This was our first major trip together as a couple back in December 2007. After dating for a year, my then-boyfriend (now husband, Jay) wanted to me to meet his family in Shanghai. I told him, “If I’m going to China, I want to see the Great Wall.” I didn’t know when that chance would present itself again, so I was taking advantage of it. He replied, “Well, if we’re going to the Great Wall, I also want to see the terracotta warriors.” Well, okay, I’m not going to argue with that! We talked to our friends about our trip and offered them to tag along if they wanted. Jay knew the language and he had contacts, so why not? One-by-one, all four of them agreed to the entire trip and two others would meet us in Shanghai. This was going to be a trip of a lifetime!
Fortunately for us, Jay had a cousin who worked for a tour company in Shanghai. She arranged our private driver and hotel accommodation in each city. How to get to places in China will not be covered here, but it is worth looking into hiring a driver. China is nowhere to drive yourself unless you are experienced and confident!
• Novotel Peace Beijing Hotel. 3 Jinyu Hutong, Wangfujing, 100006 Beijing, China. Nice and decent rooms (renovated since our visit, I believe) with broadband and WiFi access (know that Google and Facebook are restricted throughout China). We spent Jay’s birthday in Beijing and when we got back to our room that evening, we were surprised with a birthday cake waiting for us! How nice!
• Great Wall of China. Of course this should be number one on your list if visiting Beijing for the first time. Note that the Great Wall of China is not so much just one wall. There are parts to the wall, all built at different time periods (or dynasties). If you want the details, Google it. We went to the Juyongguan Pass. From what we heard, this is not so touristy as other sections; and being it December and cold, it really was less crowded. My advice: bring water, wear comfortable shoes (don’t laugh, but there were ladies in high heels!), and DO NOT use the bathroom here! I didn’t even attempt to use the bathroom as the stench stopped me even before I got to the door!
• Tiananmen Square. It really is a square. A big, open square. But it has lots of history to it easily searchable on the web. More importantly, it leads to the impressive Forbidden City. And it really is a city. Watch The Last Emperor (1987) to see what life was really like in the Forbidden City in the 1940’s to the 1960’s. You walk in and wonder where to go? I’m sure there’s a map provided (this was five years ago and I can’t remember how we got around… actually, I do remember a map. I remember locating Starbucks, which had just closed earlier in the year due to controversy (really?), but it was still on the map). You can spend a whole day in the City. It was beautiful and a place you’ll love to get lost in.
• The Summer Palace. This was a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi. Another place to get lost in and spend at least half a day exploring. As we took a leisurely stroll down the long hall, obviously called “The Long Corridor,” we suddenly remembered that our driver had been waiting for us for over 3 hours in our van. We returned to find him sleeping in the backseat.
• Temple of Heavens. An hour or two are needed here, a place visited by the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties to pray to heaven for a good harvest. At the Circular Mound Alter, it was said that you could hear a whisper from the other side. Of course we tested it, but you can find out if it works for yourself.
• Hutongs Tour. Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys and Beijing is known for them. Many rickshaws are available for tours of hutongs, which our driver conveniently arranged for us along with an English-speaking guide. Our guide rode on her bicycle along side our three rickshaws, stopping here and there to provide a short history lesson. Right before the tour was done, she took us into someone’s house. Okay, so this someone’s house was actually a tourist trap. The middle-aged couple that “lived” there claimed to paint empty jars from the inside. You can find these decorative jars in any souvenir shop in China. The husband demonstrated how he did it, but it wasn’t nearly as nice or artistic as the ones they tried to sell to us before we left. Nice try.
• This trip was taken five years ago and it was a trip that I didn’t do much planning thanks to Jay’s cousin. I can’t remember where we ate, but since Jay spoke the language, we ate well. You do have to visit The Night Food Street or Donghuamen Night Food Street or Wangfujing Night Food Street. All of these names take you to the same place. Vendors line up this street, mostly for tourists, selling snacks from candied fruits to deep-fried scorpions and larvae (which out of the six of us, three of them tried). Jay claims the scorpions tasted like potato chips – salty and crispy, and the larvae was “interesting” with gooey stuff in the middle. Even if you’re not a daring foodie, this Night Food Street makes for some interesting photos and stories to take home.
• First thing I noticed in China? KFC. Yes, KFC as in Kentucky Fried Chicken. They’re huge in China and you will see them on almost every corner. We actually ate there one cold night in Xian. It tasted exactly the same.
• In front of every tourist destination is a group of “tour guides” offering tourist a guided tour of the place. According to Jay, they are trying to practice their English, but of course looking for money. Don’t forget to bargain with them. Fortunately for us, we had Jay who acted like he was our tour guide and told them “no need” in Mandarin as he continued to walk to the ticket booth. Unfortunately for us, Jay didn’t know the full history of each place either. So what he did was hang out with a tour group within these places and eavesdropped on their guided tour in Chinese. He then hurried back to us and said, “Okay, okay so here’s the deal…” and told us his version of the history he just learned. A tour guide would be nice if you don’t have Jay… or probably even if you did.
• Bathrooms. When you find a westernized toilet (not the squat ones), use it even if you don’t have to go. Personally, I found it very hard to squat and pull my jeans far enough so it doesn’t get wet and hold my balance all at the same time. Yup, whenever I found a westernized toilet (even though labeled for the elderly or handicapped), I used it.