As we descend toward Beijing, we note the beautiful topography - mountains and endless green vegetation.
When we land, we step off the plane, and I realize anew that I leave a piece of my heart in every country I visit. China had been no exception, and that piece of my heart is now back in place.
We leave the airport via the airport express train and disembark at the Dongzhimen station, where we find taxis waiting. I breathe a sigh of relief that I had taken the time to print out the name and address of our hotel, as we would have had no way to communicate that to our driver, who speaks almost no English.
Tip #1: Walk away from the subway station before hailing a taxi. We realized later that we were grossly overcharged by our driver, which apparently is common in heavy tourist areas.
Thirty minutes later, we are walking down a narrow alley toward the entrance to the hotel. Children are playing outside, and we see locals and other travellers walking around.
Tip #2: When booking your hotel, do your research and, if you are travelling on a budget and booking your hotel accordingly, be prepared for anything. We booked our hotel through Hotels.com, which we love. The hotel was described as a "hostel turned hotel" with upgrades to give it a hotel feel. We are adventurous and are not opposed to a place with a youth hostel feel, but the Jade Hotel is definitely a hostel.
Tip #3: Make sure you have a maps app that works offline. Even with ours, the Jade Hotel was difficult to find, not only because of its location on a small alley, but also because none of the signs actually say "Jade Hotel," as you can see from the photos above.
We arrive at the hotel and, once we confirm that we are in the right place, we check in. The young man and woman at the front desk speak English, and all goes smoothly. We find our room and do a quick evaluation.
- We have our own bathroom with a real toilet.
- The floors seem clean enough.
- The bed is comfortable enough.
- The shower is separate, eliminating the problem of water all over the floor.
- The room overall could be cleaner.
- The shower head does not have a holder, so in order to shower, we would need to hold it in one hand and try to wash with the other.
- Although there are "No Smoking" signs in the hallways, the stench of cigarette smoke fills the air in all public areas.
Having been travelling for over 24 hours, a shower is the first item on our to-do list, and thankfully, we do have hot water.
Next up - food and water. We walk down to the corner where we find a
small convenience store with cold bottled water, but we continue walking
and locate a restaurant with a picture menu. Nobody speaks English,
but they use a tablet to translate.
We eat and pay, and as we stand to leave, four women and one man
from a nearby table ask to take pictures with us. Sure!
Tip #4: Be prepared to feel like a celebrity. Particularly in the touristy areas,
many Chinese folks have rarely, if ever, seen a person of Caucasian or
African descent. Those who speak some English (and some who don't
and who communicate with hand gestures) will ask permission to take a photo with you. Some will take photos with you by keeping pace with you while having their friend run ahead and pretend to take a picture of their friend. Some will simply take pictures OF you. Be gracious. Encourage the picture taking. Get pictures with them with your own camera. If they speak English, ask them what city they're from. If you see them trying to sneak a picture, strike a pose. They are not trying to be rude; they are simply curious and intrigued.
After a quick stop at the convenience store, we head back to the hotel for much-needed rest.
We wake up early and walk down the dark streets to Tiananmen Square to watch the flag raising ceremony. We pass several crews of construction workers filling potholes and cleaning the streets and sidewalks. Arriving at Tiananmen Square, we realize that the SD card for the camera is still back in the room. What a rookie mistake! But we join the throngs of people and watch the ceremony anyway. Multiple groups of people stop us and ask to have their pictures taken with us. Of course! Why not?
Tip #5: Beijing is dry and dusty. We quickly understand why so many people wear surgical masks. If you have any type of asthma condition, do yourself a favor and take a mask with you or buy one at your first opportunity.
Back to the hotel we go, smiling at the same construction workers. By the time we are heading back to the Square, the sun is up and we realize that we are hungry. We find a little restaurant advertising breakfast, and we stop in for dumplings, soup, and a sandwich that I believe has tofu and veggies on it. Best of all, they have coffee!
Back at Tiananmen Square, and armed with our Nikon, complete with SD card, we wander around taking pictures. We enter the Forbidden City and admire the architecture. In spite of the thousands of people there, the immensity of the Forbidden City gives it a calm, peaceful feel, with plenty of room to walk around.
Leaving the north side of the Forbidden City, we walk into Jingshan Park and take the stairs up to the pagoda at the top of the hill. It is quite a climb, but absolutely worth it!
At the top we marvel at the 360-degree views of the Forbidden City and the city of Beijing below.
Departing from Jingshan Park, we stop back at the room and then head out to Beihai Park on Jade Flower Island. Along the way, we see a cute little restaurant and stop in for lunch. We have a disappointing fried rice and a delicious curry chicken.
We continue on to Beihai Park, where we walk around, taking numerous photos of the water, lotus flowers, roses, boats, pagodas, and the famous White Dagoba.
We head back to the hotel, and, after 13 miles of walking, we rest for a couple hours. Around 9:00 pm we leave, taking a gamble that we will find a restaurant still open. Luckily, we do, and we feast on an amazing vegetable noodle dish and beef with spicy peppers. Yum!
After stopping by one of many small markets for beverages for the room, we return to the hotel for the night.
We sleep in a bit, then head out for coffee at a cafe we had passed the day before. Then we take the subway up to Lama Temple.
Tip #6: The train is a super-economical way to travel. The subway system is laid out nicely, and we had no trouble finding our way around. This particular trip cost less than 1USD for both of us.
Lama Temple is gorgeous, with more of the traditional Chinese architecture. With all the burning of incense, the whole place smells amazing. And it has a deeply reverent feel. Although we are not Buddhist, it is moving to see so many people paying homage. Although many tourists are taking pictures, signs are posted throughout asking visitors to refrain from taking photos, so we comply and simply enjoy the beauty of the place and the peacefulness of the moment.
Leaving the temple, we take a side street which turns out to be completely adorable, very artsy, and lined with small shops and restaurants. We choose a restaurant and enjoy a delicious Greek salad and pepperoni PIZZA, of all things!
We leave and walk down another street and stumble onto Confucious Temple. We
take pictures from the outside and then continue our walk. We make our way through a small park, back toward the subway. Back at our subway stop, we find Wangfujing Street and do some wandering and window shopping.
We spend a few minutes at the hotel freshening up, and then it's time for dinner. We go back to our hidden gem from the night before and enjoy a delicious sweet and sour pork with noodles and veggies. After another 10+ miles of walking, we retire to our room for the night.
We awake early to walk down to the Temple of Heaven. Along the way, we stop for coffee and dumplings, then spend the next hour walking south toward the East Gate of the Temple of Heaven. By the time we arrive, crowds of people are already there, in spite of the early hour.
Once inside, we walk down the Long Corridor, which ends up being the highlight of our day. We see women doing needlework, and men and women playing cards, dominoes, and other games. We see a man drawing the men playing dominoes and he looks up and smiles at us, motioning us over to watch. One man smokes a large pipe as he shuffles along the corridor. Another sees us taking pictures and poses for us, flashing us a peace sign and a big, toothless grin (he's our favorite).
Continuing on, we see more beautiful architecture, in the traditional blues and teals and golds of old Beijing. One place that stands out, not for its architecture, but for its uniqueness, is the Circular Mound, an alter of sorts, formerly used for sacrifices.
As we head back toward the gate, we pass through the peaceful Cypress Grove. We stop back at the hotel, freshen up, and then we are off again to the Chaoyang District in search of food.
Although we usually try to stick to the traditional foods of the country we are visiting, this night was an exception. The Chaoyang District seems to be quite westernized, with shopping, night clubs, and even a Hooters. We decide to try an Italian restaurant called Annie's, and we definitely made the right choice. The meal is delicious and the service impeccable. Full and happy, we take a rickshaw back to the train and return to our hotel for the night.
We had read about a weekend flea market so we take the train to Jinsong and set out for the place where this elusive flea market was supposed to take place. After a couple hours of wandering and looking, to no avail, we return to the train and make our way toward the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace is an amazing place, and ended up being one of our favorite attractions of Beijing. We pick our way along the Suzhou Road carefully, taking ridiculous numbers of photos and perusing the odds and ends for sale in the little market stalls. We climb Longevity Hill, and we walk along the edge of Kunming Lake.
Tip #7: If you have the time and energy, devote an entire day to the Summer Palace. It is massive, with so much to see. We realized after we left that we had missed a couple areas. Take water with you and be prepared to do some serious walking, including lots of stone stairs.
Exiting the Summer Palace, we happen upon a cute little restaurant area called Starry Street. We take some pictures and then race back to hotel to exchange cash before the bank closes.
Tip #8: Bank of Beijing seems to have decent exchange rates and several branches throughout the city. Our teller was very particular about the bills she would accept, though. Anything stained, ripped, or dingy was placed to the side and returned to us without exchanging it.
After another smashing dinner of kung pao shrimp and cabbage with vermicelli at our favorite local restaurant, we return utterly exhausted to the hotel for some TV and shut-eye.
We wake up before 6:00 am, knowing that today is
bound to be a great adventure! Today we go to the
Great Wall of China at Simatai!
Getting there proves to be a bit more difficult
and time-consuming than we had anticipated,
but in spite of the challenges, we make in there
and back in one piece.
Tip #9: You can read the specifics on our journey to the
Wall in our blog post titled "The Road to the Wall."
We wake up early and make our way to the Beijing South Railway Station via the subway in order to take the high speed bullet train to the port city of Tianjin. On the way, we stop for a quick breakfast at Maan's Coffee.
Tip #10: You do not need to pre-purchase your ticket(s) to Tianjin. Just show up and go to the ticket counter.
The first person we speak to at the ticket counter does not speak English, so he switches places with a young woman who does speak English.
Tip #11: Print out or save to your phone the Chinese names of places you need to go. I normally do this, but this time I assumed that, at this large, busy terminal, the sales office staff and the conductors would speak English.
I assumed incorrectly.
The young woman prints out our boarding passes and points us in the right direction. The tickets she gives us are for a train leaving in 15 minutes. Little did we know, we would spend the next 45 minutes in line to go through security. Having missed our train, we now have the honor to wait in another line to change the tickets. Another 25 minutes later, we have new tickets for a train leaving in 20 minutes. Once on the train, the ride is quick and smooth. We zoom along at speeds of 178 mph, trees zipping past us as we make our way to Tianjin.
Once outside the train station in Tianjin, we find a motorized rickshaw and, using hand gestures, ask the driver to take us to the Tianjin Eye, the 394-foot tall ferris wheel, similar to the London Eye.
The Eye features 48 cabins. In our cabin, we are joined by another couple and a family of three. For the next 30 minutes, we take in the sights of Tianjin - skyscrapers and statues, the Hai River and its many bridges and boats.
Leaving the Eye, we walk south along the river and come across an outdoor market. We wander through the market for a bit, and then decide that it is time for lunch. After a short cab ride, we walk around some more and, failing to see any real sit-down traditional Chinese restaurants, we settle for KFC.
We walk along the river, taking photos of the statues and people we see along the way. We watch the passing boats and the men fishing along the side of the river. As the sun makes its way across the sky, we realize that our time in this adorable city is coming to an end, and we make our way back to the train station.
Again, we miss our first train and have to trade in our tickets for a later train, but we make it back to Beijing, back to the hotel, and after a change of clothes and a few minutes of rest, we leave to find a place to have our last dinner in Beijing. We make our way again to the Chaoyang District and eat at Annie's Italian Restaurant. We spend a few minutes after dinner roaming the streets and enjoying the sights and sounds and smells of the city. Then it's back to the hotel for forty winks.
Our final minutes in Beijing. We spend a few minutes shopping for gifts for family members, have breakfast and coffee, and then return to the hotel to pack. Three trains later, we arrive at the airport. We stand in line to print our boarding pass for what seems like an eternity.
Tip #12: Arrive at the airport early. Absolutely everything at the airport moves at a snail's pace. There are no self-serve check-in options. Even though we always travel light and had no bags to check, we still had to stand in line.
We go through security, then customs, then another security check point.
Two planes and many hours later, we are back in Dallas, Texas, USA. We have had an amazing time in China. Another piece of my heart has been left behind there. We are thankful for our time in China, thankful for a safe journey, and thankful to be home.
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