Bargain Fares


Hainan Airlines jet ready to carry us from Seattle to Beijing

We’re dying to take a Big Trip, but our professional schedules are not giving us the breathing room to be away for three or four weeks. So, we decide to use some of the online tools to find ourselves a bargain fare to an far-flung place for a week. But, not only do we want to minimize the cost, but balance the cost against the amount of time in transit (plane changes and layovers) to maximize our time at our destination.

We are regular users of Kayak,  and we also found alerts from Scott’s Cheap Flights, as well as Google Flights are great tools to hunt down airfare bargains. We picked a six-week travel window, and then set alerts for dates, and destinations.

And that’s how we landed on Beijing for a week. Some friends said, “Gee, that’s a long way to go for just one week.” And, we agree: it was a long way to go for one week. But, China is a very large place, and taking a week or two here and there to dive into a city or area makes more sense than trying to make a three-week mad dash from sight to sight.

We eventually found our best fare via Google Flights, flying with Alaska Airlines and Hainan Airlines, booking through (Note: Webjet states on their site that they are transitioning to Although there are direct flights from SFO to PEK, we opted for a flight change in Seattle, which did not add significantly to our travel time, gave us a reasonable arrival time in Beijing, and cost $482. Such a deal! Now to plan our week in Beijing.

Beijing Dreams


China is a big country, Beijing is a big city: we took a nibble.

We saw an amazing architecture, met amazing people, and broadened our Western-educated views of world history and culture. Immersion in Beijing was awe-inspiring, and sometimes overwhelming. While we were clearly not natives, we felt welcomed by the respect and helpfulness of the people we encountered.

A few trip planning tips:

Don’t try to do everything. You may check everything off your list, but you may miss the essence of the experience.

Be flexible and willing to adjust your schedule (daily). Prioritize and spend the time you like in a place. Allow room for the spontaneous.

Use the subway. It makes you oblivious to the traffic woes above.

Expect to make mistakes. You may get on the wrong train, get in the wrong line, misjudge a distance on the map, or just plain get lost. We spent two hours of our time in the Forbidden City waiting in line to see a special exhibit of some ancient scrolls. They were lovely, but the significance was lost on us. And it was two less hours we had to wander the nooks and crannies of the place.

Above all, bring your sense of curiosity and wonder. No matter how many times you have seen these places online, in film, and in books, there is nothing that compares to being there.

Beijing Bites

Our dining habits were a bit hit-and-miss. After we discovered the cart just outside our “home base” subway station at Lama Temple, jianbing (thin pancake with savory fillings) was breakfast on the go.

Tan Hua Lamb BBQ: just down the alley way from our hotel, it was a great way to immerse ourselves in the neighborhood. Full video can be found here.


Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant: while this restaurant was a bit on the higher end, both cost and location (5th floor of a shopping center), the staff made nice presentations of each dish, while the waitress demonstrated how to eat with all of the sides. The dessert appeared almost like a bit of garden, with the mist rising from the dry ice underneath the plate.


Dali Courtyard: Have a seat, and dish after delicious dish begins rolling out of the kitchen. Tucked well into a hutong, drinks are available, and tables are in demand. A nice place to sit back and enjoy your dinner and dining companions.


Jianbing Savory Pancake Vendor: just outside Yonghegong-Lama Temple subway station, exit C – delicious and filling, and only $1; very popular with locals.


Steamed buns are always great alternative. We found vendors in every park.

chinese steamed buns

Photo by Buenosia Carol on


Drum & Bell Towers


We started our last day at the Drum and Bell Towers. Both towers were built in the 1200’s and replaced several times over the centuries. Each tower can be climbed for great views of the city, and the other tower.

We arrived early to find a queue already formed before the drum tower opened. After purchasing our tickets, we found plenty of local entertainment.

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Drums and bells once were the timekeepers in Beijing. Originally built in 1272, the Drum Tower has been replaced several times. Once the tower opened, we climbed steep stairs to a bird’s eye view of the hutong rooftops in the neighborhood.

Several exhibits told some of the history of the area, and explained the traditional seasons. Drummers soon made their appearance, dressed in more traditional clothing.

Like the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower was built in 1272, and replaced several times. The current structure was built in 1745. Both towers kept time until 1924. The bronze bell housed in the tower is struck with enormous carved fish. Beautiful carvings surrounding the balcony railings tell the local legend of the bell.


Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

A favorite of locals and tourists alike, Temple of Heaven is another large outdoor space. But, compared to the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, this had a different feel, where ancient rituals sought good harvests and atonement for sins. Confucian in function, the layout of the park is deliberate, designed in circles and squares, and layout aligned with the heavens. The most important ceremonies of the year marked the winter solstice.

The dominant building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, was originally built in 1420, but burnt to the ground in 1889 – likely caused by lightning. It was rebuilt the following year, with four central pillars of Oregon fir to represent the four seasons, with 12 pillars in the next ring to represent the months, and 12 outer pillars. The pillars support the ceiling without the use of nails or cement!

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Spaces in the park allow for social and physical activities.

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Stairs, pavers, and building placement are all aligned with the seasons and the night sky.

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Other spaces encourage contemplation. And the custodians with their native brooms are ever-present, helping to maintain the harmony of the park.

Hutong Life – Streets


Maybe it is the population density, or the size of homes: we found many Beijing folks living life out on the street. Every day, we found no shortage of interesting sights and sounds and smells: early deliveries of fresh produce, eggs. Card games, mahjong, and board games played out on the street, with spectators. Every morning, four elderly ladies with walkers or wheelchairs met at the corner to trade gossip. Tiny shops specializing in only a few items, crammed floor to ceiling with shelves with tea, laundry baskets, shoes, religious items, with small food shops tucked in between.

We found everything we needed, including cold beer and a bottle of Spanish wine, within a block or two of our hotel.

Except coffee – good luck finding coffee. We found one coffee shop four blocks away, with prices higher than your local Starbucks. In the land of tea drinkers, you’ve got to really want your coffee. If it is essential to your morning ritual, you might want bring a portable coffee option with you. Most hotels provide cups and an electric tea kettle. Learn to drink tea. Or, add a line item in your travel budget for coffee.

Oh, and be prepared for some amusing English signs, too.


Lama Temple


Lama Temple, Beijing’s foremost Buddhist temple, is on our daily walk between the hotel and the subway station. From the street, there is one ornate gate, with the rest standing behind a wall of shops and masonry, giving no hint to exquisite architecture contained within these walls. Once we were on the grounds, we realized that we were standing over the Lama Temple subway station.

Originally the residence of a count, the grounds were converted to a monastery in 1744. An actively practicing temple, many buildings were open and available for visits and prayers. The many courtyards were filled with clouds of incense and people are prayer.

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China Hiking: Exploring the “Wild” Great Wall

enhanceRF4UUKDDWe hear that the Great Wall is inundated with tourists. We didn’t miss them a bit, as we took two days away from Beijing to explore the “wild,” unrestored sections with China Hiking.

Transportation to and from the Lama Temple subway station, all meals, basic camping gear, and an English-speaking guide were all seamlessly provided. We backpacked in the tents, sleeping bags and pads, (all provided, including the backpack), in addition to a change of socks and underwear, headlamps, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Meals were plentiful, fresh and local – and quite tasty! Dinner was a delightful catered buffet, delivered by a local kitchen in the village below.

Most photos you see of the Great Wall are restored sections: broad paved roadways, where you can imagine horsemen and carriages moving along the wall, where the hordes of tourists now stroll. These “wild” sections are not reconstructed, and are often vegetated, including fruit trees, possibly seeded by wildlife visitors. Without the reconstruction efforts, you get a better look at the different construction methods used during different time periods.

The Jiankou section, our first day’s hike and camp-out, was originally built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and restored in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The dolomite foundations make for a stronger, higher and steeper wall.

The second day, we hiked the Gubeikou section, also known as “Winding Dragon.” Originally built in the Qi Dynasty (550-557), this is the oldest section of the Great Wall.

Specific details about this particular hike can be found here.

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As other posts attest, we like camping beyond the developed campground. This trip was far better than we imagined: two thumbs up for China Hiking!

Summer Palace


A little elevation goes a long way in Beijing, and our afternoon at the Summer Palace brought cooler temperatures and refreshing breezes. Locals and tour bus crowds keep this place busy, but this only gets to be a problem in some of the smaller courtyards. As many buildings in Beijing, the Summer Palace has been damaged and repaired over the centuries, reflected in the varying temples, gardens, pavilions, lakes, bridges, gate towers, and even a 700-meter long covered and decorated corridor.

Kunming Lake, with the Beijing skyline in the background, provides boating opportunities. The bridge over to the island in the lake is a popular spot for serious kite-flyers.

Courtyards are populated with a variety of mythical creatures.

Hutong Life – BBQ Dinner

Arriving at dark safely in the right hutong at the right hotel, this was enough for us. We were ready to get some rest, and be ready for the next day. But, after a full day on our feet in Tian’an Men Square and the Forbidden City, we needed to have a real sit-down meal. A barbecue place near the corner where our hutong met the street beckoned: lively company and cold beer sealed it, and we stepped in.

Between gestures, a smattering of English by the wait staff, and a calculator (the device of choice to negotiate price, as we learned), we were seated and served right away. Way too much food, but way so much fun!