Birding in Ruins

The shirt says it all…

I’ve been fortunate enough to go birding in some amazing places.  While I’m not even close to a Big Lister (though I have met the biggest Big Lister in history!), I’m always keeping my lists up to date, regardless of where I happen to find myself.  I’ve seen a lot of new and interesting birds at some of the most mundane locations imaginable: great-tailed grackle in the parking lot of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas; Javan myna outside a subway station in Taipei; a group of nēnē, or Hawaiian geese, at a golf course on Kauai.  You simply never know where the next great sighting is going to occur!

So as my long-suffering wife will grudgingly admit, I’m birding even as we speak.

Let me set the scene: a nice 4-day weekend holiday to the Aegean Sea, courtesy of Republic Day in Turkey.  We travel to the town of Bergama, site of the ancient Acropolis of Pergamon, the remains of a settlement dating back to the early 10th Century BCE.

Pergamon sits atop a small promontory above the modern town of Bergama.  Although much of the settlement has been reduced to ruin from the effects of earthquakes and time, it’s not difficult to imagine what life might have been like when Pergamon was thriving.  During the height of its power, the city had an estimated 200,000 inhabitants.

Narrow corridors wind throughout Pergamon

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

The Theatre, overlooking modern day Bergama

It’s difficult to explain how it feels to walk through these ancient ruins, knowing they have been here so much longer than my own country ever existed.  Then my reverie is broken by a bubbling trill to the north.  Over there, behind those rocks.

Western Rock Nuthatch (Sitta neumayer syriaca)

Spotting a medium-sized nuthatch amid a plateau of strewn rocks is no easy challenge.  Luckily, the western rock nuthatch likes to sing from exposed perches on cliff walls or atop boulders on the ground.  This bird has adapted to the semi-arid environments of Turkey’s western and central provinces; a similar looking species, the eastern rock nuthatch, can be found in similar habitat in eastern Turkey, Georgia, and Syria.  If I wait around patiently, I might be able to get a decent photo of this unique bird…and so goes the sightseeing for a time.

The nuthatch comes to investigate me as it flits about looking for food

Eventually I do remember that I, in fact, have a wife, who is somewhere nearby wondering (for the millionth time) why she married one of those weird bird people in the first place.  I leave the rock nuthatch to do its thing, and I scramble over the rocks to continue doing my thing.  I come over a small rise and see…

The Trajaneum, or Sanctuary of Trajan

Well, that stops me in my tracks for a moment.  Staring at the white marble columns in the sunlight, my eyes nevertheless switch almost instantaneously to movement on the left.  And here we go again.

More nuthatches?

No, this one’s too small.  It’s very fast, flitting around, never staying put for more than a few seconds.  Darts out into the air and snatches some unseen insect.  Ah, a flycatcher.  Back in North America, flycatchers can be pretty dull and uninteresting to look at (on the average).  But in Europe and Asia, flycatchers become just as colorful and vocal as our most beautiful wood-warblers.

As I watch this female black redstart, tan brown with a bright orange splash of color under her tail, I notice a few more redstarts about.  Then a dark male bird pops up on a small rock, overlooking the area.  He’s the one I’m after, so I get the camera ready and fire away.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros gibraltariensis)

It turns out that these redstarts are by far the most common birds in the area, and I’ll see around 25 of them before the day is through.  While there are birds around, the wind coming up the promontory is quite strong.  After nearly losing my hat twice, I begin to understand why the birds I do see are staying low, hugging the ground, or just staying put under cover.  A lone male blue rock thrush, singing quietly to himself, surveys the Theatre and the town of Bergama down below.  A northern raven glides overhead, using the steady wind to drift in the air.

And then I hear a sound over the wind.  It’s a different sound, not like anything else I’ve heard today.  And a little bit of tracking reveals three sombre tits in some scrubby shrubs near the edge of the promontory.  These are birds I was hoping to run across on this trip – they’re hard to come by around where I live in Bursa, but they’re more common along the western coast of Turkey.

Sombre Tit (Poecile lugubris anatoliae)

These three birds were all juveniles, as indicated by their brownish coloration.  Adult sombre tits resemble large Carolina chickadees, more greyish in tone.  Not to be outdone, another male black redstart came in to feed on some small flying insects, using a nearby boulder as a launch pad for his aerial strikes.

One can see how the black redstart uses his color to camouflage

Although I ended the day with a scant 9 species, due largely to the strong wind and remote habitat, it’s opportunities like this that make birding such a rewarding and accessible activity.  You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment; you don’t have to travel to exotic locations.  Places you never thought of as having wildlife of any kind can often surprise you, if you have patience and a good pair of eyes to see.

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Igidae’s Kites

I don’t get out that way very often, but Busan has a selection of great birding sites.  Many have specific species that simply can’t be found in Gwangju.  And the simple fact of being on the Sea of Japan makes the scenery that much more spectacular.  Melanie and I took a weekend trip to Busan in mid-November with the sole purpose of spotting a Pacific reef heron for my year list.

Busan skyline, as seen from Igidae Park

To find this bird, the best place I knew of was Igidae Park.  I’ve written about it before, as it is one of the best birding sites in Busan.  Since we were looking for a heron, we opted to follow the trail that hugs the rugged coastline; for hikers on a day trip, I’d recommend going into the forest interior and exploring the trails there.

Igidae’s eastern coastline

Well, we’re certainly not going to go left…

To make a long story short, the reef heron eluded us, despite an exhaustive search.  But we did have luck with some of Igidae Park’s other resident species.  Numerous gulls were out on the water, namely black-headed and black-tailed gulls, and several blue rock thrushes put in appearances along the rocky coast.  And it wouldn’t be complete without finding a few large-billed crows willing to pose for the camera.

It’s fun spotting female Blue Rock Thrushes (Monticola solitarius philippensis)
blending in seamlessly with the rocks

Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos mandschuricus)

Although there were no reef-herons at Igidae, we were generously compensated by observing two of Igidae’s majestic birds of prey:  the black kite.  I ticked my first black kite at Igidae Park in May 2013, and on every subsequent trip I’ve managed to spot at least one.  But every time the weather was against me, and most black kite sightings I’ve made were during overcast or rainy days.

“Black-eared” Black Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus)

As you can see, weather was no problem today.  The first kite spent several minutes flying low over the coastline, riding the thermals coming off the surf.  Eventually the kite swooped down to the surface of the water, snagging a fish much to the chagrin of fishermen nearby.  But never before had I been able to watch a raptor hunting from such close proximity:  as the kite took off to the safety of the trees to eat it’s meal, it passed nearly within arm’s reach of Melanie and I as we stared dumbfounded by the edge of the rocks.  Shortly afterwards a second kite appeared, and the two spent time circling eat other in the sky before disappearing over the mountains to the other side of Igidae.  This was Melanie’s life bird experience with black kite, and what a memorable one it was!

Flying below eye-level, this black kite is a juvenile bird, as evidenced by
the white wash on the secondary coverts.
Nearly all black kites in Korea are juveniles; adults are rarely observed.

Zeroing in on lunch…

Success!  The black kite heads off to eat its catch

Spotlight: Gageo-do

Having spent a long weekend at Eocheong-do this past spring, I decided to check out another of Korea’s numerous islands for the long weekend over the Chuseok holiday.  The destination was Gageo-do (가거도), the most remote island in South Korea.  Situated some 140 kilometers from the port city of Mokpo-si (목포시), Gageo-do is the most westerly point in the entire country.  Continue reading for some logistics.

Trail map of Gageo-do

GETTING THERE

Gageo-do is as far away from mainland Korea as you can get, and still be in the country.  There is only one ferry that services the island, and only one departure per day.  The ferry leaves from the Mokpo Port Coastal Terminal daily at 8:10AM; tickets will cost approximately 55,000₩; slightly less for the return voyage.  The trip will last around 4½ to 5 hours, depending on weather conditions, and the ferry will stop at a number of islands on the way to Gageo-do.  Tickets can be ordered ahead of time or purchased on the day of your trip; be sure to check the ferry schedule before heading out to Mokpo.  As always, you will need a photo ID to purchase your tickets and board the ferry – for non-Koreans, a passport or ARC card will suffice.

Gageodo-ri, the main village
­­© Blake Bouchard

WHERE TO STAY

Gageo-do is a very small island community.  Although there are officially three “villages” on the island, the total population is just over 400.  Gageodo-ri, the main and largest of the three villages, is where you will disembark on your arrival.  Unless you’ve already made other arrangements, you best bet at finding a place to stay is here.  There is a selection of accommodations, including a motel, several pension (펜션), and minbak (민박).  Prices will vary, but expect to pay around 40,000 – 60,000₩ per night.

Our pension in Gageodo-ri
© Blake Bouchard

The second village is called Hangri-maeul, and lies on the southwestern end of Gageo-do.  It is connected to Gageodo-ri by a paved roadway.  Hangri-maeul is considerably smaller than Gageodo-ri, but there is at least one minbak where you can stay.  There is also a small restaurant, but it was not open due to the Chuseok holiday.  Hangri-maeul is about a 5 kilometer hike from Gageodo-ri; there are no taxis on the island, but you may be able to hitch a ride with a local resident – there may be a fee associated with this.

Sign for Hangri-maeul, the second village on Gageo-do
© Blake Bouchard

The village of Hangri-maeul

The third and final village is called Sam-gu, and it is located on the opposite side of the island from Gageodo-ri, approximately 9 kilometers away.  It can be accessed by a roadway leading through the interior; you could also hire a boat to take you there, or hike from Hangri-maeul along the coastline.  Although Sam-gu is larger than Hangri-maeul, while we explored the village we did not see a single resident, even though air conditioners were working and there was a faint smell of something cooking around some of the residences.  We did not notice any accommodations or restaurants, but the ghost town like atmosphere was not particularly inviting of further exploration.

The village of Sam-gu

WHAT TO BRING

The main economy of Gageo-do, like most Korean islands, is fishing.  So non-Koreans will definitely want to bring some food, especially for breakfast if rice, kimchi, and fish are not your thing.  There are plenty of restaurants available in the villages, but the main course will likely be fish or seafood.  Even though something appears on the menu (or on the storefront window) doesn’t necessarily mean that it is available when you order it.

Many islands are a cash-only economy.  While you may be able to pay with a card, or find an available ATM, it is advisable to bring plenty of cash with you.  Even if you are lucky enough to find an ATM on the island, it probably won’t work, or will only have a small amount of cash available.  

WHAT TO DO

Gageo-do has a thriving fishing industry, and among Koreans the island is known as a sports fisherman’s destination.  Many of the locals offer charter fishing services around the island; prices will vary depending on the owner of the vessel and your skill in haggling, but expect to pay around 100,000₩ per person.

If fishing isn’t your thing, the island does have several hiking trails crisscrossing the mountainous interior, or hugging the rugged coastline.  Be advised, however, that these hiking trails are not maintained and can get pretty difficult.  The interior mountains are very steep, and the trails consist of moss-laden boulders and slippery stones.  It is advisable to wear long pants and sturdy boats, or run the risk of getting torn up on thorny shrubbery.

There are a few pebble beaches around Gageo-do.  There are two large ones just to the east of Gageodo-ri; another secluded one can be found in Hangri-maeul.  Swimming in the ocean is not particularly high on the list of Korean past times, so you may very well have these beaches entirely to yourself.  If there are any locals or Korean tourists around, however, be prepared to be watched like a hawk as you enjoy the surf.

The swimming beach lies far below Hangri-maeul
© Blake Bouchard

A view from one of the beaches at Gageodo-ri
© Blake Bouchard

Overall, Gageo-do is a unique location with a tight-knit community.  You will feel like a minor celebrity as you walk the small, twisting alleyways of Gageodo-ri.  Korean island communities are by far the friendliest that I’ve come across – just remember to be open-minded.  Please check out my friend’s blog for more information on our trip to Gageo-do.  I’ll discuss the bird aspect of the trip in another installment.

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 …

CAM00956

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.