Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Stories (page 1 of 2)

Seattle at Super Speed, Day 1: Packing in the Sights

After a long day of travel and late arrival into Seattle, my son and I woke up with a lovely view of the Space Needle. Our hotel couldn’t have been in a better location (SEE: Hyatt House Seattle Downtown Review). I love hotel rooms with a nice view, and this was certainly one of the best.

Besides the Space Needle, there are a few other prime Seattle attractions located all on the same grounds. The Seattle Monorail gives you easy access to downtown and other mass transit. But as we were so close to Seattle’s most iconic attraction, I figured we’d start there. I mean, what could be more fitting?

Exquisite views of the Emerald City

The Space Needle is literally a three-minute walk from the Hyatt House, so we were there in no time at all.

One aspect of this trip is that our sightseeing passes were sponsored by CityPASS. I wrote a full review of CityPASS over at Points with a Crew, detailing the value you can expect to get from the pass, depending on which Seattle attractions you enjoy. In general, if you’re going to hit four or more of the listed spots, it’s worth the money.

It was easy to pick up our passes at the Space Needle, as there was hardly a line this early in the morning. The pass is good for seven consecutive days, which means you can take your time enjoying Seattle. Given that we had only two days in the city, we had to pack in as much as possible. This first day would include three of the five attractions on the pass.

This was my third visit to the Space Needle, which I have visited every time I’ve been to Seattle. It provides some of the best views of the city. At the base there is an interesting exhibit that shows the planning and construction of the tower, which debuted for the 1962 World’s Fair, along with the monorail. It has been a Seattle icon ever since.

An elevator ride later,  and we were looking out over the city. It was an utterly typical Seattle day, which meant we didn’t get views of either Mount Rainier or the Olympics across Puget Sound. I’m not sure how often it gets that clear up here, but I hope to eventually visit during one of those times. I’d happily pay a premium at the Space Needle to enjoy those views.

We still had a lovely view of downtown Seattle, Elliot Bay, and Lake Union.

Heading downstairs, I enjoyed standing on the glass floor, which my son thought was crazy. No matter how much I assured him it was safe, there was no way he would step out there with me.

When we’d had our fill of the lovely views, we finally headed back down to earth and down to the waterfront for our next stop. Transit included the monorail, of course. It is a fun diversion, and the rail passes just feet from our hotel!

On to the aquarium!

The Seattle Aquarium was next on the list, another attraction available using CityPASS. I’m not going to go into detail since I did a separate write-up on that attraction as well. What I will say is that the Seattle Aquarium is worth a bit more time than we were able to spend.

Plan at least a couple of hours to enjoy the whole thing, even more if you hope to catch a few of the shows. My son and many of the other kids there really enjoyed the touch pool.

We visited during Octopus week, which was definitely an enjoyment. The “primetime” show featured both a wolf eel and a Giant Pacific Octopus, which was absolutely packed. I took the chance to enjoy it from the cafe upstairs while ordering lunch.

After our visit to the aquarium we picked up our Argosy tickets. It was my intent to hop on the midday sailing, but I forgot to factor in that it was a holiday weekend. It was completely sold out. We picked up tickets for the following day, which would be hard to catch, but probably doable between our Boeing factory tour and a visit to the Museum of Flight.

Pike Place coffee stop. No, not Starbucks

A pick-me-up was in order halfway through the day. It is common knowledge that the original Starbucks location is at Pike Place Market in Seattle, which could have been an obvious choice. But I have a little insider knowledge on the best coffee at Pike Place.

First we made another stop, though. The City Fish Co. is a great spot to stop by, just in case you catch the famous fish toss they are known for. Or maybe just buy a whole fish yourself. We arrived just in time to catch a customer buying a golden trout.

From there we headed across the street and up to the second story of the uphill building to Storyville Coffee, my favorite coffee spot in the market. The coffee is some of the best I’ve ever had, and the baristas are pleasant. They often offer free samples of some of the baked goods as well.

I do have a bit of an inside connection to Storyville, as their coffee roasting studio (located out on Bainbridge Island) and shops are owned by the same individual that formerly employed my dad. I had a chance meeting with the manager, who I’d previously met when he visited Ferndale years ago. It was great to see him again.

Supercold! and the Pacific Science Center

Warmed up and ready to tackle the afternoon, we rode the monorail back to the Space Needle station, headed for the Pacific Science Center. I hadn’t been here since I was a kid when my family visited Seattle way back in 2003. That’s 2003, give or take a year, as I cannot remember exactly when.

The Pacific Science Center has a number of different exhibits, ranging from animatronic dinosaurs, to space exploration, to a super cool model of Puget Sound that lets you watch the tidal currents in action. One day is simulated over the course of 73 seconds. Everything is controlled by a series of gears on the wall that cause weights to rises and fall, simulating the tides. 

There are also presentations, only one of which we attended. It was titled Supercold!, where Katy, a very enthusiastic staff member, engaged the kids with a presentation on the various states of matter. Of course freezing things with liquid nitrogen was a hit.

She even made the kids recite a hysterical “pledge”…I quote: “I promise to always…always, always, always…be safe around super cold things because I like my fingers and my eyeballs unfrozen.” All of this brought back my college science class days when we did some of the same things, making sure to keep our fingers and eyeballs unfrozen. 

I highly recommend the Pacific Science Center if you visit Seattle with your kids. It is much more than your typical kids museum, as it geared toward kids of all ages. There is enough for adults to enjoy, too.

Space Needle, take two

One of the perks of CityPASS is that you are able to enjoy the Space Needle twice, once during the daylight and again at night on the same day. Although I’m not sure I’d spring for the ticket if it wasn’t bunlded with the rest of the CityPASS, a night view of the city was definitely the perfect final stop.

Unlike our visit that morning when the Space Needle opened, there was much more of a line at dusk. I’m sure sunset is one of the most popular times, especially if it is clear and you can catch a beautiful sky as the sun drops past the Olympics across the sound. Although we didn’t make it up in time to really get a view, we did enjoy a great nighttime view of downtown Seattle.

Calling it a day

We found a place to eat dinner a couple blocks from our hotel. It had been a while since I’d had Thai food, and I figured we should give Mantra Thai a try. I thought the food was excellent. My son was a bit hesitant to try anything, but ended up enjoying the fried rice that we ordered. I wish my kids we all more adventurous eaters.

At the end of the day, we hit about as much as I figured we could do: the Space Needle, the Seattle Aquarium, the Pacific Science Center, and Pike Place Market. Given the amount of time each of these attractions requires, I don’t really think we could have packed in anything else. You could certainly spend more time at any of these and stretch out your visit. But we only had two days, and with the second full of aviation sights, Seattle at super speed it had to be!

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. 

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!

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