Tag Archives: Beijing

Part #18: Thoughts on China

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam
Part #15: Ancient Shanghai
Part #16: The Perfect Night in Shanghai
Part #17: Loving the Indigo in Shanghai

I spent a week and a half in Beijing and Shanghai, which makes me nothing close to expert. But it allowed me to form some very definitive views about traveling in China.

1) First and foremost, traveling in China is hard. This surprised me. I have been to other foreign cities that were neither as big nor as urban as Beijing and Shanghai and had no trouble getting around. I had heard that English was a rare commodity in China, but I convinced myself that the mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai would be different.

I was wrong.


English fail! This is supposed to say: “Across People’s Ave… Please Walk Through Pedestrian Tunnel.”

If I didn’t have my destination written down in Chinese letters, the cab drivers had no idea what I was talking about. One day, I hailed a cab for a quick ride across the river in Shanghai, thinking I could simply point to the towering Oriental Pearl Tower to guide my driver…disaster ensued.

Shanghai and Beijing are also huge. Transferring subway lines underground might mean a 10 minute walk. I’m embarrassed to admit that crossing the street was sometimes a challenge. We often underestimated distances, thinking we could walk what turned out to be a 30-45 minute “stroll.” We often accomplished less in a day than we intended, and were often more tired by the end of the day than expected.


A wide boulevard in Shanghai and the pedestrian bridge above it.

2) Jet lag is a bitch. There are some magical people out there who have no trouble traveling to foreign countries. I am not one of those people. The jet lag was at its worst when I returned to the U.S., but it was no fun in Asia either. We often fell asleep at six p.m. and woke up around three a.m. starving. Good thing we brought snacks. Thank god for Trader Joe’s trail mixes.

3) China is big and it’s getting bigger. As I walked around Shanghai I was surprised by how much construction and development there was. New apartments, new hotels, new shopping malls – there are signs of a bigger and better China everywhere.


4) China is a mix of modern glamour and old-school poverty. High-end shopping centers mix with decrepit poverty. I suppose every city has elements of this dichotomy, but the images are so striking and so close to one another.


Shanghai’s swanky French Concession neighborhood with its high-end shops and restaurants.


How the other half lives in Shanghai.

5) The Great Wall of China is worth it. Go hike it. Now.


6) The wifi is shitsville. The wifi was incredibly slow and drove me a little nuts, never mind the limited access to gmail and Facebook in some locations. I know some people love disconnecting when they go on vacation, but I love being connected. The contrast with the wifi in Japan was stunning.

7) The Shanghai skyline is impressive. I prefer the Hong Kong skyline with it’s mountains, but it is a sight to behold in its own right.


Summary: The trip to China was fascinating and eye-opening and not at all what I expected. I expected a little more Hong Kong and a little less cultural isolation and grit. But those unexpected details are part of what made the trip interesting. As a student of politics, it is fascinating to watch China enter the twenty-first century, bursting with technological advancement and modernity, while it drags the rest of its expansive population in its wake. China is growing and building at such an accelerated rate, the China of today is nothing like the China of 10 years ago. Similarly, I would not be surprised if the China of 2035 will be vastly different from the China I experienced in 2014. Perhaps in 20 years, I will go back and see for myself.


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Part #8: Beijing’s Art District

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great

After three intense days exploring Beijing and the Great Wall, we spent our last day in Beijing taking it easy. We grabbed a cab (which is not as easy as it sounds in Beijing) to Beijing’s hip new art district, also known as, the 798 District. Located in northern Beijing, the district is not very accessible by subway, and the cabs are pretty cheap — assuming you can manage to find an available one. The district is built out of an old factory site and has a modern, grunge feel. It was fun to simply walk around and take funny pictures with the statues. Well, at least we found them funny…






statues side by side







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Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

In case you’ve missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park

My one piece of advice for seeing Beijing’s most famous landmarks: Put your walking shoes on. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are huge.

For starters, there is a lot of security and a lot of waiting on lines for security. We went to Tiananman Square first and simply walked around. There isn’t much else to do, other than marvel at the massiveness of the world’s fourth largest public square and contemplate all the history that transpired on that very spot. At one point I turned to my sister and remarked: “It’s kind of crazy to be standing in the same place where history was made, walking around like it’s just a regular public square.” It really is crazy. I have no other word for it.



Next, we crossed the street and entered the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads to the entrance of the Forbidden City. Once inside the gate, you can continue on to the Forbidden City or buy a ticket to climb to the top of the gate and look down on Tiananmen Square from above. That meant more lines – both for security and for bag check. But the view over the Square make you appreciate the bigness even more.




Next up was the Forbidden City, China’s imperial palace for over 500 years. Many of the rooms are closed to visitors, but you can enter some, and purchase additional tickets to side exhibits. Otherwise, there is simply a lot of walking and saying over and over again, “Oh my god. This is f*cking huge!”

Also, I would not mind living in a house this big.





The end of the Forbidden City leads to a beautiful garden filled with Chinese landscapes.



Here I am taking a quick nap.


When we finally emerged on the other end of the Forbidden City, our feet were killing. All I wanted to do was sit down someplace. But we looked up and spied a Chinese-style building in the distance high in the clouds. A local official informed us that this was the Children’s Palace, and we could climb to the top for a mere two Yuan.

Despite our legs’ protestations, we wanted to get a view of the Forbidden City from above. And it was worth it. The views are very pretty, although marred somewhat by Beijing’s famous pollution. I can only imagine how great this picture would look on a clear day. Nevertheless, you can still get a sense of the Forbidden’s City’s daunting size.




Forbidden City

  •  Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are located on the number one subway line between the Tiananmen West and Tiananmen East stops. The very wide Chang’an Ave. divides the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, and you need to go underground to get from one to the other.
  • You will need to go through separate security lines to enter both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
  • Tiananmen Square is free, but the entrance ticket for the Forbidden City is 40 yuan in the off-season. It costs 15 yuan to climb the Gate of Heavenly Peace and you will need to check your bags (8 yuan). There is an additional cost of 10 yuan per ticket to enter the Treasure Gallery and the Clock and Watch Gallery.
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Park #5: A Walk in the Park

In case you’ve missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs

I don’t need to write extensively about beautiful Beihai Park because the pictures speak for themselves. Beihai Park is an oasis in the heart of bustling Beijing. The park was originally built in the 11th century as an imperial garden, and is now open to the public (for five yuan).

Beihai Park










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Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa

On our first day in Beijing, we valiantly resisted jet lag and set out to explore Beijing’s hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are narrow alleyways or streets, a throwback to what old Beijing used to look like. Located just north of the Forbidden City, the massive shopping malls and modern structures disappear into a glimpse of ancient Beijing.

Hutong map2

The main artery, a pedestrian only road named Nanluoguxiang, is populated with small shops, peddlers, throngs of locals, and very persistent rickshaw drivers who insist on giving you the grand hutong tour. It is a charming scene filled with leafy trees and hidden crevices, a stark contrast form Beijing’s massive roadways. Tiny alleyways branch off in either direction begging to be explored.

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The entrance to Nanluoguxiang Road.

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The aforementioned rickshaw tour guides.

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After the hutongs, we made our way to the Drum and Bell Towers, hoping to get a pretty view of the hutong rooftops beneath us, but both towers were under construction and closed to visitors. We did not realize yet that the bright blue sky was a happy miracle. Our subsequent days in Beijing would be plagued by the city’s all too famous pollution.

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Totally random couch on the streets on the way to the Drum Tower.

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The Bell Tower

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The Drum Tower

So we sat on the steps of the Bell Tower and bemoaned our exhaustion and took pictures of the adorable kids.

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And then, for the hell of it, I decided to do a cartwheel. I blame the jet lag.



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Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China

After arriving in Beijing, we took a cab to our hotel, the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing. At 40,000 points a night, it was not exactly a steal but I had the points and it turned out to be the best hotel of the trip. While Hilton has dramatically devalued it’s award system, it is one of the best hotel programs for gold status, which I have thanks to my Hilton Reserve credit card. Specifically, we were updated to a gorgeous, large suite-like room, had access to the lounge, and enjoyed free wifi.

First the room. It was amazing. It was very spacious with a massive walk-in closet which was itself the size of some hotel rooms. We had the largest bathtub I have ever seen in my life, and plenty of space for our stuff.

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The lounge on the sixteenth floor was a treat, stocked round the clock with food and drinks, which for me, meant endless diet coke.

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Concierge spoke a passable English and were extremely helpful, especially with booking our train tickets to Shanghai.

Finally, the location was perfect. Beijing is massive, so we had to travel to most sights, but we were located near two subway lines in the center of town, within walking distance of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There was also a mall just down the block with a supermarket in the basement when we need to restock on snacks and other paraphernalia.

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The super convenient APM mall.

I have been down on the Hilton program since it was massively devalued, but this stay made me appreciate the good parts of Hilton HHonors. Yes, some hotel rooms will cost an exorbitant 80,000 points a night, but you can find cheaper options and Hilton points are relatively easy to earn. There are several Hilton branded credit cards, and there is a Hampton Inn in nearly every podunk town in America. And since I travel to a lot of podunk towns, I end up staying in a lot of Hampton Inns.

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It is officially time to get excited. In three weeks and two days, my sister and I will board a plane (two planes, to be exact) for China. We are finalizing plans, and I’m starting to get that thrill in my bones that makes me want to turn the music up to its maximum volume and break out some very uncoordinated dance moves.

Some of the things I am excited about:

(1) Hike the Great Wall: We finally settled on a guide and hike for the Great Wall. As you probably know, the Great Wall of China is huge and you can see it and hike it at many different portions alongs its windy route. We settled on Dandelion Hiking which received very good reviews on TripAdvisor and offers guided hiking trips at half the price than many other companies ($73 compared to $150 and up). So far, they have been very responsive and helpful. They deliberately offer “off-the-beaten-track” trips, which means I won’t have throngs of tourists obstructing my photographs. They recommended the Chen Castle Great Wall hike, which is about five miles and looks amazing.

Chen Castle

(2) The Shanghai Marriage Market: I just discovered this gem. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of Chinese parents gather in the People’s Square, hawking pictures and descriptions of their single children, looking for prospective marriage partners for them. The People’s Square is right across from our hotel, and I am definitely going to this.

marriage market

(3) See the second tallest building in the world: At 2,073 feet, the Shanghai Tower is now the second tallest building in the world, behind the Burj Khalifa which I don’t expect to see anytime soon. Growing up in Chicago, I always took for granted that the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was the tallest building in the world and would always stay that way. Boy has the world changed.

Shanghai tower

(4) Visit a canal town: There are a whole bunch of canal towns a short distance from Shanghai, and we plan to take a day trip to explore one of them. We haven’t chosen which one yet, but it should be fun.


5) Acrobats: We plan on seeing an acrobatic show at Shanghai’s Circus World. Maybe it’s a little touristy and cheesy, but I like touristy and cheesy, especially if it involves gymnastics.


(6) Take this picture: There is something quietly beautiful about Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I’m hoping the real thing lives up to the pictures.


(7) New hotels: You know you’re travel obsessed when part of the fun of traveling is trying out new hotels. In total, I will sleep in four new hotels from four different chains (Hilton, Club Carlson, IHG, and SPG). Woohoo!

(8) Mockingjay: What!?!? Why am I talking about the Hunger Games? Because I have a tradition of seeing movies I really want to see in foreign countries and the third installment in the Hunger Games series comes out the weekend I leave for China. I’ve already mapped out all the good theaters in Beijing and Shanghai.

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How Much Does It Cost to See China and Japan in Style?

I have finally booked all the pieces of my trip to Asia this fall. I will start off in China with my sister where we will see Beijing and Shanghai. After my sister flies home, I will spend a couple of days in Kyoto, Japan by myself. Here is the route.

Flight Map

Weirdly, the most expensive part of this trip has been my visa application to enter China. I could have applied for the visa myself, but I have limited time and even more limited patience, so I mailed everything to Allied Visa & Passport which was recommended by The Points Guy.

Here is the breakdown of all the costs:

  • Flight: Washington D.C. – Beijing (business class): 75,000 Aeroplan miles + $65.70 in fees.
  • Hotel: Four nights at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing: 184,560 Hilton points + $99.91. I booked three nights with points and one night with cash plus points.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Raddison Blu Shanghai New World: 88,000 Club Carlson points + $163.87. (I booked four nights using points and paid in full for one night, which I will split with my sister.)
  • Flight: Shanghai – Osaka, Japan (economy): 7,500 British Airways miles + $91.82 in fees
  • Hotel: One night at Indigo on the Bund: Free. I used my annual IHG free hotel certificate.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Westin Kyoto: 40,000 SPG points
  • Flight: Osaka – Washington D.C. (business/first class): 80,000 United miles + $61.40 in fees. I will be flying business class to Beijing and then first class to Washington D.C. First class was only an additional 5,000 miles, so I said, why the hell not?
  • Chinese visa application: $140
  • Visa Service: $40 (normally it costs $45 but I should get a $5 discount for referencing The Points Guy) + $41 in FedEx fees.

Total out of pocket costs: $571.82 after my sister and I split the two hotel rooms I had to pay for. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.

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The Ultimate Challenge: Booking our China Hotels

Booking our China hotels was simultaneously a challenge and an obsession. I love investigating hotels and figuring out the best options for my points. If that makes me something of a travel geek, well, I’m perfectly okay with that. And China is a travel geek’s heaven because there are so many chain hotels and so many options.

In Beijing, I knew I wanted to be close to the main attractions – The Forbidden Temple and Tiananmen Square — and also close to a convenient subway stop. This meant some terrific hotels were struck from the list: The Conrad and the Park Hyatt for starters.

So I made this awesome map:

Beijing hotel map

Key: The red pins are hotels. The purple pins are tourist attractions. The yellow heart is our hotel. And the circles and stars are subway stops.

Once my lovely map was complete, we had a couple of options: The Grand Hyatt, the new W hotel which doesn’t open until late September, the Hilton Beijing, and the Park Plaza. I have gold status with Hilton and Club Carlson (Park Plaza), and platinum status with Hyatt thanks to my new Hyatt credit card.

While the new W hotel looks amazing, I have limited SPG points, and the combination of my lack of status and the desire to use my SPG points elsewhere knocked it out of the running. My sister and I both recently applied and received our Hyatt credit cards which gives us two free nights each, but again, I decided to save that perk for a more expensive Hyatt property. The Park Plaza’s reviews were just okay, so that left the Hilton, where my gold status will get us lounge access, free wifi, and hopefully, an upgrade.

Here are some pictures:

Choosing our hotel in Shanghai was even more of a challenge. Shanghai’s tourist attractions are spread across several neighborhoods. Despite the allure of staying in one of the sky-high (literally) Hyatts in Pudong, we will probably spend more time across the river in Puxi, and I don’t want to bother with the constant commute.

This left us with a couple of options in central Puxi: Waldorf Astoria on the Bund (too expensive and used all my Hilton points in Beijing); Hotel Indigo on the Bund; Hyatt on the Bund; Radisson Blu Shanghai New World; Le Royal Meridian Shanghai; the Westin Bund; Shanghai Andaz Hotel.

It was time to make another beautiful map:

Shanghai map

Key: The red pins are hotels. The purple pins are tourist attractions. The yellow heart is our hotel. The gift boxes are shopping centers. And the circles and stars are subway stops.

My sister will be with me in Shanghai for four nights, and I will probably stay another two. The Hyatt on the Bund got amazing reviews, but it is a little out of the way. The SPG properties are similarly amazing but I have decided to go to Kyoto for a couple of days after my sister abandons me and want to save my SPG points for my limited hotel options in Japan. So I took a second look at the Radisson Blu New World and really liked what I saw. It is not as glamorous or modern as the sky-high Hyatts, but it is pretty nice. Thanks to my Club Carlson credit card, I get the last night of every reservation free, and my gold status should get us lounge access, free internet and possibly, an upgrade. Plus, the Radisson Blu is in a great location, overlooking the People’s Park, near the intersection of three subway lines.

Some pictures to whet your (and my) appetite:

I saw a little trick on one of the blogs that I will be putting to the test. When you redeem your Club Carlson points, the credit card gives you the last night of the reservation free. But I wanted to get at least two free nights out of our stay. So I booked one reservation for our first two nights using 44,000 Club Carlson points. I paid in full ($170) for the third night. And then I booked the fourth and fifth nights using another 44,000 points.

For my last night in Shanghai, I am using my free IHG night (I get one free night certificate a year thanks to my IHG credit card) at the rave-reviewed Indigo on the Bund. I’ve stayed at plenty of IHG properties over the years from Holiday Inn Express to the Intercontinental in Paris. But I’ve never stayed at the boutique Indigo brand and am very much looking forward to it. Its modern, artsy decor is totally up my alley and the views of the Pudong skyline look amazing.

More pictures:


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