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Pumblechook Feb 11th, 2009 06:48 PM

First timers to Beijing
Hi, My wife and I are off to Beijing for 6 nights at the end of February. We've both done a fair bit of independent travelling but it's the first time to China for us both. I've been scouring this board and other sources for information and feel pretty confident that we now know enough to have an enjoyable time in Beijing but I still have a couple of questions I'm hoping people can help with.

Firstly, there seems to have been some healthy debate on this forum about the value of tour guides in Beijing. My current thinking is that we will need to hire a driver to get us to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, so we may as well pay for a guide as well and do the Summer Palace on the same day. If we decide to do the Ming Tombs (not sure after reading some of he comments here) we would do that the same day as well and thus get all of our guided activities out of the way in one day. Is that a good plan? Normally, I would also hire a guide for a place like the Forbidden City but now I'm not sure.

Secondly (and I know this is going to sound dumb) has anyone ever bought a knockoff Goretex jacket, in Beijing or anywhere else? We saw them in Ho Chi Minh City last year and were tempted but I couldn't get past the idea that they might be completely useless. Could you wear one of these jackets skiing?

Thanks. Expect more equally intelligent questions over the next couple of weeks as we finalise our plans :-)

ekscrunchy Feb 12th, 2009 05:29 AM

I'm not sure about the FC guide issue. I went without a guide, and had a difficult time using the audio guide (I could never get it to talk about the area I was standing in). But others have had an excellent experience with the audio guide.

But you do need to make certain that the guide will do more than chant a rote history with little illumination about the place. Lots of dates without any real depth to the commentary was the story with many of the tour guides that I overheard when visiting the FC. Frankly, had I been a in one of those humongous tour groups that I encountered, I would have walked away from the guide pretty quickly..

I agree that you should hire someone to drive you to the Wall. I had Konglin for this and was satisfied. I did not go to SP or Ming Tombs, though.

Corona Feb 14th, 2009 12:41 AM

Great Wall, SP and Ming Tomb in one day will be too rush. Suggest choose two sites.

quimbymoy Feb 14th, 2009 05:49 AM

i agree with corona. i could have spent the whole day at the summer palace if i had the chance.

frugaltraveler Feb 14th, 2009 01:01 PM

Pumblechook - I have been to Beijing twice and am going again in April.. all were with a tour and I enjoyed having a guide along. I did hire a driver to take us to Mutianyu - it was about $125 for 8 hours.. since there were 5 of us, this was cheap. It took 2 hours driving to/from and we spent 4 hours there. Well worth it. We also took our own food/water, not knowing what was available. The driver did not speak any English, he drove up onto an interstate the wrong way, skirted across the traffic that was coming at us to get in on the other side.. we made it with a story to tell.. I enjoyed the Summer Palace better on my 2nd trip - the weather was really nice and we had more time and the guide was more informative. The same holds true with the Forbidden City. With a guide I get more out of it than reading or putzing with an audio.
I have bought the knock off Gore Tex jackets.. For $25, they are worth it.. I live in WI and they are warm, they have an inside fleece lining that can be removed.. you could wear them skiing - I know I got my $$'s worth. I bought one for my husband on my last trip, but the sleeves were too short and I gave it to a friend who does use it for skiing and loves it.

Pumblechook2 Feb 15th, 2009 02:13 PM

Urrgghh, my Fodor's account has self-destructed. Pumblechook is dead, long live Pumblechook2.

Thanks for the replies. We'll probably skip the Ming Tombs and Mutianyu and the SP with a guide/driver.

Thanks frugaltraveler for the Gore Tex advice. If we can pick them up for around the $25 mark we'll do it.

easytraveler Feb 16th, 2009 02:02 AM

Hello, Uncle Pumblechook the Second!

Love your signon name! :)

On guides, the guides in China are no better and no worse than guides anywhere else in the world.

However, the size of the "tour group" does matter. I've found that the smaller the group, the better the guides - as a general rule.

If you have a guide that's dedicated just to you and your wife, you'll be infinitely better off than bouncing along with 30 other people.

I don't have a particular guide for you in Beijing, but have read some trip reports here on Fodors where some people have found good guides. Hope one or more of these travelers will check in here and give you leads on some guides.

Have a great trip!

(Oh, skip Ming tombs if you don't have enough time. The Ch'ing tombs are much more interesting, but you will need a full day for either one of those)

PeterN_H Feb 16th, 2009 09:36 AM

The complete lack of reliable guides in Beijing has been extensively discussed here (use the search box above for more), and the price quoted for the one-day hire of a car and driver is rather more than double what actually needs to be paid.

You don't need a guide for any of the destinations you mention, and indeed much of what they will tell you is available on English-language signs at the sites in question, and equally inaccurate. They overcharge, take you to shopping and restaurant choices where they get kick-backs, and push for tips in a society where tipping is only foisted on foreigners who don't know better. See this, for instance:;tid=35180147

If you want reliable historical information, bring it with you (e.g. for the Forbidden City, Geremie R Barmé's 'The Forbidden City'). You wont' find it either from guides or the electronic earphone system.

Many of the guides who spam this site are probably unlicensed (and since they spam demonstrate themselves as untrustworthy from the start), and those who are licensed have been taught to feed you the Party line on historical events and the modern political situation ('China's Tibet', etc.)

Peter N-H

Pumblechook2 Feb 16th, 2009 02:03 PM

Peter, I respect your point of view about guides and I think we will tackle the Beijing sites on our own. But getting to the Great Wall sounds too hard to do by public transport. I've read a few posts from people saying they've done it by bus but frankly I'd probably prefer to take the easier route by hiring a driver.

That said, is there much value in getting a driver who can speak good English and therefore also partly guide us, or doesn't it really matter?

PeterN_H Feb 16th, 2009 02:13 PM

Getting to the Great Wall by public transport is dead easy. If you prefer to go by car then doing a deal with a taxi is a slightly more complicated but perfectly doable alternative. If the driver gets you from A to B what do you want a guide for? Information? That's already been tackled in the earlier posting.

easytraveler Feb 16th, 2009 02:24 PM

Here's my take on your last question.

Touring the Great Wall is not like tourinb Neuschwannstein where one needs a guide to explain each painting and each room. The Great Wall is the Great Wall. There's plenty of literature written about it and you can be your own guide in reading up on the Great Wall and whichever section you choose to visit.

If I were you, I'd get the hotel to arrange a taxi for one day for a fixed fee. The taxi will take you to the Great Wall and drop you off. Arrange with him beforehand how long you plan to be on the Wall - two hours, three hours. He'll go off and amuse himself and you go on the Wall and climb until your joints squeak and your muscles tighten up into bunches. When you come down, your taxi driver should be there to greet you. Do NOT pay the taxi until he's gotten you safely back to the hotel.

Food and drink may be a problem - slight perhaps. you may want to bring along some food and something to drink.

Or you could have the hotel tell the taxi to take you to a local restaurant after you come down from the Wall. If you choose a restaurant, you could invite the taxi driver to dine with you or not, that's your choice.

So, you could do the Great Wall without a guide and without even the taxi driver being able to speak English. Just prearrange everything with the hotel.

If you run into trouble at the Great Wall, there'll be enough tourists and guides there that are bilingual to help you out.

PeterN_H Feb 16th, 2009 07:21 PM

You can reach Badaling by direct aircon public bus (variants of the 919) from Desheng Men a few minute's walk east of metro Ji Shui Tan for ¥12 each way, plus entrance fees of ¥45.

There are also tour buses daily to Badaling (Line A) and the quieter Juyongguan (Line B) leaving frequently from 6.30-10.30am every day, ¥125 including the Ding tomb of the Ming tombs, all entrance fees, and sometimes lunch. These leave from the southwest corner of Tian'an Men square. There's an obvious ticket office, people to put you on the right bus, etc., and plenty of foreigners travel this way. It's a doddle.

There are no direct buses to Mutianyu, and tour buses only run April to October, so this one's a little trickier, but very commonly tackled by independent travellers including those with no previous experience of China and no Mandarin, and who have described their experiences on this site. Take variants of bus 916 or 936 from the modern Dōng Zhi Men bus station (at the metro station of the same name) to the terminus at Huairou. ¥12. Lots of minibus drivers are looking for passengers there--everyone knows where you want to go--pay ¥5 to ¥10 or more if you want to leave sooner and have a vehicle to yourself. Admission is ¥40.

Or stop taxis on the street a day or two before you want to travel, hand them a piece of paper with your requirements which have been written by your hotel receptionist (pick-up time, date, and location; destination; total travel time [half day enough]). About ¥350 for Mutianyu including waiting time and return. More for Badaling because the highway tolls and parking charges are higher.

Or get someone at the hotel to book the taxi and likely pay double or more.

Or take a hotel car and pay up to ¥1200.

Peter N-H

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