When I was growing up, I wanted to be an ice-cream taste-tester. I've since changed career plans, which has led me to teach English in China, and then into grad school in which I talk about all kinds of 'isms' in Chinese. I'm a working writer who loves peanut butter and playing MST3K with cheap romance novels.
As my previous post suggested, I went a-traveling this summer to Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region. It was an incredible trip that left me with deep impressions and a desire to go back. (And if you wish to read more in depth, check out my other blog here!)
I’ve actually been back for several weeks now, but have been slow at updating. I promise, more content will be coming! Until then, enjoy your summer!
I’m going to take a break from listing favorite places and write about more pressing matters: my trip to Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region next month!
As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I only have 4 more provinces to travel to in China before I’ve been to them all! In the fall, I’ll be going to China’s northeast, but for the summer, it’s out west. I’ll be experiencing the world’s highest altitude and stunning scenery, and of course, will come back with information and tips to share.
Here’s a breakdown of the trip.
First off, to get to Qinghai, I’ll be taking a 30-hour train from Shanghai to Xining, Qinghai’s capital city. I’ll be in Shanghai for a night because of a literary magazine launch. As the train rolls out west, though, I’ll see the landscape change and enter the Tibetan Plateau.
Since Qinghai is home to Tibetan people, and is historically Tibet, much of what I want to do in this province is related to Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t have many specifics nailed down for the 10 days or so that I’ll be here, but there are three things I want to do: Find the salt lakes, go to a Tibetan village, and go hiking. From what I’ve read online, all of this is extremely doable. There’s the Chaka Salt Lake, which is just to the North/Northwest of Qinghai Lake (the huge one), and there are national parks, and there are several Tibetan villages, including Tongren, to name just one. In addition there is the gorgeous Amnye Machen Mountain, which if I can’t hike around, can at least admire from a distance.
For this part of the trip, my travel will be cheap like the kind I’m used to. I’ll be staying in hostels, taking buses, perhaps even hitch-hiking. But that’s just fine with me!
Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
To get to Lhasa, I’ll be taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has been dubbed “The World’s Highest Railroad,” because of the altitude. While there are flights going into Lhasa, it’s better to go in slowly because 1) the scenery is amazing, and 2) it helps you adjust better to the high altitude.
As for my time in TAR, I will be on a much clearer schedule, because I’ll be going with a small group tour.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of group tours, but traveling alone in TAR as a foreigner is simply not the most economical idea. This is because all foreign travelers in Tibet must have a guide and a driver, since we are not allowed to take pubic transportation outside of Lhasa. Likewise, there are areas that foreigners are discouraged from visiting. Because having a guide and a driver can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, I’m joining a group to make it more affordable. That being said, the two company I’m going with (Budget Tibet Tours) seem to have a good itinerary in mind. Tibet Highland Tours also has a very good reputation and offers good services, from what I’ve read.
(By the way, if you want to know a lot more about traveling in Tibet, check out this website. The writer is very friendly.)
The trip I want to take will be an 8 or 9-day journey from Lhasa (where we will see the Potala Palace, which in itself is enthralling) all the way to the Mount Everest Base Camp. (“OMG you’re climbing Mt. Everest??” Hell no! I’m not a mountaineer and would need many years of training to even think of that — this is a “poking the base of the mountain” trip). The journey will take us past glaciers, the world’s highest monastery, and more gorgeous scenery.
Oh, and while I’m in Lhasa, I also plan on riding the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel. (Again, because of the altitude.) It has nothing to do with Buddhism, but seems just odd enough to be great.
Anyway, I’m getting pumped for my trip, and will share details as they come/I hit the road. As for now, that’s just a glimpse of where I’ll be in less than a month!
Yunnan has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, but one trail takes the cake. This is the Tiger-Leaping Gorge trail, a 2-day hike in mountainous Yunnan.
Actually, it is possible to hike the approximately 15-km hike in one day, it’s just no fun. I met a hostel owner who did exactly this, saying that you basically have to run it. Most hikers do it over a 2-day period, staying in the Halfway Guesthouse overnight (with “the best washrooms in the world” because of the open walls offering stunning views of the mountain valleys.)
To get to the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail, most travelers come from Lijiang, an ultra-touristy village that I could barely stomach for a couple of days. Most hostels will offer information about the trail and even transportation, but if you want to do it on your own, go to the small town Qiaotou. From there, it’s up to the moutains!
The hiking itself ranges from comfortable walking along dirt trails (which is rare in China, most mountain hikes being a series of stairs), to the treacherous and grueling “28 bends,” which is a series of 28 switchbacks up steep terrain. Horse vendors take advantage of this, offering horseback rides (for a fee) to those unable to do it. Out of stubborn pride, I climbed all of the 28 bends without a horse, though there is no shame (well, maybe a little) if you opt for that route.
In terms of food, growing tourism has ensured that there are restaurants along the way. That being said, pack water! Prices on top of the mountain will be higher.
As for the views…well, let’s let them speak for themselves…
Hangzhou may be best known for West Lake, but one of its lesser-known attractions for non-Chinese travelers is the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. Most Chinese travelers of course know about it, since it’s long been a part of Chinese history. In total it’s almost 1,200 miles long connecting Hangzhou and Beijing, and is the oldest functioning canal in the world.
Image courtesy of Google
Image courtesy of Google
You can’t ride it all the way to Beijing, though you’ll be able to watch barges begin their journeys to the capital. Instead, take a boat from the Wulin Port (武林码头) and get off at an old neighborhood. The boats count as public transit, costing less than 10RMB for a ride on the canal.
Once off the boat, you can enjoy small canal-side walking paths, or take a trip to see the Knives, Scissors and Sword Museum, the Fan Museum, and the Umbrella Museum. (I personally enjoyed the Sword Museum, which had a robotic arm demonstrating sword techniques at the time I visited. For all museums: prepare yourself for hordes of wax figurines!). The cluster of small old-time buildings has a good selection of restaurants, coffee shops, and art stores to peruse. In the spring, the canal is especially beautiful, with green willows lining the water.
Probably most travelers would put West Lake, Longjing Tea Village, or Lingying Temple higher on their To-Do lists (and for good reason!), but the Grand Canal is still one of my favorite spots in Hangzhou.
The first place you’ll be told to visit in Hangzhou is West Lake. That should come as no surprise, given that West Lake has been a part of Chinese poetry and folklore for hundreds of years. But, when it comes down to it, West Lake is just a giant lake. How best to enjoy it? Look at it? Take a selfie? Those are good starting places. Of course, there are other, probably more satisfying ways to explore this famed lake in Hangzhou.
Along a bridge (by Hannah Lund)
Yang Gong Di (by Hannah Lund)
West Lake (by Hannah Lund)
Quick Trip West Lake
If you just want to see West Lake and walk along it for no more than an hour, then that’s easy. There’s a subway stop on line one “龙翔桥” (longxiangqiao) that has a convenient exit for exploring the lake. This path will likely lead you to 湖滨路 (Hubin road) which is a walking street along the lake. This portion will be crowded. Not just crowded with walkers, but with tourist carts as well. (If you’re lucky, you’ll see the squirrel that delights all Chinese tourists).
West Lake by bike
Most travelers prefer this method of exploring West Lake. It will take much of the day, though, so be prepared. You can get a transit card for a 200 RMB refundable deposit for a red bike, or if you have Wechat, you can get one of the bikes scanned by QR code. The bikes are 1 RMB after an hour, and the prices jack way up the longer you keep them, so be sure to switch bikes when you can. If this sounds like too much of a hassle, you can also rent bicycles from vendors along the lake for a day. I suggest making your way to the southern side of the lake, where there’s more greenery and less traffic. Also be prepared for hills. A bit tough on the way up, glorious on the way down.
West Lake by foot
This will take almost all day. Don’t be fooled: West Lake is bigger than you think. That being said, it’s easier to veer on side paths and get lost in the woods when you don’t have to lock up a bike and fetch it later. Once you get closer to the tea fields, there will be plenty of side paths winding through Dragonwell tea bushes.
West Lake by boat
Indeed, West Lake being a body of water, there are boats! The boat vendors are hard to miss, since they stand on the shore yelling “BOAT! BOAT! BOAT!” as you walk by. You can rent a paddle-boat (by which I mean, the vendor paddles the boat) and see the Three Pillars Mirroring the Moon (aka the image on the back of the 1 RMB note), and visit Yingzhou Isle. Bargain liberally.
West Lake panorama
You can also enjoy West Lake from above. While there are several panoramic spots, my favorite would have to be from atop Baoshi Hill (宝石山), which is off of Beishan Road (北山路) and where you’ll also find Baochu Pagoda (保俶塔). The trick is to get on top of the rocks. That’s where you’ll see what I consider the best panoramic view. (Plus, it’s FREE so you can’t beat that.) Other places include Bei Feng Hill (北高峰), Leifeng Pagoda (雷峰塔) among others.
If you don’t want to do a circumference of the lake, you can also consider walking through a part of it. There are two causeways connecting different shores: Bai Causeway (白堤) and Su Causeway (苏堤). I personally prefer Su Causeway, because it’s greenery is a bit denser, and the Broken Bridge on the Bai Causeway is usually swamped with people. (Especially during public holidays!) Actually, the best causeway would have to be Yanggong Causeway (杨公堤), but there’s less of a lake view on that one. Another area is Solitary Hill (孤山) which is an inlet off of Beishan Road. There’s a seal museum (the stamp kind, not the animal), plus a series of interesting sculptures throughout the area. You can still see the lake, just from a different angle.
In the end, it’s up to you how you decide to visit West Lake. Just know that if you don’t visit it at all, you will be faced with a wash of shame from fellow China travelers! (Just kidding. But still, give it a visit!)
I probably wasn’t supposed to enjoy this as much as I did, and most Chinese tourists riding the Yangtze River told me that it was “fantasy history” and therefore useless, but enjoy it I most certainly did. Imagine, if you will, a combination of one of those state fair haunted houses from the 90’s, Willy Wonka’s factory, and the underworld. This is Fengdu Ghost Town in a nutshell.
The main area has lifesize depictions of Hell, complete with the giant entrance gate, the Home-Viewing Pavilion (where newly-deceased could have one last look at their mortal life), the Bridge of Helplessness, sometimes “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (no, not the Simon and Garfunkel song — a bridge spanning a river of blood with demons writhing within), halls of judges, gnarled statues of demons gnashing their teeth, and more. I personally enjoyed the rows of ghost-statues, which included the “Lust Ghost,” the “Drunkard Ghost,” demons eating hands, with eyes all over them, and plenty of other things to give you nightmares. You can follow a tour guide as he/she walks you through Hell and the three tests for making it through: passing that bridge, going through King of Hell Lord Yama’s torture chamber, and then (perplexingly) a stone on which to stand for three minutes — though this will be all in Chinese.
Most visitors stick with this, but I kept exploring, discovering a side corridor by the Hall of Judges, in which some inspired artists had made statues depicting the various torture methods in surprising detail.
Boiled in oil.
THIS is the Bridge Over Troubled Water. Feel much like singing?
Further afield, is an addition made in the 90’s, which is where the haunted house impression comes from. Whereas the main area took you through what felt more like a historic reenactment, this one turns Hell into an amusement park, complete with a small roller coaster, Day-Glo paint along the walls, rickety dolls falling apart, and a reincarnation funhouse.
As I said, most Chinese tourists I met scoffed at this place, but if I’m being honest, it was probably one of my highlights from my trip to Chongqing. Where else can you find something so bizarre?
Some Chinese people might hate me for bringing this up, and to be fair, this is unlikely to be at the top of your Beijing sightseeing list. However, if you want to see something genuinely unique, then this place is for you.
Despite the turbulence and tragedy of the China’s 10-year Cultural Revolution, some have turned this agony into gimmick. “The East is Red” is exactly that, being a restaurant full of Cultural Revolution memorabilia and mystique. You’ll see revolution-era murals on the walls, waiters dressed as red guards, and replicas of old trucks and tanks. Upon entering, you’ll also be handed a little red flag to wave as your meal goes on.
The meal itself is unremarkable, being average, yet filling, Northeastern cuisine. Honestly, though, you’re not going to “The East is Red” for the food. You go for the dinner entertainment, which is a jaunty reenactment of struggle sessions, skits about evil capitalist Japanese and Americans, and dance routines with fake bayonets. Performances run twice daily, from 12:15-1pm, and from 7:15-8:30pm.
The restaurant is located a bit out of the way, in Chaoyang District. Chinese address:红色经典主题餐厅, 朝阳区东五环外白家楼266号. Believe it or not, there’s more than one Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant, and to read more about others, check out this link.
I tend to recommend more unusual places or things to see, since I think it makes for a more memorable trip. However, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention some of the main things that attract travelers. Of all the things in Beijing, here’s what I found the most worthwhile:
1) Boppin’ around Tiananmen Square
This is a no-brainer, and should be your first stop if it’s your first time in Beijing. This is because this is a great area to explore, because several historical spots are linked together: The Forbidden City, the National Museum of China, The Great Hall of the People, and even Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. Obviously the most chilling part was the mausoleum, because visitors are not allowed to stop and take pictures, and must remove hats as a sign of respect. The end result is a brisk walk through a tomb, where most of the body is covered in a blanket (not that I’d want to see the whole body).
2) Seeing the Summer Palace
Another place on most “Top 5” lists, the Summer Palace is worth a stroll. As the name suggests, this is a place to visit in the summer. Many of the buildings are propped up on a hill, and there’s a nice collection of lotus flowers in the summer. If you’re lucky, you’ll also meet the erhu/violin/calligraphy street performer I met, who taught me a couple bars of Chinese opera.
3) Wandering in the Hutongs
Hutongs are the traditional neighborhoods of old Beijing, and though most of the areas have been renovated for tourism, they’re still fun to explore. Nanluoguxiang is a nice compromise between tourism and hutong life. The ACTUAL hutongs of Beijing are much less open to public, and are such twisted labyrinths, that if you find them, you shouldn’t be surprised to see a minotaur sipping tea with some of the locals.
4) The Temple of Heaven
The temple as a whole features pretty impressive architecture, much of which is restored due to previous wear and tear. My favorite parts were the “Circular Echo Wall,” “Three Echo Stones,” and “Celestial Heart Stone,” because when you stand on/near them, you can experience very unique acoustics. I won’t say any more. Just check it out!
5) Admiring graffiti in the 798 Art Space
This area is known for its explosion of art, which can be found everywhere, especially the walls! Though there are several museums in the area and boutique shops to enjoy art, I liked the spontaneous work spray-painted on buildings the best, which are very detailed and something I don’t often see in China.
6) The Bookworm Beijing
Okay, so if you’re only visiting Beijing, or even China, for a short while, this probably wouldn’t be high on your list, but for someone living in China, this well-stocked and active English bookstore is like a gorgeous oasis. Not only does it have many of the latest releases, but it also hosts events and activities for the literary world. I always make time for it on my Beijing itineraries. Check out their website here.
I wasn’t going to write a post about the Great Wall of China, because duh, everyone already knows about it, so it almost goes without saying that it’s a worthy sight to see. But, what many travelers might not know, is that there are many ways to do the Great Wall, and several different sections worth considering. For a more comprehensive list, check out this link, but for now, let me talk about the highlights, and also more unique ways to see this Wonder of the World.
Badaling — Only go here if you’re in a time crunch, want to see the Great Wall, and basically only want a selfie of you on the wall to prove you were there.
I have to mention this, because in the words of Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!” True, it’s the closest section to Beijing City, and there’s even a convenient train that will take you there, so you can even skip over a tour group (and thus skip over some pointless trips to souvenir shops). However, it is basically Disneyland Great Wall, by which I mean it’s so renovated, it doesn’t even look real. To add to this, there are swarms of crowds, making it nigh impossible to get a good panoramic photo of the wall without tons of people in the background.
Mutianyu — Come here if you want to see great scenery, but also don’t want to literally scale a wall to find it.
Image courtesy of Happy Dragon Hostels
Image Courtesy of Top China Travel
This is probably the best compromise between accessibility, natural beauty, and being family friendly. It’s a couple of hours out of Beijing, so you would need to either buddy up with a tour group (hostels offer this service), or get a bus. Mutianyu is much flatter than, say, Jinshanling, less overtly renovated than Badaling, less wild than Jiankou, but still has gorgeous mountain scenery. What makes it stand out: you have the option of riding a toboggan down the Great Wall.
Jinshanling-Simatai — Come here if you want a wilder, but still solid, wall.
Jinshanling-Simatai is much more rugged than Mutianyu, but is also not death-defyingly steep like Jiankou. Same as Mutianyu, it’s a couple of hours out ot Beijing, so you’d need to get some sort of transportation. The perk of this area is that it feels wilder, and so it’s easier to imagine what it must have been like in ancient times. When I went there, I liked that it felt more remote because of how it got slightly less traffic than other more renovated places.
Jiankou — Come here if you want to really CLIMB the Great Wall, and like adventures.
Here’s where it starts to get really wild. This part of the wall gets very little traffic, and that’s becuase it requires a lot more work to enjoy. Loose rocks, crumbling steps, steep cliffs, and trecherous climbs make this a truly adventurous trek. I was lucky enough to go with two boys who a) really liked to climb, and b) had no qualms about hoisting me up over the edges because I have weak noodle arms. To get here, you’ll have to get a small van to take you to the wall (and pick you up afterward!) Bargain liberally.
Scuba Diving the Great Wall — Come here to channel your inner mermaid/merman.
I had to include this one because it’s so cool. Due to the construction of Panjiakou Resevoir, part of the Great Wall is now underwater. While it’s not technically in Beijing, but rather in Chengde, Hebei Province, Beijing-based organizations lead underwater expeditions to see the Submerged Great Wall. You can’t go here with only an Open Water diving certificate, though. It’s 30 meters deep, meaning you have to know what you’re doing. Still, this would probably be the most unusual way to experience the Great Wall.
As I said, this is just an overview of the Great Wall coming out of Beijing, and even only the main culprits. The Great Wall is HUGE, so consider seeing it in other provinces like: Hebei, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and even Tianjin to get even more unique experiences. Just, for my sake, PLEASE don’t just give up and go to Badaling. For me?
So! You’ve decided to travel in China. What should you see?
If you look a map of China and say “Ehn, there’s not much to see,” all I can say is: are your geography skills really that bad? Yikes. I’ve been in China for almost 5 years, and am ALMOST done visiting every province (oh yeah, I’m insane).The map in the header is actually mine, and is hanging in my bedroom as we speak. I have routes for past trips and travels of mine. So, if you STILL think, “There’s not much to see in China,” then maybe this blog isn’t for you.
“All right, fine, then how about Beijing, Shanghai, that place with the Terra Cotta Warriors, and some pandas?” I mean, yeah, it’s good to see such famous spots, but I’m not going to waste word count on places we all already know about. Let’s be brave, strap on our boots, and dive into the beautiful and strange hidden treasures that are all over China!