Our ten day holiday to China started with an argument. With only two backpacks (8kgs each), I was told that make up, hair products and hair straighteners were not an option. However, the iPad – to watch football finals – was apparently, a necessity.
According to Rob, it was not ‘that kind of holiday’. You know, the kind where you might not want to look like you’d been dragged through the bushes backwards each day.
As it so worked out, I could have cared less about hair and make-up. There was too much to experience to worry about how I looked. Besides, the week started and finished with a Port Adelaide win so the iPad actually was the necessity.
We started in Beijing. By pure design, we’d arrived on the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, which meant an almost-empty city. Not only that, but the airport is so large, we moved through immigration almost on our own.
For a population of 25 million people, Beijing is extremely well designed (a number of ‘ring roads’ around the city allow you to get your bearings quickly) and even when work had resumed later in the week, the traffic and sidewalks were nowhere near as congested as, say, New York. The city is well balanced with parklands (amazing willow trees) and really interesting architecture.
We spent our first day at the Panjiayuan Antiques Market. If you are after life-sized terracotta warriors, a scorpion encased in clear plastic and made into a key chain or a seven-foot blue and white porcelain vase, you’ll find the weird and wonderful here. From pearls and beads to old Peking Opera costumes, this place is a treasure trove.
Address: Panjiayuan Market (潘家园旧货) is in the southeast corner of the Third Ring Road, just east of Longtan Park. In Chinese: 潘家园桥西.
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 8:30am-6pm; Sat-Sun 4:30am-6pm.
That evening, we wandered towards the central main mall, where just behind, you will find a network of small alley ways and market stalls selling deep fried scorpions, tarantulas, star fish and bats on skewers. Not for the faint hearted. Or the animal lover. But an absolute ‘must see’.
With our own guide and driver, we took off for Tiananmen Square. I’d suggested the night before that we should wander over and hang out in the Square, not knowing that access to the Square is strictly prohibited after 5.30pm. Even to enter the Square from 7.30am, you must go through a cattle-like security station. Be prepared to get aggressive. Lots of pushing and shoving.
Tiananmen Square is named after the Tiananmen gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its North, separating it from the Forbidden City, and is the fourth largest city square in the world (440,000 m2 – 880×500 m). For China, it has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in its history.
Outside China, the square is best known in recent times as the focal point of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a pro-democracy movement which ended on 4 June 1989 with the declaration of martial law in Beijing by the government and the shooting of several hundred or possibly thousands of civilians by soldiers.
The tricky bit then is knowing what is and is not appropriate to ask your guide. Obviously, we were very aware of the protests, estimated number of deaths and abuse of human rights at the time. The government of China has used numerous names for the event since 1989, gradually reducing the intensity of terminology applied. As the events were unfolding, it was labelled a “counterrevolutionary riot”, which was later changed to simply “riot”, followed by “political storm”, and finally the leadership settled on the more neutralised phrase “political turmoil between the spring and summer of 1989,” which it uses to this day.
When we asked why fire extinguishers were strategically placed around the Square, we were told that it’s because ‘people in the past had done bad things and set themselves alight’. This is now why the Square is so strictly controlled.
From here, you walk through the underpass to the Forbidden City. Look, I’ll be honest. I did no homework on China before I left and I just assumed that the Forbidden City would be a couple of impressive buildings with an equally impressive history.
Three hours later and after having walked more than 6kms from one end to the other, our minds were officially blown.
The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. It is located in the centre of Beijing and now houses the Palace Museum. Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 ha (180 acres). The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.
For almost 500 years, it served as the home of emperors and their households, as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government. Mind you, it’s hard to imagine they had much time for official work given each had an average of 3,000 concubines also living on the property
A quick stop to learn how silk was made (and a purchase of the most comfortable bed pillows ever!), and onto the Summer Palace.
The Summer Palace is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces and is mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake. It covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres (720 acres), three-quarters of which is water.
Longevity Hill is about 60 metres (200 feet) high and has many buildings positioned in sequence. The central Kunming Lake covering 2.2 square kilometres (540 acres) was entirely man-made and the excavated soil was used to build Longevity Hill.
Whilst it is a popular tourist destination, it serves as a recreational park so you’ll find yourself wandering with a significant number of locals.
It was here we were told the story of a famous concubine who came to power over many years, the Empress Dowager Cixi, or otherwise known as the Dragon Lady. I couldn’t even begin to relay all the detail here (and Lord knows, there are pages and pages dedicated to her online) but suffice to say, it reads something like a Bold and the Beautiful plotline and confirms just how brutal the era was.
See details of our tour guide under ‘Hotel and Tour Recommendations’ – she was outstanding.
Hutongs by Pedicab
We had a free day and decided on a pedicab tour of the ‘hutongs’ as a way to fill a leisurely morning.
Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.
Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings.
The Ten Temple Lake District is now a protected 14km2 area aimed to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. The area surrounds a huge lake (with plenty of opportunity to hire a boat or fish) with many restaurants, bars and shops.
It’s also the birthplace of the last emperor, who was born in 1906 and finished his reign in 1912 at the age of 12.
We stayed on in the area for lunch by the lake – a highly recommended way to while away a sunny afternoon. This is a ‘must see’ area.
Places we didn’t get to in Beijing:
- Temple of Heaven
- Drum and Bell Tower
- Coal Mountain (opposite Forbidden City)
- Lhama Temple
The Great Wall Adventure
We’d seen all the photos of tourists on the Wall with, well…….thousands of other tourists, and knew this was not for us.
Instead, we hired a guide and driver and took off to the less unchartered areas of the Wall. Over two days, we walked 20km, through 51 watch towers in glorious sunshine and not another tourist in site.
On day one, we covered Gu Beikou to Jinshan, an older, unrestored part and a 10km walk through 36 watch towers. This day required us to abandon the wall for a good 6-7kms and hike down into the valley, through corn fields and scrub, along the wall. At one stage, as we made our way back up, we were walking along a thin ledge and literally hugging the Wall. A super experience.
Day two was spent walking the JinshanLing to SiMaTai West leg, about 6kms and 15 watch towers. This part has been recently restored. Many years ago, much of the stone was taken to build local homes. In recent years, the government has purchased back many of these homes so that the Wall can be restored with only original material.
Our guide, Cheney has walked the Wall more than 400 times and is highly recommended. His contact details are included under ‘Hotel and Tour Recommendations’.
We stayed the night at the base of the JinshanLing entrance. Not the most glamorous of digs, but you are simply too tired to care.
I could wax lyrical about how magical these two days were but a picture tells a thousand words right?
Xi’an (that’s Sigh-Ann to you and me)
We came here for one reason only. The Terracotta Soldiers.
A comfortable bullet train ride bought us over 1500kms from Beijing to Xian in six hours. The afternoon was spent wandering the city centre, Drum and Bell Towers, City Wall and fascinating side streets full of artist supply shops and stalls.
First, you stop at the pottery factory to learn how the soldiers were made, and still are today (you can buy your own life size version for around $3k with free shipping). Rob and I normally do the obligatory ‘eye roll’ when we’re taken to a place like this, but it was actually quite interesting and I did buy an awesome chess set.
It’s then onto the Soldier museum.
As we approached, we were told that the original farmer who discovered the Soldiers often works at the museum and will allow you to take a photo with him and get his autograph. Heed our warning!
It’s only now, when I have full access to information online that I discovered we were sold a dud. Don’t be swayed by the Guide (after all, they’ve probably been brainwashed to believe it’s him) and don’t be fooled by the large photo of the man with President Clinton that sits above the museum door.
His name is Yang Xian, an imposter according to local villagers and the owner of a shop that sells terracotta replicas (and where he met Clinton). The museum attendant will tell you that he is paid by the government to promote the soldiers, but that too is a lie and an unfortunate reflection on China. The original farmers have been left penniless and with limited recognition. Clearly, they lost their farms as the excavation got underway with little compensation.
To make it worse, the minute I sat down, the old geyser put his hand on my knee and had a nice grope. Not only is he an imposter but a dirty old man apparently.
It was actually Yang Zhifa, a local peasant, who found a piece of old terracotta as he dug a well, and thought he’d stumbled on a disused kiln which could supply him with free jars.
It was, as we now know, the first of an 8,000 strong terracotta army.
In March 1974, Yang’s team decided to dig a well to water the crops of the cooperative farm. Initially, they dug out the neck of a terracotta statue without a head, which eventually led to the shoulders and torso with more careful digging.
Further digging revealed bronze items, later identified as weaponry. One of Yang’s colleagues teased him: “You’ll be able to swap them for tobacco.”
Back to the Soldiers…..
The “First Qin Emperor”, Qin Shi Huangdi, who lived from 259 to 210 BC unified China in 221 BC when he put an end to the so-called Warring States period, when the country was made up of seven major kingdoms.
The centralised authoritarian regime which he established lasted for more than 2,300 years.
He standardised the writing system, currency and measures, and is regarded as the father of the Great Wall of China.
The thousands of terracotta warriors were constructed by over 700,000 locals (many peasants) to protect the Emperor in his afterlife. When the Emperor died, those who had constructed the army were apparently buried alive.
Since dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world”, entering Pit 1 (the largest) simply takes your breath away. Despite the treatment of the original farmers, the Chinese government has done an exceptional job of restoring, preserving and showcasing the Soldiers.
From the Terracotta Soldiers to the birthplace of the last emperor – with the Forbidden City and Great Wall in between – it’s an epic journey of 5,000 years achieved in just ten days. China, for us, was a truly unexpected and magical experience.
Tips for Travellers
- Do your homework on Chinese national holidays. This can make a huge difference to your experience – one way or the other. We happened to travel during the Korean Chuseok holiday which coincided with the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (often known as the Moon Cake Festival). This meant significantly less crowds.
- Most toilets require you to squat. Some are very clean, others are not. You need to be prepared that squatting may be your only option. It is also recommended that you travel with a packet of baby wipes or toilet paper as many of the facilities don’t have paper available. Below is an example; toilets at the base of the Wall where we started.
- We came to the conclusion that the Chinese are the biggest producers of flem and public nose pickers in the world. Apparently, flem must be regularly sucked into the back of your throat with as much noise as possible and then expelled onto the sidewalk or bin. If this is something that grosses you out, China may not be for you.
- Toddlers don’t wear nappies (except at night). You will see toddlers with the back of their pants cut down the seam and their cheeks on full display. This means it is very common to see a child squatting in the street to do their business. Even better when mum or dad is holding their legs in the air over a trash can so they can poop that way. Not always the best view over your morning coffee.
- There is no Facebook or Twitter access and Google is limited. You can use a VPN (eg HMA) to get around this, although we also found this difficult and gave up. Their local search engine is Baidu so I recommend you download this before you leave.
- Be adventurous with trying the food – but within your comfort zone. I’m not suggesting deep fried scorpion or turtle soup, but if travelling with a guide who can order local dishes, you won’t be disappointed. We fell in love with the eggplant dish, dumplings and Peking Duck in particular.
- Be aware that you are body searched at the security screening point at the airport. This means a full over-the-clothes feel of all areas!
- From our experience at the Warriors, don’t believe everything you are told by guides and locals. This is more likely for the reason that the Chinese government so tightly controls media, information and freedom of speech, and not necessarily a reflection of what they know to be true.
- We found cabs the easiest way to get around. We typically use the public transport system in any city we visit but our research of the subway system indicated it was extremely congested. Cabs were cheap. That said, take your hotel and any other addresses you need, printed on A4 paper in Chinese. This was a life-saver for us in the end as many cab drivers won’t always stop for foreigners, as they don’t speak English and/or can’t read the small print on your hotel brochure or itinerary.
A Few Key Words
Pietsio = Beer
Nee Hau (Knee How) = Hello
Xie Xie (Seeya Seeya) = Thank You
Zaijian = Bye
Wayshema = Wine
Hotel and Tour Recommendations
Beijing Hotel; Beijing Park Plaza, 97 Jinbao St, Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100005, Ph: +86 1085221999. 4 star, central, large rooms, extremely well appointed, fabulous staff, value for money, free WIFI. Happy Hour from 5pm-8pm. One of the best hotels we’ve ever stayed at.
Bullet Train and Flight Bookings; China Travel Guide. All enquiries and bookings can be made online with a tracking number. Very easy to deal with. We asked for our train tickets to be delivered to our Beijing hotel and they were waiting when we arrived. Our plane tickets were emailed to us.
Private Tours; not sure about you, but we loathe group tours. For a little extra, you can travel in the comfort of your own car, design your own tour and have the undivided attention of the guide. We booked a day tour of Beijing (Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and Olympic Stadium). Our guide was Candy Lin. Please ask for her when booking. She was a walking encyclopaedia. In Xian, we booked our own driver and guide for the Terracotta Warriors. We recommend you ask for Tracy. Both tours were again booked through Travel China Guide.
Great Wall Hike; we booked the Sunrise/Sunset two day hike through Great Wall Adventures. Our guide was Cheney. He can be contacted directly for a personalised tour at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +86 186 0040 6264.. If you would prefer to book through the company, here are details of the hike we did. In our view, there is no other way to experience the Wall.
Xian Hotel; Sofitel Xian on Renmin Square, 319 Dong Xin Street, Shaanxi, 710004 XIAN, Ph: +86 29/87928888. 5 star hotel, but not the price (we paid $190 and was upgraded to a junior suite), around ten restaurants and bars, outstanding amenities, free WIFI.
Other Market Suggestions
Description: Another quaint outdoor alley full of shops in an old neighbourhood.
Address: Liulichang Street near Nanxinhua Street. Liulichang (“lyoh lee chahng”) market is near the Hepingmen Peace Gate “heh ping muhn why dah jee-ay”. Here’s the address in Chinese: 琉璃厂文化大街, 和平门外大街. 20 minutes by cab from hotel.
Opening hours: Daily 9am-6pm.
Comments: Similar in nature to Yandai Xiejie, Liulichang is a street chockablock with curio, books, tea and antique shops. An area where scholars and academics liked to congregate in Ming times, the shops are filled with related objects such as calligraphy scrolls, ink stones, Chinese brush art and old books. Famous shops include Rongbaozhai, Qingmige, China Bookshop and Haiwangcun.
Description: Hip alley full of backpacker cafes, great eats and unique shops.
Address: Address: Nan Luo Gu Xiang near Gu Lou Dong Da Jie. Here’s the address in Chinese 南锣鼓巷. 14 minutes by cab from hotel.
Opening hours: Daily 9am till late
Comments: This has been a very nice recent discovery. A pedestrian alley, this is a hip sister to Liulichang. There are cafes with open air seating, cool restaurants and some very funky shops to find great souvenirs for back home.
Yandai Xiejie (Old Pipe Street)
Description: Outdoor alley shopping in an old neighbourhood.
Address: Yandai Xiejie (烟袋斜街) near Houhai. (“Yandai Xiejie” is actually the name of the street and folks will know what you’re talking about.) Pronounced “yan die shee-ay jee-ay”. The address in Chinese is 烟袋斜街. 15 minutes by cab from hotel.
Opening hours: Daily 10am till late.
Comments: This street was originally the site of long-stemmed pipe vendors (thus the name). Located in an 800-year old hutong neighbourhood that hasn’t been bulldozed for the Olympics or otherwise, you can get a feel for an ancient neighbourhood while browsing through antiquities, minority shops and art galleries. There are plenty of cafés and bars to assist you should you need refreshment.