China Trip Day Four – The Summer Palace

Since this was our last day visiting Beijing we decided to order the room service breakfast rather than picking up a quick pastry from the bakery downstairs. We only had to order one breakfast since the offering was so huge. We both found items that we could eat in the spread of Danish Pastries, eggs, bacon, yogurt, fruit and more. That would hold us for a while because we were headed to the Summer Palace and we weren’t sure if we were going to have too much time to eat along the way.

Art and I checked out of our hotel and stored our bags there so we could pick them up on the way back to the airport later in the day. We decided to take a taxi since we were unsure how to navigate the subway and it was a Sunday so traffic wouldn’t be too bad. And, it wasn’t. But, this was going to be a hot, humid and hazy day in Beijing and the Summer Palace is a popular spot on the weekends. Located along the banks of a lake with steep hillsides and palace buildings perched along the shoreline, the place was teeming with foreign tourists and native Chinese alike.

Pagoda at Summer Palace

Lake at Summer Palace

Unlike the pay as you go approach at the Forbidden City, you can opt to pay for the extra fees for special exhibits at the entrance and your ticket is punched every time you visit a particular exhibit or building. The Dragon Boats cruising across the lake were a popular option but we decided to focus on the buildings and exhibits since we did have to get to our flight in time.

We picked up a beautiful map that helped us somewhat but this was a big park and it was easy to get lost. And, although we did visit most of the exhibits on our ticket I think we only scratched the surface of this huge expanse.

Although the Summer Palace expanse was just as crowded as the Forbidden City was the day before the atmosphere was a little more relaxed.  Less pushing and shoving to things and an interesting assortment of food and snack vendors dotted along the pathways of the park.  Cucumber on a stick seemed to be a popular item along with occasional ice pop along the way.  We were still full from breakfast so we just watched other people eating. 

Dragon Boat

The exhibits here also seemed to be a little better organized and better kept than the ones located at the Forbidden City.   Overall, we had a wonderful time walking along the lake and checking out the buildings along the way.

Unfortunately, our taxi ride back to the hotel was less pleasant.  We were essentially scammed into getting a higher priced cab with a meter that was rigged to turnover the meter at a much higher rate than the normal taxi – so the ride back cost double the normal fare.  Of course, the driver didn’t point out the difference in the taxi (claiming we were in a luxury cab with leather seats and air conditioning) until we were well on our way in the middle of the highway in a part of the city we weren’t familiar with.  The seats were not leather (more like textured vinyl) and our previous cab had air conditioning so that wasn’t anything special.  When he decided to drop us off a block away from our hotel I pointed out that it was because he was probably too ashamed to drop us in front.  My father was a cabbie in NYC in the ’60s so I was quick to point out that what he was doing was not something a cabbie with ethics would do.  He didn’t argue when we didn’t pay him the full fare.  This was really the only negative experience we had with scamming in China so we weren’t going to let this episode ruin our trip.

The rest of our day would be taken up getting to the airport, getting through security (not much worse than the US domestic experience) and waiting for a delayed flight.  The flight delay was due to the weather so we just checked out our e-mail and ate at a Chinese diner type place in the terminal.  I’ve been asked several times if flying in China using Chinese airlines was safe and it certainly didn’t seem any less safe than some of the trips I’ve taken in the US.  But we flew on Air China (a free flight using United Miles), which is a large airline on a larger plane so the experience was no less comfortable than normal.
Our next stop was Shanghai in the pouring rain.  A different city with a different vibe than Beijing. 

China Trip Day Three – The Forbidden City

My knee was still smarting from the previous night’s fall (in fact it continued to hurt for several weeks after) but we were here to explore China so as long as we had Advil and I could still stand up we got up early to seek out the Forbidden City.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site (the third we would visit in two days) was within walking distance and since it was a beautiful, clear sunny day we had plenty of company.  The sidewalks were wide yet quite crowded. This was also a Saturday so the area was filled with both foreign and Chinese tourists.

On our walk we were “joined” by a young man professing to be an art student who could take us to an art studio where we could buy original art.  We had heard about this scam so we politely said, “No thanks.”  He persisted at which point we just ignored him and kept walking and he moved on.

We could see Tiananmen Square across the street from the entrance to the Forbidden City but we decided to forego visiting the Square. The line to pay our entrance fee was long and it took us about a half hour to get our tickets.  There were lots of tour groups representing many nationalities queued up to enter the gateway to the City.

We were impressed with this walled city within a city and there seemed to be an unending series of gates to palaces and rooms.

One of the many views within the Forbidden City

  Getting the opportunity to see the inside of these buildings could be a challenge. Chinese don’t queue – they crowd. You have to push your way to the front of the crowd to get a glimpse of thrones and opulent seating areas – a pickpocket’s dream location from what I could see.

We purchased a map to navigate the site and even with that in hand it was sometimes confusing to figure out exactly where we were located.  This was a huge complex with beautiful artifacts that once housed the emperor and his wives, concubines and children.  The complex also housed gifts that were given to the Emperor by foreign kings and political powers, obviously to gain favor with the Emperor.  Some of these were housed in separate exhibits.  One of the exhibits is the Clock and Watch exhibit.  A separate admission is charged for this area but it was well worth the price which was relatively cheap.  The huge and ornate clocks were impressive even if the way they are presented is less so.  Lots of fingerprints on glass cases that don’t look like they have been cleaned in quite a while.  Dimly lit displays are explainable because the artifacts may be sensitive to light but the overall rooms are drab and dark.

Hall of Clocks

You can eat a small lunch within the Forbidden City where there are snacks shops and a small cafe.  We shared an outside table with a British  couple who now live in France.  They were touring on their own as well and had started their journey from the other side of the City making their way to the area we had just covered.  It was nice to share our experiences with other people and rest our feet (and my knee) at the same time.  The Beef Noodle dish I ate was formidable and very tasty.  Lots of cilantro – one of my favorite herbs. 

Pagoda in Jingshan Park

We continued on and paid for a few more special exhibits and ended our tour of about 6 hours with a beautiful view of a pagoda from Jingshan Park.  The sight was impressive.  Of course, once outside the walls of the Forbidden City we were besieged by crowds of merchants and beggars.  We had to laugh when one pair of panhandlers tried to have us take pity on what was supposed to be one of the pair’s handicapped leg.  We walked faster and picked up the pace and it got to the point where they were literally running faster than we could walk.  I was in worse shape than they were.  It is obvious these kinds of people gravitate to the entrances and exits of tourist areas because the rest of our walk back to the hotel on the back streets of the area was much quieter. 
We passed interesting shops and local restaurants and watched a lot of less than safe road traffic whiz by us.  Children standing up while riding in front of mothers on motor scooters.  Bicycles with LOTS of merchandise strapped to the back.   We really enjoyed the walk back to our hotel on this warm and pleasant day.
But the day was not over and we were going to do a lot more walking as the evening ended.  But that’s a subject for the next post.

5 Lessons Learned in Two Days in China

We spent close to 18 days in several areas of China but it didn’t take us long to learn a few things along the way. These lessons aren’t the only things we learned on our trip but are just a few things we observed as we traveled through the country.

Lesson 1: If you like bargaining down the price of an item for sale then China is the place for you. It’s not a skill I particularly enjoy employing because, in general, I just want the process to take less time. But patience is a virtue when it comes to shopping in most places in mainland China. The initial price stated is rarely the real price and once you ask for a price the seller can be unrelenting in bargaining to get you to a price that you both can live with.

Lesson 2: Many vendors and service providers know enough English to get your attention and to respond with a “yes” or “no” but that doesn’t mean they necessarily understand you. When getting into a cab it’s important to have the address and, ideally, directions back to your hotel. This can minimize a lot of misunderstandings. Also having a map and pointing to where you want to go also helps when words are too difficult to pronounce. We had one extremely helpful taxi driver in Shanghai that helped us pronounce Yuyuan Gardens correctly (it doesn’t sound anything like it looks).

Lesson 3: In quite a few cases, vendors and other freelance service providers (such as private taxis, private tour guides, etc.) say “hello” to get the opportunity to sell you something and will continue to try to sell you, walking along side you sometimes, even if you say “no”. This “in your face” approach is just the way things are done, but it can be annoying. I found that by responding in Spanish, the person became so disarmed they looked surprised and then walked away.

Lesson 4: China’s single child policy has created a shortage of marriageable women. This in turn has given single women the upper hand in selecting a husband and is producing angst among single men. This is a significant change for the Chinese male’s perspective where, they feel they are under more pressure to bring more to the table with respect to the relationship, such as a successful career, social status, looks, etc. The policy, obviously, has also produced a lot of “only” children in households where the activities revolve around them. Yet, many single children we talked to coveted the fact that we had siblings.

Lesson 5: Watch where you walk, i.e., look down. This is something I’ve always known (you can fall into an open manhole in some countries) but forgot as I got caught up checking out the sights in Beijing. If you want to look around (and you should) stop and look around.

Of course, we’ve only written about our first two days in China. We still had a lot to learn.


China Trip – First Stop Beijing

Hilton Beijing Wangfujing Suite

Traveling in China can be both fascinating and frustrating.  That’s what Art and I were told on the outset of planning our 16-18-day sojourn, so we were armed with the knowledge that we would have to be flexible and aware along the way.  We didn’t go the organized packaged tour route so this would be even more interesting.  At the same time, by patching together a few free flights and hotel stays using frequent traveler points we saved quite a bit of money while providing more flexibility to spend more time in the places we wanted to see.

Our first leg was to fly into Beijing via Air Canada – a flight segment we paid for.  And, at about $780 per person wasn’t too bad compared with some of the fares we were presented with when setting up the trip.  The flight itself was not all that bad as economy class goes.  The Boeing 777 was pretty comfortable and there was a large selection of movies to watch.  My own “warmer” carryon blanket that I brought with me and the white wine provided extra comfort on the 12-13 hour flight from Toronto.  Getting in some sleep on the flight was a little problematic.  The Chinese are naturally loud communicators and I could hear them talking even with ear plugs on.  Either way both Art and I got some shut-eye along the way.

Getting through immigration wasn’t difficult but it was tedious since each individual coming into the country has to be photographed.  But even after taking quite a while to get through the immigration line we still had to wait for our baggage to arrive.

The taxi line was pretty organized but slow. And the taxi ride to the hotel was an adventure.  Apparently Chinese drivers treat highway lanes as guidelines – cars are driving scattershot all over the place.  And NASCAR has nothing on Chinese cab drivers.  They zip in and out of traffic at speeds that will make your hair stand on end.

Our driver, unfortunately, still managed to get lost even though we had written directions for him in Mandarin Chinese (we had been warned that this could happen).  And, even though we could see the sign for the hotel he couldn’t figure out where the entrance was (even other Chinese cab drivers made it clear several times exactly where it was).  Beijing rush hour traffic was terrible but we expected that.  Even so, the fare was about $20 USD, give or take a couple of bucks.  That type of ride would have cost about $50 in New York City.

This stay at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing was reserved using frequent stay points so it was basically free except for incidental expenses.  We were upgraded to a suite and it was big and modern.  It took a better portion of the night to figure out how to use all the switches and controls to the place.  It had a huge shower and a claw foot tub, double sinks and bathrobes and slippers in the bathroom.  The king sized bed was super comfortable and the small living area was nice to have – overall a beautiful room.

We were hungry and immediately went on the hunt for some Peking Duck.  The concierge tried to get us a reservation at two of the more popular places in town but no luck – too crowded.  So he made reservations for a place right down the street from the hotel.  After some meandering through several levels of shopping stalls we finally found the place.  The Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant turned out to be great.  We later found out this is one of the oldest Peking Duck Restaurants in the city and is listed in “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”  The service was good, the duck was well presented and delicious and our sides were very good too.

Communication can sometimes be a challenge depending on the server you get.  This turned out to be the case here.  When I asked the server if the restaurant took credit cards, she immediately said, “No.”  Yet, we were sitting not too far away from the cash register and they appeared to be doing just that.  So I got up went to the cashier and they gladly accepted my card.  All told dinner for two of a whole duck with some shrimp, vegetables and sodas cost about $54 USD including tax and service charge.

Food choices would get much more interesting as the trip progressed but we’ll describe those in another post.