Layover in Beijing: Visas, What to see, and Other Practical Information
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It’s funny how things just work out at times. Way back in 2012, we had decided to visit at least one new destination on our way to India to visit family. Abiding by that, we visited Jordan in 2015 and Qatar in early 2017. Come March 2018, it looked quite impractical since I was traveling alone with S-Boy (who’s now 2.5 yrs old and very energetic) plus I was traveling on a limited budget. Add to that, I was booking my ticket just 3 weeks beforehand and I had almost given up hope. And then look what popped on my radar – a super budget-friendly Air China flight with a 15 hr layover in Beijing! I quickly looked up visas and other formalities, and soon there we were – S-Boy and me on top of Great Wall of China – all by ourselves! It was also our first son and mom trip and we enjoyed it a lot.
If you find a similar flight on your travels across the world – by all means, book it ASAP! As I found out – a Layover in Beijing, whether short or long, is very easy to plan, is super cheap and is one of the easiest ways to see the beautiful city! Though Beijing has not really been at the very top of my travel destinations, it has always had a place there – due to the Great Wall of China, Forbidden City, the delicacy known as Peking Duck, and its engrossing history. As I searched for things to do during my Beijing layover, I realized that Beijing is quite popular as a layover destination mainly owing to China’s friendly layover policy.
And so I have created a detailed guide to planning your own Beijing layover including information on acquiring visas, what to see and other travel information.
Part I: Getting your visas for a layover in Beijing
Turns out, this is the easiest part of the process. The visa is free and all you have to do is stand in the correct line to get one. Just like that, 2 hrs after landing, we were on our way to see Beijing. Honestly one of the easiest visas I have got, and as I travel with an Indian passport I am dead serious when I say this.
Do you need a transit or tourist visa?
While you get your passport stamped at the Airport, it is technically called ‘Transit without a Visa’. Most transiting passengers do not need to apply for a visa prior to arrival. The number of days for which you can remain in China varies according to nationalities. Most Western travelers can get up to a 72-hour transit visa if you are staying less than 3 days. As an Indian national, I could get TWOV for up to a 24-hour time period. Some nationalities, however, do need a prerequisite visa which you can check here.
What documents do I need to get the transit without a visa?
The only documents you will need to get the transit without a visa are as follows:
2. Printed tickets for your next flight
After you exit the plane, you need to fill a small form which is available at the desk and hand it over along with your ticket and passport. The whole process took us about 45 minutes to an hour and then we could exit the airport.
Is a guided Beijing layover tour necessary to see the sights? Can I just hire a car and driver for the day?
The answer to this is pretty mixed. We typically don’t prefer guided tours and choose to see everything by ourselves. However, since I was traveling alone with S-Boy, I chose to hire a car and driver for the day. This is the closest I could come to exploring everything by myself without worrying over public transportation and how to reach destinations of interests. Hiring a car and driver, that too English speaking, for ourselves was undoubtedly more expensive than a tour group. But then we had the privacy of our car and the freedom to build our itinerary as we wanted. Also, the car driver did not accompany us inside the tourist sites and I was happy to explore on our own just as we wanted.
I hardly regret this decision ad our driver was reliable, very friendly, and went above and beyond to help me as I traveled with S-Boy. He met us at the Starbucks outside Beijing Airport and helped carry our luggage to the car – all I had to do was send our flight number and arrival time. As it happened, S-Boy once again lost his shoe just as we exited Beijing Airport. I honestly can’t remember the number of shoes he has lost during flights. Our car driver retraced the entire route to find that shoe and on not being able to find it, helped me find a store on our way to the Great Wall that would have S-Boy’s size shoes. He also enthusiastically carried S-Boy around as I bought the tickets to entry sites and so on. The driver also gifted S-Boy with a stuffed panda! I would totally recommend this service to everyone.
The alternatives to hiring a car and driver are guided tours or using public transportation. Guided tours have their obvious advantages. If you go with reputed companies, the local guides are really knowledgeable and they have tours which specialize in layover. The advantage of layover tours, as opposed to regular city tours, is that the tours start after you land – so in case of flight delay, the tour won’t depart without you and you won’t have to fight for a refund. Also, the layover tour ends well in time to catch your next flight.
If you are wondering about public transportation options, the overall recommendation from Forums on Tripadvisor was that it is super inconvenient, complicated, and so not entirely feasible especially for Great Wall of China. The rest of the destinations within Beijing can be managed by public transport, but it is still inconvenient. You will have to reach the City Center which can be easily reached by taking a taxi or train from the Airport. From there you will need to take taxis to each destination. However, most people do not speak English and most signs are in Chinese so it can be hard to travel on your own. Also, Beijing being extremely populated, the traffic is quite horrendous and traveling by public transport takes time.
How much do a car and driver cost? Where do I find one?
Our car and driver for the entire day cost us 800 RMB. It included an English speaking driver, customized itinerary, wifi in the car and 9 hrs of car use. I got recommendations from TripAdvisor for car companies and got quotes from many of them. The quotes were in the range from 600 RMB – 1200 RMB, in the end, I went with the one who seemed most knowledgeable and gave me a good itinerary plan for the day.
Part II: What to see on a Beijing layover
Now that we are done with the visa formalities, let us get to the most exciting part – planning your layover in Beijing itinerary – off course, including that celebrated World Wonder – the Great Wall of China!
A little about Beijing
Beijing’s history goes back three millennia – after all, it’s where the fossils of Peking Man were found. Beijing’s name literally means ‘Northern Capital’. It is among the Greatest Ancient Capitals of China and has always been at the center of China’s imperialist ambitions and political intrigue. The city has ancient fortifications separating the city areas of Forbidden City, Imperial City, Inner City and Outer City. It has been the residence of the Emperor of China and today, is home to the Chinese Premier. Beijing has a record number of 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is famous for its palaces, temples, art, and culture.
What to see during your layover in Beijing
Great Wall of China
If you are in Beijing on a layover, you probably want to see the Great Wall of China. While I knew the wall was huge and the only man-made structure seen from space, I still did not appreciate its magnificence till I looked at the numbers. The Great Wall is about 6000 km long! That means it is practically impossible to see the entire wall. However, you can visit different sections of the Great Wall – each of them has its own characteristics and is beautiful in its own way.
The Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall of China is the most visited section of the Wall after the Badaling section. It is very well-preserved and the visitor facilities at Mutianyu are great. It is more authentic and is the longest fully restored section of the Great Wall. Also, it is less crowded than the more popular Badaling section. Add to that the fact that the Mutianyu Section is closest to the Beijing Airport and you will see why it is especially popular with layover tourists. In my opinion, the only thing going against Mutianyu is that the climb to the top is difficult than the relatively easy climb to Badaling.
So how do you reach the Mutianyu section? There is no public transport to Mutianyu so you will need a guided tour / taxi / private car and driver to reach the Wall. Mutianyu is located to the northeast of Beijing and is about 1.5 hrs to 2 hrs (depending on rush hour traffic) from the Beijing Airport. The section opens at 8:30 in the morning and there is a cable car ride up to the Wall. Coming down you can again take the cable car or slide down the Toboggan. Since I had S-Boy with me, we chose to take the cable car but the Toboggan ride seemed a really fun way to go down.
How much time do you need to spend at the Great Wall? If you are rushed and do not wish to walk the entire Wall then you can visit it in as little as an hour. If you chose to walk the top of the Wall then you will need to factor in at least 2.5-4 hrs. We walked a little bit, explored a Tower, climbed down some steps and then returned, spending a little over 2 hrs at the Great Wall of China.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was the Imperial residence of the Emperor of China from the Ming dynasty (from 1420) through the Qing dynasty (till 1912). Construction of the Forbidden City began in 1406 and continued for 14 years. The Palace Complex, both vast and very well-preserved, is a beautiful example of Chinese architecture. Legends state that no one was allowed to enter or leave the Forbidden City without the Emperor’s permission, hence the name. Anyone found guilty of the crime was suitably punished. Today, the Forbidden City is home to the Palace Museum and displays an extensive collection of Chinese Imperial artifacts. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and is visited by more than 15 million visitors each year. Restoration work is still underway and new parts of the Forbidden City are being slowly opened to the public.
The Forbidden City is exactly rectangular in shape and consists of over 980 buildings and over 9000 rooms. Spread over an area of 250 acres, the City is surrounded by an almost 8m high city wall and a wide moat for fortification. Elaborate towers are constructed at the 4 corners of the wall. The city also has 4 majestic gates and a large number of ceremonial halls, palaces, an intricate Nine Dragon Wall and the Imperial Garden.
Walking through the Forbidden City is a beautiful experience. The architecture is fascinating and the intricate artwork is spellbinding. The main buildings of the Forbidden City are beautiful but the smaller buildings on the side are also worth seeing.
You need ID to purchase your Forbidden City tickets and there is a separate queue for those with foreign passports. I recommend taking an Audio tour if you aren’t with a guided tour. Exploring the Forbidden City takes at least 2-3 hrs at a leisurely pace. The area is going to be always crowded, irrespective of what time you visit. If you are rushed, you can skip some of the collections and see it in an hour however you will be skipping major parts of this beautiful city. We spent about 1.5-2 hrs at the Forbidden City and I could have easily spent more but S-Boy was getting cranky – and well, toddlers apparently don’t appreciate ancient Chinese palaces as much as I thought!
Tiananmen Square is the World’s largest public square and a must-see landmark in Beijing. Located in Dongcheng District, the square is surrounded by some of Beijing’s most majestic buildings including the Forbidden City, Great Hall of the People, Museum of Chinese Revolution and Chinese History. The Tiananmen Square was also the site of the infamous student demonstrations and protests in 1989.
Realistically, these are the only things you are going to be able to see in Beijing during a 15-hour layover. Our flight arrived in Beijing at 5 am and the next flight was going to depart at 8 pm, so we had a total of 15 hours. Our car and driver were at the airport at 7 am but we exited the airport around 8 am. We reached the Great Wall of China around 10 am and spent time on the top till 12 pm. After having a great unch on steaming hot dumplings, we reached Downtown Beijing to see Forbidden City by 2 pm. We were touring the Forbidden City till 4 pm, then visited Tiananmen Square till 5 pm. Then we were back on our way to the Beijing Airport and reached there at 6 pm just in time to check in for our 8 pm flight.
If you have more time in the city or a longer layover, you can definitely check out Beijing’s other UNESCO sites including the Temple of Heaven and Ming Tombs. Beijing also has an impressive collection of oriental architecture which is a delight for culture lovers.