A Quick Trip to Beijing

We found a great deal for airfare to Beijing that we just couldn’t pass up and took the opportunity to visit China for the weekend with a nonstop flight from San Francisco for under $500.  China is one of the oldest and greatest civilizations & cultures on the planet and we’ve never been to the northern part of the country nor hiked the Great Wall.  We did fly through China on our way to Nepal for our Mount Everest trek back in 2017 and spent one night in Chengdu, well known for the popular pandas.

A visa is needed to visit China as a US citizen and it’s a little bit of a process to obtain one and not cheap at around $150.  The only exception is if you’re in-transit across the country (as we were on our previous trip).  We were able to accomplish the visa process by visiting the local consulate in San Francisco over two visits.  The lines get very long and if you’re not in line on the sidewalk about an hour before they open, you will likely get turned away and have to try another day.  It wasn’t too onerous, overall, and we’re now happy owners of a 10-year visa stamp in our passports.

united business class polaris seat

United Business Class Polaris Lounge seat

The inexpensive airfare was further boosted by an upgrade, which made the flight to Beijing from San Francisco a real treat in United’s new business-class Polaris lounge.

The plane we took was a Boeing 777-300 series (77W designation), which has the new custom Polaris seats and it was wonderful.  I still prefer the “Dreamliner” (Boeing 787) as I find it a significantly more comfortable plane for intercontinental trips, due to the higher pressure that can be obtained and the higher humidity.

Typically, even in a fully pressurized aircraft, you’re still subjected to an approximate altitude of 8,000 feet or more.  That is consider very high altitude in terms of its effects on humans.  Because the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is made of modern composite materials (not all aluminum, but carbon fiber and other advanced materials), it is able to be pressurized at a higher temperature without worry about metal fatigue and traditional concerns about the plane fuselage and structure.  The same goes for moisture in the air, whereas with traditional metal-based planes, there’s the threat of rust.

So, in a Dreamliner, the altitude is around 6,000 feet which has much less impact on you and the extra humidity avoids the normal outcome of getting dehydrated over an 8-14+ hour flight.  The result is you don’t feel zombie-like or at least a bit out of it, when you arrive.  I’ve taken the Dreamliner from San Francisco to Tokyo & Singapore several times both ways and I feel a significant difference and believe the advantages are real.

That said, the new Polaris seat experience was excellent and, even though it wasn’t a Dreamliner.  We weren’t at all counting the hours until arrival and had a super pleasant flight.  Nice, huh?  This is how travel should be, where the actual travelling part is also the fun part and not just something to be tolerated or endured.

The flight arc from San Francisco to Beijing takes you up the west coast of the US all the way to Alaska and then you curve around the Bering Strait and traverse Russia until you drop down towards China.  The scenery at this time of year, early March, was stunning over the expanse of far eastern Russia.  Here’s a time lapse over some stunning terrain of snowy hills and rivers frozen-in-ice.

Flying south from Russia into China towards Beijing, I scanned the territory from the air and saw an interesting mix of the countryside and villages of the past along with power plants and industry of today’s industrial giant.  Beijing means, literally, the northern (bei) capital (jing).  This contrasts with Nanjing, or the southern capital of the past.  China’s history is, of course, long and rich and the capitals have changed through time due to shifting events and different rulers’ desires.  The Beijing airport is vast, modern, and incorporates impressive engineering and architectural details.  Since red is considered lucky, you see enormous red pillars lining the outside of the terminals.

This is a quick weekend trip from Thursday to Sunday.  We left San Francisco mid-morning Thursday on a 12-hour flight to Beijing, which landed early afternoon Friday local time.  We ordered room service in our hotel room (the bargain-priced Four Seasons Beijing) and enjoyed a relaxing evening and prepared for our only full day in China on Saturday.  Saturday was going to be an all-day activity, where we will travel a couple of hours outside of Beijing into the countryside and hike on the Great Wall.

I did research back home to find a worthwhile Great Wall experience that took us away from the tourists, centered on exploration into the countryside, and to see unrestored 700-year old stretches of the Great Wall.  I found a great company called Beijing Hikers, that sets up great hikes off the beaten path with a guide that can share the details of where you are and what you’re seeing.  This sounded much better than the typical tours you read about online (even the highly rated ones) and our experience proved that this was an excellent choice.

In the gallery below, you’ll see the walls as they’ve been originally constructed by engineers and craftsmen from over 20 generations ago.  We were somewhat surprised that the air was pretty hazy with smog, but the day was still a spectacular one.  The weather is starting to head into Spring with below freezing temps at the start of our hike, but quickly warming up for most of the day, and finally completing at the end of our hike with cold winds and a welcome retreat to our late lunch of traditional village food.

The next morning we set out to walk around Beijing a bit and braved the cold and somewhat polluted air.  The combination of the air pollution and cold produced a bite in my throat.  Overall, the city is impressive in its organization, modernity, and order.

Beijing is one of the world’s major capitals and also one of the most populous cities on the planet.  However, you were hard pressed to notice any semblance of the 12 million people that lived there.  Everything was comfortably expansive, felt sparsely occupied, and besides some rush-hour traffic in the city and on the highways, you had no impression of that many people.  Contrast that to Mexico City, Los Angeles, Cairo, and other mega-cities, where the city seems to go all the way to the horizon.

This was our first quick international trip of 2018 and we look forward to the next one, as this will be a theme of shorter trips this year.  The next international trip will be next month in April and we can’t wait to go to a new country we’ve never been to before and tell you about our experience.  Make sure you sign up for our e-mail list on the right-hand side and get updates on our travels.