One of the biggest benefits of teaching in Asia is the opportunity to travel to places most Americans don’t ever get the chance to see. The big place on my bucket list was China. I knew that I may never get another opportunity to go, so I decided to grab the chance while I still had it. The following is some general advice about traveling to and within China, along with some highlights from the places I visited.
Getting to China as an American proved to be more complicated than I first imagined. The big thing is the visa issue. It’s a slightly easier process getting a tourist visa if you are leaving from the U.S. (you can get all the information on how to apply for a visa from the Chinese Embassy website). Since I am in South Korea, I had to have six months left on my work visa in Korea, which meant I had to go to China in the summer and the fees for a tourist visa for Americans are more expensive than for other nationalities. My British and Irish traveling companions only had to pay roughly $30 for their visas, whereas I had to pay almost $200.
Hot Time; Summer in China
Summertime in China is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and I say this as someone born and raised in Florida. It’s mother-fucking hot. I’m talking temperatures in the 100s the entire time I was there. I lived in skirts with light shirts and dresses and had a permanent layer of sweat the whole time. I spent more of my travel budget than I was expecting on bottled water; it’s simply a necessity. Many hostels and restaurants do provide free water, but most of the time it is tap water that has been boiled so at best, it’s room temperature. Getting cold water will necessitate a trip to the convenience store (of which there are plenty). Luckily, bottled water isn’t terribly expensive unless you find yourself dehydrated on the Great Wall, in which case you’re paying for hydration like you would pay for a sip from the fountain of youth.
Another thing that I cannot emphasis enough is to make sure you wear plenty of sunscreen. Specifically, high SPF waterproof sunscreen. Many of the sites are outdoors and for folks of the fair-skinned variety, sporting the lobster look just isn’t attractive. Another word of caution: the pollution in China is as bad as you might imagine (and in some cases worse). If you have any type of asthma or breathing problems, I would advise to take precautions.
Since we only had limited vacation time and China is just so big, my friends and I could only hit the major spots on this trip. Unless you have unlimited amounts of time, any traveler to China will have to pick and choose what to see and what to skip. So given time and money restraints, the trip itinerary consisted of Beijing, X’ian, Hangzhou and Shanghai.
It’s recommended you spend at minimum three days in Beijing, but four or five is better. The city is so big that it may take half the day to get from one place to another. Wikitravel’s “Three Days in Beijing” is an excellent resource to get a baseline of what to do and see while in the city. Getting in and around the city is relatively easy. The subway system is excellent and fairly easy to navigate. Another great resource I discovered while planning the trip was the TripAdvisor app. You can download maps and guides to various cities to your phone and you do not need a wifi signal to access it. Currently, only Beijing and Shanghai are available with the map, but it was a lifesaver when trying to find certain sites and attractions. Speaking of the sites, most places cost money to get into and the most popular and well known sites cost more. All the information is available online and you can budget accordingly. Also, almost every place we visited has security of some sort and you’ll have to have any bags you carry scanned (you will also have to have any backpacks and larger bags scanned before you get in the subway).
There’s a wealth of information on what to do and see in Beijing so I advise tailoring it to your interests, but the following were some of the highlights I enjoyed.
This one is more of a personal highlight. I’m old enough to remember the student protests and the footage of a young man standing in front of the tank. Since we were in Beijing during the summer, which is when many Chinese vacation, and because it was the weekend, the place was packed. Security is also insane and there are cameras everywhere. The Gates of Heavenly Peace and the Forbidden City are on one end and the rest of the square is surrounded by square, strong buildings that are basically designed for intimidation. It was a very trippy feeling.
National Museum of China
I love museums and we noticed that the National Museum was next to Tiananmen Square. Since it was getting hot, my friends and I decided to spend a couple of hours there. It goes through quite a bit of Chinese history and there are special exhibits. My favorites were the sculpture exhibits and the ancient Chinese history exhibits. It’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours indoors if you need it.
Temple of Heaven
There is so very little green space in Beijing so the park that surrounds the temple is really nice. The park is famous for older Chinese couples who come and dance. That was fun to watch for a bit. The temple itself was beautiful and we went in the late afternoon and simply strolled around the park. It was a nice way to wind down an afternoon.
798 Art Zone
This is the major art district in Beijing and the one place I wished I could have spent more time. It’s a pedestrian area and there are literally art galleries everywhere and dozens of coffee shops and restaurants. You can spend a good portion of the day just wandering from one gallery to another or watching a fashion shoot take place. Some of the art I saw was truly remarkable. Unfortunately, it was our last day in Beijing and we had to make sure we were at the train station in time to catch our overnight train to X’ian.
The Great Wall
This was one of the big highlights of the trip for me and one of the big draws for coming to China in the first place. There are three sections of the Great Wall within driving distance from Beijing: Badaling, Mutianyu and Jinshanling. Your best option is to book a tour with your hostel or hotel once you arrive. There are many scams involving the Great Wall with taxis overcharging you for the journey or not taking you at all. Badaling is the closest section of the wall to Beijing and I don’t recommend it. It’s very, very crowded and touristy. The furthest section out, Jinshanling is supposed to be very beautiful, but it takes quite a bit of hiking to traverse the section and one of my friends didn’t think she could handle that kind of hike. So we decided on the Mutianyu section of the wall and I think it was a good compromise between the two. There were a good number of tourists, but not too many that you felt overwhelmed or crowded and it still offered a challenging enough hike (I was sore for days afterwards). You can take a cable car up if you don’t feel like climbing the stairs to reach the actual wall, and the biggest bonus is the toboggan you can take to get down. The best part for me was taking a moment to pause in the midst of my walking and picture taking to look around and take in the fact that I was standing on the fucking Great Wall of China, something that many people will never get to do.
Overnight Train and X’ian
From Beijing, we took an overnight train to X’ian which is the old capital. There are plenty of flights available from Beijing to X’ian, but due to budget contraints, flying was out of the question. Besides, taking an overnight train in China is definitely an experience, though if you are a single, female traveler, I would proceed with caution. I highly, highly recommend booking your tickets ahead of time. You can book tickets through your hostel or you can use various websites that can book the tickets for you (for an additional surcharge). Booking at the train station the day of your departure might find you in a hard seat in a crowded train car for 12 hours. Plus, you do not want to try and fight the locals at the train station ticketing counter (more on this later).
Since there were three of us, we booked the soft sleeper, which is four beds per compartment. The beds were fairly comfortable, there was a door that closed and locked, and our car was pretty quiet for most of the journey. We ended up sharing the compartment with a mother and her young son, which I thought was going to be a disaster, but the little guy was one of the most well-behaved kids I’ve ever encountered. I was able to sleep fairly well for most of the trip. It’s recommended you bring cup noodles and fruit for the trip, but there is a dining car that is open for a few hours.
The first thing you notice about X’ian is that it is very polluted, even more so than Beijing. There is a permanent fog made of fumes that covers the entire city. It’s also a bit harder to get around than Beijing. There isn’t an extensive subway so you have to rely on buses or taxis. The taxis are problematic since the taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging foreigners. If you do take a taxi, book it through your hostel or hotel. X’ian is home of the famous Terracotta Warriors and is also a jumping off point if you want to visit Chengdu, which is where the major panda breeding center is located. My very big regret was that I didn’t have time to go there because I love me some pandas. Despite the pollution and scammers, I had a good time in X’ian.
Pretty much the reason to everyone comes to X’ian in the first place. I frankly expected to be underwhelmed by this (there is a reason the Forbidden City was not listed as a highlight in Beijing). But when you step into the main excavation pit and see the massive line of stone statues, it’s really pretty cool. Granted, people elbowing you out of the way to take pictures isn’t ideal, but you take the awesome with the not so great. There is a bus that takes you to the museum right outside the main railway station or you can book a tour with your hostel. Do NOT go with a taxi driver who promises to take you directly to the site, no matter how much they’ll promise they can take you right there.
X’ian is also famous for its Muslim quarter. The streets are filled with food stalls, restaurants and other vendors selling souvenirs and knock-off items. We happened to be in X’ian during Ramadan, though it did not interfere with business during the day. The area was packed after sundown and the food was delicious. You can eat very cheaply by choosing street food, though you do so at your own risk (one friend got pretty sick from eating a kebab). I bought the majority of my souvenirs for family and friends here (there are literally thousands of vendors selling almost anything you could want). My friends and I also visited the Great Mosque, which had amazing architecture.
Biking the Old City Walls
The old city walls divide the old historical city with the newer, modern part of the city. You can walk on top of the walls, but I highly recommend renting a bicycle. You can circumvent the walls in the 100 minutes they give you when you first rent the bikes.
Other cool things about X’ian include the Drum Tower (visit at night to when it’s all lit up,) the Big Goose Pagoda, and Dairy Queen. No, seriously. We have no Dairy Queens in South Korea and I’m sorry, a McFlurry is just inferior to a Blizzard. From X’ian, we took our one internal flight to Hangzhou for the last half of the trip. My adventures in Hangzhou and Shanghai will be coming next week.