China – Beijing and Xi’an

We spent our first week in China in Beijing and Xi’an, and saw many world-famous sites!

Monday  July 9  We arrived in Beijing and took the airport railway into town (another city with airport rail!).  We dropped off our stuff in the hutong hostel, and then after a quick nap decided to walk around to find a city map and something to eat. We headed down to ‘tourist central’ – Wangfujing street and its surrounding area. We asked for a map at the tourist information centre and got one of the area with most of the touristy stuff. After taking in the sights (scorpions still moving on a stick, anyone?) we played it safe and got some dumplings at Donghuamen snack street, and some roasted corn on a stick from Wangfujing snack street.

Tuesday July 10   Still zonked after the day of travel, we unfortunately slept until the hottest part of the day! With only two full days booked in Beijing, we decided to venture out to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. They were both very impressive, and huge! We didn’t spend too much time at Tiananmen Square, but we spent nearly 4 hours exploring the Forbidden City, and we had to skip some parts! We exited through the north gate of the city and walked through a gauntlet of people begging for money and trying to sell tours on their 3-wheelers of the hutong. At Wangfujing the night before, “bu yao” (“no want”) and “wo mei you” (“I don’t have”) usually resulted in people backing off, but not here! It reminded us a bit of being in Havana, where it sometimes seemed like the whole city wants to part you from your money.

After making it through the gauntlet, we decided to try and find something to eat closer to our hostel. We were exploring the hutong when all of a sudden it started pouring rain! That helped us make a quick decision – we chose the closest restaurant we could find that had a bunch of tables already occupied. We ordered a bunch of dishes, then heard a commotion at the table behind us.  The roof had started leaking right above their table!  The waiters quickly moved them, and then about 5 minutes later, the downpour started coming through the light fixtures all along one side of the room.  Thankfully our table was well-situated and we didn’t get wet, but we did have the rest of our meal in romantic low lighting (for safety).   After dinner we tried to book a train trip to Xi’an later in the week, but were informed the earliest date we could get a ticket for would be next Monday. We decided we would rather get there sooner, so we opted for a flight on Thursday instead.  We also booked a guided tour to the Great Wall. We wanted to visit the Simatai section, however it is currently closed for renovations, so we chose the to visit the Mutianyu section instead.

Wednesday July 11   The Great Wall was amazing, but it was also  a reminder why Mike and I often like to travel solo rather than with a tour group. The pros to the tour were: 1) we didn’t have to worry about navigating two bus systems, in fact we were picked up right at the hostel. 2) Lunch was arranged for us, and was delicious! It was nice to not have to worry about that for a day. 3) The guide already had our entry tickets, so we only had to buy a ticket to take a chairlift to the top of the wall…. and there was no line there! However there was one very major con for us: after being held up in traffic in Beijing, we only ended up having a little less than 3 hours to be on the wall. That was just barely enough time to walk the section, and we had to skip our opportunity to take a toboggan to the bottom. The lineup to take the toboggan was 1 hour long, and we had a choice: line up, and probably take the toboggan down, and definitely miss lunch, or, take the chairlift back, and eat lunch. If we did both, we would have missed our bus back. I suppose we could have bailed on the tour, and taken public transit back, but there was no way of alerting the tour guide of our choice, as she stayed in town while the group was exploring the wall. Oh well. We were definitely in the minority there. One other couple hiked the whole section, and they chose to wait for the toboggan, but ended up taking the chairlift in the end. Everyone else spent less time on the wall and slid down early.

All that being said, being on the wall was amazing! The views were incredible, and on this section each one of the watch towers had a different design. It was also unbelievably hot, and a tough climb in many parts, but it was definitely a rewarding experience. We were in awe of the enterprising people we saw on the wall selling frozen water bottles, red bull and beer. I don’t think I would want to carry all that up there!

When we returned to Beijing, we showered, changed and walked down to Wangfujing street one more time. This time to eat Peking Duck at QuanJude Roast Duck Restaurant. The place was massive, and filled with people. We ordered a half duck (plus pancakes, scallion and sauce), some duck fried rice, kale and fried shrimp. All of it was great! Then we headed back to the hostel to pack up.

Thursday July 12 We woke up early and headed to the airport for our flight to Xi’an. Domestic flights are interesting here – the security check is quite similar to flying internationally and having to go through immigration, and pretty much the most different you can get from flying domestic from Newfoundland! We bought a map of Xi’an and tickets for the airport express bus downtown, and then boarded. Almost instantly a few people said hello and wanted to know what our plans were for visiting the area! We talked most of the way with a girl named Lu Xiang, who was headed home for the summer from university. She wanted to practice her English and be our tour guide, so we arranged to meet her the next morning at our hotel, which she very kindly helped us find. Once set up there, we wandered the neighbourhood a bit and found a nice place to eat – fried rice, green beans, pork in black bean sauce and some dumplings. Yum!

Friday July 13 Woke up early to meet Lu Xiang. She took us to Xingquing Palace park where we watched many different groups of people singing, dancing, some tai chi (with swords and without) and people spinning tops using whips! Then we caught a bus to the Muslim culinary area and had lunch. Xi’an is the end of the Silk Road, and the influence of the Middle East is readily apparent – Muslim architecture, Arabic writing and even a very old mosque. We got some delicious food here, and watched the locals deal with a small electrical fire after a transformer blew (someone called an electrician at some point, but most people took pictures with their phones, and a nearby resident put it out with a fire extinguisher after about 5 minutes). Mike and I were a bit surprised, this is the second time we’ve experienced something odd go on while eating! Then we visited the Drum and Bell Towers before heading off to Dayan (Big Wild Goose) Pagoda. At the Pagoda, a few people wanted to have their photographs taken with us. Particularly hilarious were a couple of tiny women who each wanted their own photo with me. I will miss our ‘celebrity status’ once we’re gone! We were walking around to the front of the Pagoda when a storm started to blow in, so we decided to call it a day.

Saturday July 14 We slept in a bit and then headed to Daming Palace National Heritage Park. We had some instant noodles for lunch and then caught a show and visited the archaeological museum there. It looks like it would be a great place to visit as a student – in the back they had a simulated dig site set up, and a few quadrants indoors too. The highlight of that visit for me was discovering how the Lu Ban wooden lock works (a way to build wooden frames that is easily disassembled and reassembled). Neat stuff! The park is absolutely huge – we barely scratched the surface of what there was to see! If we went back, I’d rent a bicycle from the tourist centre to help deal with the long distances between sights here.

Sunday July 15   We caught a local bus to the Railway Station, where we boarded a tourist bus to the Terracotta Warriors and Emperor Quinshihuang’s Mausoleum. It is about an hour long trip. We spent a long time at each site. The Terracotta Warriors were amazing, and I really enjoyed seeing the dig sites at the Mausoleum too. We hired a guide for the Warriors part of the day, but we found she only told us a few things we hadn’t learned before by watching documentaries and doing a bit of reading, and she pressured us a bit to buy things in the gift-shop. There is very little in the way of signs that tell you what you’re looking at, so having a guide was good, but I might have preferred one of the self-lead audio guides. At the end of the tour, she offered to take us back to the front gate, but we declined and hung around to walk around everything again and take more pictures. There were a lot of people there, and we even ran into a fellow from Spain we had met on the Great Wall a few days before! We caught a local bus back, and got a good tour of the suburban area around Xi’an. I was astounded by the number of people that were packed on there, and was very glad that we got on early enough to have seats!

Monday July 16   We visited Lu Xiang and her family at home in a nearby village for our last full day in Xi’an. We took 2 city buses (1.5 h travel) into her town, and she met us at the bus stop with her sister. They drove us out into the country, past drying bricks, farmer’s fields and greenhouses cleverly made of one earth wall and plastic sheets. Their mother was waiting for us, with local grapes, peaches and watermelon for a snack. It was delicious! Their father came home a little while later to meet us. We talked with all of them, and showed them some pictures of Canada, with Lu Xiang doing a great job as a translator. Lu Xiang’s mother is an amazing craftswoman, who does needle work, makes silk flowers and she gave me a lovely purse with crochet flowers on it! After that we hopped back in the car to head back to town, where we had a hot pot lunch (spicy and delicious), and then visited Lu Xiang’s high school, where there was a very old pagoda, and lots of construction. She said in the future her family will be relocated to one of the new buildings – part of China’s modernization. Our last stop was at the confluence of the Yellow and Wei rivers. The mix of the clear and silty waters is supposed to be very beauiful, but the rivers have moved since the last time they have visited the lookout, and now the two water bodies are pretty well mixed there. Still, you can see old river channels and an impressive view of the countryside from that spot! After taking in the view, they dropped us off at the bus stop, where we got a free ride, because Lu Xiang’s sister is a bus driver! Lucky!

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