Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Asia (page 1 of 2)

Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak

After our long travel day and later evening than normal, I let the kids sleep in. It was nearly 8:00 when I finally roused them, which meant we didn’t wrap up breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn until 9:30. But they needed the rest. 

Our Hong Kong adventures began with a subway ride from Mongkok to Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s only a couple stops, but it is better than hoofing it the whole way to the water. There is still a good amount of walking involved to and from the subway stations. Well…a good amount in the kids opinion. I told them this was hardly anything. 

Mongkok is a fascinating neighborhood. The sounds, smells and bustle make it one of my favorite places. It is a dense residential neighborhood, with a strip of brand-name retail and restaurant along Nathan Road, flanked by shops and stalls selling anything and everything imaginable along the side streets. I was unsure of staying here, but now I would actually recommend it.

Signal hill and tower

Before heading across the bay to Hong Kong itself, I wanted to make a brief stop at a small park in Kowloon. I figured it’d give us a good view of the city across the water. It didn’t have *quite* the view I hoped for, but we did get our first glimpse of Hong Kong Island from here. Visibility wasn’t great, but it honestly wasn’t bad given China’s notoriously bad air quality.

Signal Hill Park is barely a block from the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui, which would have been in the running for our hotel stay has I had enough Hyatt points at the time. You can see it towering in the background, the taller of the two buildings. I love tall hotels, and China is full of them. In the foreground you can see the Signal Hill Tower.

The tower in Signal Hill Park is pretty cool. It has a very narrow spiral staircase that takes you up two more levels.

The view really isn’t any better since you’re not right on the edge of the hill, but we enjoyed exploring.

Harbour view of Hong Kong 

From Signal Hill we made our way down to the water. We walked along the edge of the bay, enjoying the view of the skyscrapers along the shore of Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak towering over them. I was struck by the sheer uniqueness of the city. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like Hong Kong. The mix of east and west, new and old, greenery and concrete is fascinating.

The weather was fantastic. Unlike Beijing, which was in the 40-50s most of the days we were there, Hong Kong was an utterly perfect 70-75 degrees for most of our visit. The kids enjoyed finally being able to wander around in shorts.

Taking the classic ferry ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Central is a must, and it was next on the itinerary. It is also very affordable at $5.90 HKD (~80 U.S. cents) for all of us.

The view of Hong Kong is arguably the best from the water. You can definitely argue that it is fantastic from Victoria Peak as well, but that gives you more of an overview. From the channel, you get a view of both Kowloon and Hong Kong up close and personal.

Heading up the hill

From the central ferry terminal we slowly meandered in the direction of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. These were our first minutes in Hong Kong proper. Hong Kong is now more than just Hong Kong Island, which is differentiated from Kowloon, the mainland peninsula where we were staying. The city is like the Asian version of New York, at least on the surface.

I made sure our trek included ascending the longest outdoor escalator that takes you from Central to the Mid-Levels. It was an enjoyable ride as we slowly climbed to the towering residential skyscrapers of the mid-levels. Hong Kong Island rises sharply from its shore, leaving only a relatively narrow flat strip down by the water. The “mid-levels” are the next neighborhood uphill of “downtown” Hong Kong, known as Central. 

We rounded a corner after getting off the escalator, and suddenly found ourselves in an enclosed courtyard. It turns out the area used to be the location of the central magistrate, and possibly the jail as well. Now one of the buildings is an arts and heritage center. As we made our way through, we came across a simple amphitheater. A band was playing live music, so we stopped and watched for a bit.

Continuing up the hill, there was no shortage of tall apartment buildings. Hong Kong holds the record for the most skyscrapers over 150 meters, with a whopping 80 more than New York City, which is in second place.

We eventually arrived at the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. The gardens are free and a perfect spot to burn an hour with kids. They have quite a few monkey exhibits, as well as some lemurs, tortoises, and a few other species.

We were getting hungry by this point, and exiting the gardens to the uphill side left us without dining options. We made our way along through a web of roads, eventually back down to one of the tram stations for Victoria Peak. Along the way we were treated to more great views of the city around us. 

Still without a cafe to stop at, and the time marching ever onward, I found that the only way lunch was going to happen quickly was by heading down the hill. We entered an office building that promised a food court. It didn’t disappoint. Lunch may have been over twice what we would have spent in Beijing, but the food was honestly delicious at a small place called Simplylife. I’d been hoping for something more authentic, but we were behind schedule and I took the closest thing we could find. 

Our stomachs satiated, we made our way to the Victoria Peak tram.

The best view in Hong Kong

The line was bad. I hate lines, so a wait of 20+ minutes wasn’t welcomed. But I’m sure it gets way worse at other times. We slowly shuffled through the queue until it was our turn to board the tram up the mountain. 

The Victoria Peak tram is an excellent way to get to the top. We bought combo tickets for the tram round-trip plus access to the viewing deck, which set us back nearly $30 USD. But I wanted the full experience. 

The tram was a bit reminiscent of the incline railway at the Blue Mountains in Australia, but with a little more sightseeing and less excitement. 

The viewing deck at the top was awesome. You have to scale multiple levels of escalators to the top and dodge a plethora of overpriced retail shops, but once you do, you’re in for a treat. The view is excellent. 

With the mediocre air quality and general haze over Hong Kong, it obviously isn’t the best you can get the day we were there. But we still had a very nice view of the channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and all the skyscrapers lining both.

We decided to take a short walk along the old road around the top of the Peak. If you have the time, you could do the whole circuit. It’d be exquisite on a clear day. You can look back and see the whole structure of the viewing deck, including the numerous escalators inside. Further along, there are points from which you can get a great view of the Hong Kong side.

Wrapping up our first day

I decided we better turn back around 4:30. We had to make our way to the tram station, take it to the bottom, walk to the metro station, take the metro, and grab dinner on the walk back to our hotel. The kids had also skipped showers the night before, so I had to factor that in as well. I’d be lucky to get them to bed by 8:00. 

On our way to the Admiralty metro station we wandered through Hong Kong Park. With fish ponds, a waterfall, and fun fountains, it is a great little green space within the city.

Half an hour later we finally popped up in Kowloon once again, headed for McDonalds. I figured we’d better play it safe, given we were pressed for time. Not to mention it is always interesting to see what is offered at McDonalds in a foreign country. I think the bolognese burger with an egg wins “most odd menu item”. 

The kids still managed to hit the hay at 8:00. Not sure how we accomplished that. It was a full and fun first day in Hong Kong.

Travel Day – Beijing to Hong Kong

It was a bit sad to wake up and realize that our time in Beijing had already passed. Our five days in the Chinese capital were an amazing experience. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Beijing has to offer, but the food, history and people make it a great place to visit. Here are the posts from each day of our adventures in Beijing:

Breakfast was again complementary in the top-floor lounge of our central Beijing hotel (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). We even finished up early, a small miracle for my children. My bags in hand, we made our way downstairs and I asked the desk to call us a taxi. We could have taken the subway, but it would have meant a transfer and toting our bags a good distance. Given how cheap taxis are in Beijing, the convenience was totally worth it.

Our ride took off around 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I figured we would take an hour to get to the airport. The driver made me a bit nervous at times, cutting quickly from lane to lane. But we made it safely. The ride took 40 minutes on a Sunday morning leaving about 8:45 a.m.

Arriving at Beijing Capital Airport

Front of Beijing International Airport Terminal 3 is impressive. Our flight into Beijing had arrived into Terminal 2, and we’d taken the Airport Express straight from there. I didn’t get a good look at the airport. Plus, it was dark and we were exhausted. We also had an unfortunate incident where my son wet himself, as he hadn’t gotten up to use the lav before our final approach into Beijing. He has a habit of not being aware of his need to use the facilities, not to mention the worst timing on the airplane (every time he got up to go was during meal time). Just one of the hurdles of traveling with kids.

But I digress. The memories of our arrival into Beijing, although it was only a few days prior, already seemed distant. We walked through the doors into the massive departures hall of Terminal 3. There is row after row after row of check-in counters and there were huge queues of people. I’m not surprised Beijing in building a new airport that is projected to be the world’s busiest in short order.

Too early for a flight?

Turns out that due to our early departure from the hotel and faster drive than expected, we were an hour earlier than my anticipated arrival at the airport. We were also there an hour before the check-in desk opened for our flight. Now…I know there are some places where check-in counters don’t operate all the time. But given that Beijing Capital Airport is massive, and Cathay has more than just a few flights per day, the fact that the counter was not yet open surprised me.

There was one counter open. But the signage clearly marked counters for specific flights, something I’d never seen. We unfortunately had to kill an hour wandering the departures hall.

Once we were finally checked in and had dropped the bag, it was time for Chinese immigration. We’d had no issues entering the country on the 144-hour transit without visa (TWOV) exemption, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bit of apprehension about passing through the country. I’d been instructed to keep the stubs from the original visa paperwork, and they were still in my wallet. Everything should be good.

And it was. We got a couple odd looks from the immigration officials, but we passed through just fine. Very glad that we were able to take advantage of this opportunity for a stopover in the Chinese capital.

Security went smoothly as well. This was the 14th segment for both of my older two kids, and they have learned the drill pretty well. I was a dolt this time though and insisted that my backpack didn’t have any water in it even when the security official flagged it in the x-ray. Had totally forgotten that I’d put in the last bottle from the hotel that morning. Oops.

Once through, we hung out in the lounge for a while where the kids did some school and I wrote a couple blog posts and enjoyed a glass of wine (SEE: Air China First Class Lounge Beijing Airport Review). We also ate an early lunch. All for free with my Priority Pass membership through my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

Our plane was late, but we still got out early enough to make it to Hong Kong in time. You can read all about our experience flying Cathay Pacific 777 Premium Economy.

Hello, Hong Kong

We landed right before sunset and hopped on the Hong Kong Express toward Kowloon. A short bus ride later, and we were walking the last few blocks to our hotel through the bustling Mongkok neighborhood. I wasn’t so sure about staying here, but I would happily do so again. The energy and everyday-ness of Mongkok makes it a vibrant place to enjoy as a foreigner.

Bedtime came at about 8:30. It was a good travel day. Now we had Hong Kong to explore for our last three days!

5 Days in Beijing: Day 5 – Beihai Park and Almost Losing a Child

Morning came early as usual during this trip. Maybe we’ll be adjusted to China time just when it’s time to head back to California. I was a bit less tired when 8:00 p.m. rolled around the evening before, so maybe we’re almost there. The kids did sleep solidly until 7:00 a.m.

Breakfast was the usual affair in the club lounge on the 17th floor of the Renaissance (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). The spread and service have been excellent every day. This is shaping up to be one of the best hotel stays to date, mainly because of the perks we’ve enjoyed due to earning Marriott Platinum Premier status earlier this year (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge).

After breakfast we video chatted with mom and our youngest who have been enjoying themselves back at home.

Wangfujing snack street

Even though we’d been staying in a central Beijing hotel, we hadn’t really wandered the surrounding streets. One of the places I’d been pointed toward is the Wangfujing pedestrian street, about a third of a mile south of our hotel. This was our first stop for the day.

Wangfujing is a very walkable area, although very little in Beijing is a quick stroll away. The city is vast and sprawling. Even just walking from the south end of Tiananmen Square to the entrance of the Forbidden City takes longer than you’d expect.

We passed many of the typical high-end retail stores you can find in the central district of good number of cities. But that was not why we were here. If I wanted a BVLGARI purse, I would have bought it in Milan a couple years ago.

About halfway to the snack street we passed by an old church, which was extremely unexpected. The current structure is the third (I think) iteration of the Catholic church that has stood on this spot since 1655. Catholic mass happens daily, with additional services on Sunday. Given the current climate of Christian persecution in China, it surprises me that the church is even operating. I highly doubt that it is true to the gospel.

We took a peek inside and then continued on our way to the snack street. It did not disappoint. The kids couldn’t decide if the wriggling scorpions on a stick were utterly cool or totally gross. We decided to pass up the opportunity to ingest any of this “delicacy”.

Wandering into some souvenir shops, we perused the cheap knockoff goods. Some items had a trademark or copyright logo clearly displayed, should you question its authenticity. I somehow don’t think Disney would license these cheap plastic figures to be sold in Beijing for $2 apiece.

Curiosity satisfied after browsing the shops for half an hour, we headed back to Wangfujing Street and our next destination.

Beihai Park

This 1,000-year-old Imperial park was next on the list for our final day in Beijing. We took the bus, the first time we’ve braved one in the Chinese capital. Thank goodness for Google maps and bus signs that have Arabic numerals on them. I’d plotted the bus route in Google Maps to Beihai Park before we left the hotel and took some screenshots. Our 15-minute ride went without a hitch.

The bus made the most sense in this case as it was much faster. The fastest subway route would have been a mere four stops *but* required two transfers. The Beijing subway system is efficient for many routes, especially if you are going a longer distance, but it is often extremely inefficient for short distance travel. Constructed in a loop and grid fashion, it makes great sense for a city as large as Beijing. But it means that almost every trip you take will require 1-2 transfers, which are never quick.

We arrived in Beihai Park around 10:30, a bit later than I’d anticipated. We got “through tickets” for just 30 yuan (~$4.40) for all three of us.

Beihai Park is quite lovely, even during the fall when many of the trees have already lost their leaves. The willows lining the lake were quite beautiful. I’ve been impressed with Beijing’s parks in general. All have been very nice green spaces. It would be nice to visit again in late spring and see them in the height of their greenery. There were some flower displays to make up for the lack of color in the rest of the park.

I was a bit bummed that the Circular City was closed. I’d hoped to see this section of the park near where we entered. We instead began the climb up the hill to the white Dagoba (Tibetan Buddhist stupa) at the top of Qionghua islet.

I would be lying if reading “Dagoba” didn’t immediately make me think of Star Wars and Dagobah, the swamp planet Luke crash lands on when he is searching for Yoda. I know that George Lucas drew on eastern religions for his movies. I just didn’t know it was this blatant. The top of the hill provided us with a nice view of the rest of the lake.

The kids asked if we could rent a boat like we had at Chaoyang Park a few days prior (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital), seeing so many out on the lake. I thought it was a fine idea. We made our way down and over the bridge out to the boat rental.

An hour on the water in a pedal boat only costs 60 yuan (~$8.75). I’ve been thrilled overall with how inexpensive China is. I’ll remind myself of that when planning other international vacations. When we visited Paris and Luxembourg in the spring, I had to be careful not to break the bank on just food each day.

The kids and I had fun powering ourselves around the lake. Pedal-power was an entirely different experience than our excursion on a boat with a small motor a few days before. Remind me to start biking. It is exhausting. But it was still fun. We spent most of an hour enjoying the lake.

By the time we were done, it was time for lunch. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place back toward Shichahai, where we’d had lunch during our day wandering the hutongs (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs). At $18 for the three of us, it was by far our most expensive lunch.

The kids tried duck for the fist time. They weren’t fans. My daughter, who primarily wanted to try it, was grossed out. the duck was served head and all, cut in half and sliced on a platter. I’m going to pack on the pounds eating all the food they don’t finish.

Nanluoguxiang a second time

Since we were once again near this foremost of the Beijing hutongs, a second walk through Nanluoguxiang was a must. The kids had enjoyed it immensely the first time. We picked up some more cheese bread (honestly not sure what it is, but it tastes amazing) at the same shop and sat on some steps to people watch.

Or be watched as the case may be. Apparently while I was taking the photo above, a Chinese lady stepped behind me and snapped a photo of my kids. They told me after what had happened. I’m left wondering if they were the novelty, or whether it was the fact we were sitting on some stone steps when literally everyone else was standing (maybe install some benches?).

The kids remarked a number of times that the Chinese gave them funny looks. We are definitely not the only tourists in Beijing, but it may be the combination of a white guy with two darker kids that makes us stand out a bit. Or maybe it is just the fact that they are foreign kids. I’ve seen very few others.

The kids have been a bit sensitive to this issue, my daughter especially. She must have a keen eye for it since I only noticed people staring at us a couple times.

Our delicious snack finished, we wandered back south through the Nanluoguxiang hutong until we arrived back at the metro station. Tip: visit on a weekday in the late morning like we did originally. The Saturday throng was a whole lot less pleasant.

Our scary moment: almost losing a child

We headed down to the metro at Nanluoguxiang, something that was routine for us in Beijing. We’d ridden it nearly every day in Beijing, and the kids knew the  drill. We bought tickets, headed through security, and then trotted down the steps to the platform.

The train we needed was waiting on the platform, and the bell hadn’t sounded yet for the doors to close. My son asked if this was our train, and I told him yes. Just as he ran into the car ahead of me, the bell sounded and the doors started to close. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, especially with my daughter a couple feet behind me. The doors slid shut. My son’s face was complete panic. Mine must have looked the same to him.

Now if I had more than a few fractions of a second to think, I would have realized that leaving a child alone on the subway platform would be preferable to leaving a child alone on the subway train. Diving through the rapidly closing doors would have been the best choice. As long as my daughter knew to stay put, we would come back to fetch her as fast ass we could.

A child alone on the subway is a more difficult problem. And I knew in that moment that we should have discussed a contingency plan for this situation. I tried to yell through the double doors for him to get off at the next stop. We would be on the train behind him and would meet him there. I couldn’t tell if he understood, but the subway would be underway momentarily. He had to understand.

To my surprise, the doors suddenly opened again. We quickly entered the car and were all reunited! I was so incredibly thankful that someone must have been watching the whole situation and realized we’d been split up.

I previously remember seeing an attendant at some Beijing subway stations standing on a small, raised platform. It seemed odd to me that this was a job (I’d heard of subway pushers for when crowds are thick), but a platform observer seemed strange to me. Now I am extremely thankful someone was there to watch passengers entering and exiting the subway.

The kids and I had an immediate talk of what to do in the situation we just experienced, had my son actually been whisked away. The plan consists of two simple rules: if you end up on the subway without dad, get off at the next stop and wait for me to find you. If you end up loeft on the platform while dad leaves on the train, simply wait there for me to find you. This will go into the safety discussion I have with the kids each time we travel.

Crisis averted, we stepped off the metro just a few stops down the line.

Lama Temple and a Cat Cafe

I’d identified the Wudaoying hutong as an interesting place for another stroll. The hutong offers an eclectic mix of shops and cafés, including a cat cafe. If you’re wondering what a cat café, don’t worry. They don’t cook and serve cats. Cat cafés are typically a coffee or tea shop where patrons share the space with cats who are free to roam and interact with guests. I thought the kids would love it.

But we ran into an issue in Wudaoying: I couldn’t identify the cat café. I’d failed to get an exact name or address, thinking that it would be easy enough to identify along the alley as we walked. After poking our faces into the windows of a few promising shops, I started to wonder if our search might be in vain. We eventually exited the hutong after a quarter mile, thwarted in our search for a cup of coffee with cats. The kids will have to wait for that experience.

However, we were now just a couple hundred meters from the Lama Temple, which was our final destination for the day.

The Lama Temple, or, more properly, the Yonghe Temple, is a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. Originally constructed around 1700 as an imperial residence, the Lama Temple was converted into a monastery about 40 years later. It is unique in that it is not only a functioning monastery, but also open to the public as a tourist attraction.

Although visiting Beijing in the fall has had its downsides, an upside was certainly walking the tree-lined path from the temple entrance to the first gate. The trees were a beautiful gold color, and unlike other places in Beijing that are efficiently cleaned, a layer of fallen foliage was left to line the path. It is beautiful!

The temple itself is impressive, although possibly less so to us than it could have been, given that we’d visited the Forbidden City the previous day (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City). Many visitors were burning incense in the first courtyard. The kids asked some questions about what people were doing and I tried my best to field answers. I’m quite unfamiliar with Buddhism. Our discussion mainly centered around respecting their culture and religion and how ours differ from theirs.

We visited a few couple other sections of the temple, but didn’t stay especially long. Since it is an active Buddhist monastery, I felt like we were intruding more than anything. Our visit lasted maybe a half hour before we hopped back on the subway toward our hotel.

Ending the day with school

On previous days I would not have attempted school with the kids in the evening, given everyone’s exhaustion level. But the night before was the first one during which they were at least a bit more perky. They still went to bed at 7:45 p.m. without a fuss, but it wasn’t the voluntary crawl under the covers like the other nights.

School away from home has been working well enough. Luckily, the internet speed at the Renaissance is good and we are able to stream my daughter’s lessons. This probably would not have been possible at the Hilton, our first hotel (SEE: Hilton Beijing Review). Dinner in the lounge followed by an hour of lessons it was.

This brought our Beijing sightseeing to a close. It’d been a fun several days, and a great introduction to China. But Hong Kong awaits!

5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs

Our second day in Beijing started early. Due to the time difference from California, we end up exhausted by early evening and wake up early. The kids had gone to bed by 7:30 the night before, and I didn’t stay up much later after our first day in the Chinese capital (SEE: 5 Days In Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital). After tossing and turning for ages, I called it quits at 5:00 and decided to shower.

The kids were starting to stir when I was done basking in the glorious hot water, which lasted upwards of a half hour. We definitely need one of these rain shower things at home (and a better water heater). After a quick jaunt downstairs to inquire about a phone charger, both children were fully awake when I returned. An early day it would be.

Excursion to the Temple of Heaven

We left the hotel at 7:30, bound for Dongsi station where we would catch the Line 5 subway to the Tiantan East Gate stop. The entrance to the Temple of Heaven is a very short walk from this station.

Entry to the Temple of Heaven is cheap, like pretty much all of the major Beijing sights. I bought an adult combo ticket for 28 yuan, which is the off season price, and I believe kids are half off. All said and done, it was less than $9 USD.

We headed through the gardens, making our way toward the center where the temple itself stands. A couple things jumped out at me. First, there were a large number of people doing aerobic exercise. Or is it dance? I really couldn’t tell. So much of it was set to music with groups of people doing synchronized moves. There was one are filled with many middle-aged and elderly Chinese folks who were engaged in this activity. The kids and I paused for a bit just to observe.

From there we made our way along a long open-air hallway. Here there were groups of Chinese men gathered to play cards. It would seem the Temple of Heaven grounds are more a place to simply hang out rather than a tourist attraction!

Eventually we came to the temple itself. You have to buy a special ticket that allows you access to the main sites. Initially, I wondered why multiple ticket types were offered, but now the answer was obvious: many people come to simply enjoy the green space. But that wasn’t why we were here.

The Temple of Heaven was originally constructed in 1420 by Emperor Yongle during the Ming Dynasty as a place for the millennia old Chinese tradition of Heaven worship. Sections were expanded and rebuilt during the reign of two other emperors. Pictured above is the Temple of Heaven itself. There are numerous other buildings as well, spread across the large temple grounds. Below is the Imperial Vault of Heaven.

Surrounding the Vault of Heaven is the Echo Wall, a circular wall with two buildings inside, situated such that if you stand near the wall behind one of them, you can converse with someone on the opposite side of the other building, completely out of line-of-sight of each other. The kids and I tried to talk to each other, but with the numerous other visitors, including some attempting the same feat as us, it was impossible to hear each other.

We finished up our visit by walking past the Palace of Abstinence and through the gardens. November really isn’t the time to visit gardens; the only real color was found in some of the trees that were a lovely autumn yellow.

Just like what I’d read, our visit of 90 minutes was sufficient to see most of the sites within the temple. If you’re especially interested in Chinese history, or like to linger, you could probably take twice as long, although I think 2 hours is a decent amount of time to budget.

Wandering the hutongs

From the Temple of Heaven we hopped back on the subway toward Nanluoguxiang, one of the must-see Beijing “hutongs”. Hutong literally means “alley”, but don’t let that conjure up visions of dark, unkempt alleyways of other cities. Many of Beijing’s are lined with shops, restaurants and trees and make for a perfect morning outing.

Nanluoguxiang did not disappoint. The kids and I strolled slowly along, perusing the shops that piqued our interest. The smell from the various food vendors was intoxicating. We finally broke down and bought a sweet snack. I really don’t know exactly what it was, but it was utterly delicious. I can best describe it as butter with a layer of butter and sugar on top, broiled just slightly to give it a bit of color. But it may have had other ingredients.

We spent maybe another half hour wandering in and out of some of the shops before exiting along one of the side hutongs. Even though Nanluoguxiang was not really crowded, it was a whole lot quieter off the main stretch. These other hutongs also allow a glimpse into the more everyday lives of the people who live here, as many of the low lying buildings were obviously dwellings.

Eventually the side hutong brought us to a narrow canal, which we followed back to the main road.

Lunch and the Grand Canal

Since we’d started our day early with breakfast at 6:30,  lunch came early. It was barely after 11:00 when we are all thinking it was time for food. I thought the snack would help tide us over, but it basically just whet our appetite for more food. Once back to the main road, I spotted a place across the street that looked appealing enough. It’s really hard for me to tell what quality and price a restaurant is going to be, although the couple we’d been to already had been very affordable.

Another thing I worry about is whether the restaurant will have a picture or English menu. But my anxiety was baseless. Our experience at pretty much all the restaurants we ate at in Beijing was that they had something with photos that we could thumb through the make choices.  They just may not have descriptions in English. We ordered noodles with chicken, some dumplings, and pumpkin soup. I tried to point the kids to a few other options, but they are far less adventurous than I am.

I think the total came to like $11. China is a land of cheap, delicious food. It’s one of those places that you can visit very inexpensively if you can work out the flights and hotel for free. Traveling alone, I probably could have budgeted $30 per day and been entirely content.

Stomachs filled, we headed down the street to the Jinding bridge by Qianhai Lake . This is supposedly the end of the Grand Canal, the oldest canal in the world of its size (it is UNESCO listed). It would be cool to see other parts of the canal, but we would have to head to a different area of Beijing (or outside) to get more of a taste of it. The main purpose of the canal was to link the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, allowing commerce to flow far more rapidly across 1,000 miles of China.

From there we wandered a few more hutongs, including the “skewed tobacco pouch street.” The section along the water would be a great place to spend an afternoon, although the southern end is under renovation. You can cross a bridge over to Houhai Bar Street where there are many bars, cafes and more shops. If wandering the hutongs of Beijing is up your alley (get it?), this whole section from Nanluoguxiang past Shichahai is the place to explore.

At many points we were accosted by rickshaw drivers who wanted to tour us around. If we weren’t on a schedule to fit in a couple more sights, I probably would have said yes.

Drum and Bell Towers

The Drum and Bell Towers were not specifically on the list of things to see, but since we were already in the area, I decided we should probably take a peek. These two towers at located on the central axis of the city, just like Forbidden City and the structure at the top of Jingshan Park. The Drum Tower is to the south while the Bell Tower sits to the north, across a small open square. You can get a nice view straight down the road to the south, which is also the central axis of Beijing.

The entrance fees for both are reasonable, as all entry fees have been during our time in China. It’s nice not being gouged as a foreign tourist. A combo ticket to see both towers is just 30 yuan (~$4.35), and I think kids were half price. I can’t recall every time, but that is generally the discount.

The towers piqued the kids’ interest, but it abruptly died when they saw the giant flight of stairs leading up to the top of the Drum Tower. My daughter asked why the didn’t install an elevator. Hadn’t quite invented those yet.

I, on the other hand, thought the stairs were awesome. If you’re afraid of heights, these would probably be intimidating. The rise to run ratio is also terrible, so it would be hard if you are of limited mobility. But if you make the climb, you are rewarded with some fantastic views. Here is Chaoyang in the distance, where we spent our first night and day.

The Drum Tower had drum performances several times a day, but our visit didn’t coincide with any. We could have hing around for 45 minutes to catch one, but the schedule didn’t have that wiggle room, as I still wanted to fit in the Summer Palace. On to the Bell Tower it was.

The towers are literally a couple hundred yards (or less) from each other, so it was a quick walk. The Bell Tower is smaller, but more impressive in some ways. The giant bell at the top is exquisite. It would be fun to ring with that large post.

From there we continued north at a fast pace. There was still time to have a couple hours at the Summer Palace.

Afternoon at the Summer Palace

Since we’d spent more time visiting the Drum and Bell Towers and wandering the hutongs than I’d anticipated, we didn’t make it to the Summer Palace until 2:30 p.m. With a suggested visit time  of three hours, we would be pushing it a bit to see a lot of the historic Emperors’ escape of before it closed at 5:00. We would also be headed back to the hotel in the dark.

The ticket agent refused to sell us combo tickets, which included entry to some of the scenic areas within the Summer Palace. But it was for the best. The areas were closing anyway when we arrived. We at least get to walk most of the grounds. One of the first things that greets you is the palace itself, towering over you.

The grounds are huge. You could spend all day here. We climbed through the palace, enjoying winding our way along the rocky paths and then made our way down the other side to the lake. The bulk of the palace area is water, and the views of it and across is are lovely.

A visit in summer might be a whole lot more colorful. But it would just be too cliche to visit in summer. Gotta visit the Summer Palace in winter, I say!

We meandered along the water’s edge until we came to the bridge to Nanhu Island. The bridge is called “Seventeen Arch Bridge”. Talk about literal naming. It became part of my favorite selfie from the trip.

It was quite a walk from the east gate of the palace, much longer than I anticipated. The kids had had fun, but they were getting tired, and by this point we all just wanted to be back at the hotel.

The exhaustion sets in

This was still just day 2 of our adventures in Beijing, and the afternoon/evening jetlag was brutal. The fact we had walked miles didn’t help things at all. It was a stroke of good fortune that we scored seats on the metro leaving the Summer Palace, pretty much the only time this happened during our entire visit to Beijing. We had 11 stops to go before we transferred, and sitting for a while was welcomed.

One transfer later and we were walking back to our hotel. Most of the light had left the sky. The easiest course of action was to stop for dinner at the same restaurant we’d visited the night before (how I wish I’d known from the beginning that the hotel lounge served a full dinner spread). The kids could barely keep their eyes open and were pretty grumpy. Gotta keep things real, here.

Bed came early since we had an early wake up call. But it was for a good reason: we were going to visit the Great Wall!

5 Days in Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital

After a very long 12 hours in the air, our flight from Seattle finally touched down in China’s capital (SEE: Delta 767 economy class review: Seattle to Beijing). The kids and I were all very tired. It was 7:30 p.m. local time, but we were feeling the current 3:30 a.m. back in California. Deplaning was smooth, as was our transit through immigration and customs. I’d had a bit of apprehension about our transit-without-visa (TWOV) plan, but it worked just like I’d read about. We’d made it into China!

First stop, bed

Given that Beijing is quite safe, braving the subway seemed an easier proposition that trying to communicate with a taxi driver to get us to our hotel at night. We paid a total of 84 yuan (~$13) to get to the Hilton Beijing, including the airport express train and one more stop on the subway. The hotel is maybe a 500-foot walk from the Liangmaqiao station along a busy, well-lit road.

The Hilton Beijing was a most welcome sight. The complaining that had started on the plane had increased substantially. They were tired. I was tired. I was tired of hearing about being tired. It was a long 2 hours since we touched down at Beijing Capital Airport, but the whole process had actually gone quicker than I thought it might.

The lady at the front desk was friendly and addressed us in English, but her accent was thick and my tired brain struggled to understand her. I figured whatever she told me about breakfast could be figured out in the morning. Finally, key in hand, we made our way to our room and collapsed into bed half an hour later. Travel day status: complete. It’d been a long one.

View from our Hilton Beijing room the next morning

A day in Chaoyang

Morning came far too early for me. I slept well the first few hours, but it got more and more difficult as the night progressed. Back home it was the middle of the day, when we’d normally be up and moving. I finally called it quits at 7:00, about half an hour before my alarm would have gone off.

The kids got up an hour later, and we all made it down to breakfast about 8:30. The kids and I had a safety discussion, and then we handed our bags to the front desk when we checked. We’d pick them up after spending the day in the Chaoyang District, to the east of the central Beijing.

We meandered our way toward Chaoyang Park, taking in the sights and smells of the city along the way. Amazingly, the poor Chinese air quality I’d heard so much about didn’t seem to be an issue. Fall is supposed to be a better time in general, but maybe they are cleaning up their act a bit more. None of us experienced the stinging eyes I’d heard about.

The walk took us past a canal and along streets lined with apartment buildings, small shops, and restaurants. We found the place I’d identified for lunch: the Bao Yuan Dumpling Restaurant. It was maybe 10 minutes from the park and would be right along the route back to the hotel.

Now on to the park!

Chaoyang Park

The entry cost of Chaoyang Park is 5 yuan for adults and 2.5 yuan for kids. The grand total of 10 yuan (~$1.45) was totally reasonable for a visit. If this is how they pay to upkeep the park, I’m all for it. I tend to think of parks as one of those free places, but if a minimal entry fee can help pay for it, I think that is a perfectly fine way to manage it.

Chaoyang Park is fairly large. I perused the map for a bit while the kids “exercised” on the equipment nearby. We saw a number of these exercise areas, but I’m really not sure if the equipment will really help you all that much. It was more of an amusement to them.

Even though it is November and getting quite chilly in Beijing, we did catch a little bit of fall color. Mostly yellow.

We wandered through the park, slowly making our way toward the lake and the amusement area further to the south. Even in fall, it was quite a nice green space in the middle of a bustling city of 21 million people.

It might not be the nicest park in Beijing, but it is the largest at 713 acres. This structure in front of which the kids wanted a photo is the China-Thailand friendship pavilion (if I recall correctly), a bit in need of repair.

Further in we meandered along the lake, which dominates Chaoyang Park. It occupies almost a quarter of the area.

An abandoned amusement park

Soon we came to the amusement area near the southern end of Chaoyang Park. The rides are all priced individually, and very few were open, probably because we were there on a chilly, fall Tuesday. The kids were able able to enjoy two. The amusements set us back 160 yuan (~$23).  I’d be looking into a pass of some sort if we ever came back. This place could get expensive quickly if you’re not careful. Or the folks operating the rides were simply taking advantage of the unsuspecting American tourists (more likely the case).

Communication was obviously hard. I know enough Chinese to mostly understand and communicate numbers and prices. But I pretty much fail beyond that. Turns out 10 minutes of Duolingo Mandarin a day for a month doesn’t really help a whole lot.

I’m sure the place would be bustling on a summer afternoon. It was eerie being three of maybe a couple dozen people (at most) that we saw in the amusement park. The place felt essentially abandoned.

Out on the water

It took us until near the end of our visit to find a boat kiosk that was open. The kids had asked if we could rent a boat the first time they saw a rental kiosk. But no one was there to rent us one! Seems that demand is down a bit in November. It was quite chilly out. But we weren’t alone in our interest. There were a few other boats on the water.

To rent a boat in Chaoyang Park, you have to pay a deposit fee of 200 (or maybe 300?) yuan, from which the rental cost is deducted once you’re done. I think it was either 60 or 80 yuan ($8.60 or $11.50) for one hour. Pretty reasonable, if you ask me. This wasn’t even a boat you had to pedal!

We puttered around from one of of the lake to the other, enjoying the lovely views. The two dark to towers in the center-right of the panorama below were especially cool. The architecture

Happy faces, but cold kids. We found that 50 minutes out on the water was plenty. Plus, we were all hungry and ready to head back for a bite to eat.

Dumplings, a delightful lunch

We headed back to the Bao Yuan Dumpling Restaurant for an enjoyable introduction to some truly authentic Chinese cuisine. This was our first time having traditional Chinese jiǎozi, dumplings made with minced meat and vegetables, wrapped with an elastic dough, and boiled or steamed (in the case of what we ordered). We picked four different types to try.

One of the features of the Bao Yuam Dumpling Restaurant is that they dye some of their dumplings with vegetable dyes, so you may end up with a rainbow on your plate. They also all come on one plate, which makes for some surprises when you’re trying to figure out which ones are which. The kids enjoyed a couple of the “simpler” types with pork or shrimp (I think the one they gravitated to was simply cabbage, pork and scallions). I, on the other hand, was a bit more adventurous in my selections. Everything was delicious!

The Baoyuan Dumpling Restaurant has an English picture menu for the foreign traveler. There was also one staff who spoke a little English, although I wouldn’t really count on a significant understanding. I had trouble asking for a fork. Generally, you can just point at what you want and they will write (or type) your order down.

Hotel hopping and dinner

After our late lunch I had one more thing on the agenda: pay a quick visit to the China Central Television building. It is also in the Chaoyang District, albeit a bit south of the park and the Hilton Beijing. We took the subway a couple stops to get there. I mainly wanted to see it since I’d seen pictures of it and loved the cool architecture. It would be weird to work in the corner of the upper part of the building with nothing below you.

We made it back to the Hilton Beijing right around 4:00 p.m., fetched our bags, and had the concierge request a taxi. It was a bit awkward asking him to hail us one to another hotel, but that was simply what we had to do. We could have taken the metro, but with one, possibly two, transfers and a decent walk at the other end, a taxi seemed the best choice. Plus, it wasn’t all that expensive. I think I paid like $5 USD. The subway would have only been about $1.75 USD.

The taxi ride to the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing, our next hotel, took maybe half an hour. This is where’d we be for the remainder of our visit to Beijing, and it turned out to be a fantastic choice (review to be posted at Points with a Crew). If I’d have known that “happy hour” at the hotel consisted of a full dinner spread, we would have eaten there the first night. Instead, we wandered down the street to another (cheaper) hotel restaurant called Laohuji.

The kids barely avoided falling asleep at dinner. It had been a fun day out, but we were still experiencing jetlag. At least it comes late in the East as opposed to the mornings that drag on during your first couple days in Europe.

Conclusion

Our first 24 hours came to a close at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night. With two kids starting to snooze on either side of me, I’d say our “easygoing” day was full enough. I can’t seem to keep my eyes open to finish this post. It’ll have to wait for another day (note: it took me until today, November 25, to finally add the final details).

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