Yes, to answer the million dollar question, I did make the flight to Beijing! This made the visa application process worthwhile. To explain why I was a bit frustrated with the visa process, I will outline it below.
We googled what time the Consulate opened in Dubai. It said 9.00am, but that people began lining up at 7am, sometimes earlier (one review stated 3am). It also said they only handed out 50 tickets a day. Given we only had one shot at getting the application in, we were there at 6.50. We couldn’t see anyone else waiting. The security guard was less than helpful, and told us no one ever lines up, and to come back at 8.30 for a ticket. We trudged about a kilometer to the nearest cafe, which wasn’t open, and hid in an air conditioned ATM outlet until it did, trying to cool down.
After breakfast, we head back at about 8am, to find a whole lot of people waiting outside in the sun. We were 21st in the line. Great. At least we weren’t 51st. We waited another 30 minutes, this time trying to hide from the sun. At 8.40, we were let inside. It turned out the man taking the list was actually applying for a passport. I have no idea who made him chief list maker for the day. We waited about an hour and a half for our turn, watching the staff bark at people for various reasons. We were called up. They wouldn’t accept copies of my photocopied expired passport and previous Chinese visas, so I had to write a declaration of all the countries I had visited on my old passport and hand it in. They said they would check the information we handed over – which included my passport, photocopies of Matt’s passport and ID, a salary certificate, a non-objection letter, my declaration, a photo, a filled in visa form, my ticket and an email from the hotel in China. We waited another hour and a half. Eventually, while I was about to lose my rag about the trip to the Chinese consulate that had turned into a five hour debacle, we had a pink slip thrust at us and was told to come back Thursday. VICTORY.
The plane on the way over was packed, and I only got a seat about an hour before departure – we had wisely paid for business, given there wasn’t much room left in economy. It was a great flight up, and – despite nearly losing Matt at Beijing airport several times – I eventually made my way to the hotel. We got to bed around about 1am, with a 7am pick up the next morning.
I had booked a driver named ‘Mr Xie’ to take us to the Great Wall for the day. I didn’t fancy getting to Beijing and trying to negotiate with a cab driver who might abandon us at the wall, particularly given I predicted (correctly) that I wouldn’t get much sleep. In the lobby was a lady driver who definitely wasn’t Mr Xie. Ah well, welcome to China. She had a sign with the right name, and she managed to take us to the wall without any major incidents. It was about a two hour trip to Mutianyu, one of the nearest sections of the wall. The easiest section to get to – Badaling – is apparently the most popular spot for locals, so we opted for the less touristy option. Although our guide didn’t speak a word of English, through much pointing and gesticulating we managed to get tickets for the cable car up the hill, and set about hiking up the Great Wall.
It was steep, and hot. I’m not really sure what I expected, but I looked up at the hill and thought ‘I can make it all the way to that top tower!’. I did not make it all the way to the top tower. We are pretty used to 35 degree heat these days, but hiking up stone steps in 35 degrees is not the sort of activity we generally undertake in Dubai. I hadn’t eaten much that morning for fear of getting car sick – anyone that has been in a taxi in China will understand this concern. We both trudged our way up to the third highest guard tower – the one above the steepest section in the second photo – where we came to the common agreement that we wouldn’t go any higher. As I wobbled my way down, I felt this was a sensible move.
Going down was obviously easier than going up, though not as easy as I expected. It was getting very hot by this stage, and I felt for the poor people making their way towards the top. In saying that, the Chinese seem to be a hardy bunch, and we saw people of all ages making the trek, including a bunch of determined little kids. I don’t think many people carried on beyond the watchtower that we made it to, though. After wandering the wall for another hour, we caught the cable car back down (grateful for buying a return ticket) and relaxed for awhile, before rejoining our guide at Subway (!) and driving back towards Beijing city.
Beijing is big. Our guide took us as close as she could to the Tiananmen Gate, where we went through some half-hearted Chinese security. The signage wasn’t entirely clear, and we didn’t have any idea of how far we were going to walk through the Forbidden City, our next point of call. For this reason, we only took a quick glimpse at Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 protests and Mao Zedong’s Tomb. Information on the protests is still heavily censored in China, so you would be very hard pressed to find any particular location or information on events relating to them. We wandered through the Tiananmen Gate – along with around 5000 local tourists – towards the Forbidden City.
The fact that the name has ‘city’ in it was probably a strong hint. It was very big. I didn’t really prepare much for the visit, as I wasn’t even sure we would get admitted – tickets are supposedly limited, and we arrived at about 1.30pm. But we couldn’t figure out where to buy a ticket to the city. After we finally figured out the ‘Palace Museum’ was, in fact, the Forbidden City, we managed to obtain a ticket and headed on through… to gate, after gate, after gate. The Forbidden City was where the Chinese imperial family lived from 1420 to 1912. It seems a little excessive in size. It has over 8000 rooms, but we only got to see a few of them. Mostly, we spent a lot of time dodging Chinese people with umbrellas, as they (fairly enough!) avoided the sun. It was a cool place to visit – and neat to tick another UNESCO site off the list – but given the amount of travel we have done in China and Japan, the only really defining feature of the Forbidden City was its size and scale. In saying that, I’m still glad we went, and once I do a bit more research about what we actually saw, I imagine I’ll appreciate it more.
We kept following the crowd through the complex, not really sure where we were going. We came to a garden, which I thought meant we had exited the Palace Museum, but alas, we were still inside. It was packed. A kindly lady shuffled over so we could enjoy our cold drinks in the shade. We gathered up the energy to trundle on, having walked about 12kms by then…. with a lot of that straight up a hill. By this stage, we were getting rather hot, and judging by the gross bulging vein in my forehead in the photo below, I was pretty dehydrated. Time to exit the premises.
We finally made it out, only to find indecipherable instructions to the sightseeing bus, and not a taxi in sight. Well, that’s not true, there were plenty of taxis, but they were on the other side of a metal fence. We wandered about 1.5kms to a shopping plaza, me being a grumbly little monster along the way because we still hadn’t had lunch. Anyway, we located the plaza and a branch of Din Tai Fung, which had been recommended to us by the Captain on our flight. I love dumplings, and the food was delicious. We had soup dumplings like we ate when we visited Zhujiajiao, near Shanghai, in 2015. Ironically, there is a branch of the store about 15kms away, in the Mall of the Emirates. However, it was still nice to be able to sit down and enjoy (pork) dumplings in China.
Afterwards, we wandered outside to get a cab. Easy, right? Not in Beijing! No one wanted to take us without ‘negotiating’ a fare first. Basically, they wanted to fleece us by not using the meter. After about 25 minutes of pacing aimlessly and trying to hail street cabs, we walked to the Hilton, told them we wanted to visit our friends back at our hotel, and they hailed us a cab, with the meter running. We even got a free dangerous driving course courtesy of the driver, and some singing lessons. I’m pretty sure living in Dubai has made me relatively immune to terrible drivers now. I feel like I’ve seen it all.
We were both pretty tired, so were in bed at 8pm for our 4am wake up call, to the airport at 5.15 and departed, on time, at 7.25 or so. Matt flew the sector back, and we had a very nice landing! All the flight attendants looked very horrified when they saw I was down the back in economy – but they kindly moved me to a row of three empty seats near the window, where I was able to curl up for the eight hour flight home. I have to admit I was pleased for the relative efficiency of Dubai airport compared to Beijing, and I waltzed through with my carry on, and on to the metro, in no time.
Beijing in 32 hours may seem crazy, but I’m very grateful to have the chance to visit these places, and I loved visiting the Great Wall – something I’ve always wanted to do. Why not!