Thursday, October 31, 2013

Final Thoughts on China

Our travels in China. Red lines are buses and trains. Blue lines are airplanes.
From the beginning, we intended to go into China for a few weeks, to the Yunnan Province (because of its moniker as "China Lite") and get out. We had heard that travel was incredibly difficult for non-Chinese speakers and that the Chinese were very closed off to outsiders. In the end, we spent almost 2 months traveling across China and both firmly believe it should be on everyone's travel bucket list!

Yes, it was challenging not to know the language. But it was a good challenge. And it was easily remedied by staying calm, taking a deep breath, taking a little extra time to accomplish things, and not being too particular about what we ate. For example, if a local tells us that we should be at the train station at 11am, we get there at 10:15 to have plenty of time to find our platform, train car, and seats (reading Chinese train tickets is a bit of a trick!). And being willing to go into a restaurant, look around at what people are eating, point to someone's dish and convey with body language, motions, eyes, and lots of smiling, that you would like to order that too. Learning "hello" ("ni-hao") and "thank you" ("xie xie") doesn't hurt either! And don't be, chicken feet and other things which you may find unappetizing, are delicacies in China, so you won't accidentally eat them if you order on a budget! You're much more likely to have more sauteed cabbage and rice than you know what to do with.

Picture with a Bunny Princess
As for being closed off to outsiders, we didn't find that to be true at all! In fact, we were celebrities! Because all the advertising in China is of tall, white, mostly blond people, many Chinese acted as though they thought Cory was a famous basketball player and I was a supermodel or Disney princess. This actually happened. A little girl wearing a shirt with a blond princess on it saw me, looked at her shirt, looked at me, back at her shirt and then, jaw dropping pointed me out to her mom in disbelief. And then there's this little princess we met who wanted a picture with me (we're pretty sure the internet is now full of pictures of us, which we either took knowingly with locals, or were covertly taken of us as we walked by):

We really enjoyed the combination of big bustling cities and easily accessed trips to nature (Tiger Leaping Gorge, Emeishan and Huashan), and by visiting different parts of the country we really got a sense of the cultural and food differences in different provinces.

Final Costs for China: Total spent: $4,879 for 47 days (average of $104 per day)
Housing: $28 per night (in double rooms with private bath in local hostels; cheaper in Yunnan Province, more expensive in Beijing and the coast)
Transit: $26 per day (mostly planes, long distance buses and trains...local buses in cities are very inexpensive. For 2Y (about $0.30 US) you can get anywhere in the huge city of Beijing!)
Food: $37 per day (lots of small local restaurants and street dumplings and noodles...and a blow out brunch at the Ritz in Shanghai!)
Other: $12 per day (mostly entry fees for mountains and museums)
Have Wife Will Travel gives China
Two Thumbs up!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Journey to the Great Wall of China (by train!)

For our last day in Beijing (and Asia in general), we thought it appropriate to go see the Great Wall. You can take tours (for too much money, and not get to move freely) or take a bus to get there. But we read that at the bus stations, scammers will try and confuse you by dressing in identical uniforms to bus station staff and lie about where the bus goes to get you to go with them. And the station personnel won't help you because the scammers pay them off. So basically a nightmare.

Then we read about the train. It costs 6¥ each (about $1 US) and goes to Badaling (unfortunately the most popular place on the wall) but requires no negotiating scammers. Sounded like a winner to us! The only problem is that there are no assigned seats and they sell more tickets than seats so unless you want to stand for the hour plus ride, you've got to get fully in the mix with the Chinese facing a scarcity problem. That means pushing to the front of the train line and then all out running down the train platform (and in a sadistic turn, they make sure the train is at the other end, leaving hundreds of people panting down the 300 meters to the seats). It is a true demonstration of survival of the fittest and was the perfect experience for our last day in China.

The wall itself shows itself in bits and pieces along the one hour ride, and everyone on the train gasps and runs to the windows to see. Quite an approach!

We arrived and walked up the hill to the entrance about 1 km, and after navigating the gauntlet of tourist tat, we were able to get right up on the wall. We took a left turn onto the wall (away from the crowds and the cable car that gets you to the top without walking) and started up! It's not surprising that the wall follows the ridges and curves of the hills (it was a defensive device after all!), but I wasn't prepared for how natural and lovely it would make the wall. Winding and twisting its way across the ridges, it looks like it belongs completely.

Although there were many people right at the entrance, walking just 15 minutes thinned out the crowd significantly, and another 15 minutes after that rendered us some of the only people up there. So although we had heard terrible stories about how many people there would be if we went to the section nearest Beijing, we found that we were able to see the wall, experience it fully, and not get mobbed by other tourists or souvenir sellers, all for less than we used to spend on a weeknight dinner in San Diego!

More photos from our trip to the Great Wall of China:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Taking Beijing by Storm!

As we only had 4 days in Beijing, we really had to make them count. We weren't necessarily that excited about Beijing as we thought it would be a big polluted city devoid of much charm, but we found some great things and enjoyed it very much! 

We hit the ground running on our first day, starting with a visit with Chairman Mao at Tiananmen Square (embalmed for our viewing pleasure, like Uncle Ho and Lenin). The viewing was far less serious and orderly than our experience in Vietnam, with our fellow viewers pushing as crowds of Chinese in Beijing do, and the unarmed guards smoking and joking around with each other. 

A fan from the Forbidden City exhibit
After lunch at a great food court that highlighted the best of Chinese cuisine across the provinces (Oriental Plaza Food Republic on Wanfujing), we went to see the Forbidden City, the former center of the Chinese empire. We had heard mixed reviews, which we found to be accurate. The buildings, though impressively massive, do not have much variation, and are not well maintained. You haven't seen the Chinese at their pushiest until you give them a 3 foot wide window to look in a run down room with a dusty old throne. We won't suggest you go all the way to Beijing and not go to the Forbidden City, but there are certainly better ways to spend your money! That being said, the exhibits on the history of Chinese ceramics and fans was really wonderful!
After that full morning, we saw an ad in the subway for Oktoberfest Beijing and thought, "that seems incredible!" And it was. We arrived at the largest beer hall tents in the world (China goes as big as possible as a general rule) and were charmed by the names.  We ordered our liters of beer and joined the locals singing and dancing along with the band. Turns out Tina Turner covers are a bit of a flop, but Michael Jackson goes over really well. And when the Chinese band came out to sing some local power ballads, I swear you could see panties being thrown on the stage. I don't have any other Oktoberfest to compare to, but the Chinese do it really well!


For our second day we had one goal. Cory wanted Peking Duck and we were going to get the best we could find. After researching a bit and asking everyone we met, we settled on Duck de Chine, a beautiful restaurant set in a sculpture garden. We ordered our duck and an order of BBQ pork buns (for good measure) and prepared to feast. We sipped our pot of tea and then the duck came rolling out on a cart, ready to be carved. We named him Charlie immediately and he looked amazing: crispy brown skin over succulent meat. We were set to go with homemade hoisin sauce mixed to order with sesame and peanut sauces, a plate of radish, green onion and cucumber, and pancakes. After a moment of deer in headlights we asked them to show us the proper method and we were off and running (er, eating). I'm going to go ahead and say right now that it was the best duck I've ever had and maybe ever will have. 

After stuffing ourselves completely (for the shockingly low price of $50 US), we hopped on the metro bound for the 798 Art District, a series of galleries, shops and restaurants in northwest Beijing. We had met a Canadian artist, Andrew George, and his fiance, Ashley, on our Terracotta Warriors tour in Xi'an and he invited us to his art opening, a show of Inuit art (you can see his art here: The art was wonderful and afterwards we had a delightful evening with them and their friends over a Yunnanese dinner, which was a lovely way to wrap up our China trip, eating the cuisine we started with.


Pagoda at the Summer Palace
We got up the next morning planning to go to the Great Wall, but we didn't get out of the house early enough and missed the early trains. So in true fashion of this trip we changed plans at the last minute and got back on the metro to the Summer Palace. We had heard wonderful things about it and were not was stunning! Though its a rather new complex (about 200 years old) of palace and temple buildings situated around a private lake, it makes for a lovely afternoon of meandering and exploring hidden corners. They sell a ticket for just the gardens (30¥) and you can pay as you go for the other areas but we thought it was totally worth it to buy the through ticket up front (60¥) and not feel like you're handing out money hand over fist. We spent about 3 hours but could have spent much longer if we weren't so spent ourselves!

On our last day in China (and Asia) we finally made it to the Great Wall, an adventure we'll save for another post...

Gardens at the Summer Palace

More photos from our trip to Beijing: