Eight Years

Yesterday marked eight years since I said goodbye to my bachelor ways and made the big plunge into married life.  Add another six years onto that, which covers the long process of courtship we call “dating.”  All told, I’ve been with my significant other for nearly half of my life.

And the cake was never the same again ...August 26, 2006

And the cake was never the same again …
August 26, 2006

That’s…well, incredible?  Amazing?  Inspirational?

It’s all of those things, and more.  Eight years ago I took my best friend and made her my wife.  Eight years ago, I gained a companion who would stand by me through everything Life had in store for me.  And for eight years, it’s been an unforgettable ride.

My first great love introduced me to my second great (though to a lesser extent) love.  It was one of those moments that seemed so insignificant, but which ended up changing everything.  Yes, it was my wife who introduced me to birding, and she didn’t even know she was doing it.

In fact, truth be told, she was the one who got me into listing.  I was opposed to it at first.  And I remember it very clearly: “But how will you know if you’ve seen it before if you don’t write it down?”  Words that will forever haunt her…

Eight years it too long of a time to wrap up into a single post.  Too many moments, too many people and places, and not everything is appropriate for public viewing.  But let it be said that, because of all of the good, and despite all of the bad, the past eight years have been far better than a bum like me deserves.

So this one’s for you, Mel.

Ta Prohm, Cambodia
February 17, 2014

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Saving the Coucal

To me, one of the most positive qualities of human beings is our ability to show compassion to other species.  Altruism within a species is fairly common (for a variety of reasons), and while seeing a young teenager help an old woman carry groceries to her house may give me that Hallmark feeling, it isn’t really that unusual.  But far fewer organisms show this same altruism to members of a different species.  Humans are unique in that regard – only a handful of species (some primates, dolphins, dogs, etc.) exhibit this behavior, so it could be said that it is one of the things that separates humans from the other animals.  On a personal note, I really dislike that statement, since it implies that humanity is somehow above or better than other organisms, and I feel that most of the world’s environmental problems would be solved if we realized that we are NOT above or better than the world around us.  But that’s not the point of today’s post, so let’s move on.

I’ve worked with birds in a variety of ways.  While I list them and photograph them in my spare time, I’ve actually worked with birds one-on-one, through a variety of research projects involving point-counts, mist-netting, and nest searching.  I’ve been trained on the proper way to handle birds of all species, how to go about searching for and monitoring nests with a minimum of interference, and how to recognize stress behaviors in birds.  Therefore, I’ll begin this post with the old adage don’t try this at home, I am a professional.

Melanie and I were biking along the northern shore of Kinmen.  As we turned a corner, I noticed a small dark shape sitting on the road.  Traffic in Kinmen is not what you would call “busy,” but nonetheless there are tour buses and construction vehicles that are very large and move very quickly.  Needless to say, the road is not the kind of place where one takes a nap.

It's rarely a good sign when a bird is resting on the road ...

It’s rarely a good sign when a bird is resting on the road …

I quickly identified it as a juvenile greater coucal, and my initial impression was that it had been hit by a car.  We’ve all seen enough roadkill in our lives to know the end result of vehicle vs. Nature.  I was expecting to find a mangled wing, and the realization of what would have to be done next started to gnaw at my insides.

To my (very relieved) surprise, when I approached the bird I did not find any obvious sign of injury.  It turned its head to look at me, but did not attempt to escape.  Not the best of signs, but not the worst, either.  It appeared to me that the bird was either disoriented or exhausted, as evidenced by its open mouth and slight panting.  If nothing else, I decided to move the bird to a more shaded area, where it could cool down instead of baking in the blazing sun on sizzling asphalt.

Coucals are medium-sized ground cuckoos.  They have strong legs and talons, although they are not as sharp or long as a hawk’s.  Still, care needed to be taken when handling the bird; even an accidental scratch by a sharp claw is enough to break the skin and cause a serious injury.  Fortunately for me, the coucal made no fuss, and allowed itself to be picked up and moved off the road.

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Once we were off the road, I gave the bird a quick look-over.  I gently stretched each wing, to ensure that there were no broken bones.  The coucal did not show any sign that this caused any pain or discomfort.  All of the feathers looked in good order, there was no blood or other sign of injury, and the wings could be moved easily.  The coucal also kept a firm grip on my hands.

With no indication of injury, I placed the bird into a small opening in the vegetation.  The spot was well shaded by the trees, and provided some cover so the coucal would not be obvious to any predators.  I also used my water bottle to give the bird some quick drinks of water, which it lapped up readily.  After about 10 minutes or so, the bird closed its mouth and began looking around again.  It seemed much more alert, and when a large dump truck cruised by where we were standing, it jumped into the bushes and disappeared.

My educated guess is that the bird, being a first-year juvenile, may have overexerted itself in the hot weather, and suffered sun stroke.  Having nowhere else to go, it landed on the only open place it could find, which happened to be the middle of a road.  It’s not worth thinking about what would have happened had Melanie and I not come by when we did.

As I have already mentioned, I am trained in the proper handling of birds.  I do not recommend handling any wildlife that you may come across, both for their safety and for your own.  If you come onto an injured animal, contact a local wildlife management agency, a wild animal care center, or your local police station.  The point is, do something.  Making a quick phone call to save an animal’s life is hardly a difficult thing to do.

Before disappearing into the brush, the greater coucal allows me to take a quick portrait.

Before disappearing into the brush, the greater coucal allows me to take a quick portrait.

Best wishes to my new friend, the greater coucal, and here’s hoping you lead a long and healthy life.  Stay away from those roads!

China / Taiwan Tally Sheet

Here is a complete list of all the birds seen throughout our trip to China and Taiwan.  Where available, I have included a link to photos of each species.  There are 89 species listed.

SPECIES LATIN BINOMIAL LOCATION
     
Waterfowl – Anatidae    
Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha Taiwan
     
Grouse – Phasianidae    
Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus China, Taiwan
     
Grebes – Podicipedidae    
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis China, Taiwan
Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus Taiwan
     
Herons & Bitterns – Ardeidae    
Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis Taiwan
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea China, Taiwan
Great Egret Ardea alba China, Taiwan
Intermediate Egret Mesophoyx intermedia China
Little Egret Egretta garzetta China, Taiwan
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Taiwan
Chinese Pond-heron Ardeola bacchus Taiwan
Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax Taiwan
     
Ospreys – Pandionidae    
Osprey Pandion haliaetus Taiwan
     
Hawks – Accipitridae    
Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus Taiwan
     
Rails – Rallidae    
White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus Taiwan
Eurasian Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Taiwan
     
Oystercatchers – Haematopodididae    
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Taiwan
     
Plovers – Charadriidae    
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola Taiwan
Greater Sand-plover Charadrius leschenaultii Taiwan
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus Taiwan
     
Sandpipers – Scolopacidae    
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Taiwan
Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Taiwan
Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Taiwan
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Taiwan
Common Redshank Tringa totanus Taiwan
Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis Taiwan
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Taiwan
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Taiwan
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata Taiwan
     
Gulls & Terns – Laridae    
Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida Taiwan
Royal Tern Sterna dougallii Taiwan
     
Doves – Columbidae    
Rock Pigeon Columba livia China, Taiwan
Oriental Turtle-dove Streptopelia orientalis China
Red Collared-dove Streptopelia tranquebarica Taiwan
Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis China, Taiwan
     
Cuckoos – Cuculidae    
Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus Taiwan
Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis Taiwan
     
Swifts – Apodidae    
Pacific Swift Apus pacificus Taiwan
     
Kingfishers – Alcedinidae    
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Taiwan
White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis Taiwan
     
Bee-eaters – Meropidae    
Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus Taiwan
     
Hoopoes – Upupidae    
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops Taiwan
     
Woodpeckers – Picidae    
Grey-capped Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus China
     
Shrikes – Laniidae    
Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus China
Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach China, Taiwan
     
Drongos – Dicruridae    
Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus China, Taiwan
     
Crows & Jays – Corvidae    
Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus China
Red-billed Blue-magpie Urocissa erythrorhyncha China
Eurasian Magpie Pica pica China, Taiwan
Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos China
Collared Crow Corvus torquatus Taiwan
     
Swallows – Hirundinidae    
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica China, Taiwan
Pacific Swallow Hirundo tahitica Taiwan
Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica China
     
Tits – Paridae    
Marsh Tit Poecile palustris China
Coal Tit Periparus ater China
Japanese Tit Parus minor China
     
Long-tailed Tits – Aegithalidae    
Black-throated Tit Aegithalos concinnus Taiwan
     
Bulbuls – Pycnonotidae    
Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques China
Light-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis China, Taiwan
Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus Taiwan
Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus China, Taiwan
     
Bush-warblers – Cettidae    
Brownish-flanked Bush-warbler Horornis fortipes China
Yellowish-bellied Bush-warbler Horornis acanthizoides China
     
Cisticolas – Cisticolidae    
Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius China
Hill Prinia Prinia superciliaris Taiwan
     
Parrotbills – Paradoxornithidae    
Beijing Babbler Rhopophilus pekinensis China
Vinous-throated Parrotbill Sinosuthora webbiana China
     
White-eyes – Zosteropidae    
Japanese White-eye Zosterops japonicus China, Taiwan
     
Old World Babblers – Timaliidae    
Rufous-capped Babbler Cyanoderma ruficeps China
Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus ruficollis China
     
Laughingthrushes – Leiotrichidae    
Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus China
Père David’s Laughingthrush Ianthocincla davidi China
Chinese Babax Ianthocincla lanceolata China
Red-billed Leiothrix Leiothrix lutea China
     
Old World Flycatchers – Muscicapidae    
Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica China
Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis China, Taiwan
Blue-and-white Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana China
Blue Rock-thrush Monticola solitaria China
     
Thrushes – Turdidae    
Orange-headed Thrush Geokichla citrina China
     
Starlings – Sturnidae    
Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus Taiwan
Javan Myna Acridotheres javanicus Taiwan
Common Myna Acridotheres tristis China
Black-collared Starling Gracupica nigricollis Taiwan
Daurian Starling Sturnia sturnina China
     
Finches – Fringillidae    
Oriental Greenfinch Chloris sinica China
     
Old World Sparrows – Passeridae    
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus China, Taiwan
     
Estrildid-finches – Estrildidae    
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata China

Kinmen: A Midnight Run from China

I don’t know if there is an actual word for what we planned to do next.  I call it a vacation within a vacation, if that makes any sense.  China is an incredible place, full of history and culture, natural beauty and the urban high life.  But China is also the most overpopulated place on Earth, and as the saying goes, “good things come in small doses.”

So for our final stop on our trip, we decided to (technically) leave China behind and go to the island of Kinmen, two kilometers from the port city of Xiamen.  Although it is nestled right in the heart of a bustling Chinese port, the island is officially part of the country of Taiwan.  As such, the island has a distinctly different culture and history than the nearby city of Xiamen.  And for the foreign traveler, it is prudent to remember that Kinmen is a separate country from China – be sure to apply for a multiple-entry Chinese visa if you plan to go to Kinmen and return to China, or you may find yourself stranded at the ferry dock.  Additionally, Taiwan has its own visa policies that must be taken into consideration as well.  It should go without saying that Xiamen and Kinmen also use different currencies; you may exchange Chinese yuan (¥) for Taiwanese dollars at the Wutong Ferry Terminal in Xiamen.

For me, this was the best part of our entire trip.  We had traveled to mainland Taiwan a year earlier, and it was an incredible trip.  I have never had a bad time in Taiwan, and that still holds true.  If you’re looking for an international destination, I highly recommend it.

The plan was to spend two days in Kinmen, and then two days in Xiamen before returning to South Korea.  That plan lasted all of about 20 seconds once we arrived in Kinmen.  We ended up extending our stay there, and only returned to Xiamen to catch our flight back to Incheon.

We booked our stay at the W Guesthouse, located in the center of the island.  It was by far the best choice of accommodations we made throughout the entire trip.

W Guesthouse

W Guesthouse

The owner/operator Mr. Weng is incredibly friendly, and will go the extra mile to make your stay perfect.  When we arrived at the guesthouse, he set us up in a newly renovated room.  The guesthouse is actually Mr. Weng’s home, and includes a traditional-style Taiwan house.  This house was our room for the three days, and we had the entire place to ourselves.

The W Guesthouse offers visitors the chance to stay in a renovated traditional-style Taiwan house

The W Guesthouse offers visitors the chance to stay in a renovated traditional-style Taiwan house

Every morning at 8am Mr. Weng would come to the courtyard of our guesthouse with breakfast.  He did this on his own, and we never had to pay for a thing.  He would also offer to drive us anywhere on the island we wanted to go, even though we had rented bicycles for the duration of our stay.  Yet another great thing about Kinmen: bicycles are free to rent from the island’s Visitor Center at the main bus station in Jinning county.

The only way to explore Kinmen

The only way to explore Kinmen

Kinmen countryside - quite the polar opposite of Beijing

Kinmen countryside – quite the polar opposite of Beijing

For a break from the extreme hustle and bustle of China, I’d highly recommend a side trip to Kinmen.  However, after speaking with Mr. Weng and his son (who attended high school at Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania – a rival school from my Valley View alma mater), plans are in the works to build a bridge between Kinmen and Xiamen.  This will bring a lot of new tourists to the island, and land has already been purchased to construct casinos.  So in short, this hidden treasure won’t stay hidden for much longer.

LOGISTICS: To get to Kinmen, you can catch a ferry from the Wutong Ferry Terminal (五通客运码头) in Xiamen, China.  Ferries between Xiamen and Kinmen run on a regular schedule between 8am and 6:30pm.  The ferry ride will be about 20-30 minutes.  Tickets cost ¥150 ($24 USD) from Xiamen to Kinmen; slightly less from Kinmen to Xiamen.  Remember that Kinmen is not part of China, so make sure your Chinese visa allows for multiple entries.  More information can be found here.

Guilin

It was time to leave Beijing, and head on to our next destination.  We were heading south, into Guangxi province to the city of Guilin.  The name may not be familiar to you, but you undoubtedly know about this city because of what lies around it.  Guilin is nestled along the Lijiang River, and surrounding it are the famous karst formations of southern China.

A view of Guilin, and the karst mountain range beyond

A view of Guilin, and the karst mountain range beyond

Karst formations occur as a result of weathering of soluble rocks such as limestone and gypsum.  Karst formations are often associated with caves, due to underground drainage systems characteristic of karst topography.  While karst formations occur all over the world, China in particular is known for them, especially in ancient landscape paintings and romanticized cruises down the Yangtze.

However, Beijing lies about 2,200 kilometers (1,300 miles) to the north of Guilin.  Given our time constraints, there were only two viable options to cover that distance in a reasonable amount of time: airplane or train.  We opted for the second option.  China has a very well-connected rail system, and most major cities are connected by multiple lines.  For this trip we booked two seats on a G-class train, more commonly called a “bullet train.”  These are the fastest trains in China, capable of reaching 350km/h.  Ours, however, maintained a steady 300km/h, getting us from Beijing to Guilin in about 11 hours.

All aboard!

All aboard!

As if the scenery blurring past the window wasn't evidence enough, we were constantly reminded of our speed throughout the trip

As if the scenery blurring past the window wasn’t evidence enough, we were constantly reminded of our speed throughout the trip

The trip to Guilin, though lengthy, was far more pleasant than most flights we’ve been on.  The train has a dining car, there’s plenty of leg room, and the seats can only recline so far, meaning that you won’t be crushed by the person sitting in front of you (I have long legs, so this is frequently a problem wherever I go in Asia).

Our first day in Guilin we spent at Seven Star Park.  This is a large park in the middle of Guilin, with two large karst formations riddled with numerous caves.  Seven Star Cave is one of the largest and most extensive in the park.  The park has a variety of facilities, including numerous hiking trails into the karst formation, several temples and shrines, a zoo (don’t go there – it’s depressing), and a fairground-style entertainment facility for children.  It was a little surreal to have such beautiful natural scenery side by side with cotton candy stands and carnival games, but that’s tourism in China.

I know if I wait here long enough, I'm bound to spot something...

I know if I wait here long enough, I’m bound to spot something…

A small cavern along the Lijiang River.  The walls were covered with ancient carvings of Mandarin characters.

A small cavern along the Lijiang River.  The walls were covered with ancient carvings of Mandarin characters.

It was therefore quite the surprise when we saw signs about wild monkeys in the park.  It was even more surprising when we stumbled onto a large troop of monkeys alongside a quiet trail in the mountain.  The troop consisted of a few adults keeping watchful eyes on a handful of “teenagers” and a half dozen “toddlers.”  Watching monkeys interact with each other really shows how closely related we are to them; they can be so emotive, and act just like their human counterparts sometimes.  If humans were smaller, had more hair, a tail, and could climb trees, you’d never know the difference.

Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) at Seven Star Park

A young rhesus hangs out in the trees above our heads

This adult female rhesus seemed to be the leader of the troop.
She was obviously not impressed with these two human specimens.


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Our second and last day in Guilin, we headed out of the city to Guilin National Forest Park.  This park is only 3km outside of downtown Guilin, and is accessible via bus, taxi, or tuk-tuk.  I was not able to find out a lot of information on this park before our trip, and it didn’t seem as though the locals were very knowledgeable about it either.  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful area, and most importantly, it was almost entirely devoid of other people.

The taxi dropped us off at what appeared to be a park entrance; despite expecting to pay an entrance fee, the gate was open but the ticket booths were closed and empty.  No one was around, so we walked into the park.  In hindsight this was probably not the main entrance to the park, but it’s where the taxi left us.

The trails here took us into the karst formations.  They are much too steep to hike up to the top, but the trails snaked around the foothills, and we were surrounded by forest at all times.  If for no other reason than it’s quiet and peaceful, a visit to Guilin isn’t complete without going to the National Forest Park.

Guilin National Forest Park

Guilin National Forest Park

And all too soon, we were once again packing up to head on to the next spot.  However, in order to save time, we decided it would be worth the money to take an airplane this time, as the train would cost us nearly 15 hours of travel time (versus 1½ hours by plane).  And so, onto Xiamen International Airport, and our final destination: Kinmen Island.

Waiting to board our flight to Xiamen

Waiting to board our flight to Xiamen

China: The Undiscovered Country

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…

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… China.

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.

BEIJING

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.

In-flight meal between Incheon and Qingdao on China Eastern Airlines.

Qingdao International Airport

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

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

Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace from the North Gate

The Summer Palace from the North Gate

Xiequyuan Garden (a.k.a. The Garden of Harmonious Pleasures)

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 ...

Please, after you …

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The Great Wall stretches off to the horizon

The Great Wall stretches off to the horizon

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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 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

Map of the Beijing Botanical Garden

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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.
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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.