As you may have noticed, I have been somewhat absent from the blogosphere as of late. My sincere apologies, but I come to you now with tales of adventure. So begins a two-week odyssey to a distant and exotic place I like to call…
China is an enormous country, with an equally enormous population. Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to see even a fraction of the country, so my wife and I had to decide what we wanted to see. We decided on three locations: Beijing, Guilin, and Kinmen.
Our trip began, as they always do, at Incheon International Airport. We flew into Qingdao, before making the final jump to Beijing. Neither flight lasted more than 1½ hours, but nevertheless we were treated to a full meal on our way to Qingdao. Did I mention it was free of charge? Words of advice, jot this down: never, and I do mean NEVER, fly an American or Canadian airline when flying internationally. Our airline companies forgot what air travel was supposed to be, and instead decided that treating humans like cargo was a better way to look at it.
In-flight meal between Incheon and Qingdao on China Eastern Airlines.
Qingdao International Airport
We arrived in Beijing at around 10pm, and took an airport shuttle to our hostel. We booked ourselves a four-night stay at the Lucky Family Hostel, not far from the Forbidden City. This is definitely a great place to stay for the budget-conscious traveler. It has comfortable beds, a full shower and Western-style toilet (quite the luxury considering the alternative is the dreaded squat toilet – doesn’t that sound appealing?), and the staff are friendly, knowledgeable, and can all speak English.
The Lucky Family Hostel in Beijing
DAY 1 – THE SUMMER PALACE
Our first day in China and Beijing was a wet one, but we set out nevertheless to the Summer Palace. It started to rain shortly after we arrived, and continued off and on for most of the day.
As with most destinations, photos and words can’t replace actually being there. So here are a few images to whet your whistle, and some logistics in case you’re in the area and want to check these sites out for yourself.
Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace
The Summer Palace from the North Gate
Xiequyuan Garden (a.k.a. The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures)
GETTING THERE: once in Beijing, the Summer Palace can be reached by taking Subway Line 4. Get off at Beigongmen Station for the North Gate of the Summer Palace; use Xiyuan Station to go to the East Gate. The entrance fee is ¥20 ($3.25 USD) November-March; ¥30 ($4.90 USD) April-October.
SUGGESTIONS: as with any major tourist attraction, get there early. If you want to actually see and enjoy the Palace, you have to get there before the crowds do. This is especially true in a city of 11 million people. Expect crowds.
DAY 2 – THE GREAT WALL
When you think of China, you think of the Great Wall. We sure did, and Beijing lies just outside of the Great Wall, making it a perfect place to see this phenomenal achievement. There are several locations where you can see the Wall; some have been entirely reconstructed, others are completely original. We chose to go to the Jinshanling Great Wall, a section of the Wall in Luanping county, approximately 125km outside of Beijing. This section combines reconstructed sections with original portions, providing visitors with a true appreciation for the marvel that is the Great Wall. Jinshanling is also a relatively under-visited location, probably due to its remoteness. If you want to see the Great Wall itself, instead of seeing it as it appears under a sea of tourists, this is the place to go.
Please, after you …
The Great Wall stretches off to the horizon
GETTING THERE: Jinshanling is fairly far from Beijing, and therefore unless you have a car (or a friend with one), your only option is to take a bus. We booked a tour through our hostel for ¥280 each ($45.50 USD); check with your hotel or hostel for more information. The bus ride took about 3 hours one-way. Beware of street dealers offering tours – these “package deals” often have an unannounced stop at a tea plantation or art house, where you will be pressured into buying something.
DAY 3 – THE FORBIDDEN CITY
When you’re in Beijing, after you’ve seen the Great Wall, you have to go to the Forbidden City. This 500 year old complex housed the center of Chinese Imperial power; 24 emperors called this City home.
The Gate of Supreme Harmony
The complex is indeed beautiful, but this was easily the most frustrating day of our visit to Beijing. As I’ve already said (and you already know), China is a very crowded country – nowhere is more crowded. And the “Forbidden” City was anything but, as you can see from the above image. The crowds, easily numbering into the tens of thousands, were non-stop the entire day. We had a hard time finding information, ticket booths and entrances are poorly marked or not at all, and with the never-ending wave of people coming behind you, there really isn’t time to actually enjoy what you’re seeing. But that’s just my opinion.
GETTING THERE: There are three methods to get to the Forbidden City. On Subway Line 1, get off at Tiananmen Square West or Tiananmen Square East. On Subway Line 2, get off at the Qianmen Station. The entrance fee is ¥40 ($6.50 USD) November-March; ¥60 ($9.75 USD) April-October.
SUGGESTIONS: As with the Summer Palace, get there early. No, I’m serious…set an alarm! This place is packed – on major holidays the Forbidden City limits entry to 80,000 visitors per day. And that’s a minimum!
Bring plenty of sunscreen or an umbrella. Water bottles must be emptied before entering the site, and you will have to undergo a pat down and have your bags X-rayed. Food and water are available for purchase inside. Generally Westerners are more concerned about personal space than in some parts of Asia; this is very true in China, and the Forbidden City in particular. Be prepared to be “politely” nudged out of the way while waiting in line, and/or to be completely cut off while waiting in line as well. It may appear rude, but it’s business as usual here.
DAY 4 – BEIJING BOTANICAL GARDEN
We decided to spend our last day in Beijing at a lesser known site. After surviving the Forbidden City, we both needed a little time away from the endless crowds and the noise that entails. Although the garden was not really in bloom (being August), the setting was very serene and relaxing.
Map of the Beijing Botanical Garden
GETTING THERE: Take Subway Line 4 to Beigongmen Station. Then take Bus 331, 696, or 563; alternately take a taxi to 北京植物园 (Beijing Botanical Garden). The entrance fee is ¥5 ($0.81 USD).
SUGGESTIONS: This site is a little harder to get to, especially if (like me) you don’t speak or read Mandarin. However, if you do make it there, all you’ll need to bring is sunscreen or an umbrella. There are food stands where you can buy food and drinks, a small shuttle service that will give you a “tour” of the grounds, and even hiking trails for the more adventurous.
As we packed up and left Beijing behind, I was both happy and sad to be leaving. As the capital of China, Beijing is an enormous city, and is bursting at the seams with people. But there is so much history, culture, and beauty to be seen there, that four days barely scratched the surface of what the city had to offer.
Next stop, Guilin in Guangxi province.