Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

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. The jet lag here the first few days has been brutal in the afternoon and evening. But I still prefer it to the first few days in Europe where you have to drag yourself through the morning.

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

Heading off on our tour to the Mutianyu Great Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

First glimpse of the wall!

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

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

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

Truly a wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlight for the kids: toboggan ride down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch and return to Beijing

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

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

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

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

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

Three days down, two left

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

5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs

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

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

Excursion to the Temple of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wandering the hutongs

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

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

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

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

Lunch and the Grand Canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drum and Bell Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afternoon at the Summer Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exhaustion sets in

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

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

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

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

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

First stop, bed

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

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

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

View from our Hilton Beijing room the next morning

A day in Chaoyang

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

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

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

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

Now on to the park!

Chaoyang Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

An abandoned amusement park

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

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

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

Out on the water

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

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

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

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

Dumplings, a delightful lunch

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

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

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

Hotel hopping and dinner

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Beijing in 13 Photos

In advance of a detailed account of our visit to the Chinese capital, I figured I’d stick with my introductory photo log. Here is a collection from our five days in Beijing:

Our Whirlwind 44 Hours in Luxembourg

After three days in the City of Lights (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3), we hopped on a train across the French hills to the tiny country of Luxembourg. I’d wanted to add a second destination to our trip, and it made sense, given that Paris is just a few hours away. Alternatively, we could have done another location in France, or possibly Belgium. But given the brevity of the trip, Luxembourg made the most sense.

I also have a fascination with tiny countries. When my wife and I toured southern France, Italy and Ireland in 2016, we also spent a couple nights in the tiny country of San Marino. Landlocked within Italy, it is a city-state with a fascinating history (SEE: 5 Reasons to Visit San Marino). We also visited Monaco on that trip, another tiny country (SEE: Hiking Monaco to La Turbie). Luxembourg was a good fit, and totally doable in a day and a half.

Hotel on a hill

We arrived in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (as it is officially known) in the late afternoon at the main train station. I’d asked the hotel if they have a shuttle that would be able to pick us up. Unfortunately, they don’t , but the staff member who responded to me gave me instructions on how to get there by bus. Turned out to be super easy. We had to make one transfer at the Badanstalt stop.

We were staying at the DoubleTree, which is located outside the central part of town (SEE: DoubleTree Luxembourg Review). The bus didn’t run all the way to the hotel, so we did have to walk a few hundred yards up the hill.

The kids were fairly tired by this point in the trip. We’d spent three days seeing Paris, plus another couple hours in Luxembourg Gardens that morning before heading off to the train station. Our evening would best be spent in the pool, which was fine by them. We also made a couple calls back home, one to mom and their brother, and one to my daughter’s friend.

The one downside of not venturing out was that we had to eat in the hotel, which ended up being stupidly expensive. Not to mention the food was sub-par. But everything got better from there.

An enchanting morning

I’d told the kids the night before that I’d probably be up early to take a walk. They both said they wanted to go, but I knew that 6:00 a.m. was going to come too soon for them. Plus, I did want them to sleep in a bit and get a good night’s rest. I’m sure I could slip out and in before they even woke up.

The next morning was lovely. I left the kids sleeping peacefully in the hotel room and started down the hill. I traced the route the bus had taken from the City center, only departing once I got down near the creek in the bottom of the valley.

There was a light fog over the landscape. This, plus the utter quiet, made it a perfect morning indeed.

I wound my way through the trees along a creek that I could hear but really couldn’t see until I passed through the old city wall and came to some homes along the canal in the valley.

I also passed under the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, also simply called the “red bridge”. It was far above, barely visible through the fog. The bridge connects the old upper part of the city with the new section, called Kirchberg. This section of the city is notable for containing multiple European Union institutions.

Further along, I came across an elevator that takes you from the bottom of the valley up to the old city. The topography of Luxembourg makes for some wonderful views, but it can make foot travel a bit challenging in places.

I’d not known there was an elevator at this point, but it was more than welcome. I’d been expecting to have to slowly wind my way out of the valley and up to the old city once I discovered a route. This made things far, far easier. It was just a couple more minutes before I strolled past the Badanstalt bus stop where we’d transferred the day before and made my way into the old city.

The old city wasn’t awake yet when I arrived. I spent some time wandering the streets, enjoying the shops beginning to open at the Places d’Armes and the view across the steep valley to the south.

There is a sign on the cultural center (formerly a palace and government building) that commemorates when Allied troops liberated Luxembourg during the Second World War.

Walking back past the cathedral. I grabbed a coffee at one of the only open cafés. It surprised me that the city was so sleepy, but I guess it was a weekend.

I knew it’d be a hike to get to the old city,  but I’d made good time. But taking the bus back made a whole lot more sense than walking. Luckily, the system is super easy to navigate. I ended up jumping on the first bus that would get me close, rather than waiting another 20 minutes for the one that could take me to Rue Jean Engling near the hotel.

I arrived a little over an hour after I’d left. The kids were right where I’d left them, snoozing peacefully. I’d given them clear instructions the night before on what to do if they woke up to me gone (get dressed for the day, don’t answer the door). Turns out those weren’t even needed. So much for getting up early with dad to take a walk! We’d do enough walking that day, so it was definitely better that they’d not been up and out at dawn.  😉

Old Luxembourg

After a nice (and free) breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to enjoy our one full day in Luxembourg. The Old City is the main area of interest, and that is the first place we headed. It was now mid-morning, and the town was a whole lot more alive than when I’d been there earlier. The kids were feeling alive, too, and wanted to play at the…uh…playground. I actually wouldn’t call it that, but other kids were climbing the poles, and, hey, they wanted to join in.

We wandered the streets for a little bit, visiting the Place d’Armes and cathedral first. Luxembourg Cathedral isn’t quite as impressive as others in Europe that I’ve seen, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

The town was waking up a bit more now. People were enjoying breakfast at many of the cafés. It was a very lovely morning. We wandered to the south edge of the town with a view of the Pont Adolphe, eventually making our way to the Luxembourg City Museum, the first real stop on our itinerary that day.

Luxembourg City Museum

I highly recommend the Luxembourg City Museum. The museum costs only €5 and is free for kids. The city-state has a fascinating history, and the museum will give you  great taste of it. The exhibits take you from the founding of the city on its rocky outcropping through to its place in modern Europe.

My daughter happened to meet a young lady busily spinning wool on a spinning wheel in one corner of the museum. They struck up a conversation while my son and I wandered the two rooms nearby. She then protested when we were going to move on. Long story short, I let her hang out with her newfound friend, and she chatted her ear off the entire time. The lady was a Luxembourger-American who had decided to relocate back to the land of her father after growing up in Seattle.

My son and I enjoyed the rest of the museum, moving slowly through the exhibits from floor to floor. The early section has some cool models showing the expansion of the city through the years.

The massive elevator that takes you between floors was a highlight as well. I’ve never seen one so large. They obviously custom-designed it to fill the space.

Near the end, there was a modern model of Luxembourg City. It was very neat to see where we’d already been. I pointed out a few places we’d be headed the during the rest of our visit.

We spent about 1.5 hours at the museum, although you could probably spend more. It’s not all that large, but there is still a good amount to see and read. Our visit concluded, my son and I returned to the first floor to fetch my daughter, who was still happily chatting with her yarn-spinning friend.

The Grund

Exiting the museum, we slowly made our way down to the Grund, the lower section of Luxembourg City along the river. This involved walking a lovely narrow street down toward the casemates. Along the way are some of the best views of the entire city. You can see part of the upper city in the left background, the Grund in the middle foreground down below, and the modern tall buildings in the distance located in Kirchberg.

We arrived at the casemates, a complex of tunnels used a bomb shelters during World War II. You can tour them for a fee, but I decided to pass up this attraction. My son found a piano and decided to give Silent Night (the one song he knows) a go. I did not expect this, given the public setting!

Continuing downward toward the river, we eventually found ourselves winding back to the middle of the Grund, which was directly below us when we started. Even though we could see exactly where we were headed, we probably walked at least three times the distance to get there. I should have paid more attention to the bus schedule, especially considering how reliable the service is and that the kids are free! At least taking the path meant the kids got to stop for a bit and play in the creek.

There was a small open air event going on at the bridge. We bought crepes for lunch from one of the stalls and hung out by the river for a bit. I thought the kids would enjoy a Nutella crepe, but it turns out that combination wasn’t received well. We hung out for a while with the people and vendors, eventually meandering to the other side of the river and waiting at a bus stop to head back to the middle of Luxembourg City. We took a brief joyride on one of the buses to see a bit more of the city before returning to the hotel for the evening.

But wait, there’s day two!

Our full day exploring Luxembourg City may have been over, but we still had a bit of adventure left before we needed to head back to the airport. Day two began with a lazy morning, as we’d done so much walking the day before. After another great (free) breakfast at the hotel restaurant we moseyed on down to the bus stop, just in time to catch the bus to the city center again. But today we caught a different line at Badanstalt this time, however, one that headed out to the edge of town. The point of interest? The Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial.

There are a number of U.S. cemeteries scattered across Europe in which soldiers from both world wars are buried. I figured we should visit the one in Luxembourg, given that we were so close. The cemetery is a 15 minute walk from the last bus stop, down a quiet road. It is in the flight path of the Luxembourg airport, so we got to do some plane spotting on our way there and then on the way back again.

Because our kids are from Costa Rica, they are almost completely unfamiliar with American history, especially history as it relates to the world wars of the twentieth century. I relayed what I could regarding World War II to both of them as we made our way to the front gate of the cemetery.

Overcome by reverence

I knew the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial would command a great respect, but I was not anticipating the level of emotion that I experienced when we walked through the gate.

The cemetery is perfectly maintained. There is a memorial chapel in the middle of the stone terrace. Flanking it on either side are two displays of the names of soldiers who were missing in action during the Second World War along with engravings of military operations.

Many of the soldiers buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial were killed in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, late in the war. It occurred very close to Luxembourg. Down the hillside are row upon row of wooden crosses and Jewish stars for each solider.

At the very top of the hill, closest to the terrace and separate from the other graves is the grave of General George Patton who tragically died just months after the conclusion of the war.

I would highly recommend a visit to the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial if you are an American visiting this tiny country.

Off to CDG!

The hours passed by so quickly. I felt like we’d barely arrived in Luxembourg, even though we’d spend a solid day and a half exploring. We made a final stop at the Palace of the Grand Duke. They have a guard outside who parades back and forth and switches off with the one in the booth.

We also had a photo op with Grand Duchess Charlotte. She was the monarch of Luxembourg during the Second World War, but abdicated in 1965 and was succeeded by her son. The “red bridge” mentioned earlier is named in honor of her.

All too soon we had to head back to the hotel, fetch our bags, and return to the train station. The rest of the day was spent making our way back to Charles de Gaulle airport for our flight back to the U.S. the following morning (SEE: Air France A380 economy review: Paris to San Francisco).

I’d say things went smoothly, but I’d be lying. We had a little incident where I got lost in Metz in our rental car. But that is a story for a different day. Our final night was at the Holiday Inn Express Charles de Gaulle (SEE: Paris Holiday Inn Express CDG Airport Review), which ended up being a great airport hotel pick.

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