Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Sightseeing (page 1 of 4)

Hong Kong with Kids Day 3: Ding-Dings and Dim Sum

Our last day in Hong Kong started a bit slow. The past two had been busy, and I had gotten the kids up quite early the day before so we’d have plenty of time to enjoy Lamma Island, and also to beat the forecasted poor air quality (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 2: Lamma Island Adventure). We would also be up late that night since our flight home wasn’t scheduled to take off until 12:55 a.m. It was going to be a long day, so some extra sleep was warranted.

We made it down to breakfast about 8:45. Jason and Nancy Francisco met us there. At the time Jason was also a contributor at Points with a Crew, and is a father of four (although it was just him and his wife on this adventure). I wanted them to meet the kids, even if our visit was short. It would also likely be goodbye. We’d both been winging it day-to-day with plans, and we didn’t know if our paths would cross again. Jason and I had talked for a while the previous evening. They’d spent a few days in Taiwan and then a few more in Hong Kong, eating their way around those cities. They are definitely foodies. Jason’s personal travel blog is great, if you want to give it a read.

Parting ways, they headed to the Tian Tam Buddha while we had a date with yet another ferry ride between Kowloon and Hong Kong. But this time we headed to Wan Chai instead of Central. Our walk through Mongkok was as eclectic as ever. You can find anything here.

Parks and ding dings

After a metro ride to the Tsim Sha Tsui station, we walked to the Star Ferry dock yet again. The ferry to Wan Chai runs slightly less frequently than the one to Central, but it is still very regular. These Hong Kong ferries are never-ending fun. With skyline views on both sides, I could ride it for half the day and be content. And it wouldn’t even break the bank. At $5.90 HKD (~$0.75 USD) for all three of us, there is no way this activity will dent your wallet!

It turned out Wan Chai isn’t as great a place to land. Unless you like construction. I thought we could walk along the edge of the water toward Victoria Park, but we had to make our way over a highway and into the crowds at Causeway Bay.

We meandered through the concrete jungle and shopping district of Causeway Bay for a bit. I’ve been to a number of cities, but I will admit that there isn’t any city quite like Hong Kong.

Finally, we arrived at Victoria Park. The kids enjoyed a break on the playground. It was a bit farther of a walk than I’d estimated, and the kids were happy to rest and play for a bit.

I try to work park visits into daily activities whenever we are visiting a city. The kids usually need a rest, and I find that I also enjoy these green oases amid the hustle and bustle. Hong Kong Park, which we visited on our first day in the city, is probably still my favorite (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak).

Now it was finally time to ride one of the historic trolleys, affectionately known as “ding dings”,  through Hong Kong. These historic double-decker trolleys were first put in service back in 1904, and they are still running. The nickname “ding-ding” comes from the bell they use in lieu of a horn.

We all loved the ding-dings. Sitting up on the upper deck, feeling the breeze, and watching the bustle is a great way to experience Hong Kong. You really get a feel for the energy of the city.

If we didn’t have to step off when we did, I figure the kids would have been content to ride it to the end of the line.

Our ride lasted all the way from Victoria Park to a little past Central from where we walked to our lunch spot: Kau Kee. This Chinese noodle restaurant is one of the top spots in the city. Jason gave me the short list of spots to try, and this was one of two we would hit during our last day.

My plan was derailed when we rounded the corner and encountered a ridiculously long line for the Hong Kong hotspot. I abhor lines. We’d obviously hit them during the lunch rush.

I waffled over whether to stay and wait it out or to move on. Even though the restaurant has a fast turnover, I figure we’d be there upwards of an hour. Not exactly ideal. It’ll have to wait for next time we are in Hong Kong.

Luckily, we were fairly close to a metro station, so we jumped on that, headed for Kowloon. Next stop was the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. But not before browsing the flowers along Prince Edward Street.

Misadventures and poor planning

The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden was about as I expected it. Disorganized, messy and often noisy. The kids were grossed out by the containers of worms and crickets kept as food for the chirping and squawking. It was a fun little street, worth a few minutes if you are in the general area already.

Then the difficulties of family travel struck. My kids have this awesome ability to go from 0% need for a bathroom to 100%. All of a sudden my son had to go now. It took several minutes to find some facilities. I banked on the mall nearby to have some bathrooms, and we were not disappointed. Unfortunately, we burnt extra time, and I also bought the kids a snack, as we were by this time way overdue for lunch. But lunch was still next on the agenda.

I opted for a taxi to Tim Ho Wan, being pressed for time and hungry still. We arrived maybe 12 minutes later, taking longer than expected due to the Hong Kong traffic flow.

It was then I realized my dire miscalculation. Typically, I have always kept a reasonable enough cash reserve, but as this was our last day, spending most of the rest on a taxi wasn’t a huge deal. We’d have just enough for a bus or metro back to Kowloon station.

But there was one thing I missed: Tim Ho Wan does not accept credit cards. After all that, I had to run and find an ATM or exchange kiosk. This endeavor took another 20 minutes.

Michelin-starred dim sum

At least it was all worth it. We walked into the dim sum restaurant at 4:10, still beating the dinner rush. There was a nice lull in the restaurant and we were seated immediately. I placed an order for some steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings and another type of dumpling.

The pork buns are just as amazing as I’d heard they are. The shrimp dumplings are also excellent. It’s no surprise this place has one Michelin star!

The other thing about dim sum is that it just comes out when it’s ready. Actually, this is pretty much typical for Chinese restaurants in general. Don’t expect your order to be timed to come out together. The server just brought the plates out, piping hot, one by one as items were ready. The first round wasn’t enough, so I ordered more of most of the items.

The damage for our Michelin-starred dining? A mere $166 HKD, about $21.50 USD. For three. Now that’s awesome.

Goodbye, Hong Kong!

Our final stop was the ferry terminal for one last blast across the channel and back, this time as the sun was setting so we could catch the lights. We hadn’t stayed out late any other night, but since we had to be up in order to catch our flight, it was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city.

As we headed back, I couldn’t help but think about how quickly the time had passed by during our trip through both Beijing and Hong Kong. Five days in Beijing isn’t enough, and three days in Hong Kong barely scratches the surface. We’d definitely seen a lot, but there is still so much to explore in both locations.

Disembarking in Kowloon, we opted for the bus back to the Hilton Garden Inn Hong Kong Mongkok to fetch our bags. The front desk kindly directed us to a much easier bus for getting ourselves to Kowloon station to catch the Airport Express. I wish I would have known about this on our way in. Actually, I don’t. We would not have had any Hong Kong cash yet.

We made it to Kowloon Station a little after 7:00, still hours before our flight would take off. No matter. That is what airport lounges are for. And we were flying business, which meant lounge access naturally came as part of the deal. A late dinner, some school, a sleep, arrival into SFO, another sleep, and a drive later we were home!

Hong Kong with Kids Day 2: Lamma Island Adventure

Making plans based on an air quality forecast was a first for me. Living where we do, I take clean air for granted. But you really need to pay attention here in Hong Kong. I figured since we’d be walking quite a bit, heading out early before the worst of the air arrived in the afternoon was probably prudent. This meant I roused two grumpy kids at 6:00. Their unhappiness was gone by the time we headed to breakfast, and we were headed for the ferry terminal before 7:30.

Along the way we passed by a building undergoing renovation. Or something. I wouldn’t have really noticed, except that the scaffolding along the exterior was built entirely of bamboo. Now, I know the stuff is tough. But I’m not sure I’d be willing to climb out onto it ten stories above the ground. The whole structure is insane.

I was still in shock as we headed to the Star Ferry terminal again to cross over to Central. If you remember from our first day’s adventures (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak), this crossing costs like 80 cents for myself and two kids. It’s pretty much the best deal for entertainment in all of Hong Kong.

A window seat view is a must. The kids ran to the front of the ferry every time and each claimed a window to enjoy the view of the city.

Ferry to Lamma Island

The ferry between Kowloon and Central requires you to buy a token. I figured it would be the same system for the ferry to Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. Nope. The turnstile here requires exact fare for passengers to be deposited directly into it. I had a bunch of coins, but even all added together, it wasn’t enough for the three of us. I’d have to find some way to exchange it. 

A kind lady directed me to a ticket window where we exchanged $50 HKD for change to put into the machine. She then placed the fare in herself. Helping helpless tourists is probably a routine part of her job description for Star Ferry employees. I was super grateful. We were maybe 10 minutes from ferry departure, and I had gotten anxious when I realized we wouldn’t just breeze through.

The ferry to Yung Shue Wan arrived at the pier about 8 minutes later, and we were soon on board. The kids wanted to stand outside, which was entirely fine by me. It was a beautiful day. 

The ferry ride was lovely. Even with the fairly polluted morning air, the breeze was worth it. We passed along Hong Kong island, circling around until we were eventually headed south toward Lamma Island. Along the way we passed a giant cargo ship. 

The ride lasted maybe half an hour. We disembarked at the Yung Shue Wan terminal and walked into the small town by the same name.

While Lamma Island is still part of Hong Kong, it is an entirely different world than the bustling city we’d just left behind. I’m sure some of those in this quiet community commute to Hong Kong each day for work, yet have the good fortune to come home to this sanctuary every day. Lamma Island is a haven of artists and hippies, those looking to trade the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for a more laid back pace of life. It was quite interesting to spy cafes touting raw, vegan, and organic foods along the narrow streets. The kids loved the tanks of live seafood at a couple vendors.

Yung Shue Wan is the largest town on the entire island, and ferry service is very regular. Even if you don’t want trek across the entire island like we did, hopping on the ferry from Central to Yung Shue Wan is easy and convenient, and there is enough to do on the northwestern end of the island to keep you occupied for at least half a day.

The kids wanted to play on the beach, but I told them we’d come across some nicer ones along our walk. I figured that the one near the end, Lo So Shing, was going to be the real winner of the bunch. 

The cove itself at Yung Shue Wan is picturesque. The one unfortunate blot on Lamma Island is the fact that it contains a power plant, the stacks of which are visible over the hill to the left. I guess Hong Kong needed to place it somewhere, and the outlying islands makes sense, at least from the perspective of the millions of people in the city who don’t want to see it. It is a real bummer to see it on an otherwise gorgeous island.

First stop, Hung Shing Ye

Leaving the main villages near the cove, we started on the trail toward Sok Kwu Wan. I’ll venture to say that the kids were oddly more interested in the small villages on Lamma Island as we meandered through them than they were of the skyscraper-lined streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong. We didn’t reach this awesome sign until the middle of the hike, but this will give you an idea of the walk we did. The ferry we arrived on dropped us at the northwestern end, and we proceeded to follow the brown line to the other ferry terminal near the middle of the island, with one detour.

After just a few hundred yards we started to leave the apartment buildings behind, now walking through the forest, interspersed by poorer, more ramshackle dwellings here and there. Definitely a different world than the gleaming skyscrapers a short ferry ride away. 

It didn’t take long for us to come upon the first beach at Hung Shing Ye. Not only was it kept up much more nicely than I anticipated, it was wonderfully quiet on this sunny weekday morning. I let the kids play for most of an hour. I hadn’t planned on necessarily stopping at this beach for this length of time, given the proximity to the Lamma Island Power Station. But they were loving it. 

The problem with kids is that they don’t want to move on when they start really enjoying something. Both of them were happily building a sand fort to guard against the gentle surf and didn’t want to abandon their project. I eventually had to coax them away with promises of a second beach we could enjoy even longer. 

Middle of Lamma Island

The next part of the hike has very little cover or shade. By this time is was approaching 80 degrees and also humid, not the most comfortable for hiking. The complaints started in earnest along this section, as the path began to meander up and down. Every once in a while we’d find a patch of trees and take a break. 

lamma island trail

The next stop for us was a rain shelter about a third of the way to the next beach. There is also a lookout pavilion, but it is 150 meters off the trail. Eventually we broke out to the other side of the island with a view of Sok Kwu Wan and a departing ferry below. Hong Kong island was barely visible through the haze in the distance. 

The path forks at Lo So Shing Village, where you can choose to either head to the Sok Kwu Wan and the fish farming villages, or to Lo So Shing beach like we did. The beach isn’t far down a narrow path through the forest. 

Lo So Shing, the second beach

We made it to Lo So Shing beach around 11:30, giving the kids at least an hour to play in the sand and surf. We still had another quick stop ahead, as well as lunch, but we were keeping to the schedule I’d penciled out for a departure on the 2:35 p.m. ferry. 

Lo So Shing Beach was small, but nice, and just as quiet as Hung Shing Ye Beach. I’m sure it’s a far more popular place in the summer. There is a nice shaded area with benches, letting me watch the kids while still relaxing after our hike. There are both bathroom facilities and a refreshment kiosk available (apparently closed in winter), if needed. 

The kids enjoyed building castles and playing in the water, which was surprisingly clear. I guess I figured that murky air would translate to murky ocean water, but that certainly wasn’t the case, at least not at this location. If we all had our bathing suits, it would have been perfectly suitable to swim, although there were signs posted saying not to swim, due to lack of a lifeguard. Lifeguards are present during the summer months. 

Two sad faces stared at me when it was finally time to move on. But we had a schedule to keep. I didn’t want to miss the ferry and have to wait another 90 minutes for the next one. 

Final stretch to Sok Kwu Wan. And Lunch.

Our next stop was the Kamikaze Caves. This might sound a bit intimidating, but they are literally just holes carved in the rock face where Japanese soldiers were to conceal speedboats loaded with explosives for use against Allied shipping late in World War II. The caves were never used for their intended purpose. 

From there we wound around to Sok Kwu Wan, where lunch awaited us at a small seafood restaurant along the cove. We stopped at the first place we found, Rainbow Seafood Restaurant, which was probably a mistake. I knew we’d be paying a bit more for lunch, but I didn’t expect it to set us back $50 USD for three dishes, two of which weren’t even seafood. The lemon chicken was excellent, though. We certainly could have eaten well for less than half of that cost back in Hong Kong itself. But when you’re on an island with a handful of restaurant options catering to tourists, there isn’t much else you can do. 

We finished up with just a few minutes to spare before we had to catch our ferry. It was arriving as we walked up the the queue at the dock. Turns out the 2:30 departure is quite popular, which makes sense, given it gets you back to Hong Kong with enough time to still enjoy part of the afternoon. 

This unfortunately meant we didn’t score al fresco window seats on the ferry back from Sok Kwu Wan like we had on our first ferry ride. After departure, I finally had the gumption to jump in the one unoccupied seat near the window between two other people for a few minutes to snap some photos. It totally makes sense that these seats are the best in the house. The view of the high-rises heading back into Central is spectacular. The Hong Kong skyline might be the finest I’ve ever seen. 

Wrapping up our day

We disembarked at Pier 6 and made our way over to the ferry back to Kowloon. One more ride across the water and two stops on the metro and we’d be back at the hotel for the evening. But first we had to stop and try the purple potato soft serve I’d been eyeing since our first ferry ride. 

It…tasted like sweet potato. The kids weren’t so keen on trying it, but it was a two for one special and they ended up liking it. So guess who gave up his ice cream.

Back at our hotel for the evening, the kids got in an hour of schoolwork. Trying to keep up while traveling is a bit tough, but we were managing. We’d also have additional time at the airport the next evening. 

Dinner was KFC and McDonalds eaten in-room. I’d obviously prefer something authentic, but if pressed for time with two rather unadventurous kids (when it comes to food), we had to stay close to our American roots. But foreign fast food comes with its own opportunity to stray from the mundane. McDonalds Hong Kong was offering a “bolognese and fried egg angus burger”, which sounded so utterly disgusting, I just had to try it. The concoction wasn’t quite as terrible as I expected. 

The evening was a bit special for me, however. I left the kids snoozing in the hotel room and headed downstairs to meet Jason Francisco, a fellow contributor to Points with a Crew, and another dad who has his own travel blog (SEE: Daddy Travels Now).

We chatted it up for a couple hours, some things related to life and kids but most of all travel. It was awesome to have someone else with whom to discuss both the love of travel and the usefulness of miles and points to make so much happen. When 10:00 p.m. rolled around, I had to call it a night, our last official night in Hong Kong. 

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?

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