Tag Archives: china

Part #10: Highlights and Lowlights

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!
Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey
Part #5: In Search of a Geisha
Part #6: The Not-So Silver Silver Pavilion
Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?
Part #8: The Very Gold Golden Pavilion
Part #9: First Class Baby!

My second trip to Asia was many things: Amazing, exhausting, eye-opening, cold, beautiful, empowering, and scary. Here are some of my favorite and not-so favorite experiences.

Highlights:

1) Traveling with my sister: This was my sister’s first trip to Asia, and it was exciting to see the excitement of travel through her eyes. She is now off to the Canadian Rockies this summer with my youngest sister, and I’m so excited for them.

2) Kyoto: Japan was a complete surprise. I didn’t have many expectations for Kyoto, and it turned out to be a beautiful, charming, and friendly city. I easily filled four days there.

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3) The Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China stands out as a top tourist attraction for a reason. It is truly stunning. I highly encourage you to to take a guided tour to a less touristy part of the wall so you can enjoy the splendor without thousands of other tourists.

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4) First-class: Traveling in first class – what is there not to like?

5) The Shanghai skyline: Despite the cold and the numbing sensation in my fingers, the Shanghai skyline was enchanting. The Shanghai Tower – now the second tallest building in the world – was the icing on the cake.

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6) The Shanghai Ghetto: We visited the old Jewish ghetto where my maternal grandparents lived for several years during World War Two. For years, I had listened to my mom tell the story of how her parents escaped the Holocaust. It was extremely meaningful and fascinating to visit the place they called home for five years.

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7) Traveling solo: Yes, traveling by myself for the last couple of days of my trip was slightly terrifying, but it was also empowering. I came home knowing not only that I am capable of traveling solo, but that I am capable of enjoying it.

Lowlights:

1) Jet lag: The jet lag on the way to Asia was no picnic, but the jet lag I endured after I came home was brutal and incapacitating. It was enough to make me swear off of Asia for a year.

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2) Traveling solo: Like I said, the anticipation of traveling by myself in a foreign country was terrifying. All my bravado and wanderlust aside, I’m not very good at being alone. Being alone in a foreign country kicked my normal anxiety into overtime.

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3) Navigating in China: The lack of English and general expanse of China’s mega cities made the simple act of navigating challenging – although not impossible.

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4) The Beijing smog: We were lucky to have a day of clear blue skies in Beijing, but found out just how bad Beijing’s famous smog truly is. There is nothing like a grey curtain hanging overhead to ruin a good picture.

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5) The cold: We knew it would be cold in China so this wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still a nuisance.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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How the other half lives in Shanghai.

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

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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.

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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 #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhujiajiao

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

On my sister’s last full day in Shanghai, we took a day trip to one of the many ancient water towns on the outskirts of the city. If you google “water towns near Shanghai,” you’ll find an abundance of options, each with advantages and disadvantages. After going back and forth, we finally decided on one of the closer towns – and we were very happy with our choice. Traveling by bus in China is not an easy feat for an English speaker. I was convinced we were going to end up halfway to Tibet before we realized we were on the wrong bus.

Thankfully, that did not happen.

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Zhujiajiao is a one hour-bus ride from the bus stop just south of the People’s Park. Thanks to some very detailed blog posts (here and here), we knew we were looking for the pink bus on Pu’an Road with the express symbol (it looks like this:快). And just to be sure, we asked every Western looking person on the bus, “Zhujiajiao?” and took their tentative nods as a good sign.

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Note: The bus will be very crowded. Leg space is non-existent.

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Once we got to Zhujiajiao, we took a pedicab to the entrance of the ancient city because we were afraid of getting lost. Okay fine, I admit it. I was also freezing. The directions are actually pretty straightforward and an easy 10-minute walk.

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One of the common complaints about Zhujiajiao is that it’s overly touristy and crowded, but we didn’t find it to be either of these things – maybe because we are tourists, and the cold weather kept the throngs away.

The thing we enjoyed most about Zhujiajiao was its effortless charm: the narrow alleyways that wind every which way; the elegant bridges; the houses and souvenir stores tucked into tiny corners; and the cultural oddities that make you stop in your tracks. We had a great time simply walking around. We splurged on a boat ride for 65 RMB just because it’s the kind of thing to do at least once in our lives.

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I’m obsessed with this shot. I love that there is a chair in the middle of all the laundry.

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Me taking pictures on a bridge:

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Here, we stumbled upon some kind of calligraphy shop:

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Our Chinese version of a gondola ride (without the crooning and so much cheaper):

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Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai

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

Most people go to Shanghai to see the mesmerizing skyline. I desperately wanted to see the Shanghai marriage market. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of Chinese citizens gather in the People’s Park with descriptions of their children (or themselves), in search of the appropriate mate. For some reason, this fascinated me.

People’s Park is huge, so I asked concierge where exactly I could find the marriage market.

Concierge: Which market?

Me: The Shanghai marriage market.

Concierge: I don’t understand. Which market?

Me: The marriage market?

Concierge: Which market? What are you looking to buy?

Me: A Chinese husband!

So I set out to find the marriage market on my own. Luckily, it was hard to miss. Despite the afternoon rain, there were tons of people gathered in the park under umbrellas hawking pieces of paper.

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I was pretty impressed with their ingenuity. Everything in sight became a platform for hosting posters.

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I did not find a husband in Shanghai, and I got yelled at in Chinese, but I had a great time. The Shanghai marriage market should not be missed.

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Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai

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

I confess: I was pretty excited to experience China’s bullet train to Shanghai. Sure, we have Acela in the U.S. but it’s a poor excuse for high-speed rail. At its fastest, Acela travels 150 mph, but on the DC to New York City route, it averages a measly 81.7 mph. I’m generally a rah-rah America is the best kind of girl, but when it comes to high-speed rail, Asia and Europe have us beat. The G category train is the fastest on the Beijing – Shanghai route with a maximum speed of 186 mph and an average speed of 173 mph. Suck on that America!

The G trains offer second, first and business class, with business class being the most luxurious and expensive. We decided to splurge on first class seats (approximately $140) which feel and look similar to Amtrak’s Acela business class seats.

Our Hilton concierge purchased the tickets for us a couple days in a advance, and we hopped a cab to Beijing’s South Railway Station Friday morning. The train station was extremely busy, but it was easy to find our way around. We had to go through security (you have to go through security everywhere in China), but it was quick, and we had plenty of time to spare.

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China’s famous bullet train!

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The seats were comfortable – I fell asleep pretty quickly upon sitting down, but given my preternatural ability to sleep pretty much anywhere, that may not be much of an indication. photo 3 (1)

And the view was pretty neat too!

photo 4Seat61 has all the details on the different train options, prices, and times. At just over five hours, my sister and I found the train trip very relaxing and enjoyable. I highly recommend it over flying any day.

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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…

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statues side by side

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Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great

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

The Great Wall is truly great. I mean it’s fucking great. Like mind-blowing, ass-kicking, I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-in-person great. It is one of the main reasons my sister and I decided to go China. It’s been on my bucket list for years. And it lived up to my expectations.

Scratch that. It exceeded my expectations.

Great Wall Map

The Great Wall of China is huge. It stretches for hundreds of miles and there are many different places you can see the Great Wall. The most popular tourist area is Badaling – it’s closest to Beijing and most accessible by public transportation. But it’s also crawling with tourists.

From the get go, I know I wanted to do an actual hike (not a walk) and visit a less touristy part of the wall.

As we began our research, it seemed like there were hundreds of guides to choose from, and we had no idea how to choose one from the other, or even which location to choose. Somehow, we stumbled on Dandelion Hiking, which does group hikes for a fraction of the cost of other companies and received good reviews on Trip Advisor. The owner was very responsive and spoke excellent English. And so even though no one else signed up for the hike (it was late November after all), we decided to stick with them and do a private hike. It cost us $150 per person which is comparable to all the other companies out there.

Our guide was a Belgian fellow named Jan who was just perfect. He and his driver picked us up from our hotel at 9:30 a.m. on the dot. His English was great; he answered all of our questions (even the stupid ones); and he took a ton of pictures of us, even when we insisted on doing silly poses that would try any normal person’s patience. Sadly, Jan informed us that he was going back to Europe in a couple of days, but I’d still recommend Dandelion Hiking. They were phenomenal.

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Our trusty guide, Jan, taking pictures of us.

Jan recommended a hike called Chen Castle, slightly northeast of Badaling. It was perfect. It started with a steep hike up to reach the wall which tested our lungs and legs. But when we got to the top after much huffing and puffing, it was all awe and amazement and me shrieking, “We’re at the Great Wall of China!”

Starting out. You can see the Great Wall all the way at the tippy top.

Starting out. You can see the Great Wall all the way at the tippy top.

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Reaching the Great Wall after 1,300 feet of climbing.

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Showing off my yoga skills. Or skill. That is the only cool yoga pose I can do.

It helped that we literally had the Great Wall of China to ourselves. There was not another person or vehicle in sight for miles and miles.

The steep climb up was the hardest part. After that, there were a few hills, but we mostly walked along the Great Wall admiring the view and snapping hundreds of pictures. And I do mean hundreds.

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And of course, here is my requisite cartwheel pose. It’s not the most graceful cartwheel, but I’m about twenty years out of practice.

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Let me conclude by saying, the Great Wall of China is amazing, and worth a trip to Asia. I’d recommend going in the spring or fall, though we managed just fine with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees. Dandelion Hiking does a variety of trips you can choose from, some which include camping out overnight on the Great Wall.

 

 

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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 #3: Getting a Chinese Visa

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold

This post should have been written two months ago when I went through the process of getting a visa, but being slightly paranoid, I wanted to wait until my Asia trip was said and done.

Americans traveling to China have to apply for a visa with the Chinese consulate, which can be a grueling process and costs $140. At best, it’s at least half a day of standing on line at the Chinese consulate and hoping for the best. At worst…well, you’ll see.

Instead of spending a day at the consulate, I decided to use a well-reviewed visa service, Allied Passport and Visa. I dropped off my application and passport at Allied’s DC office, and a nice guy named Steve assured me that I’d get my visa in a couple of days. The next day, Steve emailed me, informing me that the Chinese consulate would like more information.

Ruh roh.

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Once the Chinese realized I work in politics (the application asked for my employer), they wanted to make sure my trip was purely for pleasure and not for business. Apparently, they thought I might foment a political coup on my vacation.

At the consulate’s instruction, I wrote a short letter avowing my intention to visit China as a tourist and sent the letter to Steve.

The next day, I received another email from Steve. The consulate requested more information — three new items to be specific. I sent a letter written and signed by my boss on company stationary affirming that I will not be doing any business in China; a detailed 591-word letter detailing every step of my itinerary; and copies of my hotel reservations. And I shipped them all off to Steve and hoped for the best.

Two days later, Steve called with the good news: The Chinese consulate accepted my application. I thanked Steve profusely. Going through this process by myself would have been a nightmare. Allied Passport and Visa were an immense help, and I highly recommend their service.

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Travel Apps That Saved Me

Before I get into detailed posts about my trip to China and Japan, I must rave about the travel apps that revolutionized my traveling.

I turned off cellular data on my iPad and iPhone so as not to incur a bagillion dollar bill, but downloaded offline maps for Beijing, Shanghai and Kyoto. At the time, I had no idea how useful these maps would be. Unlike paper maps, these apps use GPS to mark my location and direction even when I’m offline. So, for example, if I get out of the subway and have no idea which direction to go in, I simply check the app. As I wandered around the western parks of Kyoto with no English signs, I pulled out my iPad and made my way to my next destination. Gone are the days of walking 15 minutes north only to realize that I meant to walk south!

Some people say getting lost is part of the fun of traveling, but not me. I hate getting lost. I like the puzzle of figuring out a new city and knowing exactly where I’m going. But wandering around with absolutely no sense of where I am frustrates me, and to be honest, scares the shit out of me.

Since Beijing and Shanghai are large cities, I had plenty of free apps to choose from, and ended up using Ulmon maps. There may be better versions out there, but these worked for me.

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The app allows me to save personal locations with colored stars. Also, the free version clearly comes with ads.

Kyoto was a bit harder. Many of the options were in Japanese which was, for obvious reasons, completely useless. After an extensive google search, I stumbled upon MapsWithMe, and downloaded their Japan app. So far (I am still in Kyoto), this map is working amazingly and could not recommend it enough.

Kyoto map

Notice the little blue arrow that tells you my location.

 

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