Day Tripping to Macau

Macau is a sister Special Administrative Region to Hong Kong, and a very common day or overnight trip from the city. The journey between the two is generally smooth sailing (pun intended) as the ferry takes only about one hour and leaves and departs frequently. Macau is treated as a separate country from Hong Kong, so a passport is needed and everyone has to go through immigration.

Macau also has it’s own currency but Hong Kong dollars are accepted pretty much everywhere. I never traded money to go there, but be aware that if you pay in Hong Kong dollars sometimes you will get change in Macau pataca. (They are considered equal in value, 5 Hong Kong dollars is 5 Macau pataca).

Although Macau has close proximity to Hong Kong, the two regions are very different. Macau was a Portuguese colony for over 400 years, the first European colony in China and the last to be returned — Macau was handed over two years after Hong Kong in 1999.

Lilau Square, one of the early Portuguese settlements.

The Portuguese influence is evident in the architecture, as the old city contains many lovely churches and buildings painted in pastel yellows, pinks, and greens. But Macau in my opinion actually felt more Chinese than Hong Kong — perhaps due to closer proximity to the mainland. Macau really is an “East meets West” city.

Generally Macau is most well known for it’s casinos than anything else, since it caters to wealthy mainland businessmen who love to gamble. It generates even more revenue than Las Vegas, but this is mainly because the Chinese are more willing to place bets on larger amounts of money than Americans.

The Grand Lisboa Casino.

I personally was not interested in the casinos, I visited Macau to see the old city and architecture. At first I was kind of unsure if I wanted to visit Macau. I had friends who were disappointed with it, so I wondered if it would be worth the trip. Ultimately I decided to go given that I had the time and I was glad I did. I’m very interested in history and colonial buildings and Macau is a good place to see those. One thing I really liked about Macau is that nearly all of the historical buildings are completely free to enter. I only paid one entrance fee and it was a very small 5 HKD/MOP.

Macau is comprised of a peninsula (Macau) and two islands (Taipa and Coloane). The UNESCO listed Historic Centre of Macau is located on the Macau Peninsula. Many of the casinos are located on Taipa island. The Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal is on Macau proper, and Taipa also has it’s own ferry terminal.

Ferries to Macau are available both from Kowloon and from Hong Kong Island. I took the ferry from Kowloon, at the China Ferry Terminal. From my hostel I crossed the street and went through Kowloon Park next to the mosque. At the terminal, touts stood outside the ticket gate and sold tickets to Macau. I bought one for about 165 HKD. After buying, I realized that the ticket was for Taipa and not the Outer Harbour terminal. I wanted to return it but the vendor told me that the ferry to the Outer Harbour wasn’t leaving for an hour and that I could simply take a casino shuttle to the Macau Pensinsula. So I agreed and boarded the ferry.

The ferry is pretty comfortable and has a small snack stand (but only one item on their menu was actually available). After arriving at either Taipa or the Outer Harbour terminal, it’s possible to take free shuttle buses to the casinos. The Grand Lisboa is the closest to the Historic Centre, but the Wynn Macau is also close by, across the street from Grand Lisboa. At the ferry terminal, it’s a good idea to pick up a map of Macau.

I took the shuttle to the Wynn Macau. It’s very comfortable and has complimentary wifi.

The Wynn Hotel and Casino.

From there, I followed a few signs pointing in the direction of the A-ma temple, which I knew was close to the old city. It’s a pretty long walk, around 40 minutes around a lake.

Finally I made it to the A-ma Temple. The temple is a Taoist temple from the Ming Dynasty and included on the Unesco World Heritage list.

The temple has free admission and it’s up a fairly steep hill. On the right, a 10 minute walk away are the Moorish Barracks, built by an Italian for Goa Indian police. The building is closed to the public but it can be viewed from outside.

Nearby the Barracks is the Lilau Square, the old Portugese settlement.

In addition to old architecture, Macau has plenty of tall, packed in apartments. Macau is the world’s most densely populated country.

In this area I tried a Portuguese egg tart and Portuguese coffee. Both were delicious.

A short walk away is the Mandarin’s House, a beautiful Chinese style house built by a wealthy family in the 19th century and home to f Zheng Guanying, a Chinese scholar. The house is free to enter, quite large and has two stories.

Macau has plenty of signs with English directing to the tourist attractions, and each attraction has a description of some of the history behind it.

St. Lawrence’s Church, one of the many old Portuguese churches in Macau.
St. Joseph’s Seminary and Church.
The inside of St. Joseph’s.

A piece of bone from St. Francisco Xavier, the first Jesuit missionary that came to the East.

Near the church is St. Augustine’s Square, which is a nice historical area with old trees and streetlamps.

Dom Pedro V Theatre. Sometimes performances go on here though no one else was there when I went in. It’s the first European-style theater built in China.

St. Augustine’s Church.

Past the Square is the Sir Robert Ho Tung library. It served as the residence of Ho Tung, a Hong Kong businessman, until his death when it was turned into a library, as he wanted in his will.

Rua da Falicidade, meaning “Street of Happiness” is a former red light district turned into a tourist area with shops and restaurants.

One of the restaurants on this street, called Dragon Portuguese Cuisine, had a line to get in so I hoped that meant it was good. I waited 20 minutes for a seat there. The food was indeed good, I ordered baked chicken (which was actually in a soup) with rice. The Portuguese chocolate pudding was also delicious.

Senado Square is the main touristic area of Macau, so it’s quite crowded. It is named for the Leal Senado building, which was the government center during the Portuguese administration of the city.

Leal Senado.

An old Post office.
The Holy House of Mercy.

The Holy House of Mercy was built in the 16th century and served as a medical clinic and orphanage. There is a museum inside for 5 HKD/MOP admission.

Picture of the founder and his skull.
View of Senado Square from the building.
St. Dominic’s Church.

The ruins of St. Paul is nearby Senado Square. It is the most famous historic place in Macau. Honestly I was expecting it to be bigger given it’s popularity, but the details on the facade are interesting. The church was first built in the 17th century and then mostly destroyed by fire.

Right next to the ruin is Monte Fort, an old protective fortress, offering some views of Macau.

Macau is certainly no Hong Kong when it comes to skyline, that’s for sure.
The Guia Fortress and Lighthouse, on the hill across from Monte Fort.

At the top of the fort is the Macau Museum, but I didn’t pay a visit since I was tired and itching to head back soon.

St. Anthony’s Church.

Camoes Square is a small square located near Senado Square. It has a small park and a few other places worth seeing, including St. Anthony’s Church.

Next to the square is Casa Garden, the former home of a Portuguese merchant now used as an art gallery (it’s also free). A protestant cemetery and Anglican Church is also right by here.

Since I had been walking around for several hours by this point I made my way back by walking to the Grand Lisboa, the closest casino to the Historic Centre.

Inside the casino.

When I went in I asked for the free shuttle, and I was told to go into the gaming area and up to the second floor to get a ticket. This actually involved going up the escalator more than twice since the first “floor” is actually made up of two floors somehow. The second floor was full of gaming tables so I asked again where to get the ticket and finally made it to a small desk and was handed the shuttle ticket. Then I went back down, exited the gaming area and went down to the basement where people were lined up for the shuttle.

The casino shuttle went to the Macau airport as well as the Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal. I got off at the ferry terminal and purchased a ticket at the desk to Kowloon for about 193 HKD.

I wasn’t totally sure what to expect from Macau but I was happy I decided to go. There’s a lot of history and the historic buildings are well preserved. Although nothing is really spectacular or on the grand scale of some churches in Europe, it is pretty interesting, and most of the buildings are completely free which was a pleasant surprise.

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Escape to Lantau Island

An excellent day trip from the condensed streets of Hong Kong is to visit Lantau Island, the biggest of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, home to the Hong Kong airport and Hong Kong Disneyland.

But Lantau Island offers even more than that. It has the longest cable car ride I have ever been on, some delicious temple food and a shanty but charming fishing village.

The streets of Tai O.

The Ngong Ping 360 cable car is one of Hong Kong’s most popular attractions and it’s quite scenic. There are two classes of cable car, Standard and Crystal (see through floor). Private cabins are also available for higher prices. The cable car station can be reached easily by metro, Tung Chung station. The line to the cars was fairly long, but there is free wifi available near the cars so at least I wasn’t too bored.

Line for the cable car.

I chose the Standard cabin round trip, though the Crystal would have been cool. The ride lasted about 20 minutes, the longest I’ve been on. Many nice views here of the green mountains and sea, plus the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery are cool to see from the car.

View of the airport.

The car lands and Ngong Ping village, a tourist village with souvenir shops and restaurants. The Big Buddha isn’t far from here. I’ve seen plenty of large Buddha statues before in many countries, so I wasn’t super impressed by it, however there are really nice views from the top. Near the Buddha, there is a stand selling tickets to buy a vegetarian snack or meal from the Monastery’s cafeteria. I chose the snack for 30 HKD, and it was actually pretty substantial. The snack consists of noodles, two desserts, and a drink. I chose a coconut jelly dessert and a type of pudding (forget the name) and both were surprisingly delicious. I had milk tea to drink.

The village.
View from the Big Buddha.

The Po Lin Monastery is very pretty as well. I recommend checking out the inside of the 10,000 Buddhas Hall, the rows and rows of gold Buddhas were impressive to see.

There is a bus terminus near the Ngong Ping Village that has buses to the Tai O fishing village. It’s only about a 15 minute ride from Ngong Ping Village.

Tai O is a really stark contrast from Hong Kong’s main city and shows there’s more to the city than just the skyline. It was definitely a highlight for me.

Tai O market, plenty of seafood.

Tai O Market is right outside the bus terminal. In the market, there are a few places to go on a boat excursion to view some of the stilt houses and ride out into the sea to try and view the Chinese white dolphin. Unfortunately they were not out when I took the ride. The boat ride itself was pretty fun though, but slightly rough. It’s only 20 HKD.

From the boat ride.

About a 20 minute walk away is the former Tai O police station, a colonial building now functioning as a hotel. It’s located up a hill overlooking the water.

A former holding cell.

At the bus terminus, I caught a bus back to Ngong Ping Village and took the cable car back to the city.

I may not have seen any dolphins, but I did see a feral cow.

From China to….China (Sort of)

After my time in Xi’an, I went down south to Hong Kong to be pleased by a subtropical winter (about 16°C weather) and experience China’s Special Administrative Regions. Hong Kong was British colony for over 100 years after China signed the Treaty of Nanking with the Qing dynasty after the First Opium War. Not yet 20 years ago, in 1997, Hong Kong was given back to China in an event known as “the Handover.”

The Clock Tower, a relic from colonialism.

However, Hong Kong maintains it’s independence from mainland China (mostly — when China tried to intervene in Hong Kong elections it led to some significant protests in 2014). It has a separate government, separate currency, separate police, separate immigration policy, etc.

While Hong Kong is thought of as a huge city, the city is only part of the small semi-nation. The main city is located on the Kowloon peninsula and Hong Kong island. The New Territories (the area in between Hong Kong city and mainland China) and the outlying islands (basically every island except Hong Kong island) are more rural and surprisingly pretty far from the seemingly endless skyscrapers.

One of the first impressions I got in the main city of Hong Kong is that it didn’t really feel very Chinese. This probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising, given that I flew in from mainland China, which is extremely Chinese (obviously). But I was sort of expecting “East meets West” in Hong Kong and what I found was more like “Manhattan meets London” albeit with Chinese food and temples added.

On the other hand, Lantau Island, where I went for a day, had more of an “Asian” feel than the main city. I didn’t make it to the New Territories, since they are kind of far out. (I’ll post about Lantau Island later).

Hong Kong is very easy to travel around, and the city-state has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. Almost on every corner there is a map or signs pointing in the directions of tourist attractions. Given it’s history as a British colony, people are pretty familiar with English (even if they don’t speak it fluently) and all signs have English, making it significantly easier to travel around than it’s mainland counterpart, and even easier than many other Asian cities. The subway is amazing and convenient — tons of 7/11 stores and Mrs. Fields cookie stores in the metro stations makes picking up a snack a breeze.

The Octopus card also makes travelling convenient, just pick one up in a subway station and load it. The card will pay for the bus, metro, and purchases at the 7/11. It can be returned for a refund at the end of your stay (I forgot to do this…ugh).

Hong Kong’s skyline (that rivals that of New York) is world famous and generally considered the number 1 attraction in Hong Kong. There are plenty of places to see it, the most well-known are Victoria Peak and Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.

There is a laser show at the Promenade every night at 8:00 pm, but honestly it is not very impressive. Half the show is just announcing the participating buildings (they alternate between English and Cantonese on different nights) and then some weak lasers. Hong Kong’s night view is spectacular enough without it, but if you are staying in Tsim Sha Tsui, there’s no harm in checking it out since it’s free anyway.

Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade at night.
View from Victoria Peak during the day.

Victoria Peak is reached using the Peak Tram, which costs 83 HKD for a round trip and HKD 71 for a one way (this includes admission to the main viewing deck).

The Peak has plenty of restaurants, a Madame Tussands, and a large mall called the Peak Galleria.

Another way to see the skyline is to take the Star Ferry through Victoria Harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central on Hong Kong Island. For some reason, my boat ride was free, which made it awesome. It also wasn’t crowded at all.

View of the skyline from the ferry.

On the Central side near the ferry pier is the Maritime Museum, which has some interesting exhibits and is worth seeing.

Hong Kong also has a few markets — the Ladies Market and Stanley Market being some of the most well-known. The Ladies Market is located in Mongkok and contains mostly touristy stuff. I went there to see the atmosphere rather than shop but to be honest it wasn’t that much fun since I didn’t want to actually buy anything.

Do go to the Ladies Market if you want butt pads.

The Stanley Market is located near the south side of Hong Kong Island, near a fairly well-known beach called Repulse Bay. The area was pretty nice and the market had some interesting things, but like the Ladies Market I didn’t find it that much fun without wanting to shop. Although Hong Kong’s winter is mild it’s still not warm enough for beach weather, so it is probably better to come during the warmer months.

Waterfront at Stanley Market.

The Flower Market and the Goldfish Market were much better for atmosphere. They are both located near Prince Edward station and quite unique. There is also a bird market near Prince Edward but I didn’t make it there.

The Goldfish market could easily also be named The Pet Market. It has pet store after pet store located in between the fish and aquariums. This is especially recommended for animal lovers who like seeing cute puppies and kittens (who doesn’t, really?)

They also have turtles.

I went in the evening and pretty much everything was still open, so don’t worry about going later in the day.

The flower market is also great, full of rows and rows of flower shops that spill out onto the street, filling the air with the aromas of flowers. I went here also in the evening (around 7 pm), and many shops were closing up but most were still open. I also came upon a seed shop that sold different seeds and freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juice.

I also liked the Jade Market, but that’s probably because I actually let myself buy something there (a little jade dog). If buying an item from the Jade or Ladies market, do not pay the first price the vendor says. Just start to walk away and he or she will lower the price. Do this a few times and they will keep lowering it. It’s pretty amusing.

The Jade Market is near the Temple Street night market, which pretty much has the same items as the Ladies Market, but I enjoyed the atmosphere here more… maybe because it was night. There’s lots of restaurants around here too.

To explore Hong Kong’s spiritual side, the Chi Lin Nunnery is a nice temple that isn’t too crowded. It’s a nice escape in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The Nan Lian Garden right outside is also lovely.

The temple is built in the Tang dynasty style.

Another highlight in Hong Kong is seeing the Happy Valley Racecourse on a Wednesday night. Horse racing was introduced by the British and has become a large part of Hong Kong culture, as the Chinese love gambling and placing bets on the horses. Happy Valley has “Happy Wednesday” events every week, and the racecourse has a fun atmosphere full of people and good food. The general stand of Happy Valley is only 10 HKD to get in (the Octopus card can be used here), so it’s also incredibly cheap. The racecourse opens at 5:15 pm, and the first race is at 7:15. They are finished at 11 pm.

The racecourse is located near Causeway Bay but it’s a bit of a walk from the station.

Managed to catch one horse in this picture.

Accommodation in Hong Kong tends to be expensive, even an 8 bed dorm with a shared bathroom can be about $35 USD a night. Many of the budget hostels in the city are located in the Chungking Mansions, which I had heard were sketchy (drug dealers apparently hang out there, and it has a horrible elevator and generally not clean). My hostel was located down the street from it so I passed by there a few times and never felt unsafe (I was just offered fake watches and tandoori chicken), although I was never out late at night.

I managed to find a hostel on airbnb.com that was reasonably priced, at $20 USD per night for a 4 bed female dorm, called Tabi88. The hostel’s location was great, in Tsim Sha Tsui near the view of Hong Kong skyline, plenty of restaurants around, and literally a step away from the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station. The beds in the room were comfortable (but I had a hard time climbing the ladder to the top bunk) and lockers were big. The hostel is located in a small Hong Kong style apartment so there isn’t much general space, but hey, it’s Hong Kong.

The airport bus A21 also drops off right in front of the building.

Tabi88 is right across the street from the Kowloon Mosque. There’s also a park with flamingos next to the mosque.

There are two separate showers and toilets which is ideal. However the men’s bathroom had a leak that needed to be fixed. There are no laundry facilities but there is a cheap public laundry nearby.

The problem I had with the hostel was that it had a roach issue, particularly in the bathroom there were a few small roaches. I’ve never stayed at a place with roaches before, and it made me want to leave but I already paid for my stay, plus the owner was super nice and I wouldn’t have even wanted to ask my money back from him.

I did see the owner cleaning the hostel and it was generally not dirty, but I would hope that he would take steps reduce their numbers. Other than that the place was great, and I’d recommend it if it wasn’t for that problem.

The other guests at the hostel were also very nice, some of the friendliest I’ve ever met in a hostel before (which was also part of why I stayed). It’s great for solo travelers because they often met up for dinner and going out.

In the next post, I’ll discuss my day trip to Lantau Island.

Xi’an: City Attractions

Xi’an, called Chang’an during its heyday, is an ancient city that served as China’s capital during many dynasties, and was the first stop on the famed Silk Road. However, most tourists visit Xi’an for the Terracotta Warriors, but the ancient city itself has a few attractions worth seeing. I spent 2 full days in Xi’an, and had another half-day when I flew in from Beijing. This is enough to take in the major attractions (including the Terracotta Army) however there are some other places outside of the city that might be worth visiting (such as a hot spring near the Warriors, or the Famen Temple, located about two hours from the city) that would require more time.

There are a few options for getting to Xi’an from Beijing. The cheapest is to take the overnight train (about 13 hours total). I avoided this because I can’t really sleep on trains. I considered taking the high speed train instead (this takes only about 5 hours). But it turned out that the price of a flight on China Eastern to Xi’an was actually cheaper than the high speed, so decided to fly. But when considering the price of the airport transfer (25 yuan) it was slightly more than the train, but it still saved time.

The upside to the high speed train is that it arrives at Xi’an North station, which is somewhat out of town but still connected to Xi’an’s subway system so it’s possible to get into the city by rail. The airport does not have a rail but 25 yuan for the bus is pretty cheap.

The airport web site lists the routes the airport buses take. I took the bus to the Xi’an Hotel, which is located near a subway station (there is a sign nearby pointing in the direction) and near the city center. At the airport, it’s easy to buy a bus ticket. The distance is about an hour.

Xi’an has two subway lines, and I found it easy enough to get to most of the tourist attractions using the subway (though it requires a bit of walking). The buses do not have stops announced in English so they can be a bit difficult for a non-Chinese speaker to use. Xi’an’s main railway station (where the slow trains arrive) is not connected to the subway, but it’s located near the city center. The city also has plenty of taxis, but make sure they use the meter.

In the very center of Xi’an is the Bell Tower, and the Drum Tower nearby. The Bell Tower is the largest in China, first built in 1384 and moved to its present location in 1582. The Drum Tower is also impressive, built in 1380 and renovated in the Qing dynasty. Both are especially amazing at night when lit up.

A short walk away from the Drum Tower is the Muslim Quarter, where Xi’an’s Muslim community resides. This area covers many streets and it’s a bustling place at night. Very touristy, but still enjoyable, mostly because of the food. Lots of great options to try, including Paomo, one of the most famous foods in Xi’an. Paomo is a soup consisting of bread and either mutton or beef. The Muslim Quarter has a few restaurants serving this dish. When I ordered I was given a bowl with a color and number tag attached and two pieces of pita bread. I sat down and broke up the bread into small pieces. Then a server comes over, takes the bowl and the soup is made. Once it is finished, the server will call the number on the bowl and bring it to the table.

Street food options also abound. There are a few stalls selling beef or lamb in pita bread, plenty of kebabs, fried bananas, glutinous rice cake dipped in sugar, drinking yogurt, small potatoes, tofu, octopus, noodles, and more. The best sweet food I had here was a persimmon cake, crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside (be careful cause it’s messy), very delicious. There’s also vendors making noodles and hammering candy.

In a small back street area is the Grand Mosque, the most well known of the mosques in the area. I only saw it from the outside because I went to the Quarter in the evening when it was already closed, but it’s made using traditional Chinese architecture and might be interesting to see. The alleys have shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs.

Xi’an is also well known for it’s city wall. The wall surrounds the inner part of the city that includes the Bell and Drum Towers (some of the city now lies outside this wall). The entrance fee is 40 yuan. Bicycle rentals are available on the wall, these cost another 40 yuan for 100 minutes and a 200 yuan deposit. I decided to rent a bike to see the wall, but I didn’t bike the whole thing.

Unfortunately, the air in Xi’an wasn’t great (it can get worse than even Beijing) but I still liked biking the wall. The city wall was first built in the Ming dynasty, and has been restored multiple times since then (the latest being in 1983). Plenty of traditional buildings surround the wall and there are some nice views at the top. It’s also surrounded by a moat and it’s especially beautiful when lit up at night.

The Shaanxi History Museum is another key attraction and should definitely be seen in Xi’an. As mentioned in a previous post, there are Terracotta warriors displayed here for close inspection. It might be a good idea to come here before visiting the warriors, though I came after.

The museum also has plenty of other interesting exhibits, on the same scale as the Museum of China in Beijing.

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On display are some terracotta warriors from the Han dynasty.

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From what I read, the museum issues a limited number of tickets per day, but I had no trouble getting in. I had to wait on line for quite awhile, and I had to present my passport to get a ticket. The admission is free. It’s probably best to come earlier in the morning and on a weekday. It was pretty crowded when I was there.

I rented an audio guide in English for a 200 yuan deposit and 30 yuan fee. I advise doing this because there isn’t a lot of English on the descriptions.

A fairly short walk away from the Shaanxi museum is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, located in the Da Ci’en temple. Not only is the pagoda impressive, but the temple itself is very pretty as well. It costs 50 yuan to get in, and another 40 to go up the pagoda (I opted out of this). The temple was built during the Tang dynasty and used to collect Buddhist relics that the monk Xuenzang collected on his journey to India (he wrote the famed epic Journey to the West based on this trip).

Statue of Xuenzang.

If in the mood for Indian food, there is a restaurant called Delhi Darbar just nearby. I ate here and it was good and reasonably priced.

In Xi’an, I stayed in a 4 bed dorm at a hostel called Xiangzimen Youth Hostel and I would recommend it. Beds are comfortable and the room was well heated (which was great after the inadequate heating in my room in Beijing) and a decent size. Location is also great, near a bus stop and subway station and a short stroll to the South Gate of the city wall. It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the Muslim Quarter and Bell Tower area.

The hostel is also located in a beautiful traditional courtyard house. They have a restaurant that served decent food for breakfast. The staff was pretty helpful as well. They give out a map of the Xi’an area although it has some errors (the map had the wrong location for the Xi’an hotel). Also, they emailed me outdated directions to the hostel from the airport (they told me to take an airport bus route that had been discontinued). But when I notified them of this they recommended another route and were generally prompt with emails.

The easiest way to get to Xiangzimen from the airport is to take the shuttle to the Xi’an Hotel, go to the nearest subway and get off at Yongingmen station. From there, walk to the inside of the city wall, for a few minutes until coming to a street with a Pailou gate. Go through there and there’s a traditional house with a sign for the hostel.

Accommodation in Xi’an is generally very cheap. Hostel rooms go for about $5 a night for a dorm bed on Agoda.com, basic hotel rooms for about $20.

The Clay Guards of China’s First Emporer

Xi’an, located in Shaaxi province near the center of China, was the country’s first major capital and served as such under the Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties. It has become a very popular tourist destination over the years largely because of the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors, located near the tomb of Emporer Qin Shi Huang, the first emporer of China. Qin Shi Huang unified China after the Warring States period by conquering the other kingdoms. He ordered the construction of a large, life-sized clay army to protect him in the afterlife at his death.

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The Terracotta army soldiers had horses and weapons and even unique hairstyles and facial expressions. The details in these soldiers become even more amazing when considering that they are over 2,000 years old. It is estimated that there are 8,000 soldiers in total, but only 2,000 have been excavated so far.

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The mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, a large complex that the soldiers guard, has not been excavated. Apparently because fear that excavation will cause damage, and also because high levels of mercury were found at the site (the story has it that rivers of mercury were created for the tomb). The entrance fee for the Terracotta Warriors covers the mausoleum, and there are free shuttles going between the two sites. I chose to skip the tomb though, since it hasn’t been excavated there isn’t much to see there from what I read.

The story of how these figures were discovered is also noteworthy, and pretty sad, to be honest. They were discovered by a group of farmers digging a well in 1974, at the height of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s rule. According to this article, the original farmer credited with the discovery of the warriors committed suicide in 1997 and he and the other farmers didn’t reap the benefits of this discovery, only government officials did.

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The site of the well.

The article also says that the 2,000 year old village was razed to make way for souvenir shops. That is very unfortunate to me, because an old village would have been much more pleasant and interesting to stroll through to see the warriors than the endless strip of tourists shops and restaurants.

I actually didn’t come upon this article until after I had visited the warriors, though I did read online that the current “farmer” that “discovered” the warriors and who signs autographs for tourists, is not authentic, so don’t bother paying for an autograph or book.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that I don’t think the Army is worth visiting. I found the soldiers interesting and their age and detail is very impressive. I don’t agree with the Chinese government’s actions of stripping away a historical village to make way for tourist traps, but stripping away history seemed to be a common occurrence during the Cultural Revolution in China. And, if I’m being realistic here, China probably isn’t the only country that has done this kind of thing before.

Anyway, while quite a few tourist scams surround this army, I managed to get to it fairly easily without falling for any of them. The warriors are located about an hour outside of Xi’an city. A lot of hotels, hostels, and tourist offices run tours to the Terracotta Army but I decided to avoid these. From reviews I read online, generally these tours involve very long shopping stops at fake warrior factories and little time at the actual warriors.

To go to the army independently from the Xi’an downtown area, I was told by my hostel’s staff to take tourism bus 5 (306) from the Xi’an railway station. Since so few in China speak English, I decided to go into the Xi’an tourism office to see if I could get any extra information. The staff knew some English and wrote down “I need to take bus 5 (306) to the Terracotta Warriors” on a piece of paper in Chinese. This proved very useful for me the next day when I made the trip since the bus is located in the eastern part of the railway station and I wasn’t sure exactly where that was. I showed the paper to a few people that eventually pointed me in the right direction.

There is a sign in front of the bus that reads 5(306) where some people were lined up to get on the bus. The cost of a ticket is 7 Chinese yuan. I have also read online about a fake 5(306) bus that is a scam — so do NOT pay any more than 7 yuan for the ride, as it is probably the fake bus if they charge more. The bus makes a stop at a hot spring before going to the warriors, which is the last stop. (Visit this site for more information.)

The bus drops off at a parking lot. There were signs pointing in the direction of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses museum from there. On the way, there is a large tourist village of restaurants and shops (as I mentioned before).

When I arrived near the ticket gate, I got a few offers for a guide. I turned them down, but one woman was particularly persistent. She first asked if I wanted a guide and I said no. Then she insisted that it was a big place and I couldn’t possibly find my way by myself. I doubted her claim but I asked her how much. She told me the price was 150 yuan (same price as the Terracotta Warriors museum entrance fee) and the tour was two hours. I again turned her down, since I wanted to save money, and I had read up on the history of the warriors previously. Then she said I could name my price and we would negotiate. I said I didn’t know what my preferred price was.

She brought the price down to 120 yuan and promised that I could pay her after her service only if I was satisfied. I really didn’t want to pay extra for a guided tour (and honestly, given how many scams are looming around these warriors I was very wary of ending up overcharged, though I think she may have been legitimate, but her constant badgering really caused me to not want her as a guide).  She kept reiterating, “Miss, this place is very big! I have been a guide for years and I know where to go!” “You won’t know what you’re looking at if you don’t know the history!” “You need a guide!” Ugh. And she kept following me a lot farther than I expected. Eventually she did give up. Very annoying.

The entrance fee to the warriors is usually 150 yuan (very high compared to entrance fees in Beijing) but I paid 120 since it was low season.

Once I finally got rid of the annoying lady I made my way to the Terracotta Warriors.

At the Terracotta Army site, there are a few excavation pits. Pit 1 is the largest and most impressive, the first building I came to after going through the ticket gate. The warriors in this pit have been pieced mostly back together and stand in rows.

Pit 2 has another pit of warriors being excavated, and some lone warriors in glass boxes for closer inspection.

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The kneeling warrior is I believe the only soldier that was found intact.

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Pit 3 is the smallest and has a few broken up bits of the warriors, chariots, and horses.

Despite the annoyances and high entrance fee, I was glad I went overall. It’s certainly a sight to see, not to mention thousands of years old.

After checking out the terracotta soldiers, I was hungry for lunch. According to the Travel China Guide website, the restaurants around the warriors aren’t good quality, and it recommended eating at the nearby KFC if hungry. I had planned to go to the KFC but decided to stop at a small cafe area in the gift shop to get some coffee first.

The clerks told me to sit down to drink at a large table, which had a few teas and some other souvenirs on it. One clerk asked if I wanted to try small samples of tea. “How much?” I asked, and she answered that it was free, so I agreed. I sampled two teas and liked both.

Then came the sales pitch, which I expected. I do like tea and sort of wanted to buy some, but turned her down as I was trying to save money. Of course she tried to be persuasive but I finished the coffee and then left.

After the annoyance of being  followed and pestered by the guide that morning, I was tired of pushy vendors but it’s something that has to be dealt with in a lot of places.

I ate lunch at KFC and then made my way back to the parking lot, where I took the same 5(306) bus back to Xi’an railway station.

Luckily, I didn’t encounter any annoyances at the same level in Xi’an city as I did near the warriors. In addition to the warriors themselves, I recommend going to the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an to learn more about the warriors (and other parts of the region’s history). The museum has a few warriors on display that can be viewed up close.

I will go more into detail about Xi’an city in the next post.

Eats and Evening Activities in Beijing

After a day of sightseeing in the Chinese capital, once the sun goes down, what is there to do? Answer is…quite a lot.

Beijing has a few evening shows to entertain after dark. I went to two shows, the acrobatic show at Chaoyang Theatre and the Peking Opera at Chang’an Grand Theatre.

The Chaoyang Theatre is the most famous place to catch Chinese acrobatics and I reserved a discount ticket in advance at their web site. They emailed a booking number and I arrived at the theatre a half hour early and paid for the ticket there. The ticket was about 200 yuan and I had a seat near the stage. The show was quite impressive and lasted about an hour. The theatre was mostly empty to my surprise, but possibly because it was winter. The few others at the show were foreign tourists. The theatre has a stand for popcorn, snacks and drinks.

The Peking Opera was an interesting experience. There’s a few theatres to catch a show at but I really recommend the Chang’an Theatre. I didn’t reserve a ticket for this one, I had planned to show up early but then wound up getting there a half-hour before the show started, and managed to get the last available ticket. The ticket was 100 yuan and in the middle of the theatre. The second floor back seat tickets are cheaper, and I think the theatre is small enough that the show could still be enjoyed from there.

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Mask outside the theatre.
Unlike the acrobatic show, the opera theatre was completely full and I was the only foreigner there, everyone else was Chinese so it felt very local and authentic. The audience was quite enthusiastic and really seemed to be enjoying the show. The opera went on pretty long — about two hours, but the theatre provides English subtitles for the dialogue, so I could actually understand what was going on. But the Peking Opera is more about the costumes, makeup and spectacle than the plot generally. Chang’an is reachable from Jianguomen station, exit A.

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Getting seated.
I thought both shows were worth seeing, but I would say that the Peking Opera at Chang’an felt a lot more local than the acrobatic show. However the acrobatic show might have overall more entertainment value to some people than opera singing.

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Another popular night activity is a stroll at the Hou Hai back lakes. The shops are all lit up and the area gets very busy after dark. Plenty of guesthouses and hostels are located in this area and there are many restaurants and food stalls selling Chinese snacks. It’s also dotted with souvenir shops for tourists.

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For street food, also check out the Donghuamen Night Market. It’s located near Wangfujing, and includes a lot of the freaky stuff seen in Wangfujing snack street during the day like tarantulas and centipedes on a stick. It’s not an old market as it only opened in the 1980’s. However there’s plenty of good food here, such as pork and lamb skewers, dumplings, fruit on a stick, desserts and other snacks. Be sure to barter because the prices the vendors quoted were more expensive than I thought they would be.

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These didn’t look too appetizing…
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But these crispy dumplings were!
Beijing has a lot of great food to try, the most famous of which being Peking Duck. There’s plenty of restaurants serving this dish, and I did some searching to find one of the best restaurants to try it at. The Quanjude branches (the oldest branch located on Qianmen street) are the most famous, but a lot of reviews also recommended Dadong Duck Restaurant. I decided to try Dadong restaurant at the Dongsishitiao branch (exit D from the Dongsishitiao subway station) and it was excellent.

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The inside was juicy and tender, the skin thin and crispy. Just amazing.
The price came to 202 yuan, this included half a duck, condiments, some mandarin oranges, and two soups so I thought it was worth the price. Ducks at smaller local establishments are probably cheaper but I wanted to be sure to get one of the best.

Roast duck is one of the pricier dishes in Beijing, but generally speaking the local food in the city is very cheap. Baozi (dumplings) are very popular, some shops are open 24 hours so they can be eaten anytime. Pretty much all standard Chinese restaurants will have zhajiangmian, hand-pulled black bean sauce noodles, where the Korean jajangmyeon originated from. The dishes are similar but I noticed the sauce is a lot stronger tasting in the Chinese version.

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Another good food to try is the donkey burger. Donkey burgers are made using donkey meat, and they’re surprisingly delicious. The most famous restaurant for donkey burgers is Wang Pang Zi. There was a branch near my hostel and they are open 24 hours. One burger is only 10 yuan.

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Crispy bun, seasoned donkey meat. So good.

The Summer Palace

The Forbidden City is probably Beijing’s most famous landmark (not counting the Great Wall) as it is a grand set of buildings that once functioned as the home of the Ming and Qing emperors. The Summer Palace was built as an imperial garden around Kunming Lake that served as a getaway for the royalty during the summer months, and it is also the largest imperial garden in China.

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The palace is absolutely beautiful in winter, when the lake freezes over.

I enjoyed this palace even more than the Forbidden City (possibly because the air had improved) and it was my favorite place I visited in Beijing (Great Wall aside). It isn’t as centrally located as the Forbidden City or most of Beijing’s other attractions, but the subway ride isn’t long. The North Gate is a short walk from Beigongmen station, and a ticket is only 20 yuan in the winter months.

Audio guides are available for a fee, and I would recommend one as they provide a lot of good information about the palace. There is a lot to see here.

From the North Gate, the first part of the palace is at a small mock-shopping street, meant to resemble the streets of Suzhou. Apparently the royals would pretend to shop here.

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Close by is the Four Great Regions temple, a beautiful Tibetan-style temple.

The lake isn’t far away from here, and at the lake is the Marble Boat, which isn’t actually a boat. It’s connected to the land built in a boat style.

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Near the Marble Boat is the Long Corridor, which is, well… a long corridor.

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The paintings in the corridor are beautiful, definitely take time to check them out.

The Tower of Buddhist Incense is probably the most recognizable part of the Summer Palace. It costs an additional small fee of 10 yuan.

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Continuing around the lake, there are more palace buildings.

Walk further along the lake and there is a good view of the Tower of Buddhist Incense and a tall pagoda on the other side.

Straight ahead is the beautiful 17-arch bridge.

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I left the palace from the South Gate. There isn’t a subway station close by so I hailed a taxi to drive me to the nearest one. Only the North Gate has a subway station in its vicinity.

There are signs around Kunming Lake saying not to step on the ice, but a lot of the Chinese people there weren’t listening to the sign so I decided not to listen either (I really wanted to walk on the frozen lake) and no one seemed to care that people were walking on it.

Beijing: The Must-See Sights

Many people go to Beijing mainly to see one of the world’s wonders, the massive Great Wall of China. This was a huge reason for my decision to vacation in China as well, but I also just wanted to experience the country, or at least parts of it. China has a long history with such a profound influence on the rest of eastern Asia. Aside from the Great Wall (which is located a bit outside of town) the city of Beijing itself has plenty of historical landmarks.

The Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, Summer Palace, and Temple of Heaven are generally considered the main “must-see” attractions in Beijing city. Beihai Park and the Tibetan-style Lama Temple are also popular attractions. All of these sans the Summer Palace are centrally located.

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Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City.
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The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at the Temple of Heaven.
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The smaller but cute Imperial Vault of Heaven.
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The White Dagoba at Beihai Park.

There’s already a lot of information out there on Beijing’s main tourist sights, but I’ll try to provide some helpful tips. I stayed 6 nights in Beijing and really could have stayed longer, though it was enough to cover pretty much everything I wanted to do. I also went in winter where it got dark very early (at 5 pm) and all of Beijing’s major sights require daylight and often a few hours to really take in (the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in particular are huge, not to mention the Great Wall). They also require a lot of walking. Be sure to have good walking shoes and be prepared for extreme weather if going in the winter or summer (lucky for me early January was mild this year). I got pretty tired out having to wake up early and cram a lot in before 5 pm, but I went a bit slower toward the end of my time in Beijing.

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My feet weren’t as happy as this dragon thing (dragon/elephant?) after 6 days of constant walking around the sights in Beijing.

The pollution in Beijing is a huge problem, and the city was covered with haze the first few days I was there. To be safe, the N95 mask is supposed to protect against pollution so it is probably a good idea to have at least one. I wore a mask sometimes, but I didn’t really like wearing it so I often took it off. I didn’t notice any effect on my allergies from breathing in the air short term, but those with asthma or more sensitivity could have issues. While I have seen air pollution in Korean cities, the pollution in Beijing seemed to be quite a bit worse than anything I’d seen in Korea (granted I don’t live in Seoul).

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Thankfully, the pollution cleared after a couple of days which made the air breathable and the skies blue. I visited the Summer Palace on a clear day and it was gorgeous.

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The temperature dropped somewhat after the air got better but I think it was a worthy trade-off.

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Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum in Tienanmen Square. Be sure to bring your passport to go into Tienanmen square, everyone has to have an ID check.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the meal options at the main tourist sights generally aren’t that good. From what I remember the Forbidden City only had one food area and it was basically cafeteria food meals so it’s a good idea to bring snacks and eat lunch after touring the palace. Public restrooms in China also rarely have a Western toilet and often do not have toilet paper or soap, so absolutely have sanitary wipes and tissue stocked (I was very annoyed when I ran out of either and forgot to buy more). This holds true even in many airport and mall bathrooms.

The entrance fees for Beijing’s sights were actually very reasonable, which surprised me. The Forbidden city is 60 yuan (9 USD) during high season and 40 yuan (6 USD) in low season (a plus of visiting China in winter). However there are sections of the palaces and the Temple of Heaven that require additional entrance fees should you choose to visit them, but they are usually low.

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The Imperial Garden behind the Forbidden City.
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Tienanmen Square lit up at night.
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The Lama Temple. While it’s popular the crowds aren’t too bad here.

I used an English audio guide for a small fee (and a deposit) at the Forbidden City and Summer Palace. There are plenty of people claiming to be guides, but this can be a scam in China. I believe some of the tourist guides are legitimate but I prefer audio guides anyway. The palace audio guides detected where I was and then described the history and purpose of the building.

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And also why these fierce lions are everywhere in old Chinese architecture.

Very little English is spoken in Beijing, and I knew this before going there so I bought a roaming plan for my cell phone at the airport, though its also possible to buy a Chinese SIM card. Having internet meant I could use Google Maps to find places and figure out where the nearest subway stop was. I never used the bus in Beijing because no stops are in English, so the subway was my general means of transport. If a subway station wasn’t near I would find the nearest one using Maps and hail a taxi, then point to the station on the Beijing subway map (which was in English and Chinese) so the driver could take me there.

Getting the Chinese visa from Korea seems to be easier now than it was in the past. As a US citizen, my visa was very expensive but it’s now multiple entry for 10 years (I specified on the visa application that I wanted the 10 year visa), allowing a 60 day stay for each entry. There used to be a requirement of having 6 months left on  your Alien Registration Card to get a Chinese visa, but that is no longer the case (I didn’t have that long on mine). I got my visa through Soho Travel, an English speaking travel company with an office in Hongdae in Seoul. After emailing them asking about the visa they sent the visa application and a list of other required documents (passport, ARC, and a certificate of employment from my school).

I brought the documents and visa fee to their office on a Friday after school (they are not open on weekends) and got my visa the next Friday after.

I stayed 6 nights at the Beijing Drum Tower Youth Hostel. This hostel has capsule-style dorm rooms and regular private rooms. Capsule A’s have an ensuite bathroom while Capsule B’s have a shared bath. Prices vary depending on the time of year but the ensuite capsule was about $20 USD a night (including tax) and the regular capsules are a few dollars cheaper. The double rooms are also fairly cheap. Location is great, very central and just a few steps away from a subway. There’s tons of restaurants and cafes on the street and it’s a 10 minute walk to the Hou Hai lake area, which is a popular Hutong (traditonal Chinese house) neighborhood. It’s also on the same subway line as the Beijing North railway station (for the Badaling Great Wall) and the airport railroad. The hostel has a restaurant/bar that serves mostly Western food, I had breakfast there twice and dinner once and all meals were good, however not all the items on their menu are actually available.

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View of the Drum and Bell tower, taken from the hostel’s roof.
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The Hou Hai area at night.

The main problem I had with the place was the temperature in the room. The capsules do not have their own heating or air conditioning, there was some ventilation so the heating from the hall could come into the room but it wasn’t really enough. The staff did offer an extra blanket which helped a lot. I noticed that the non-ensuite capsules seemed to have more ventilation and are smaller so they may be better, but I never stayed in one so I can’t say for sure. Also, the capsules (being capsules and all) are very small, I’m only 158 cm so I was able to stand up straight but tall people would have to have their heads bent the whole time, so I wouldn’t really recommend it for anyone tall unless it’s a really short stay.

Train to the Great Wall of China

(Small note: Some of my recent blog posts had to be edited somewhat because I reached the limit on the number of images I could upload to my media library. I thought the library was an archive so I deleted a lot of photos from it only to realize they were missing from my blog posts. Ugh. They were still on my camera so I was able to re-upload most of them but I made some posts less picture heavy).

The Great Wall is one of the world’s most famous landmarks, and a place I wanted to make sure I saw before leaving Asia (at least for now). Therefore, I planned a trip to China for winter vacation, in Beijing and Xi’an in the mainland, and also the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

The Great Wall was built over many years in different dynasties, as this Wikipedia article describes. However, the Great Wall as we know it today was built mostly by the Ming dynasty to protect China from Mongolian tribes.

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Which is why it has observation areas to watch out for enemies.

There are several different access points to the Great Wall from Beijing alone. The Badaling section is the most restored and most touristic part of the wall. Although I went in low season, there was a crowd there, though I’d imagine it gets much more crowded in summer. Despite it being winter the temperature was pretty mild that day (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit or 4 Celsius). But it was also foggy out which meant I couldn’t adequately capture the vast length of this wall. The Ming part of the Great Wall alone stretches for over 5,000 miles (kilometer measurement in the link) and it’s amazing to see the vast wall snake over the mountains.

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Many choose to take a guided tour to various sections of the Wall, but since the train ticket to Badaling is so cheap I decided to go the train route. The ticket cost 6 yuan (less than 1 US dollar) each way, or 5 yuan each way if using a Beijing transport card.

It’s actually very easy to do the trip independent with this train. The train is very clean and comfortable and has the stops announced in English. Just get to the Beijing North Railway station to get a ticket. It wasn’t necessary to purchase in advance, but if going in high season definitely get there early. In order to get on the train, there is a line that forms outside the station where everyone scans their Smart card, or shows their ticket. There are no assigned seats on the train, so just sit wherever is available. The ride is a little over an hour.

When the train arrived at Badaling station, I got off and planned to walk the 15 minutes to the wall, but noticed everyone else piling in a few shuttles. I decided to get on the shuttle since it was kind of cold in the early morning. I regretted this though since I got pretty squished, but the ride was short.

The Badaling section of the Wall has a ton of restaurants and shops and even a guy selling camel rides. From what I’ve read though, the food there isn’t good quality, but I didn’t try any for myself. I followed a sign up to a cable car station where a short ride leads to the Wall.

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Although the Badaling section is the most restored, the wall is very steep at parts with many, many stairs. For out of shape people like me, it can get very tiring in a short time, so I spent about two hours at the wall. Part of me felt I should have spent longer since I was at a world wonder, but this world wonder requires lots of steep hiking. In the end I was very glad I hiked the Great Wall in winter vacation as opposed to summer, although I think the temperature was unusually warm for early January. However, even in winter, water is definitely needed at the Wall because of all the exercise. It’s also a good idea to bring a snack, especially if wanting to spend more time there than I did.

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Looots of stairs.
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One of the watch towers.
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Kind of a foggy day…

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After I was finished at the wall, I took the cable car back down and grabbed a snack and drink. I waited at the shuttle bus station, but a man approached me and said that the next shuttle wasn’t coming for 40 minutes, and that he would take me and the others waiting for the bus in his car to the station. I declined and wanted to keep waiting for the bus, but he was persistent so I decided to just walk. I was pretty wary of scams in China so I didn’t want to take any risk, plus as a lone female I just don’t feel comfortable getting in a car with people I don’t know. The walk really isn’t that long, at only 15 minutes, so I made it to the station in time for the next train back to Beijing North. For some reason, my transport Smart Card was rejected at the scanner, but the guard let me in anyway, much to my relief.

Despite the persistent driver I thought this was an easy and very cheap way of getting to the Great Wall, even for someone like me who knows basically no Chinese. If you don’t mind going to the touristy part of the wall, then I would highly recommend this method. If you prefer to go to a more remote section a tour would probably be best (at least for someone who doesn’t speak Mandarin). If you have extra time in Beijing, it may also be a good idea to go different parts of the Wall, to really experience how long it is and see parts that are still old ruins.

I used this website for directions and information on how to use the train. The site has the schedule and other tips and useful up-to-date information.