Bonus Country?
October 31, 2006 11:44 PM   Subscribe

My flight from Bangkok to New York includes a seven-hour layover in Beijing. Is it feasible (and worthwhile) to leave the airport to do a little exploring?

1. How long can we expect to spend getting through Chinese customs twice? (Our luggage will stay on airplane and the Beijing Airport website says we can leave our carryons in a locker.)

2. Is there anything really close to the airport worth seeing or doing? (Suggestions need not be grand or touristy. I’m a huge foodie, so I’d consider just having a nice dinner worth the cost of visa.)

3. Anything else I should consider? Is this just too risky? Personal experiences would be appreciated!
posted by chickletworks to Travel & Transportation around Beijing, China (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The airport is about 30 km from the city center. Depending on the time of day this can be an hour or more ride. Unfortunately there simply isn't very much near the airport and trying to get off the beaten path can be tough without at least a little Chinese.

If this is within the next few days then this simply cannot happen. We are having the China-Africa summit and BJ is hosting the leaders of 40+ nations, so there are MAJOR road closings, particularly to/from the airport.

If you were going to see one thing in your 7 hours it would have to be Tiananmen/Forbidden City. Tiananmen is a big empty square so that is easy to see in a rush, the Forbidden City however is massive and you'll want to explore.

I can suggest that if you try to do something you consider going to 798 artist village near the 5th ring road at DaShan. It is a factory converted into studio and gallery space along with several nice restaurants. I suggest it because it is much closer to the airport and still worth a peek. You could go in, wander, see some cool art, eat a decent meal and get back without the hours of harrowing travel time getting into and from Tiananmen. Though you won't get much of a feel for real Beijing, you'll get a touch and at least you won't be stuck in the chaos of the Beijing airport for 7 freaking hours.

Incidentally, there are actually some decent dining choices in the actual airport so don't fret too much if it doesn't work out.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:08 AM on November 1, 2006

Absolute best case scenario would be:
30 mins from plane to taxi
45 mins from taxi to anywhere in Beijing (say, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, or Tiananmen Square)
...and then...
45 mins from Beijing to the airport
45 mins from departure terminal to the gate (going through immigration)

Assuming you need to arrive at your departure an hour early (again best case), you'd only have a couple of hours. If you are trying to do this during rush hour (which, thanks to Beijing's awful road layout and ridiculous number of cars, is pretty much 8AM-7PM), you can assume the Beijing-to-airport trip is 60-120 minutes. (I have spent 2.5 hours going halfway across the city once.)

If, despite all this, you still want to try, go for it. (You may miss your flight--not sure what happens then.)

Your best bet would be to go to Tiananmen (since it's a pretty easy sight to take in) or the Summer Palace (since you could just take the fifth ring road--a relatively suburban road--instead of having to go through the city center). All of the other sights that I can think of both a) are in the city center and b) require tickets and are relatively involved. I suppose you could see the Olympic Village, which is also on the fifth ring road due north of Tiananmen on the city map.

If you just want a restaurant, you could try getting some Peking Duck. (Beijing's not really a culinary city--that's Shanghai--except for its namesake duck dish.) The Insider's Guide to Beijing says the best duck places are (in order): Beijing Da Dong Roast Duck, Quan Ju De, Liqun Roast Duck, and Xiang Man Lou. The easiest to get to from the airport would be Quan Ju De (which is a big favorite with tourists). Tell me if you want me to get you the address.
posted by jbb7 at 12:10 AM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Website for 798 in the DaShanZi art district.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:11 AM on November 1, 2006

Don't head into town head out of town. I reckon you can make it to the Ba Da Ling section of the Great Wall. From memory it is about 40 mins from the airport, but I havnt been in 5 yrs and so the traffic will have got worse as the roads will have got better.
posted by priorpark17 at 1:01 AM on November 1, 2006

Badaling badaboom... the Great Wall is not going to be really easy for you. BaDaLing is about 70-80 km the wrong direction. Huairou is a little closer, about an hour or so from the airport but explaining to the driver that you want to go to the wall, lunch and back before X time may be difficult. Also there is traffic all the way out to Huairou, it's insanity here, getting back can be a pain.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:12 AM on November 1, 2006

Second Pollomacho's suggestion of the airport restaurant if you end up being stuck. If you are a foodie and are interested in trying out different things, there is a serve your self restaurant in the departures level. Sort of grown up cafeteria style on one side, and on the other side normal order menu place. Very busy and filled with locals. Inexpensive. Yummy. On the serve yourself side, they make the food, hot and fresh (or chilled and fresh in one section) and lay it out on plates. The hordes walking by and just pick the dish they want and stick it on their tray. The cashier adds it all up at the end. The dishes (most of them) are on the smaller side. It sounds cheap and cafeteria-y, but the food is really quite good! I actually try to eat there when I go through. How many airport restaurants can you say that about! I usually just choose all sorts of things randomly. It's always fun and I get a good sampling.

The downside of this of course, is that it is on the departures shopping concourse. Found it on a map from the airport site as 'Chinese fast food' here. I've just realized of course, that it's in the domestic departure lounge....So not so much on your way to Bangkok. Oh well, here is the international side page.
posted by typewriter at 5:24 AM on November 1, 2006

Do you have a Chinese visa? If not, you won't get through Customs. If you do, you have time to see some of the Forbidden City or some of the Summer Palace, or the Temple of Heaven (although that's pretty far south). If you do get out of the airport, do not accept a ride from any of the taxi touts inside the building; they'll charge you 2 to 3 times the ~100 Yuan that the taxis on the stand outside charge.

Here's a big, fat PDF map of the city part of Beijing. The airport is off the map to the northeast. Map is not printable; take a screen cap of where you want to go and print that to show the taxi driver. Learn to say airport in Mandarin (sounds like "fay gee chyong") to get back, and leave lots of time - Beijing has some world-class traffic.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:45 AM on November 1, 2006

To be honest 7 hours really isnt enough time to do much of anything in Beijing, and I would not be certain it is even enough time to get off your plane, get through customs, get to the city, find a place to do something, get back to the airport, get back through customs, and get to your plane in time.

Also I thought that they demolished the 798 to make room for athlete housing for the Olympics, it is good to see that it is still presumably there.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:53 AM on November 1, 2006

You don't have enough time to do much but miss your flight. Factor in that you have to apply for an expensive visa beforehand and I'd say just hang around the airport.
posted by alidarbac at 8:19 AM on November 1, 2006

Response by poster: Sigh... looks like I'm not going to see any of China on this trip. Guess I'll console myself with Typewriter's Chinese Fast Food. :-)

Thanks for saving me from missed-flight disaster, everyone!
posted by chickletworks at 1:23 PM on November 1, 2006

Also a very popular food item in Beijing is duck in a bag. Yes, roast duck in a bag. A whole roast duck. It's so hilarious. Open and eat. They will be all over the airport, all stacked up on counters. You won't miss them. Buy one if you dare! (They are sealed, so I don't think you'd have a problem carrying it onto Thailand.)

Duck in a bag!
posted by typewriter at 3:54 PM on November 1, 2006

In the international hall map provided by typewriter, between the gates numbered 19 and 11, in the northeast corner there is a Japanese/Korean/Chinese/Pan-Asian/"Western" cafeteria style place as Typewriter described and a Chinese place. The Japanese place is pretty decent in a pinch.

I love the description of the Janese place from the website: Specially recommended to you here are the Japanese superb set meals, which are of high alimentation and delicious, but costing RMB 88 Yuan only.

I know for a fact that they will take US dollars. If they will let you on the plane with them, I'd at least stop in at the Chinese place for some baozi to go. The steamed buns keep pretty well and are still tasty at room temperature. They will be a welcome snack after several hours in the air, that is if you can wait that long!
posted by Pollomacho at 5:14 PM on November 1, 2006

Oh, 88 RMB is about $11, so no need to get any yuan if you are going to stay in the lounge. If you do decide to leave, you must get cash as this is a cash based society. Cabs will take only cash as will most restaurants.

Be sure to pick up reading material in Thailand as your selections in Beijing, especially in English, will be limited. Tacky souveniers and Five Fuwa (formerly Friendlies, the renamed Olympic mascots) kitch will be available as well as a nice and reasonably prced tea shop. All of these shops also take US cash.

(A note on the Friendlies, it seems that the powers that be are flooding the market with this stuff. It is speculated that this is an attempt to push out Mao/Cultural Revolution kitch, which can be a source of embarrassment for the Party. There have also been some rumblings that all the foreigners buying the kitch is a sort of blaspheming of the name of Mao. Unfortunately, the move to push out the Mao kitch may have suceeded in officially sanctioned souvenier shops such as those found in the airport.)
posted by Pollomacho at 5:30 PM on November 1, 2006

Response by poster: Duck in a bag + food with extra alimentation = yummy!

Thanks for airport pointers, Pollomacho and Typewriter.
posted by chickletworks at 12:26 AM on November 2, 2006

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