climbing the great wall and other challenges

Funnily enough, I never realized that prior going to Beijing, the only pictures I’ve ever seen of the city were always of Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Great Wall, or iconic Olympic buildings like the Bird’s Nest. I just imagined that the city beyond these iconic destinations would be like the many Chinese cities that have blossomed over the last two decades, characterized by towering skyscrapers and flashy shopping streets. However, what I saw of Beijing made me realize that Imperial China and old Chinese streets are still very much part of the present-day city fabric.

My mom and I traveled with a tour group again, but this time it was with a domestic agency GZL, which is located in Guangzhou with partner agencies in other highly visited Chinese cities. It was a smooth fun-only tour as opposed to the Shanghai tour. We were the only two American citizens in the group of 12, which provided a stark contrast to traveling with Chinese emigrates the week earlier.

DAY ONE (kind of)

We arrived at Baiyun Airport at 4:30pm to check in with our tour group at 5pm, well in advance of our 7:30pm flight with Air China, only to later discover that the flight was delayed for “weather-related reasons”. With no posted departure time for hours, we essentially were just left waiting indefinitely after checking in with our tour group and going through security. It didn’t even start raining until much later (around 9:30pm), which only served to frustrate travelers who felt like they were being lied to and unnecessarily inconvenienced.

We were finally allowed to board closer to 10:30pm (which was really closer to our initial arrival time in Beijing) and promptly prepared for taxi and takeoff around 11:10pm, so we didn’t arrive until 2:30am and didn’t get to the hotel until closer to 4am.

DAY TWO

We convinced our tour guide 小安 or Little An to give us an 8:30am start to the day, considering we got to the hotel at 4am. He was trying to get us to start at 6am, which none of us were having. Our guide was a surprisingly dorky 22 year old, not much older than I am, who just started working as a guide for 4-5 months.

Our first stop of the day was Tiananmen Square and getting to the place was surprisingly tricky, as the area is heavily guarded with security and contains many different above- and underground pathways. Surprisingly, tour groups get expedited access while other visitors have to wait on a much longer line and normally have to show identification and declare their reasons for visiting.

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The Square contains some notable monuments and buildings: the Monument to the People’s Heroes, The Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Furthermore, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 in the Square, but Tiananmen Square is also more recently remembered as the site of the 1989 protests.

Standing in Tiananmen Square was kind of a weird experience and it was a pretty smoggy morning. I felt uncomfortable being in such a large open and flat space even though there were so many tourists streaming everywhere. I understood I was standing in a place with so much history, especially visiting just two days after the anniversary of the 1989 protests, yet I was ignorant to most of it. My mom told me what each of the structures stood for, but that was only scratching the surface of all that’s happened in the Square over the couple decades.

After taking ample photos, mostly of Tiananmen, we headed for the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which is colloquially described as a giant egg. The structure is a mix of glass and titanium, making it a rather beautiful structure to behold, in my opinion. There were ample galleries showcasing exhibits on pottery and the Centre’s own shows’ costumes, miniature set designs, and photos.

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We then headed back to the Forbidden City, which served as the Chinese imperial palace from 1420 to 1912 and now houses the Palace Museum. The size of the palace grounds (over 180 acres) and number of buildings (980) are absolutely massive. We ate lunch inside the Forbidden City before our guide took us on a 4-hour exploration of the complex.

Coming off a 2am flight, a 4-hour trek was the last thing I wanted to do. Somewhere between hour two and three, under the beating sun, I was already giving up on taking photos and really hating being there. The buildings were starting to look the same to me, and I was understanding none of the facts or stories Little An was telling and my mom was too preoccupied to constantly translate for me.

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For a pre-dinner snack, we stopped by Wangfujing, a very popular shopping area with many local brands and foods. We had about 30-40 minutes to explore the area and we toured the little snack street, eating takoyaki, dragon’s beard candy, and little baos. There were lots of seafood, like various squid dishes, and lots of fried scorpions and meat kebabs.

Little An had planned for us to watch a show, but with everyone complaining about how tired we were, he was able to postpone it and dropped us all off at the hotel at 6pm. We had independent dinner and evening time. After a bit of resting, my mom and I headed over to the street diagonally across the way with all the restaurants. We settled on a noodle shop where most bowls of noodles fell around 15 RMB (less than $2!). Probably the best meal I’ve had in while, just because I love spicy noodles.

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DAY THREE

Highlight of the day (and really the whole trip): The Great Wall of China!

Thank goodness for the early night the day before because we got going at 6am at our guide’s advice that it is best to get to the Great Wall as early as possible, mostly to avoid traffic and large amounts of tourists. Even though we arrived a little before 8am, I was still shocked at the amount of tourists already there and climbing the wall.

We visited the north section of Badaling, the most visited and best preserved section of the Great Wall. On site, we had the option of paying an extra 100 RMB per person for the sliding cars, which would take you straight to tower 4 and save you the climb from towers 1-4. With only two hours on the Wall, my mom paid for the ride, which I was later thankful for, so we could immediately get to the best views.

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It got harder to climb the closer we reached towers 7 and 8 because of the number of people and a little due to fatigue. It’s amazing how the steps become so deformed with millions of people walking on them each year. But the view and fresh mountain air were absolutely amazing.

Seriously, get to the wall as early as possible (as soon as it opens), because it starts filling up with people fast and doesn’t make the structure any easier to climb when you’re getting jostled on steep stairs and have to wait for people to pass on narrow pathways. It is also easier before the midday sun and heat hit.

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After meeting up with the rest of the group (albeit a half hour late), the guide took us to have an early lunch and got a scenic tour of the small villages at the base of the mountains while driving. We had lunch at a restaurant with food cooked “home-style” by local villagers. We then went cherry picking in what this woman called “her backyard.” There were dozens of cherry trees, planted in about 5 to 6 rows, and they were mostly picked clean already. Most of the remaining cherries sat at the very tops of the trees. Even though the cherries were overpriced at 30 RMB per kg, we picked some and bought them for the experience and to support local farmers.

We then returned to the city and went to see the Summer Palace, a collection of gardens and palaces within the landscape of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. It is recognized by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design” and I appreciated the various trees that dates back hundreds of years, as well as the lakefront views especially from the Long Corridor.

Later we visited Guozijian (国子监), which translates to School for the Sons of the State, and is also known as Imperial Academy or Imperial College. It dates back to 1306. During the ancient Chinese dynasties, Guozijians across the country served as the highest institutions of learning. The street on which is located also includes the second largest Confucian temple in China (we didn’t visit it). Guozijian Street, in its old Beijing alley style, is also designated as a historical site and is the only street to retain its archways.

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By the time we were done with everything, it was rapidly approaching 6pm, and we were all hungry. However, our guide said that citing delays in the day, we had to watch a theatrical performance before we would be able to get to our restaurant for dinner. The show was Chunyi: The Legend of Kungfu, which claims to have been in production for over a dozen years with thousands of performances. It tells the story of a young monk overcoming his ego to be a great kungfu master. The stunts were impressive and the show was overall entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend it or declare it as a must-see. It was very much targeted for English-speaking viewers, as the whole show was narrated in English.

We finally got to eat at 9pm at a hot pot restaurant just a short drive away. Hot pot in the summer was just bizarre to me (given the fact that it’s hot), but it was happening. The specialty meat was lamb and there was an assortment of fish balls, veggies, and other sides. We gobbled up the food really quickly and I was even annoyed at the woman next to me who ended up hogging most of the choy for herself. I didn’t understand how everyone else felt satisfied while I was still hungry, but that was just something I was going to have to deal with until breakfast.

DAY FOUR

The next day was an independent travel day but with an option to pay for a guided tour of Tianjin, a nearby coastal city and the fourth biggest urban area in the country. The majority elected to go on this tour while a few others decided to explore Beijing on their own. We picked up a local guide called Little Yan and we immediately took a liking to her for her sweet voice, good humor, and expertise.

She explained some basic language customs of the city and its history, talking about its European influence which can be seen in some churches and neighborhoods. I really liked the look of the city center, especially with the Hai River cutting through. Little Yan took us to Tianjin’s Italian Style Town which dates back to early 1900s and further talked about the Italian influence and other facets of European history.

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Then we went to a mahua (麻花) specialty store, which sells fried dough twists that has been fried in peanut oil. It can be topped with various flavors, like cocoa, peanuts, and black sesame. Mahua is a classic Tianjin snack, so it was fun to see how they’re made and take some for the road.

We then walked to Guwenhua Jie or Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street, whose architectural style dates back to the Qing dynasty, for a bit of browsing and shopping before lunch at another hot pot place.

After lunch we stopped by Memorial Hall to Zhou Enlai and Deng Yingchao, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China for nearly 30 years and his wife, also a respected political figure within the Communist Party, respectively. As someone who doesn’t know much of China’s history, this short 30-minute visit was a little bizarre for me. It was definitely interesting to learn about the public reverence this man received in life and after death, for dedicating his life to his country and its politics. I find that it is rare for a political figure to be nearly so unanimously revered by the people.

From there, Little Yan took us on a driving tour through a historic residential district as she talked about its history and pointing out notable houses and residents. Many homes were under the protection of Chinese historical societies.

After we left Tianjin, we headed for dinner at a branch of the famous Quan Ju De (全聚德), which was established in 1864 and is known for its trademark peking roast duck. They paid to obtain the imperial recipe which they then used to sell roast duck to the masses. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with the duck or the food I had at the restaurant.

DAY FIVE

On our last day in the city, we left the hotel bright and early at 6:30am to visit the Temple to Heaven, an imperial complex of religious buildings. The emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties would visit the Hall of Prayers to pray for good harvests. The Circular Mound Altar was where emperors prayed for favorable weather and its circular shape contributes to its ability to echo, which was believed to enhance communication with the heavens. The park around the outside is very calming and because it’s free for seniors, very popular with the older crowd for morning walks and exercises.

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We then went to Gongwangfu (恭王府) or Prince Gong’s Mansion. It consists of siheyuan-style mansions and gardens which date back to 1777. We were passed off to a museum tour guide who had to direct 80 people throughout the grounds. I thought it was awful since half the time you could not hear what she was saying and she told off people for taking photos while she was speaking. She also brought us to various shops and took especially long at one that was selling prints of the character 福, meaning fortune. At Gongwangfu, there is a glass-encased stele of the character 福 which is based off of the Kangxi Emperor’s calligraphy. People can rub this (technically the glass exterior) for good luck.

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We then took a boat ride as a break for all the walking. It was much needed because next up were the Bell and Drum Towers, which date back to 1272 and were used for telling time and keeping people on schedule during the Han dynasty. We only ascended the Drum Tower, which was possible via a straight staircase with very steep and tall steps and left many people winded. In ancient times, there were 24 drums but only one remains, and it sits encased in glass with very tattered ox hide. We caught the 2:30pm drum performance before leaving. We then got a pedicab tour of the area and took in the old alleyways where many people still live.

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For lunch, we went to this secluded dumpling house located on what seemed to be a random alleyway. Before arriving, my mom was asking why our tour guide was taking us down such “sketchy streets” for lunch and on the side, judging him for never having been there. I was actually the one to spot it, as it had a shiny plaque on top of the doorway and looked more intriguing that most buildings we had passed. The inside of the restaurant was beautiful and cozy, like a little indoor garden paradise, and everyone else instantly felt at ease that we were not being lead somewhere dirty and cramped. We feasted on four platters of over 80 hand-wrapped dumplings and some side dishes.

After our bellies were satisfied from having such a late lunch, we made our way back out to the main road. We then drove on to Olympic Green, where the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games was held. Another local guide affiliate took us on a walking tour and explained the recent history of the Olympic area. He was the one to tell us about Beijing’s north-south or Central axis, on which many of the old city’s most notable structures are built on, because it extends to the Olympic park. We were able to see all the way across the city to the Bell and Drum Towers that we visited earlier in the day.

At the Olympic park, we took photos in front of the National Stadium or more commonly known as “Bird’s Nest” and Beijing National Aquatics Center or “Water Cube”. I thought the area could use more trees as the wide open space lets a lot of wind through and isn’t very pleasant for walking.

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We also took a brief museum tour about children who were sent to the countryside to work in the 1960s and 70s, which detailed conditions of daily life and tragedies. I didn’t understand much of it since there were zero English translations, although my mom explained her oldest brother was sent away for some years and conceptualized it for me in basic terms. The others also didn’t really understand why we were going on this look into history even though they remembered it as part of their families’ and country’s history.

Wrapping up our trip with Olympic park, we then headed to the airport for our flight back to Guangzhou, but en route, we found out it was canceled from one of the tourists’ drivers scheduled to pick her up later that night. When we got to the airport, our guide managed to reschedule the flights for the next morning at 7:35am, but neither the airline nor agency would be providing overnight accommodations. This last announcement created five hours of arguing and bad moods, culminating in an agreement on everyone paying out-of-pocket for a 170 RMB stay at a nearby hotel, which was rather gross but survivable.

My mom and I went out for dinner with two other people on our tour at 11pm. In the commotion, no one had the time to stop to think about food. We managed to find something to eat at a nearby strip of restaurants: some choy, dumplings, and noodles to hold us over until the next morning.

At 4am, we got out of bed to prepare to leave for the airport at 5am, when we heard lots of loud yelling in Cantonese out in the hall. It turned out to be our guide’s next group of tourists, who also had a delayed arrival like we did and were furious at their shitty hotel accommodation for the next four days. They apparently bought a lower-ended package (around 2000-2500 RMB) without realizing, I guess, what exactly they were paying for. My tour’s package was priced at 3800 RMB, although we paid 3200 RMB. I felt bad for our guide, who had to deal with two angry groups consecutively, especially with very little experience.

All in all, Beijing was an okay experience. I would return again for the friends I didn’t get to see and perhaps to see what the day-to-day life is really like there instead of just a tour of the imperial history and typical landmarks.

climbing the great wall and other challenges