I am travelling to Beijing for six nights in April and was wondering if you could recommend any day trips to undertake from the city. Which section or sections of the Great Wall would be best to visit? I would also like to pay a visit to the Terracotta Army site. I know this is in Xi'an which is a considerable distance from Beijing but from previous research I am aware there are some day-trip options. Bearing in mind that I will be limited to a backpacker's budget, I would be grateful if you could provide any detailed information regarding such an excursion.
Damian Harper, author Lonely Planet's Beijing City Guide Travel Guide, writes:
You ideally want to put aside a day for your Great Wall trip, half a day may be too little, two days could eat into your limited time. I always suggest a trip to more authentic parts of the wall as there are less people and the wall is original.
Try and get to Jiankou Great Wall, near Xizhazi Village. Set off early in the morning, take good boots, water and food. The wall here is a dramatic and beautiful ruin and the mountain scenery is spectacular.
In April, days will be getting longer so you will have more daylight time at the wall, but you can overnight in the village if need be.
Being on a budget, the day-trip option for Xi'an could be expensive as there's a return flight involved. You could certainly fly to Xi'an yourself and visit the Terracotta Warriors under your own steam, but I would recommend taking the night sleeper from Beijing West train station; the Z19 train leaves at 9.18pm and arrives in Xi'an at 8.19am (the Z53 runs soon after).
Play your cards right and you can jump on the Z20 back to Beijing (departs 8.16pm) or the Z54 (departs 8.10pm), arriving in Beijing next morning; this leaves you with around 12 hours in Xi'an - more than enough time to see the warriors and something of the city.
The train serves as a comfortable mobile hotel, you wake up in your destination, you get to see something of China (although most of the journey is at night) and you have more of a sense of travel. You could spend another night in Xi'an and climb the magnificent Taoist mountain of Hua Shan, or even spend the night on the mountain.
Remember to book train tickets quite a few days in advance (ask your hotel to help). Don't forget that Xi'an is a good 1200km from Beijing, so you will have covered quite a distance and there's a lot of history in between.
If you still have days to play with, consider returning from Xi'an to Beijing by train (regular) via Luoyang in Henan (for the Longmen Caves and even the Shaolin Temple). Alternatively, take the overnight 2670 or 2672 train from Xi'an to arrive early in the morning at the ancient Shanxi walled town of Pingyao, overnight there and carry on to Beijing.
This would take some planning but would be doable, and here is a suggested itinerary:
Day one: Beijing, Forbidden City and central Beijing.
Day two: Jiankou Great Wall, evening train to Xi'an.
Day three: Xi'an, Terracotta Warriors, evening train to either Luoyang or Pingyao.
Day four: Day in Pingyao or Luoyang, overnight train back to Beijing.
Day five: Beijing Summer Palace, hutong.
Day six: Beijing sightseeing.