Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Few Beijing Sites

Oh we're tired. Legs are sore. We were unprepared for all those steps yesterday.

Today, we walked around Beijing very slowly. More of a meandering. It was a relaxed day for sure. We ended up seeing three things: the southeast watchtower, Tienanmen Square, and the Donghuamen Market.

The Watchtower

This was part of the inner wall that protected the city. The Great Wall protected the country, and then there was an outer wall and an inner wall around the region and city of Beijing (and then a moat and a few more walls around the palace).

The watchtower is three stories high, and now it houses an art exhibit called the Red Gate Gallery. It was interesting, but the best part about it was that it was empty. I mean no tourists, no workers, not even a sleeping guard by the entrance. Nothing.

We walked around for a bit, then left and walked the kilometer length of the wall, which took a surprisingly long time given our pace.

Tiananmen Square

We took the metro over to Tiananmen Square, which has a long history that you can and should google if you've never heard of it. We got out of the wrong exit and we ended up at a little shopping area with train tracks and a cool gate.

It turned out that the building under the gate is actually another gate that leads to Tiananmen Square. But you can't go through it because the Square is heavily guarded and closed off and you can only enter at certain spots. Entrances are controlled by armed security guards, metal detectors, and X-ray scanners, along with fences and gates for crowd control. It's kinda crazy. Definitely not like Washington Square Park or Union Square in New York that are accessible from any point. Once inside, there are cameras watching everything. So don't even think of doing anything illegal here.

The square is ginormous, and the two main draws are the people's monument (in the picture below)...

...and a giant building that houses the preserved body of Mao Tse Dong. It's only open for a few hours in the morning, and you have to get in line around 6am to see him, and you can't bring a bag or a camera or anything, so we didn't do it.

The sun was setting by the time we reached the north side of the square, so we joined the crowd to watch the flag ceremony. It was cool and worth seeing.

Immediately following the ceremony, once the guards cross the street back to the palace, they usher/force everyone out of the Square. People on megaphones riding pickup trucks rounded up the crowd like cattle and pushed us toward the closest exit. When they say the Square closes at dusk, they mean it.

Donghuamen Market

Our last stop today was the Donghuamen Market. This market is famous for its random foods on sticks.

It was fun to wander around there. Although we did not eat any scorpions or spiders, we did find some sweet rice in a half pineapple and it was delicious.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Great Wall of China - Mutianyu

This post is mostly pictures (woohoo!), some comments and one tip. The Wall is of course interesting in itself, but the more interesting story is how we got here. You can find it [here]. Like I said in the other post, we specifically chose to be in Beijing in late October so we could be at the Great Wall for Brian's birthday. I'm pretty sure he enjoyed it ;)

I've never considered that you have to hike up to the Great Wall. 
I know now that you do.

It does make sense. 
After all, the Great Wall is on a mountain. 
Not at the bottom of a mountain.

This watchtower was technically "off limits."

"Off limits" to the people who don't try :)
This section of the wall is not nearly as restored as other parts. 
It was interesting to see in contrast to the rest of the Mutinayu section.

Mutianyu Bathroom Tip: 
There is one bathroom up here. 
Keep that in mind. 
The hikable section is only 1.86 mi. long, 
but it seems longer with all the stairs. 
And even longer when you have to pee. 

We found a broom. Which means obligatory Harry Potter shot.

We made the right choice of what section to visit for fall. Isn't it beautiful!?

The next pictures are of us going up that steep part in the distance. It's not the fact that you're climbing stairs, or the degree of incline, but that there is SO MANY OF THEM.

Trying to get a good picture of how steep these stairs actually were. 
(they weren't actually that bad, but they were quite steep and there were A LOT of them!)

Taking a break. 

We made it to the top! 
What's crazy though is that you could go even higher than this. We opted not to since we hadn't yet arranged our transportation back to Beijing and the sun was setting. We didn't really feel like being trapped out in China mountains.

Headed back down. This is a pretty good idea of the steep-ness. 
There's a part on the Great Wall that is even steeper (Jiankou section)!


This was a little pagoda we found on our hike down.

Happy Birthday, Brian Ciccotelli!

Getting to Mutinayu was a little stressful, but going back to Beijing was pretty simple. Only slightly stressful because we hadn't arranged transportation out of the middle-of-nowhere in advance. 

We made sure to get off the Great Wall by sundown so we would be able to pick up a car. We were able to get a shared car for RMB25 each to Huairou. It was dark when we got dropped off in Huairou. From there, we had a list of buses that we could catch back to Beijing (we took 916). Another 2 hours later we were home!

Getting to the Great Wall of China - Mutianyu

We deliberately planned to be in Beijing, on specifically the 30th to be able to celebrate Brian's birthday on the Great Wall. Overall, it was a fantastic day.

There are two major sections of the wall (best restored) that most people visit: Badaling and Mutianyu. We opted for Mutianyu because we read it was the most beautiful during fall. It was.

This post is about how we got to Mutinayu. [The rest of the day can be found here.] It's worth an entire blog post, I promise. Unless you want to read a novel about the Great Wall - the travel to Mutianyu is an adventure in itself.

Brian and I tend to stay away from tour groups, both being in them and around them. We prefer to be able to choose how much time we have to visit a place and be able to do it with fewer people than if we were stuck in a group. That being said, you know we went to Mutianyu by ourselves.

We took a local bus 867 for RMB5.20 each. The bus station was in walking distance (5-10 minutes) of the Dongzhimen metro station. We were kind of taking a shot in the dark with this (read about this way to travel on this blog that is a couple years old). However, when we found a loading station for the correct bus with a big sign for Mutianyu behind it, we felt a little more assured...that is until some guy came around saying "No bus! No bus!" He was literally just some guy with no identifying paraphernalia, so we hopped on the bus anyway.

Bus no. 867

We rode for about an hour and then the bus pulled over next to a van on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. They said this was the stop for Mutianyu. (What!?) There was one other group of chinese people headed to Mutianyu and they got off when the bus driver explained something in mandarin to them. You'd think we'd take this cue and get off. We didn't.

We had read that some buses might try to make you get off sooner than your stop so you have to take a second mode of transportation (car or van) and a second person can benefit from your tourist wallet. So, we weren't buying it. We got yelled at to get off the bus. By the bus driver. By a couple other people. They stood outside our window and yelled at us to get off. Came on the bus and yelled at us to get off. We stayed put. (psh, stupid foreigners)

In our defense, all the blogs we read said that bus 867 went straight to Mutianyu Great Wall during the high season, which ends November 15. So we trusted the blogs and stayed on the bus. Well apparently the high season ended early this year because it did not go there. It continued for about 5 more minutes and kicked everyone off in the middle of nowhere. Right when we got off the bus, we got asked if we wanted a ride to Mutianyu - at the cost of about 10x what it should have been. To shake the guy, we went to the bathroom. When we came out and he was on us again. So we walked the direction everybody was headed and landed ourselves at the entrance to a temple. He backed off. But we eventually had to leave and started walking in the direction of the Great Wall. He kept insisting that we couldn't walk (we knew we couldn't...or at least that it would take hours) and that we needed him to get us to the Wall. We continued walking for another 10 minutes, he was following us by car at this point. To continue talking to us, he drove on the wrong side of the road. We'd say we were going to walk, he'd laugh at us and offer us a ride for x amount. After another 5 minutes though, we got him to lower his price to a much more reasonable price (based on what we read online) of RMB40 (about $7). We finally got in the van. 15 minutes later, we were at the Great Wall.

Below is the summarized version of how to get to Mutianyu like a local! (or a very crafty foreigner, willing to brave local chinese transportation)

1. Go past the Dongzhimen transportation hub, to the next large parking lot, which is really a bus hub (it's on Dongzhimen Outer Byway)
2. Take the green & white bus no. 867
2. Get off when they tell you to! (Or take it when it's actually high season and get off at the Great Wall)
3. Pick up one of the vans. Do not pay more than RMB50 for the entire car (or 20pp). Use your bargaining skills.

[Click here for the rest of the day and how to get from Mutianyu back to Beijing a different way.]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Beijing Summer Palace

Beijing's subway system is amazing. Just 2 yuan per ride, as far as you want to go. That's about 33 cents. And you can take it far. Today, we took it all the way to the Summer Palace.

It was fun to explore. The grounds are enormous, and basically divided into two sections: the hill and the lake. The hill is more formally called the Longevity Hill. The palace and several temples and halls are placed all over the hill and provide amazing viewpoints of the surrounding area.

The lake is encircled by a path with bridges and towers and other picturesque scenery. We walked over to the 17 Arches Bridge (which connects to a little island in the lake) and back. We didn't go all the way around the lake because that's just crazy.

Here's a few pictures from our walk to the island and back, and a few from the gardens we explored.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bullet Train from Shanghai to Beijing

This was our first experience with a bullet train. We had toyed with the idea of taking an overnight train, but the bullet train was about the same price and it was twice as fast.

We had tried to purchase our train tickets ahead of time, but the satellite office we went to seemed really sketchy, so we decided to buy the ticket the day we went.

We arrived at Shanghai's massive Hongqiao Station and stood in line for about 20 minutes, only to find out that they don't take American credit cards, only UnionPay, a Chinese credit card. So we went and got cash, got back in line, and when we got back to the window, somehow all the trains for the morning were sold out. We ended up having to wait 4 hours for the 3pm train, which wouldn't get us to Beijing until after 8.

So we wandered the station a bit...

And finally got on our train. It was smooth and comfortable. The train traveled around 300 km/hr, which is about 188 mph. My favorite part was watching the sun set across the Chinese landscape.

The trip goes by fast and the seats are comfy. Isa and I just played games and watched some tv on the iPad Mini.

When we arrived in Beijing, we took the subway from the train station directly to the Airbnb apartment we'd booked. The location was perfect, but the apartment was ghetto. It was very shady and uncertain coming in in the dark, and when we got to the apartment, no one was there to let us in (which is understandable since we were a few hours late). Our hosts had left a note with a phone number, so I ran through the streets looking for a pay phone, only to find out that the pay phones don't take coins, only UnionPay. I returned unsuccessful, to find Isa and our bags gone.

After panicking for a quick second, I heard noises from within the apartment. Luckily, one of the other guests staying there had come home and let Isa in.

Once inside, we were able to email our hosts and let them know we had arrived. They came over to introduce themselves (apparently they live about 5 minutes away and rent out this entire apartment to tourists). Including Isa and I, there are 5 people staying in this three-bedroom apartment.

We settled in and then went out for a quick bite on a cool lantern-lit street nearby...

...which we found out afterward is Ghost Street, which is on our Beijing to-do list. Check!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

China Art Museum, Shanghai

We try not to spend any money on Sundays, so today we went out to the free China Art Museum (which I mistakenly called the Shanghai Art Museum all day) at the world expo center. We had planned on exploring the expo center as well, but it was almost entirely under construction. So we spent almost the whole day at the museum (after we slept in late and had a lazy morning).

We spent a considerable amount of time people watching. As we learned in M50, there is a general lack of respect in China for the arts, and that was very apparent here. People were loud and obnoxious throughout the museum. Kids ran free with toys, people touched works of art, answered their phones, used flash photography, and ignored ropes to get close to various objects to get their pictures taken with them. It was shocking, to say the least.

The exhibits on the elevated floors were ok, but our favorite exhibits were below ground, where the museum continues after you've toured the top.

Here are some of our favorite pieces.


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