking, and also incredible to think of this feat of engineering as it was built and used so many years ago. The photos don’t do the incredible steepness of the steps justice!

Back at our rendezvous point, I noticed a family with a few small boys and enjoyed watching them. This happened often on our trip. Parents juggling toddlers or corralling their littles made me think, “this could be us”, and so glad it wasn’t. I love traveling with our kids because of the amazing experience it affords our family as a whole, and each of us as individuals, but there is something to be said for the freedom of a trip just-the-grown-ups.

The slide down was fun, a little crowded and therefore slow at some points. Soon we were back in the van and returning to the city. It was dark as we sat in traffic, the growing density of skyscrapers beautiful in their own right. We were dropped off at our hotel and set out to find something to eat. Peking duck was on the menu for the evening.

We wanted a nice place and were mere blocks from the “Times Square of Beijing”, the perfect strip to find a great place for this must-eat meal. But we were tired and hungry and when the first restaurant wasn’t where the map said it was and there was a considerable wait at the next place, we settled for a huge dining room, overly ornate and with too-bright florescent lighting to eat our greasy entree. It was okay, bordering on not great.

As we walked back through the brightly lit pedestrian walkway, we decided dumplings were in order. Another condition of my agreeing to the trip: I get to eat all the yummy, doughy dumplings! We found a hole in the wall place off the main drag. It was an order-at-the-counter, bus-your-own-table kind of place, so figuring this out took a bit of the fun out of the tasty treat, but they were good! Then back to the hotel to pump and store the breast milk and and head to bed.

Once again we were up early and back to our room after breakfast as the sun was rising over the city. We packed up and set off on one last adventure before heading for the airport. Today’s agenda: the Imperial Palace. And here’s where our research failed us: the grounds are closed on Mondays. How did we not know this? We could have easily switched our plans…but ah well, such is travel. We walked around the walled grounds enjoying the parks and gardens, the wide sidewalks where crowds watch military parades, infamous Tiananmen Square, a giant gate (not a lot of signage, folks).

Then off to the airport, back on the plane, the long trip home. Everything went smoothly, thankfully. It seems like there’s always some challenging circumstance to every trip, and yes, there was the hangry less-than-epic Peking duck, the bummer of the Imperial Palace being closed. But all in all, a wonderful trip, full of the kinds of things you travel for: adventure, experiencing a new place and culture, history, interesting food.

On the long flight to Beijing, I happened to watch Disney’s new Aladdin remake and found it inspiring. The colors and sounds and thrill of “A Whole New World”. For a trip I wasn’t too thrilled about taking, the delight of getting to experience firsthand how vastly varied our world is, encountering the charm of a culture so different than my own everyday life…It’s a gift!




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