This was a different kind of trip for us -- we did not walk to raise money for a charity this year, as I needed a break from intensive fundraising. Instead, we made good on a promise I made to Sage when she was four years old...that one day, we would walk on the Great Wall of China.
Many thanks, Grandpa Herr, for the gift of airplane tickets. Without those tickets, this trip would have been far more difficult to financially pull off.
We used United Airlines and flew Economy Plus. I will never fly regular Economy again...Economy Plus has all the legroom one needs without the obscene costs of Business or First Class. The trip to Beijing from Boston was smooth and comfortable.
All in all, it took 14 hours of flight time plus 3 hours of airport time to arrive at our destination. Beijing is twelve hours ahead of New Hampshire, so the time change plus the travel time had us more than ready for bed. We checked into our hotel, the Dong Fang, and hit the hay.
|A view of Beijing from our hotel window.|
The next morning, we met our guide for the week, an outgoing and friendly young man who called himself Jimmy. Hugh and I had been a bit worried about what kind of person we would get as our guide -- neither of us use guides when we travel overseas, since we're the type that prefers to wander about on our own. However, given our desired itinerary (hike the Great Wall, including bits that aren't usually visited by tourists), and given that we don't know China at all, we thought it best to use a tour guide for this trip. We needn't have worried -- Jimmy was an absolute pleasure to spend time with, and he was very knowledgeable and informative. He was also constantly thoughtful and conscientious -- our trip did not have one wrinkle -- Jimmy arranged private entrances, private deluxe dinners, private drives, and the result was smooth sailing everywhere without us every having to wait in a line or have one second of worry. Jimmy was also just plain kind and fun. I enjoyed every second of my conversations with him as we strolled along the Great Wall. If you choose to do this trip, I highly recommend booking through World Expeditions -- but ask that you get Jimmy as your guide.
I had booked World Expeditions after much internet research. World Expeditions offers many different types of touring packages in China and all over the world. We chose their Great Wall Trek, a trip that does not usually allow children. After I contacted the representatives and explained how much the girls hike, the staff at World Expeditions, and their Chinese tourist associates, China Adventure Travels, checked out this blog. They all had discussions with their doctors-on-staff and decided they would allow Alex and Sage to do this tour provided we book as a separate, family tour group (and not be included with a larger group). That sounded just fine to us, as the price was only a tiny bit more expensive and we would get the tour guide all to ourselves. Since there were only four of us, as opposed to a larger group, we would also get to stay in guest houses and eat local cuisine as opposed to tenting. We don't mind tenting, of course, but the idea of staying in local Chinese guest houses and eating their home-cooked meals was quite agreeable to us.
On with the tour -- the morning after we arrived, we met Jimmy for the first time. Hugh and I both immediately felt we had an honest, kind, and thoughtful person as our guide. I really can't say enough good things about Jimmy - he was fantastic.
We took a bus from the hotel to Tiananmen Square. The bus ride was like any other bus ride in any major city -- crowded. People made way for Hugh readily enough, though, since he was wearing his Cheetahs.
We walked toward Tiananmen...
...and entered. You have to go through a security gate to get into the area. There was a massive, long line, but we skipped that and went through a separate, group entrance. Jimmy explained that if you are on your own, you have to go through the line and they will check your passport, visa, and bags. If you are with a tour guide, then they only check the tour guide's credentials, since they assume the tour guide has already screened his or her guests. If any of the guests cause problems, then the tour guide will be held responsible and pay the consequences. We promised Jimmy we would behave and not get him into any trouble.
|Alex and Sage walking through Tiananmen Square|
|In front of Mao's Memorial Hall|
|The girls with Jimmy, our wonderful host.|
|Jimmy talking about the Monument to the People's Heroes |
(tall monument in the background of the photo).
We said goodbye to Tiananmen Square and headed toward the Forbidden City. To get there, we needed to pass through the Tiananmen Gate and walk under the portrait of Mao (see the photo below).
Once through Tiananmen Gate, we moved toward the Meridian Gate.
The view once we were through the gate...
Turning around, I took some photos of the gate itself as seen from the inside...
We began our walking journey of the Forbidden City. The City has many areas/buildings -- it's been listed by UNIESCO as having the largest collection of preserved ancient structures in the world. We walked through outdoor hallways and took a peak into various rooms.
|The more animals on a building, the more important the building|
I found the history of the Dragon Lady (the Empress Dowager Cixi) to be the most interesting of our tour. The Dragon Lady was, in a very real sense, the true leader of China for fifty years during the late Qing dynasty. You can read Smithsonian Magazine's biography of her here.
|This is one of the Dragon Lady's rooms -- sorry for the reflection.|
|Another room belonging to the Dragon Lady|
|Outside the Dragon Lady's quarters|
|Statue of dragon outside the Dragon Lady's chambers. The ball represents power.|
|The deer represents longevity.|
We ended our Forbidden City trip with a visit to the Imperial Gardens.
|Centuries-old cypress trees|
On the way out, this woman wanted her picture taken with Alex (see below). This was not the first time one of us (or all of us) had been photographed. From the time we arrived in Tiananmen Square to the time we got back to our hotel, we received outright stares and photograph requests from at least a dozen people. Jimmy explained that many of the Chinese in Beijing were tourists from rural provinces, and that they had not seen foreign faces before. They therefore wanted to take our photographs. Jimmy's statements were emphasized by our experience with one mother obviously talking to her young child about Sage's relatively pale skin and light eyes (her hand movements and pointing finger needed no translation). Everyone was kind and cheery when they asked, but the obvious stares from everyone as we walked around took some getting used to.
By the way, we are extremely street-smart -- I told the girls to keep their hands tightly on their cameras at all times, and I always tell them about common tourist-scams before we travel overseas. Each of these photograph requests were genuine -- at no time did I feel like someone was really trying to rip us off.
That being said, Jimmy warned us not to go with anyone to a bar or a tea shop unless he was with us. A common scam in Beijing is to lure English-speaking people into specific bars or tea shops and then con them into spending a lot of money (or, the tourist is outright mugged once off the street). The scam is initiated by someone coming up to you and asking if they can practice their English with you over tea or lunch/dinner at a restaurant. The scam is perpetrated by both men and women, so tourists beware.
Leaving the Forbidden City -- the tree-covered mound below covers the Mongolian capital. When the Mongols took over Beijing, they built their own structures...the Chinese buried all of that once they reclaimed control.
|A woman takes a photo of the girls with her own daughter (in the middle)|
Dinner was a mixture of steamed vegetables and various meats, with rice. The girls and I quickly became proficient with chopsticks (Hugh was already proficient). The food during our entire trip was always fresh, delicious, and nutritious. I haven't eaten this well in a long time...my body seemed to appreciate having the constant variety of greens and meats (the girls and I do not eat enough vegetables when we're at home...my bad).
We walked through a nearby shopping district after dinner.
Alex and Sage bought a couple of souvenirs, after which the owner invited us to the back of the shop for some tea.
We took a cab back to the hotel, then we walked a block over and ate dinner.
|Steamed broccoli, just one of many dishes|
|Chinese beer, which has a lower level of alcohol than typical American or European beer. |
Hence the larger bottle...takes more drink to feel the kick.
|Beijing at night, from our hotel window|
Jimmy suggested we check out the Chaoyang Theatre's Acrobatic show in the late afternoon, so we bought tickets. We are so glad we did! That show was amazing! I took a lot of photos, but almost none of them came out well. You can google the show to get more information -- if you visit Beijing, this is a must! Jimmy told us there is a province in China where many of the acrobats are trained...they start as young children and grow up with the intention of becoming professional acrobats.
|These two fellows ran on top of these rings as they spun around...one guy did it blindfolded.|
It was quite spectacular.
After the show, it was time for more food! Dinner at a nearby restaurant consisted of what our guide called a "hot pot." Raw vegetables and meat were placed into the hot water/oil and cooked in front of us. We took out what we liked using our chop sticks and refilled the hot pot with more raw food whenever the pot began to look empty.
After dinner, it was time for bed. Jimmy told us to meet him in the lobby the next morning -- we would then head two and half hours west to begin our Great Wall adventure.