We Have Reached Our Final (Asian) Destination

This is it! The last stop of many on our six-month tour of Asia. We arrived in style, taking the high-speed train from Xian. Thing is fast, people! And we stayed in the ritzy part of town, (sort of by accident) surrounded by stores selling Ferraris, Aston Martins, Gucci and Rolex. This was one of the best value hotels we stayed at during our whole trip, maybe the best in my opinion. For around $110 a night we had a great location, classy lobby, super helpful staff, really nice room, uber comfy bed…My only complaint was the WiFi wasn’t very strong, but we’d highly recommend this hotel. It was a great way to round out the trip.

Another perk of the Park Plaza hotel is its proximity to the Donghuamen Night Market. This crazy night market is lined with stalls selling a mix of delicious and creepy items: everything from skewers of meat and seafood, dumplings, noodles and caramelized sugar covered fruit, to (for the more adventurous eaters) starfish, sea horse, sea urchins, lamb kidneys, sheep balls, worms, snakes, scorpions, even spiders.

And among these crazy foods, Alan also found a Chinese Giants fan. So, it was definitely a success.

It feels fitting that we could wrap up the trip with one of the most bucket list-y, iconic tourist experiences there is: The Great Stairmaster. More commonly known as the Great Wall. Or the umpteenth “eighth” wonder of the world. 😉 We visited Jinshanling, where the walk along the wall is a bit more of a hike than other spots (so I’m told). We picked this area because it’s supposed to feel a bit more remote, a little less touristy, and give you more of a feel for the natural beauty of the area.

If I’m being totally honest, it still kind of is just a wall, but I think going in with the expectation of it having been too hyped sort of prepared me and made it less underwhelming in actuality. We did really enjoy our walk here. The scenery is quite beautiful, and the wall, though in a state of disrepair in certain areas, is a pretty remarkable architectural feat, snaking along the crests and valleys of these lush and rolling hills.

I’ve got to say, we underestimated that wall. I mean, it’s a wall, how hard can it be? But that thing is pretty steep! We definitely got a workout traversing it.

After our Great Wall excursion we got dropped off in perhaps the most well-known hutong area and set off to explore. This part of town is filled with tight alleyways bustling with activity and tons of quaint shops and restaurants. It was so crowded, in fact, that I got run over by a bicyclist. Oops.

We had a fantastic Italian dinner here at a tiny restaurant called Mercante. The chef was from Emilia-Romagna and he hooked us up with some solid Sicilian pecorino and walk-in seats in this cozy and packed little restaurant. Afterwards we walked a short way to the Houhai Lake area. We adored this part of town. It’s waterside and absolutely bumping with bars and live music. We stopped into one (we may or may not have picked it because it had a puppy! Eeee!) with a wonderful singer cooing some American classics alongside an acoustic guitar.

Another day we braved the heat to check out the Forbidden City. We were blown away by how big it is, and also very taken by the traditional pagoda style palaces.

We opted for no guide, and were honestly so overloaded on history that we probably didn’t do as in-depth an exploration of this as many tourists would, but it’s easy to appreciate in a 50,000 feet above way with a quick walk through. To be sure there are countless tour options for those more interested in the history. Beware though, there are what feels like millions of tourists out exploring this city. And you sort of have to fight your way through massive groups of Chinese tour buses to get a peek at times.

What was most certainly not worth braving the heat for was Tiananmen Square. We hereby give you permission to skip this tourist “must-see” on your visit to Beijing. We’re not trying to short-change the historical importance of this square, but as something to physically see while on vacation, well…it’s just a square. So, we did what any self respecting tourists would do in this situation: we took a selfie and left.

I literally took a picture of these decorative shrubs in a phallic shape just to make our pictures of Tiananmen a little more exciting.

We loved Beijing even more than we thought we would. It’s super easy to get around (despite the language barrier, the metro is astoundingly easy to figure out…this coming from someone severely lacking in directional skills). And we kept finding that this mastery of common sense pervades the culture. Things were just so sensible and helpful. For instance, while over the top and often off the mark (as covered in all of our China posts), the Chinese are big on signage. (Side note: we think part of why China has so many signs is because it modernizes at a centrally planned pace and not in steps or organically. So people are sometimes placed in modernized situations they are not prepared for, and have signage to guide them. Thoughts?) But they have some really brilliant ideas when it comes to this. For instance, if your Do Not Disturb light is on in your hotel room when the housekeeping staff comes by, they leave a card under your door telling you to call if you’d like them to come back. And the hotels provide you with little business cards that say in English and Mandarin “Please take me to…” with a list of popular tourist destinations. It also lists “Please take me back to…” with the name of the hotel. Brilliant, and so simple!

Other strange observations on China…the hotels have a 13th floor, but no 4th or 14th! People often sit in the front seat of cabs, in lieu of taking the back, or splitting the group up with one up front and one in back. If you’re a female, be prepared to be addressed solely as “lady.”

::hey lady::
::hey lady::

To celebrate a vacation of epic proportions we splurged on a special dinner, and an acrobat show. The duck at renowned Da Dong was legit. It’s all in the skin. I don’t know what they do to get it this way, but the skin is supremely crispy and thin and it’s as if it melts in your mouth. It’s served with crepes and various accouterments like onion, sugar, and garlic. A solid meal indeed. The acrobatics show was really fun. Parts of the act were weirdly sloppy in a way that made me wonder if they were intentionally not dancing in sync or screwing up on minor acrobatic moves so as to increase the fear factor when they did the really dangerous ones. The grand finale involved a guy driving a motorcycle inside of a giant metal spherical cage. And then another motorcyclist joined him. And another…And another. After the fifth I was cringing and covering my eyes. I leaned over to Alan and whispered, “This has to stop.”That’s when they put three more in! Thank goodness nobody died on stage. Sorry, no pictures. The last thing I wanted to do was risk even further injury by distracting anyone with a camera flash.

Before heading out to the airport our final night we ordered room service and reminisced about all our adventures. Well, in reality Alan watched Sly Stallone’s classic Cobra, and I bounced around in out of control excitement for our arrival in America the next day!

We are so thrilled to be back in America for a little bit! The only thing better than traveling the world is coming home to the friends and family you missed so dearly. But I’m not going to lie, there was a little jet lag to get through! (I’m embarrassed to share this picture from our taxi ride out of LAX, but Alan thought the world deserved to see just how dedicated this blogger can be).

::well hello jet lag::
::well hello jet lag::

Practical Info

Transportation: We arrived on a day-time high speed train from Xian. See our Xian post for details. From Beijing West train station, we took an unofficial taxi for 90 CNY to the Park Plaza. You could take the subway, or an official taxi would have cost much less had we known and been patient.

The subway system is great for getting around the city. It works well and is easy to understand with English on the maps and machines. A ride costs 2 CNY. You can walk a bit, but there’s some of that Vegas thing where big blocks take a long time to cover.

We departed on a flight to the US!!! Our hotel provided a car for 180 CNY, it took a little over half an hour at 8:30 am on a Sunday. The airport is quite nice, though you cannot bring water through the initial security and then as you board the plane they take any beverages you purchased inside the terminal. This seemed undisclosed and sub-optimal as we spent our remaining yuan on waters and Sprite.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Park Plaza Wangfujing, and we highly recommend it (at ~$110/night). It is billed as a very nice and far cheaper alternative to its neighboring 5-star properties, and we agree. The service was great, our room reasonably spacious and nicely appointed, and the location is very good. It is within spitting distance of the Peninsula and the Waldorf, and next door to the Ferrari and Aston Martin dealerships. So you’re not in the hood. Our only complaint is the WiFi was sub-par. But this hotel is so much nicer than almost everywhere else we’ve stayed, that we are willing to tolerate this flaw.

We had wanted to book a room at Beijing Downtown Backpackers (in large part for its location) but there were no privates available. It is located on Nan Luo Go Xiang, in the heart of the active and charming hutong district and very close to Houhai Lake. This is a better location in terms of character and nightlife. After nearly six months on the road, we were very happy to retire to our cocoon of moderate luxury at the Park Plaza. The subway system is so good that moving between these neighborhoods was a piece of cake. Another place we considered is Courtyard 7. Opposite House is said to be nice and hip.

Food and Drinks: There is tons of it. Our first night we visited the Donghuamen night market. The set up is very orderly, with a line of stalls on one side of the street for a few hundred yards. Options include lots of protein skewers and noodles etc., plus sheep balls, snake, scorpions, spiders, worms, starfish, sea horse, sea urchin, lamb kidney, etc. There are a couple informal carts in the area selling beers.

Beijing is famous for its Peking duck. The debate rages on over whose is the best. We tried one contender’s version over dinner at Da Dong (multiple branches, we went to the one in the mall across from the Park Plaza). The chef/owner’s claim to fame is that he makes crispy-skinned duck that is less fatty, and I support his claim. The skin melts in your mouth, and is all the more delicious when coated with a little sugar. It is a fancy place and on the pricy side, but worth it. The service was so-so, and my biggest complaint is that the drink pours were laughable. I don’t think I even got 30ml of scotch. Our tab was a little under 700 CNY, including two drinks.

Mercante is a charming slice of Italy in an old hutong alleyway. The owner hails from Emilia-Romagna and happily explained in detail the intricacies of the menu and nuances of a pecorino from Sicily vs. Tuscany. Our meal cost 698 CNY, including a bottle of dolcetto that accounted for more than half the total.

Lei Garden offers very tasty dim sum. But we had to diminish our rating substantially during the second half of the meal. They ran out of our favorite dish (steamed BBQ pork dumpling with oyster sauce), and then told us there is a charge if you do not order tea, and the little waters are way overpriced. I’ve known worse offenses, but we ended up paying $13 for two small bottles of non-special brand water and the tea charge, which was more than two orders of dumplings (3 per order) costs.

Consistent with our style on this trip, we did not really explore the nightlife. One night we had a drink at Moodle by Houhai Lake, where we enjoyed a guitar/singer duo, an adorable puppy, and of course badminton on the tube. The lake is lined with bars and restaurants and was quite an impressive scene. I am told the rowdier nightlife takes place in Sanlitun.

Activities: One day we visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The former costs 60 CNY each and is enormous. We were not with a guide and we spent minimal time learning about the history as we just couldn’t take any more after Central Asia. But the place is well-organized and well-marked. There are some beautiful buildings and we enjoyed the Imperial Garden. Certain ticket lines accept credit cards. Note that they have instituted a south to north traffic flow rule, so you can only enter and exit at certain gates.

We hereby offer moral support should you choose to skip Tiananmen Square. We figured it would be a check-the-box experience that you feel obligated to see but won’t love. It is really OK to skip it. We should have visited Jingshan and Beihai Parks, instead.

The Chinese acrobat show at Chaoyang Theater was slightly error-laden but highly entertaining. We bought tickets through our hotel and paid 280 CNY per ticket instead of 380 CNY for VIP. Our seats on Level 1, Row 16 (#8&10) were great and paying more would have been a waste.

The Temple of Heaven is a popular attraction, but by our last day we were so templed out and it was gray and rainy. The Summer Palace is on the outskirts of the city, and is also very popular.

There are lots of options for visiting the Great Wall, in terms of location, exertion level, private or public, etc. We opted for the Jinshanling to Simatai hike via the activities arm of Beijing Downtown Backpackers (cost 280 CNY each): http://www.backpackingchina.com. Our group numbered perhaps 25, so we took a bus, which made the drive 3-3.5 hours each way. I think in a private car it takes 2-2.5 hours. The scenery is pretty and the hike is fairly challenging, with a lot of up and down and some very steep, narrow stairs. It is more of a transport and chaperone concept than a guided tour. The info conveyed was simply that this section of the wall was built about 500 years ago by the Ming Dynasty.

I had read that the most touristy section of the wall near Beijing is Badaling, so that was out. We also considered Mutianyu and Jiankou. In addition to day trips from Beijing, you can visit the wall on a day trip from other places or do a multi-day hiking/camping trip.

May 21-25, 2014 (Wednesday-Sunday)

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