Day 7: Peking Duck / China

Our last full day in China was mostly spent on a train. We finally used a DiDi (Chinese Uber but way better) to take us from our Airbnb to Shanghai Huangpu Train Station. It took us about 30 min to figure out that at this station you need to go through passport and bag security before you pick up your tickets. (Oi, it’s tough navigating a place when you can’t read the signs or ask anyone for help!) But once we were in it took all of 3 minutes for Addam to get our tickets thanks to multiple pickup points. (Best experience yet!) We went to McDonalds where we got some breakfast.

Our last bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing was about 5 hours and 20 minutes. The most interesting part for me on each of these train rides was to see the mini city collection of high rise apartment buildings appear, then disappear from view, at regular intervals. The space between each high rise building seemed odd. Why not connect the buildings together like in Europe? If I ever have the opportunity to visit China again I would forgo the cities in favour of visiting the smaller towns and villages. It is mind boggling to think of how many people live in China.

We got a cab to The Prime Hotel, and after a short break, took another cab to Liqun Roast Duck (thanks again, Anthony Bourdain). Beijing is famous for its Peking Duck, and it was the last “must do” on Addam’s list. This place is extremely popular and somewhat of a tourist destination, even for the locals. We had to wait close to an hour for our table. Meanwhile we took some videos and photos of the cooks and sat outside.

I’ve had duck before at Tusk & Trotter in Bentonville but it was just a pâtè. They roasted a whole duck for us and sliced it up. If we wanted the grizzly parts we had to order extra but after all the sides we couldn’t possibly fit it into our overfilled bellies.

The flavour was like chicken, but richer. G and I got full pretty quickly. Addam tried his best to eat as much as he could but in the end we had some breast left over. It was a really lovely meal, and completely worth the long wait.

Our trip back to the hotel was eventful. We had a hard time hailing cabs in China without the help of taxi lines at train stations and airports. I guess they didn’t want to deal with foreign speaking white people.

The DiDi app in Beijing was severely lacking in drivers. I wondered if it was because it records the full audio of your ride from the drivers phone, and being in the capital, maybe drivers were too worried about picking up government employees? In any case we were walking back in the direction of our hotel when a man on a bike started calling out to us. I ignored him but Addam was curious so he showed the guy where we wanted to go and all the sudden there were two bikes and we were on the back of them. It was a rather thrilling ride, with the semi-cool wind whipping our faces. They were clearly motorised bikes because they had a fair few miles to get to our hotel. It cost quite a bit too but I think that’s just because Addam didn’t haggle. (Seriously, we are the worst at haggling.)

Finally, we were back at our hotel and the next morning we took a plane back to the good ole USA.

This was one of the hardest, most tiring trips we have ever taken, but I am so glad we did it. I never in my life thought I would climb the Great Wall of China or see the Terracotta Warriors. China was not on my bucket list, but that seems to be a running theme for the places I have visited lately (ie, Iceland, Spain, Andorra). It wasn’t what I expected and it was so much better than I could have imagined. (It was also worth the huge hassle of driving 20 hours to get visas!) I felt honoured to visit an ancient country, learn first hand about their culture and customs, and above all feel the alienation that visitors to our own countries feel when they can’t speak our language. I wish that everybody had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be the “other”.

Day 6: Yu Garden, Shanghai Tower & Lin Long Fang / China

Our day started with a quick ride on the subway and a short walk to the Yu Garden. This peaceful, beautiful classical Chinese garden was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Walking through it was like navigating a maze.
Next to the Yu Garden was an equally impressive outdoor mall called the Yuyuan Bazaar. It was filled with artisanal stores. We had avoided purchasing souvenirs from market sellers because of the necessity for haggling so we were fairly eager to make some purchases at genuine stores. We made some purchases at an authentic hand painted fan store.
A 15 minute walk through crowded alleyways and streets took us to the Huangpu River. We purchased ferry tickets for just 2 CNY each (that’s just 30 cents USD!) The ferry took all of 10 minutes to take us from one side to the other.
Once we arrived we walked over to Shanghai Tower and went up to the observation deck. Some fun facts: Shanghai Tower is the second tallest building in the world, and the observation deck is the highest observation deck in the work.
We were getting super overheated and tired at this point but we needed to make one more stop before taking a break. The great Anthony Bourdain led us to a hole-in-the-wall dumpling restaurant called Lin Long Fang. They are famous for their soup filled dumplings. To avoid burning your mouth with lava hot soup, you dip your dumpling into a little plate of vinegar for a minute before eating it. For the most part it was really delicious, all except for a mysteriously named “assorted meat” filling, which was gray in colour and probably a nice pâtè of grizzly bits.
After a rest at the Airbnb and a failed attempt to find a famous bookstore we went back to the river for a one hour evening cruise. The Shanghai skyline is breathtaking at night with the fantastic light display. I’ve been to many cities and hands down Shanghai wins. We couldn’t take enough photos and videos.
To cap a very long day we took a taxi to a Korean restaurant. We thought that since we were geographically close to Korea that we would have a really amazing, authentic Korean BBQ dinner. Alas, I chose poorly. The food was great, but it turned out to be less authentic than even the Korean BBQ we have in Kansas City. The tteokbokki had a strange Chinese sauce instead of the usual gochujang (red pepper paste). It was good, just different. Nobody at the restaurant could speak Korean, which was a big disappointment to Addam.

Day 5: Xi’an to Shanghai / China

We woke up early in the morning so we could get to Xi’an North station and take another bullet train over to Shanghai. Every station is a little different. In Xi’an things were less organized than Beijing. At the ticket pickup rude people attempted to cut lines. I had one English speaking woman try to appeal to me that her train was leaving earlier than ours so could she please go ahead of me in line? Uh, no. I was already so sweaty and frustrated with the number of people successfully jumping ahead that I had no patience to help anyone. I deliberately dragged Addam and G out of bed early so that we could be on time for our train. At every step we had to learn where to go and what to do without speaking or reading the language. There was no way we were going to miss our train because others had poor time management skills. After a long, one hour wait I finally had our tickets, we went through security and boarded our train.
The train from Xi’an to Shanghai is almost 6 hours but it was a fairly pleasant journey. They sell meals, drinks and snacks, have free wifi and large windows to view the passing scenery. The toilets are a disgusting mess but so are the toilets on any train so I can’t fault them for that. The attendants on the train do a great job cleaning up after everyone. A lady comes down the aisle to collect trash about every 15 min. After people board the train, at every stop, another person mops the floors down the aisle. I saw them clean the toilets too so I shudder to think how gross they would have been without regular cleaning.
After arriving at Shanghai we got a taxi downtown to our Airbnb. I picked a 2 bedroom “Plus” apartment with a super host for $140 a night, just a block away from a metro station and within walking distance of many restaurants. Our host was awesome. She provided us with detailed instructions in English (and accompanying photos) for how to find, and access the apartment. This kind of thoughtfulness really had me thinking about the way we treat foreign speaking tourists in Australia and America. (Hint: we suck) The street looked pretty rundown, but the apartment building had a security attendant and there was literally no place in China where we ever felt unsafe. There are good reasons for this but I won’t get into politics. The interior of our Airbnb looked vastly different compared to its exterior. It was impeccably decorated with Dali prints and art pieces (a nice little throwback to our last trip to Spain). It also had the best air conditioning we experienced in China (aka it actually worked).
Geneviette was a huge fan. I tried to book places where she could have her own space and a real bed (not an uncomfortable sofa bed). At this Airbnb she had her own room, a Queen sized bed, and a pretty spectacular view of Shanghai from her window. Plus the decor was just very inviting and comfortable. Personally it was a relief not to deal with checking into a hotel in a foreign language. We were able to gain access through a lockbox and I was able to communicate with my host via WeChat.
We arrived in the late afternoon so we decided to go out for dinner. Addam forgot something in the apartment, and while G and I waited outside we saw a couple of tiny kittens running across the street. One little white and ginger kitty with a messed up eye ended up in the driveway to the apartment when one car, whose driver clearly couldn’t see the kitten, drove in. G and I both were horrified. We could have sworn we heard something being squished. Our faces were. The driver saw our faces and froze. His passenger looked out her window. And right then Addam walked down the driveway. The driver couldn’t see anything and looked like he was about to keep going when Addam indicated for him to stop. Then he rushed over and reached down. From where G and I were standing we couldn’t see what he was doing. I didn’t want to look, surely he wouldn’t pick up a squished kitty, but if it was alive why wasn’t it meowing anymore? Then finally we saw he had pulled up a perfectly fine kitten. It started to squeak again as Addam brought it over to a garden bed, away from the street. Poor little thing looked to be just days old. I included a picture of him/her waddling its little butt down the street.
We started to walk to the restaurant and laughed about how Addam is an international protector of animals. When we were in Ireland he saved a lamb from certain death after we found it stuck between a fence and a water trough. So silly. As we walked through the streets of Shanghai we couldn’t help but compare it to Beijing. In Shanghai government guards are not posted every few feet, the buildings are modern, lights and color fill the city skyline, and the people are fashionably dressed. Women particularly dressed more conservatively in Beijing, whereas in Shanghai they wore shorter skirts, dresses and generally more fashionable clothing. I really enjoyed Beijing, but the political weight of the capital casts a shadow over the city. Shanghai felt like the cities we are used to, and honestly even puts New York to shame. Later that night we walked through a shopping district with every major high end brand you can think of: Tiffany & Co, Chanel, Versace, even a Givenchy! I felt extremely underdressed and if I ever go back to Shanghai I’ll be packing my finest dresses.
As we got closer to the restaurant we ended up beside a group of Americans who were going in the same direction. We hadn’t heard Americans for a few days and their accents cut through the air like a knife. They were a large group so we let them go ahead, and found ourselves suddenly in a little European alleyway. It was very jarring. We kept walking and all the sudden the alley led to a big piazza bustling with hundreds of people, sitting in modern, terrace restaurants finely decorated in the Western European style. It took our brains a little while to catch up. It honestly felt like we had taken some wormhole portal through to Europe. We were delighted.
The restaurant we picked is called The Refinery, and serves Italian and American food. We’d been eating Chinese food since we had arrived and thought it would be a nice break. The whole experience was lovely. They had fans going, the piazza was shady, and very inviting. As the sun set street lamp lights lit up the restaurants and the path through the piazza.
We were instantly in love with Shanghai and we had barely explored it yet. Every station is a little different. In Xi’an things were less organized than Beijing. At the ticket pickup rude people attempted to cut lines. I had one English speaking woman try to appeal to me that her train was leaving earlier than ours so could she please go ahead of me in line? Uh, no. I was already so sweaty and frustrated with the number of people successfully jumping ahead that I had no patience to help anyone. I deliberately dragged Addam and G out of bed early so that we could be on time for our train. At every step we had to learn where to go and what to do without speaking or reading the language. There was no way we were going to miss our train because others had poor time management skills. After a long, one hour wait I finally had our tickets, we went through security and boarded our train.
The train from Xi’an to Shanghai is almost 6 hours but it was a fairly pleasant journey. They sell meals, drinks and snacks, have free wifi and large windows to view the passing scenery. The toilets are a disgusting mess but so are the toilets on any train so I can’t fault them for that. The attendants on the train do a great job cleaning up after everyone. A lady comes down the aisle to collect trash about every 15 min. After people board the train, at every stop, another person mops the floors down the aisle. I saw them clean the toilets too so I shudder to think how gross they would have been without regular cleaning.
After arriving at Shanghai we got a taxi downtown to our Airbnb. I picked a 2 bedroom “Plus” apartment with a super host for $140 a night, just a block away from a metro station and within walking distance of many restaurants. Our host was awesome. She provided us with detailed instructions in English (and accompanying photos) for how to find, and access the apartment. This kind of thoughtfulness really had me thinking about the way we treat foreign speaking tourists in Australia and America. (Hint: we suck) The street looked pretty rundown, but the apartment building had a security attendant and there was literally no place in China where we ever felt unsafe. There are good reasons for this but I won’t get into politics. The interior of our Airbnb looked vastly different compared to its exterior. It was impeccably decorated with Dali prints and art pieces (a nice little throwback to our last trip to Spain). It also had the best air conditioning we experienced in China (aka it actually worked).
Geneviette was a huge fan. I tried to book places where she could have her own space and a real bed (not an uncomfortable sofa bed). At this Airbnb she had her own room, a Queen sized bed, and a pretty spectacular view of Shanghai from her window. Plus the decor was just very inviting and comfortable. Personally it was a relief not to deal with checking into a hotel in a foreign language. We were able to gain access through a lockbox and I was able to communicate with my host via WeChat.
We arrived in the late afternoon so we decided to go out for dinner. Addam forgot something in the apartment, and while G and I waited outside we saw a couple of tiny kittens running across the street. One little white and ginger kitty with a messed up eye ended up in the driveway to the apartment when one car, whose driver clearly couldn’t see the kitten, drove in. G and I both were horrified. We could have sworn we heard something being squished. Our faces were. The driver saw our faces and froze. His passenger looked out her window. And right then Addam walked down the driveway. The driver couldn’t see anything and looked like he was about to keep going when Addam indicated for him to stop. Then he rushed over and reached down. From where G and I were standing we couldn’t see what he was doing. I didn’t want to look, surely he wouldn’t pick up a squished kitty, but if it was alive why wasn’t it meowing anymore? Then finally we saw he had pulled up a perfectly fine kitten. It started to squeak again as Addam brought it over to a garden bed, away from the street. Poor little thing looked to be just days old. I included a picture of him/her waddling its little butt down the street.
We started to walk to the restaurant and laughed about how Addam is an international protector of animals. When we were in Ireland he saved a lamb from certain death after we found it stuck between a fence and a water trough. So silly. As we walked through the streets of Shanghai we couldn’t help but compare it to Beijing. In Shanghai government guards are not posted every few feet, the buildings are modern, lights and color fill the city skyline, and the people are fashionably dressed. Women particularly dressed more conservatively in Beijing, whereas in Shanghai they wore shorter skirts, dresses and generally more fashionable clothing. I really enjoyed Beijing, but the political weight of the capital casts a shadow over the city. Shanghai felt like the cities we are used to, and honestly even puts New York to shame. Later that night we walked through a shopping district with every major high end brand you can think of: Tiffany & Co, Chanel, Versace, even a Givenchy! I felt extremely underdressed and if I ever go back to Shanghai I’ll be packing my finest dresses.
As we got closer to the restaurant we ended up beside a group of Americans who were going in the same direction. We hadn’t heard Americans for a few days and their accents cut through the air like a knife. They were a large group so we let them go ahead, and found ourselves suddenly in a little European alleyway. It was very jarring. We kept walking and all the sudden the alley led to a big piazza bustling with hundreds of people, sitting in modern, terrace restaurants finely decorated in the Western European style. It took our brains a little while to catch up. It honestly felt like we had taken some wormhole portal through to Europe. We were delighted.
The restaurant we picked is called The Refinery, and serves Italian and American food. We’d been eating Chinese food since we had arrived and thought it would be a nice break. The whole experience was lovely. They had fans going, the piazza was shady, and very inviting. As the sun set street lamp lights lit up the restaurants and the path through the piazza.
We were instantly in love with Shanghai and we had barely explored it yet.

Day 4: Terracotta Warriors & Xi’an / China

This morning we had a private tour to see the Terracotta Warriors.

Our guide, Jenny, and our driver picked us up at the hotel. The Terracotta Warriors are located about an hour north east from downtown Xi’an. Along the way Jenny told us some of the history of how the Terracotta Warriors were discovered in the 1970s, and that they were built “to guard” the tomb of China’s First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. She also described the painstaking efforts made by archaeologists to preserve them.

I had no idea that the warriors were found in pieces, and that they had to be put back together. They are highly susceptible to damage, from people and the environment. In the 80s, for example, VIP tours allowed tourists to get up close to the warriors but they soon realized how much humans suck and made a stronger effort in protecting them from opportunistic tourists. Pollution from tour buses was also causing damage to the Terracotta Army. So in 2003 they built a park from the tour buses to the Terracotta Army pits and put a 1 mile path through it so that the warriors could be kept a safe distance from the buses.

Another risk came when the area experienced a strong earthquake in 2008. Jenny told us that it struck right before open hours so tourists were not in the pits yet but scientists rushed over, terrified that decades of work putting the Terracotta Army back together would be destroyed. If just one warrior toppled, it could trigger a domino effect that could utterly destroy the entire army. As the ground shook the 300lb heavy Warriors didn’t topple over but their heads did eerily shake from side to side. It turns out that the heads are separate pieces from the bodies. The damage was minimal and the scientists could breathe a sigh of relief. It is very clear that the heads are the most fragile part of the warriors. Many heads have been lost to history because the original pieces were destroyed beyond repair.

Interestingly, archaeologists believe that the Terracotta Army was destroyed on purpose by enemies of the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. A roof built above the army likely collapsed, crushing the warriors.

Again we were surrounded by thousands of Chinese tourists, and together we walked through the park to the entrance. We went through two bag security and passport checks. There are three pits (buildings that house the pits where they have dug up the Terracotta Army).

We went into Pit 1 first. This is the famous one, which houses reconstructed warriors standing side-by-side. It’s a really large building, with a walkway wrapped around the pit. The busiest section is near the entrance, where the Terracotta Army warriors stand guard. Their unique stony faces stare eternally at an invisible enemy. On a walkway above their eye line, a mosh pit of hundreds of sweaty bodies shoving against each other, their arms raised, clasping phones and cameras, trying to get the perfect photo.

It is an awe inspiring sight, to see the famous Terracotta Army, but it really takes you out of the moment when people are literally clawing at your body to push you out of the way. Eventually you just have to give yourself over to animal instincts and shove your way to the front, etiquette be damned.

I took my photos, spent a few moments getting a good look at the faces of the beautifully crafted warriors, and marvelled at how each one is as different as the real, human faces around me. After I was done (it might have been one minute) I pulled myself out of the crowd. Addam and G took my spot. Once they got out Addam somehow had someone else’s headphones on his shoulder. That’s how crazy it was.

While the views from the sides were not as good as the front it was still great to spend more time examining the pit and the warriors. Our tour guide took us to the other pits, one of which is a working site. It was interesting to see the state in which they find the warriors, and it’s a sad mess of broken pieces. It’s unbelievable how they are able to put them back together.

Apparently archaeologists have barely scratched the surface on uncovering and repairing all the warriors. There are thousands and it can take years for a team to find all the pieces and to fix just one.

Our tour was only meant to be a half day, but on our way our Jenny asked us if we wanted to purchase souvenirs and have lunch.

I’m still on the fence about how I feel about this part of the day. While I was researching tours in China there were many companies promoting themselves as “no shopping tours”. I love souvenirs so I thought that was odd. Do people really hate having the opportunity to buy a souvenir? And then I read horror stories about how tour guides turn into forceful, used car salesmen as they take you from store to store, trying to get you to buy things so they get a cut of your purchase.

Jenny was a really sweet tour guide but I think from the moment we said “yes” she got excited about the opportunity and it got out of hand.

She took us to meet one of the men who discovered the terracotta soldiers while farming the land. He signs guide books and takes a photo with you for a fee. It was a cute enough experience but boy the salespeople and Jenny really worked to upsell us on a myriad of souvenirs. “It is good luck to have these three warrior statues together, not just one.” “It’s more traditional to have a bigger statue.”

Then we went to a restaurant that apparently was a tea house where they give you samples of different teas and try to get you to purchase the tea in bulk. We were sweaty, tired and hungry. Hot tea was the last thing we wanted but we obliged and ate a really delicious meal.

After the restaurant we wanted to leave but Jenny was pretty insistent on us buying Jade jewelry because it brings good fortune or something. We said no a bunch of times before she finally relented.

Who knows, maybe I was just being super sensitive and she was just trying to be a helpful tour guide in telling us what would be good souvenirs. But I’m fairly certain she got a cut from our purchases and a free lunch at the restaurant where we ate. Anyway, I still highly recommend the site where we booked the private tours.

For anyone who is interested we decided to do private tours because they are 1) really affordable 2) the only convenient way to get around outside of a city without hiring a car and 3) come with an English speaking guide. We used tour-beijing.com, whose affordable prices included booking and paying for the tickets to all the attractions we visited. I can’t imagine how we would have done all we did if we had to navigate these places on our own.

Day 3: Lama Temple, Ghost Street & the Bullet Train / China

We woke up very early and sat in the courtyard, sipping tea while we waited for breakfast to open at 7. The breakfast at our hotel was a delicious Chinese buffet, which included dumplings, stir fry, steamed vegetarian and pork buns, sausage, and fruit. We checked out of our hotel but the very kind staff held our bags for us so we could enjoy our day in Beijing before our train later that afternoon.

The Lama Temple

After figuring out how the Beijing train system worked, we ended up at the Lama Temple, a monastery of the Geleng school of Tibetan Buddhism. This is still a deeply religious space and so photos were not allowed in certain sections.
First we walked along a shaded path surrounded by some trees, before reaching the true entrance with the beautifully ornate arches. On either side attendants handed out free bunches of incense sticks, which you can light at various spots in the temple.
After walking into the first courtyard we were overcome by the powerful smell of burning incense. As we approached we could see a few fire pits with people crowded around trying to light their sticks. At the very front there were lines of people kneeling, bowing their upper bodies continuously so it looked like a sea of bobbing heads with smoke streaming up into the air above them. Others standing in the courtyard clutched their incense sticks and bowed to the north, then to the east, south and finally west.
Although we are not Buddhist it felt polite to light our incense sticks and at least look contemplatively at our surroundings. This was much harder than I expected. We reached into a deep fiery pit and seemed to have more luck burning our hands with heat than lighting our stubborn sticks. Eventually we lit some but with the close proximity to other burning incense it was really hard to breathe and look peaceful. So after spluttering through the smoke we put our sticks into a pit and moved along.
After walking so much the day before it was really hard to enjoy being outside again. We were all drenched in sweat and the sun prickled our skin. The chafing was the worst part, there’s just not much you can do to stop that horrible pain from ruining your day.
But we powered through, took photos and marveled at the really unique Buddha figures and statues in each of the rooms. One in particular, the Statue of Maitreya, was very impressive and actually made it into the Guinness World Book of Records. I snuck a photo, but it’s a little blurry and difficult to fully appreciate the get the scale of this statue. Personally I felt it was wasted stuck in a really tall and narrow building and not in a open space where she could be seen from afar.

Hot Pot in Ghost Street

For lunch we found a hot pot restaurant in “Ghost Street”, which is famous for having restaurants open 24/7. This was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences because nobody spoke English, the menu was only in Chinese, and we can’t speak or read Chinese. But Addam did his best trying to communicate by pointing at what we wanted to eat, and eventually we got a delicious authentic hot pot meal. It reminded me of Dainty Sichuan, a Chinese hot pot restaurant in South Yarra, Melbourne.

Shopping in Bejing

By this time we were utterly exhausted, but it was still too early to go back to the hotel, so we went to the shopping district where there are multi level modern malls and stores. This is very close to Tiananmen Square so there were a lot of tourists around.
We discovered a massive bookstore, which looked really foreign on the inside because the Chinese book covers are designed differently to English books. The children and young adult section on the third floor was the best part. It was so colourful and busy with parents and kids reading books. G and I have started a collection of foreign language Harry Potter books that we purchase as souvenirs when we visit new countries. So we found the mandarin versions (maybe my favourite so far!) and Addam purchased a couple of books too.
Finally we went back to the hotel where the kindest hotel staff on earth let us sit in their shady, and cool bar room, brought us bottles of water, our bags and called us a taxi. Did I mention they also gave us some tea as a parting gift. I left them a nice review on trip.com.

Beijing West Train Station

And now for one of the craziest experiences of my life – Beijing West train station. No words, photos or videos can truly convey the craziness of this place. I have never seen so many people rushing around in an open space in my life. The only thing I can compare it to was peak hour in London and a wave of professionally-dressed bodies moving in unison toward one train station but multiplied by a thousand. I estimate that the number of people at this station numbered in the tens of thousands. The formally quiet streets of Beijing became a loud thunder of voices cut with the ear-ringing inducing shouting of microphone voices coming from behind service windows. Some signs were translated into English but we could not have found our way around without the help of trip.com.
We used trip.com to book all of our hotels and train tickets because it is a Chinese company but boy was I so glad we used it when we got to the station. They have descriptions and accompanying photos to help you navigate a major train station. Along with these instructions they provide hotel vouchers, taxi printouts and ticket descriptions in English with Mandarin translations so all you have to do is show the person your phone screen and they know exactly what address or ticket number they need to reference.
Blindly following the instructions we lined up to pick up our tickets, app and passports in hand. We were dehydrated, tired, chaffed and utterly overwhelmed by foreign sounds and bodies around us. I instinctually started to feel panicked. I guess it was a visceral reaction to being so “other”. To take my mind off the chaos around me I focused on the people at the front of the line, observing their interactions with the staff in an attempt to practice what I needed to do to get our tickets. Thankfully everything turned out to be extremely simple. I handed over my phone and passports. The man typed up our information, and printed our tickets.
The next challenge was to get to our waiting room. At these train stations you don’t wait at a platform. You look at the screens, find your train number and the waiting room number. It’s very much like finding your gate to board a plane. We found a screen that gave us the number, but before we could walk over we needed to go through scanned security. Despite thousands of people all needing to go through, the process was very efficient and fast. There’s no waiting, you throw your bag onto the conveyer belt, walk through the metal detector, get patted down, grab your bag and leave.
Through throngs of people, we found our way to the waiting room, sat for about an hour, and eventually boarded our first bullet train to Xi’an.
The journey covers an impressive 1215 km in just 4.5 hours, travelling at a max speed of 304km per hour. The second class chairs aren’t the comfiest but they do recline and are a good deal for about $80 pp. We were so exhausted that all three of us slept through most of it.
When we arrived we spent 30 min in a taxi line before finally checking into Vimoon Hotel, a short drive from Xi’an North station.

Day 2: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City & The Great Wall / China

We were picked up at our hotel by a private tour guide and driver in an air conditioned van for a full day of Beijing sightseeing.Our day started at the nearby Tiananmen Square, which despite being one of the largest public squares in the world, was packed with Chinese tourists. All 80,000 tickets for the day were sold out in advance.
To maintain order and ensure security we were made to go through multiple security checks before entering the square. Just in case you don’t already know, there’s little privacy in China. We quickly grew used to showing our passport and having our bags scanned and bodies patted down at the entrance of every attraction. Every train station in the country has metal detectors and bag scanners, and our hotels kept photocopies of our passports. Shortly after entering the square we quickly became aware that we were an oddity. I would guess that 1% of people in the square were westerners. Poor Geneviette with her beautiful blonde hair, and pale white skin, was like a celebrity amongst the sea of dark haired Chinese visitors. They were so fascinated they asked to take photos with us, and of course after one, more noticed and wanted photos. Eventually our tour guide told them to go away. G was mortified.
I should note that Beijing architecture is very different to what we are used to in America. The buildings around us were tall, boxy, and often gray. There are government officials posted everywhere in the city, standing just a few meters apart, and keeping a keen eye on hundreds of thousands of people. At the square the Chinese flag is guarded by three officers representing the army, navy and airforce. It is a ceremony that is very similar to the fallen soldier guard in Washington D.C. Our guide told us that Tiananmen Square is the most popular tourist destination for Chinese people, and far more revered than even the Great Wall. It was the site of the 1989 student protest massacre, military displays and parades. Essentially the site inspires a great sense of nationalism and is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of its visitors. The massacre is a highly contentious and censored topic and I highly recommend people read about it.
Although our guide did a good job explaining the significance of Tiananmen Square, I must admit to forgetting much of it. It was just so overwhelming to be surrounded by thousands of people. Little did we know that this would be nothing compared to our experiences in cross-country train stations. The square is across the street from Forbidden City, also known as the Palace Museum. So when we were done walking around the square we used an underpass to get to there.
It has a very compelling entrance, with a large painted portrait of Mao Zedong’s face hanging above the South Gate. Mao Zedong was the leader of the victorious army, and the founder of the People’s Republic of China. He is greatly revered and beloved of the Chinese people. It is thanks to him that China is the communist country it is today.
Of course, the Palace Museum is not so much about Mao as it is about the royal dynasties who preceded him. It was the imperial palace of China for five centuries (500 years!). I cannot imagine visiting this place without an English speaking tour guide. To say it was large, and busy, would be an understatement. It is 72 hectares and has around 980 buildings. We walked from one end to the other and it took us about 2 hours with few stops and a lot of brisk walking.
Our guide told us about many symbolic features in the design, and the history. It was overwhelmingly beautiful and impressive. I am fairly certain the Brits are royalty-lite after what we saw at this palace.
The sun and humidity were not our friends, and we were beat by the time we made it through.
Thankfully we had a nice 1 hour air conditioned drive to a restaurant near the Great Wall of China. It was nice to take a break from the outdoors. Our restaurant food was good, but what was more memorable was our first experience with Chinese “toilets”. Geneviette and I were extremely nervous to use these hole on the floor bathrooms where you need to grab your toilet paper from the dispenser near the sinks, before heading to your cubicle, squatting, doing your business, throwing your used toilet paper into the trash and flushing your “toilet”. All in all, it’s not a terrible way to relieve yourself. My biggest problems are needing to hold onto the bottom of the door because I have balancing issues and the strong pee smell. To be fair, the latter is more due to the bathroom being dirty. Finally, after lunch we went to the Great Wall of China! We chose to visit the Mutianyu section of the wall, which is less crowded than the more popular Badaling section, but still very beautiful. Apparently the Mutianyu section has more of the original wall, whilst Badaling is largely a restored section, so less authentic. We paid extra to take a chairlift up to the wall, and then a toboggan on the way down. The scenery was picturesque but still there was a little bit of smog that kept the view from being perfectly clear. The cicadas chirped loudly and the chestnut trees brushed against our feet as the chairlift pulled us up toward the wall. I felt so excited seeing it come closer into view. There’s so much expectation surrounding iconic places like this and it did not disappoint. We jumped off at the end and quickly walked up to stand on the Great Wall of China. It is very steep and the steps are smoothed out in places from so many visitors that they can be a bit slippery.
The views are equally as beautiful as the wall, with the mountains in the distance, and stunning wildflowers growing up against the wall.
We took tons of photos and our tour guide showed us how to tell the difference between the original and the restored parts of the wall.
Eventually it was time to go and we hopped on the toboggan for a fun ride down the mountain back to our van. Once back at our hotel we were so exhausted and jet lagged we passed out at 4pm.

Day 1: Beijing / China

We had the loveliest first day in Beijing. After landing at around 2:30pm local time, we made our way through security and customs within 30 min, which was much faster than I expected. I suppose we had already done the hard work at the Chinese Consulate in Houston where we had to submit a mountain of paperwork to get our visas. It also helps not to have checked any luggage.

The taxi from the airport to our hotel was an enlightening journey. The cars swim between lanes, don’t use indicators, use the shoulder to speed past traffic, and all of this is happening while hundreds of people are crossing the road and riding their bikes.

The first thing we noticed was how utterly quiet the city is even with so many cars and people on the streets. You could almost hear a pin drop, and we are very much in downtown Beijing.

We walked 300m from our taxi to the Beijing Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel where we are staying for two nights. This gorgeous place is within walking distance of some of the bigger tourist attractions and decorated in traditional style. According to the welcome guide, this courtyard used to be the house of a gifted ancient scholar and dignitary in Chinese Qing dynasty named Mr Ji Xiolan (1724-1805) who was the chief editor of Sikuqanshu, the first and most famous Chinese encyclopedia.

Every room has a beautiful curtain draped in front of the door so you can keep the door open, and have some privacy, while allowing the air to cool your room.

We were pretty exhausted from our flight so we just enjoyed our room, which is also beautifully decorated, and ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurants.Thankfully, so far we have met with people who speak basic English. All except a sweet housekeeper lady who needed to get into her room to prepare the beds for the night. We got by haha.

Addam has been practicing his Mandarin when he can, and I’m sure by the end of this trip he’ll be having full conversations with the locals.

Andorra la Vella / Andorra

The Principality of Andorra is a tiny little country located between Spain and France. It’s actually the sixth smallest country in the world.
About 10 million people visit a year, drawn in by ski resorts, tax free shopping, and the beautiful Pyrenees mountain range.
We noticed the construction of many new hotels and shops, which reminded us of Iceland, who is also experiencing a massive tourism boom.
Andorra la Vella is the capital city and it was an absolute nightmare to drive through. There was a lot of traffic, one way streets, and confusing directions from our GPS. I was really glad Addam was driving.