For months, as excited as I’ve been about our trip to China, I’ve been equally as nervous about it. Everything I read made it sound as though traveling there would not be very easy. I heard that the language barrier was very difficult (no signs in English and very few English speakers) and also that the people (even those who could speak a little bit of English) would not be very helpful. I was worried that we would have a really hard time getting around, finding food, and getting any help. We prepared as much as we could by printing out maps, making a list of foods we would like and words/phrases we needed to know in Chinese, and having all of our hotel names and addresses written in Chinese, but I wasn’t sure how much, if at all, any of it would help.
We’d be in China for five weeks and were spending about 2 weeks in the big cities of China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong/Macau) and about 3 weeks in the more rural/natural areas. Dave’s parents were meeting us for two weeks for the big cities, and we decided doing these at the beginning of our trip would be best, in the hopes it would help ease us into China a little bit (with more English signage and menus and more English speakers).
Beijing was our first stop. I expected it to be very crowded (the population is about 23 million) and I expected it to be dirty (eg, I expected to see people going to the bathroom in the streets). I thought it would be chaotic, a free-for-all, similar to what we experienced in Delhi, though to a lesser extent (ie, we wouldn’t see people half-dead lying in the streets and the people would be indifferent to us, rather than aggressively trying to sell us things). Dave and I got in very late and thought we’d have to take a taxi to our hotel (most likely paying the 20% surcharge after 11pm). We were pleasantly surprised to find that the buses run from the airport to the city until 12:15am and even more unbelievably, that there was one that stopped at the Beijing Railway Station, right next to where we were staying. We hadn’t even realized we were staying near the railway station, but it worked out great. Not only that, we were able to see our hotel before we even got off the bus, which never happens. We always have to do a little searching.
We were at our first hotel for a total of 10 hours (2am-noon). We did a few errands in the morning (booking train tickets for after Dave’s parents leave and a haircut for Dave – his 4th country getting a haircut in since we left the US) and then made our way over to our hotel for the rest of our time in Beijing, which Linda and Bob were treating us to as our anniversary present. We met them in the afternoon when they got back from Xi’An (they had arrived a couple of days before us), relaxed at our hotel for a few hours (always a nice treat to use the pool and gym), and then headed to dinner at “Ghost Street” a very cute restaurant street, known for its seafood and spicy food. The street was lined with great looking restaurants, the most popular of which had people sitting outside on stools drinking (whether it was tea or alcohol we do not know) and eating sunflower seeds. We opted for a place that didn’t have a wait and had a great first Chinese dinner (Chinese ribs, pan-fried green beans, scallion pancake and seafood stir-fry; Dave and I had kung pao chicken and dan dan noodles for lunch). Even after our first meal, we were already surprised at how much English we were seeing (on signs and in menus) and the fact that so many of the Chinese dishes on the menus were ones that we were used to seeing at home. When we’d visited Malaysia last summer, which is known for having great Chinese food, we didn’t see even one Chinese dish that we recognized. We figured the same would happen when actually in China, but that hasn’t ended up being the case so far.
The next two days in Beijing, Linda and Bob had set up a private tour for us to see all the sights. Our first day with our tour guide, Susan (and our driver Mr. Ho), was the city tour and the second day, the Great Wall. Susan picked us up at 9am on day one and we made our rounds to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Summer Palace, stopping at a popular Hutong area (small alleys with shops and restaurants) for lunch. All of the sites were massive, which to me was one of the most impressive things about them. I couldn’t get over how much space there was and how much space each of these famous attractions occupied. I was impressed by all of the sites and liked learning a little bit about each of them (though I probably would have preferred to get my history lessons from Bob, as I always find his knowledge and interpretations the most interesting – I can never quite get over just how much he knows) and it was a really nice day spent checking off the major tourist attractions in the city.
After day one, I was realizing that Beijing (or at least the parts we had seen of it) was nothing like I expected. We spent our day in the tourist area of the city (inside the 2nd Ring Road), and while I took that into account, I was still very surprised at how orderly the city seemed to be. Remember, I noted that I had expected a free-for-all. What I found though, was that it was much cleaner than I expected, much less crowded than I expected, and also much cooler (temperature-wise) than I expected. I was almost disappointed that I hadn’t seen anyone going to the bathroom in the street. At the end of our first day, I couldn’t quite get a sense of what the city was really like, which to me is an important factor when visiting somewhere. Aside from seeing the main tourist attractions, I also like to see where and how the locals live, and I was hoping we’d get to see that at some point over the next two days.
For dinner that night, we wanted to explore our area a little bit (Wanfujing – the mall/shopping area of Beijing) and we thought that eating at its two famous food areas (both street food markets right off of the Wanfujing pedestrian street), was the perfect way to do it. They were more of snacking streets, but after our very big lunch earlier that day (another traditional Chinese meal of chicken with cashew nuts and sesame duck), a smaller/lighter dinner sounded perfect. Linda wasn’t too keen on trying the street food just yet (though we haven’t given up hope about getting her to try it later in the trip), so we stopped into one of Wanfujing’s nice malls to get something for her too.
We started day 2 with Susan and the Temple of Heaven, but the whole time we were there, Dave and I were just anxious to get to the Great Wall, which we didn’t end up getting to until about lunchtime (we spent about an hour at the TOH and then an hour and a half drive to the Wall). The Great Wall spans 5,000km (about 2,000 miles, the distance from Chicago to California), and is split up into many different tourist sections. The most popular/touristy is Badaling (due to its closer proximity to the city and access via the metro), so we opted for Mutianyu, which is known for its spectacular views and to have less crowds (Bill Clinton visited there for whatever that’s worth). Dave and I would have liked to spend a whole day hiking and exploring, but we only had a few hours and a lot of ground to cover. Bob and Linda stuck with Susan for the afternoon, taking the cable car up to the Wall and then walking through the most popular section (watch tower 14-19). Dave and I decided to walk up and then walk the 3km or so through as much of this section of the Wall as we could. We met Bob and Linda at the top for some pictures and to walk a little bit along the Wall with them, but then went on our own so that we could cover more ground. Bob and Linda did great though considering their age and the physical fitness required! Even Susan was impressed.
Many of the places that Dave and I have visited over the past three years, I hadn’t even heard of or known about before we started planning all of our trips. The Great Wall, however, had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember, so I was very excited to finally get to see it. It’s very beautiful, impressive and of course so huge. It’s hard to even get a sense of how big it is just by seeing one tiny 3km piece of it. Just that part seemed so big, I couldn’t believe that was only .06% of it (yes I used a calculator for that). I wish we had spent a little more time there, but either way I was thrilled to get to see it, and loved that we got to see such a spectacular World Wonder with Linda and Bob. It was definitely an unforgettable day, only to be followed by a very special and unforgettable dinner.
That night, we were celebrating Bob’s 80th birthday (a few months early) by treating him (and Linda, of course) to Peking duck, Beijing’s specialty. Dave had done a lot of research about the best places and after narrowing it down to two of them (both rated in the top 20 out of 10,000 restaurants in all of Beijing), we opted for Siji Minfu Restaurant, the one that sounded a bit more local and authentic, rather than the fancier, more tourist-friendly option. Susan also recommended the one we chose. Amazingly, both places were just a few blocks away from our hotel. The restaurant we were going to didn’t take reservations and we’d read that there’s always a wait (especially, of course, on the weekends). Even though we got a late-ish start, we prepared very well for our wait with three bottles of wine for the four of us. We sat outside the restaurant drinking and talking, very happy to finally have Bob and Linda to ourselves after a couple of days with our tour guide. We checked about every 10 minutes on our table, and after an hour or so, we were finally seated (at one big round table, with another couple – by that point, we were drunk and starving though, so we didn’t mind). We ordered a whole duck for the four of us (which they bring out to the table and carve in front of you), pancakes and plum sauce, an order of honey shrimp, and a veggie. The meal was delicious and the whole night so much fun. I can only hope and wish that I’m traveling somewhere amazing with people I love and having a dinner like this one for my 80th birthday too!
Our last day in Beijing, we went back to Tiananmen Square in the morning in the hopes of visiting Mao’s Mausoleum. Unfortunately, the line was about 2 hours long by the time that we got there, and we didn’t have time to wait, but we were still happy to see Tiananmen again, this time complete with the weekend crowds. In the afternoon, we explored Nanluogo Xiang, which is Beijing’s most famous hutong area. We had originally planned to head to this area for dinner, but had to change our plans after a Kung Fu show that we’d booked months ago (3 to be exact) emailed us at the very last minute (literally at 10am the day of the show) to tell us that our 5:15pm tickets had been cancelled and moved to 7:30pm instead. We’d booked the earlier show at the Red Theater purposely so that we’d be able to have dinner after, and this change really threw our plans for a loop. We still wanted to see the hutong area though, so we had to switch things around and go earlier in the afternoon. This was the most local, busy area we’d seen our whole time in the city. We finally found the area where the (well-off) locals likely hang out. I was relieved to get to see this side of the city, in addition to all of the tourist spots. This place was crawling with restaurants, bars, shops, and tons of people. I just wish I’d been hungry for a snack at one of the great snack places around, but oh well. But this area was one of the coolest areas we’ve ever seen in a major metropolitan area. It was sort of like the East Village meets Khao San Rd (ie, super trendy/hipster shops/restaurants combined with equally trendy bars).
We made our way over to the Red Theater, stopping quickly at the Pearl Market, a big indoor market selling crafts, clothes, souvenirs, etc. before it closed (which we instantly started to regret as soon as we saw some of the souvenirs we’d bought earlier in the day for a lot less – and by a lot, I mean a few dollars). The Red Theater is home to the most popular (and really the only) Kung Fu show in Beijing. Dave had really wanted to see some kung fu and this show combined a little of that with acrobatics, ballet, and a nice story about a young kung fu student and his teacher. The reviews said that it was good, but pretty touristy, but considering it was the only kung fu show in town, we decided to give it a shot. We all loved the show and it definitely exceeded all of our expectations. While the actual kung fu fighting wasn’t the main part of the show, the choreography was amazing. And the lights and special effects were great too. We all thought the story was cute and we loved the music. We would definitely recommend it for anyone visiting Beijing, but the 5:15 probably would have been a better time, as we didn’t get out until 8:45 and then didn’t end up eating until a little before 10.
Beijing was a great introduction to China for us and a perfect first stop of our trip here. We got to see some of China’s most famous and important sights and between the tour guide, all staying at the same hotel, and being in a very big city, we did not have any problems getting around or with the language barrier. Next stop, Shanghai (actually China’s largest city of around 30 million), for some glitz and glam. Considering how we were so (for the most part) pleasantly surprised with the ease/cleanliness of Beijing, we suspect Shanghai will be even more so.