A visit to China is unlike a visit to any other place on Earth. Sojourners leave with sensory memories - the smell of star anise, the sound of old folks walking down the street singing and the open faces of Chinese babies. In a country that was closed off to the world for a long time and is changing by the minute, there won't be too many more chances to get a glimpse of an ancient world before modernization and growth change the scenery forever.
Unfortunately, China is one of those places that makes getting a visa rather daunting for the casual tourist. If you've been invited, you need an invitation letter; otherwise you must provide confirmation of hotel booking and proof of a return flight, and sometimes much more - such as a letter from your office or a copy of a recent bank statement.
But if you play your cards right, you can have a full China experience with no visa, no down time and practically no problem. It allows for an intense but powerful visit.
For visitors from the United States (and about 50 other countries), China does not require a visa for 72-hour visits, as long as you enter and leave from the same city and prove that you have another ultimate destination. This is the perfect way to squeeze China in when you are on your way to or from Japan or Thailand - or even Guam.
Why not give the China sprint a chance? There's a lot you can do, see and eat in three days. Here are some tips for not wasting your time, getting a real sense of a great city like Beijing, and distilling as much as possible into that one brief shot. Beijing, of course, is just one possibility; any city with international connections works, so it might be fun to pop in and out of Shanghai or Shenzhen (in the south) in the same way.
Day One: The Great Wall is one of the sights - like the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon - that must be seen in person. The problem is that the closest part of the wall is about an hour's drive from Beijing, and most tour groups take visitors to Badaling, the most touristy and crowded part. Those are the people who come back and say they were underwhelmed. Don't be that tourist.
If you are relatively fit, consider planning ahead with a hiking group like Beijing Hikers, which has a separate division for Great Wall hikes and which also rates hikes by levels of difficulty from one to five. (Wall hikes go from three to five.) The nice thing about Beijing Hikers is that you jump in a minivan, get dropped near the wall with a guide and often have an authentic Chinese meal in the countryside after a day of hiking. The drive out takes a couple of hours, and the hiking part usually lasts anywhere from three to six hours, with a fair amount of scrambling up ancient pathways. Once you are hiking, you will often be able to catch the outline of the wall for miles as it follows the peaks of the mountains and then fades off into the distance. People have likened it to a religious experience.
Beijing Hikers' groups tend to be of less than 20 people, English is spoken and the camaraderie of hiking one of the world's iconic and most beautiful places means you'll make friends fast. Of course, if you plan to hike, do bring the right footwear, especially as many segments of the unrestored Great Wall are crumbling and a little unstable. You'll also need to bring your own lunch and snacks, but water is provided. Usually there's a stop for an evening meal at the end of the day.
Day Two: Skip the Forbidden City. This is one instance where if you've seen the pictures, you've seen enough. The vast expanse of unshaded pavement means it's blazing hot in the summer, bitter cold in the winter and perpetually full of shoving, screaming tourists. The buildings are mostly empty.
Instead, go straight to Mao's tomb on Tiananmen Square. It's free - and completely unlike anything else. While you wait, you'll have the chance to buy a pale yellow chrysanthemum for a few yuan that you can place next to the tomb to pay your respects.
While you're waiting, you can soak in the bizarre experience of standing in Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese tanks rolled, even though there are few references to June 4, 1989. (See alternative itinerary.) Finally, there is the chairman himself, with about 10 seconds to pay your respects. Unless you are there on one of the holidays, the whole process should take only a few hours.
Next, head to Jingshan Park, just north of the Forbidden City. There, climb to the top and look down over the roofs of the Forbidden City and - if the air pollution is not too bad - a good portion of the rest of this city of 22 million people. When you exit Jingshan, you will be just to the east of Beihai Park - one of the city's prettiest and most interesting green spaces, a former playground of the emperor and said to be the place where Kublai Khan met Marco Polo. The park has a lake at its center: Spend a few hours people-watching. You could encounter groups singing revolutionary songs, dragon boaters, tai-chi practitioners and dancers. Surrounding Beijing's central lakes are some of the city's remaining hutongs, the narrow alleyways leading to courtyard houses that once made up almost the entire old city.
Day Three: One of the loveliest temples in Beijing is the Temple of Heaven, also known as Tiantan Park. Built by 15th-century emperors, it's a marvel of altars, bridges and painted ceilings. It covers 270 acres, so the sheer size of the place can be a tad overwhelming, but concentrate on the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, with its gables and dark blue tiles representing heaven. Next, head to nearby Panjiayuan (known by expats as the "dirt market") for fun souvenirs. It's called an antiques market, and while the items look old, they're probably fake-old. Better to pick up some great art for a few dollars or costume jewelry or hand-sewn table runners. I once picked up a five-foot-long, rectangular watercolor of old men and their birdcages for about $18. End the day at another temple. Lama Temple is a Tibetan Buddhist temple that is evidence of the resurgence of religious life in China. You can get a great vegetarian meal nearby, in honor of the Buddhist heritage of this place.