Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: City (page 1 of 3)

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.

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 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City

The kids finally slept in a bit more than the previous two days. After a day chock full of sightseeing followed by one where we had our excursion to the Great Wall, they were extra tired. I’d actually set the morning aside for school, which is exactly what we did after breakfast. We may be across the world, but they didn’t escape the books this trip!

We called it a day at about 11:00 a.m., though, which was a grand total of about 2 solid hours. Beijing would provide the history lesson for the day.

Tiananmen Square and China’s beloved Mao

Most people older than I probably remember the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. I was born that year, so I don’t exactly have firsthand knowledge of what transpired, just what I’ve read and been told. While the square has a more lengthy history, including being the place where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear “Tiananmen” is “tank man” and the protests that were forcibly subdued by the Chinese military, leaving a large number of people dead.

With that solemn history in mind (I didn’t try and explain anything to the kids), we made the walk to Tiananmen Square. The fall colors in Beijing were lovely along the way.

The walk was a bit further than I figured, but still not bad from the Renaissance on Wangfujing Street. Crossing under the street, we popped up in Tiananmen Square.

The square is immense. It can supposedly hold half a million people. To the north is the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, from which Tiananmen gets its name.

In the middle (roughly) is the Monument to the People’s Heroes. To the south is a Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

There were a good number of people out in the square, but given the size, it didn’t feel crowded at all. The National Museum of China flanks the square to the east. It was also on the list of sights to see, but given how many other things there were to do in Beijing, I decided to skip it. It’ll have to wait for another visit, probably once the kids can appreciate museums more.

Satisfied with our walk through the square, the kids and I once again crossed under the street, this time arriving in front of the “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The placement of a large picture of Chairman Mao on the gate is paradoxical to me. He is the leader responsible for the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, ushering in China as we know it from this very spot on October 1, 1949. Yet he is also the man responsible for the “Great Leap Forward”, a period where tens of millions of Chinese people died due to poor governance that severely compounded natural disasters around 1960.

Seeing his photo here was enough. I didn’t have the desire to take the kids to see the embalmed leader in his Mausoleum on the other side of the square.

Entering into the Forbidden City, I decided we better find a place to eat. There isn’t anything very easily accessible at Tiananmen Square, unless you want some snack foods sold by the vendors. That just won’t cut it for me. Luckily, we found a spot.

Lunch was a solid introduction for the kids to how the Chinese don’t respect lines. The lunch counter we found in the first courtyard contained a throng of people slowly pushing their way along toward the counter. You basically just stand in the mob and shuffle your way to the front, eventually being the one closest to the cashier so that you can order.

I wouldn’t eat here if you can avoid it. The food had to be chock full of MSG. The flavors of the meatballs and beef we ordered were too intense and satisfying.

Exploring the Forbidden City

Entry tickets to the Forbidden City are fairly inexpensive like nearly everywhere we’ve visited in Beijing. I think I paid 80 yuan for the three of us to enter, 40 yuan for myself and half that for each of the kids. For reference, this is less than $12 for one of the foremost historical sites in Beijing.

I did also opt for a audio guide. I thought about getting more than one, but we either took turns listening to some of the explanations or I just relayed the main points to the kids. If you want to maximize your visit to the Forbidden Palace yet still go at your own pace, I would suggest one of these.

One of the features of the Forbidden Palace is the presence of multiple sundials, in a form I’d never seen before. From what I understood, the sundial was invented independently here in China, although the sundials of other cultures predate it. In this case, the sundial disk is oriented such that it is in line with the arc of the sun at each equinox. The upper disk is then read in the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, while the lower disk is read in winter.

Another interesting feature of the bulk of the Imperial Palace buildings are the processions of tiny beasts at the corner of each roof. The Hall of Supreme Harmony boasts the most of these figures, which one gave it the highest status of all buildings in the Chinese empire.

The Forbidden Palace really is magnificent. It is (unsurprisingly) among the listed UNESCO sites for its cultural and historic significance.

The impressiveness of all this history sure didn’t keep the kids from being their goofy selves.

Near the very end of the palace (everyone passes through south to north), there is a very interesting feature. I didn’t really know what to make of it until the audio guide finally decided to explain what we were looking at. This odd rock face is actually artificially constructed from stones taken from a lake is a part of China quite distant from the capital. The pavilion at the top is said to have the best view of the entire Forbidden City.

Our visit to the Forbidden Palace lasted about 2 hours. We didn’t see all the sights,  but we were able to walk through or past the bulk of the halls and most interesting areas. If you’re really into the history of the palace, I’d suggest a visit of more like 4 hours.

Climbing the hill in Jingshan Park

We’d seen Jingshan Park during our second day in Beijing (Day 2), from the Drum tower. The Forbidden City, Jingshan Park and the Drum and Bell Towers all lie on the same central north-south axis of the city. Given the length of history of Beijing, the city has had this design for many centuries. You could stand right on it if you wished.

The walk up the hill was fun. At least…*I* thought it was fun. The elevation gain is seriously only 200 feet or so. Yet the kids acted like they were dying. I barely got my son to smile for this.

The air quality on Day 4 was also the best it had been the whole trip. I’d read so many stories about how awful many cities in China can be, but I did not that November is a better time for Beijing in general. Our view of Chaoyang from Jingshan Park was excellent, and the air was so much clearer than just the day before when we were headed to the wall.

The air was so clear we could see the hills miles away to the north. The sliver of lake on the left is near Shichahai, an area near the hutongs we wandered on Day 2.

After we’d made our way back down from the hill and toward the gate, we decided to watch the group of ladies dancing with streamers. We’d seen a bit of this at the Temple of Heaven on Day 2.  It is a lovely and enjoyable art to watch.

While surely not as picturesque as spring or summer, the park in the fall didn’t turn out to be that bad. So many bright yellow trees everywhere we went.

The kids had been asking for panda hats a couple times. While prices at the Great Wall shot that request down pretty quick, we found them a whole lot better here in Jingshan Park. Barely $5 for two hats? I’ll take ’em.

Evening in at the Renaissance

We walked back to our hotel from the park, wandering through a coupe hutongs on the way. The kids and I were solicited multiple times by rickshaw drivers who wanted to take us on a tour. One even had the clever idea of turning my kids against me by saying they must be tired from walking and are too young to be going so far. Luckily, I don’t have such sympathy. They will survive another half mile.

The kids wanted to play foosball when we got back, which was fine by me. It was the perfect activity for killing a half hour before the club lounge opened for dinner. As is typical, they couldn’t make it 15 minutes before they got in an argument and my daughter refused to play anymore. So I got to show my son who is the real foosball boss.

Dinner was quite good. I wish I’d realized our first night that “happy hour” of two hours between 5:30 and 7:30 was actually dinner and not just drinks. It would have saved us about $25 spent eating out and honestly been way easier.

The day came to a close with showers for the kids and then reading some Calvin and Hobbes together. Our last day in Beijing was yet unplanned, so I had a bit of work to do after the kids turned in. Would we make an easygoing day of it seeing some last sights in Beijing? Or would we cap things off with a day trip to Tianjin?

5 Days in Beijing: Day 3 – Mutianyu Great Wall Excursion

Day three started with an early wake up. We didn’t get the call with our exact pickup time for our Great Wall tour until 8:45 the evening before, when I was already drifting off to sleep after our busy day of sightseeing in Beijing (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs). The jet lag here the first few days has been brutal in the afternoon and evening. But I still prefer it to the first few days in Europe where you have to drag yourself through the morning.

The kids weren’t thrilled with getting up early, but it is what we had to do. All of us made it downstairs to the restaurant by 6:15, just after the restaurant opened. Normally, we would eat in the lounge. But the lounge doesn’t open until 6:30, making the restaurant our only option. Fortunately, it was still free. We had to be ready in the lobby at 6:55.

Heading off on our tour to the Mutianyu Great Wall

Our bus picked us up about 5 minutes after the scheduled departure time. The kids amused themselves in the interim with the foosball table near the front door. We would be back multiple times to enjoy this.

Our tour bus made a few more stops, picking up some more people for the tour. The bulk of them got on at the final stop. I would find out later that those were the folks who had booked a different version of the tour which requires you to transport yourself to the pick up point. The tour I’d booked included hotel pick up, which was super convenient.

As we started our drive out to the Mutianyu Great Wall, our guide launched in to a brief history of the wall. She asked us to call her “Claire”, which obviously isn’t her real name. She said her real name once and I completely understood why she gave us any easy English name. Half of the patrons were Chinese, however, so it made me wonder what name she gave them. The mixed-group tour also meant that the history of the wall (and everything else) were given in both English and Mandarin.

The bulk of the construction on the Great Wall was completed during three separate dynasties, the . Literally thousands of kilometers of wall were added during each phase on construction. I marveled at how this was possible. Until she explained that the soldiers of the Qin Dynasty drove the workers mercilessly. Many died, and they were subsequently buried and the wall constructed over them. Which also makes the great Wall the longest tomb in the world.

In reality, much of the wall constructed during the period of the Qin Dynasty no loner remains. It would be over 1,500 years old at this point, and it is eroded away. The current sections (mostly refinished themselves) were originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty, a much later period than the Qin. But the idea is the same: keep out all those foreign invaders, whether they were the Huns, the Mongols or the Manchu.

The kids listened during her explanation, but didn’t catch too much. English is their second language, and they have difficulty understanding some foreign accents.

First glimpse of the wall!

We made a pit stop a little over an hour after starting our journey from Beijing. Our guide told us to use the facilities, but don’t wander off. She would be handing out our tickets. The tour price included the entry tickets to the Great Wall, but it did not include either the cable car or the chairlift/toboggan. The Mutianyu Great Wall has these facilities available to transport visitors to and from the wall. The alternative is hiking over 1,000 steps from the valley below, and even I decided that transportation is in order.

It’s not cheap, but also not crazy expensive, at ~$17 per person, although kids are half price. As I’d heard great things about the toboggan run headed down from the eastern side of the wall, we opted for the chairlift/toboggan combo ticket. You unfortunately cannot mix and match the cable car with the toboggan, as the services are operated by two different companies. This would have been the most ideal, and I’m sure many other people desire to buy this exact ticket. I wanted to hike the west side of the wall, up to the highest point, and then head down the toboggan on the more eastern side. But no. Not possible.

Tickets in hand, we headed back toward the bus. That’s when I saw it. In the distance the wall was plainly visible at the top of the ridges in the distance. Even from where we were, at least a couple miles away, it was a marvel. How the Chinese constructed thousands of miles through steep mountains is incredible.

Truly a wonder

The view just got better and better as we drove closer to the wall, eventually parking in a lot downhill of the main terrace where the tourist facilities begin. At this point we were free to head up on our own, although our guide did accompany most of the group up until we reached the stations for the cable car and the chairlift. There is also a great map of this section of the wall, including the transportation facilities.

The wall towered above us at this point. The kids and I headed to the line for the chairlift, which was minimal. Part of the benefit of booking the tour that we did is that they do their best to get you to the wall early. The ride up to the wall was quick, but man did it provide some awesome views.

I wish our ticket gave us day pass privileges. It’d be nice to ride it down again for the view the other way before heading back up.

The chairlift brought us right to the wall. I could hardly believe we were actually here. It was as impressive as I’d imagined.

Built at the ridge-line, the wall snaked up the hill on both sides of us. The views were already impressive, and we hadn’t even climbed that high yet!

Since we’d arrived at the east side, I decided that climbing up to the highest accessible point on the east side made the most sense. It would take too long to head to the west and we probably would not be able to reach the high point on that side before needing to turn around to catch the toboggan ride down. Plus, the kids would enjoy a more leisurely pace. They wanted to take a break about every ten steps. The stairs of the wall were quite steep.

I had a good laugh at the power poles cemented in the middle of the wall. There is essentially zero chance anything like this would fly in the U.S. at such a historic monument. Definitely no National Environmental Policy Act to guide decision making here. I wonder if they even have environmental consultants in China.

But enough musings in regard to my work. The wall was amazing. The changing slope, the solid stone construction, and the insanely steep stairs at times. I loved this section.

The kids weren’t always as thrilled. Sure, it is the Great Wall. But it is a huge hill to climb. And hills are not a welcome sight in their book. I gently coaxed them along, stopping often to enjoy the view and chuckle at their antics. You’d think the hike up the stairs was going to kill them.

Almost every watchtower is worth stopping at. And the Mutianyu section of the wall has many. There are 5, I believe, just in the section between the chairlift station and the top of the east side. The distance really isn’t that far. I recall our guide mentioning that the watchtower concentration is well above average in this section, yet another reason why it is a great pick to visit.

Man, what views. You can see the rest of the restored Mutianyu Great  Wall, and un-restored sections beyond on both side. This was such a surreal moment for me. The Great Wall is something I’ve seen in many photos and have hoped to visit for a while. Standing on it with my own two feet, feeling the stones, and taking in its vastness and grandeur was one of those perfect travel moments.

We eventually made it to the very top, with the best view of the wall sweeping down before us and back up in the distance. We met a few fellow Americans at this point who kindly offered to take our photo. It is one of my favorites from the entire trip, if not my top pick.

The kids did enjoy themselves, despite their complaining. They happily scampered down as I carefully plodded along behind on our descent.

We ended up heading up the other side a little ways, but I could tell it would take us far too long to get to the cable car station, let alone start any meaningful ascent on the west side. Plus, the wall was starting to get a bit crowded.

I’d heard of the crowds that you can sometimes experience when visiting the Great Wall, but I’d picked Mutianyu to avoid some of them. We were spoiled during our first ascent, hardly seeing anyone. Now I know why the tour company heads out so early!

Highlight for the kids: toboggan ride down

We returned to the cable car and toboggan station to head back down. We could have easily stayed another hour at the wall, but we’d seen plenty and enjoyed ourselves immensely already. Plus, the kids were itching to ride the toboggan. The Mutianyu toboggan run takes you back down to the station at the base. The track is quite long. I’m not sure exactly how many meters (or kilmoeters), but the descent takes several minutes, unless I am mistaken. It really depends how fast you go. Which depends a whole lot on how cautious the person in front of you is.

Since there were three of us, we’d have to split up for the ride. Since my older son is only 8, he would need to ride with me, while my daughter could ride by herself. We had just made it to the front of the line when the operator abruptly stopped everyone. I wondered if there was an issue with the run, be he didn’t seem worried in the slightest.

It became clear soon enough what the reason was: it was coffee time. I guess everything else would have to wait. After rinsing his cup out and filling it again with some hot coffee from a thermos, he spent a good 10 minutes enjoying his break.

We even had a few moments of fun interaction. Upon filling the cup, the operator offered it to me, in surprisingly good English. I declined, politely. Or so I thought. He insisted, even through another protest. Finally, I decided to take a sip, after which he smiled.

Then he asked how old I was. My answer of “29” shocked him, eliciting a “no way”. He was equally incredulous at my daughter’s age. He has a child who is barely a teenager, but would have had him much later, as he is well into his 40s.

When the coffee was finally consumed, he waved us on. We mounted our toboggans, controlled by a single brake handle. This was gonna be fun!

I gave the lady ahead of me plenty of distance, knowing my son would want to speed down the hill. We had a fantastic time. I wish I had photos, but the advisement against it and the need to control the toboggan definitely made me keep my phone in my pocket. They do take your photo on the way down, and you can buy it for like $7. I cannot remember the exact price, but this isn’t Disneyland. Ours turned out so well that I decided to purchase both.

It was an exhilarating experience, and I was sad it was over. Sure, we could do it again, but it would cost another $17 per person. Instead, a snack and a break were in order before we headed back down to the restaurant for lunch.

Lunch and return to Beijing

We arrived early to lunch, mainly to get out of the cold. It was scheduled for 1:40, a bit late for us, especially after an early breakfast. But it made sense to give people the most time possible at the wall.

The ride back to Beijing was uneventful. There was little explanation. I’m sure the tour guide understood that we’d all had an active morning, had just filled ourselves with Chinese food, and were only looking to nap on the overly warm bus. Which is precisely what I did. The kids started to nod as well. There really isn’t a lot to see between Beijing and the Mutianyu Great Wall anyway.

When we neared Beijing, we had to decide where to get off the bus. Rather than take us all back to our hotels, the tour makes three stops, near three different subway stations. The one closest to the heart of Beijing was actually within walking distance of our hotel, so I chose that one. I thought about getting off earlier with the kids to head over and see the Olympic sites, but given how late it was and how tired we were, it was better to pass.

We wandered a bit along Wangfujing, grabbing some food to take back to the hotel to eat in. If only I’d realized that the lounge serves a full dinner. This was the night I figured this out, heading up there for ~15 minutes after the kids were laid down to sleep. Could have saved us $30 in food. I’ll be much better at figuring out what “happy hour” entails at the next juncture. Never did I assume this term would apply to a full dinner spread.

I think it was better anyway that we ate in the room. I had two rather tired and grumpy kids. We’d get to bed early.

Three days down, two left

Thursday marked the middle of our five days in Beijing. We’d already seen a lot, but there was still a good amount left that I wanted to do. Tuesday and Wednesday were packed full of sightseeing, and Friday would be, too. I’d been considering taking a day trip on Saturday to Tianjin, but after our outing to the wall, I started to waffle on that plan. The kids would need a down day before three more days of adventure in Hong Kong!

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!

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