Places to visit – Beijing

Last year, Tom and I were fortunate enough to be able to spend 9 days visiting China. Our first stop was Beijing, where we spent 4 days. I was pretty apprehensive about visiting the place – I had heard so much about the smog and traffic and busyness. However, I knew it would be a great experience so I tried to go with an open mind… and I loved it!

First of all, I need to say that 4 days is only enough to skim the very surface of what Beijing has to offer. We only had time to see some of the main attractions and didn’t explore very much. I think 5-7 days would be ideal if you want to feel like you’ve really seen Beijing.

Also, we were REALLY lucky with the weather. Most of the time we were there, the air was really clear and it was sunny. This is not often the case!

We stayed at the Jade Garden Hotel, a mid-price hotel situated very centrally located, only one block from the Forbidden City (although the blocks in Beijing are enormous!) and also one block from the nearest metro station. We were very happy with the hotel – it was very comfortable and the staff spoke a decent level of English.

On our first day, we woke late (our plane had arrived very late the previous night – not uncommon in China!) and went for lunch at a nearby dumpling place called Niuge Jiaozi (牛哥饺子) at 85 Nanheyan Dajie (南河沿大街85号). Our guidebook says they have an English menu but we weren’t given one! Luckily, Tom knows a few Chinese characters and was able to order some yummy dumplings :)

After lunch we headed to the Forbidden City, which was amazing. It’s massive for a start! You could easily spend the whole day there – we didn’t get round the whole thing before it shut. We hired an audio guide each, which was actually really useful for telling you what you were looking at. The Forbidden City got its name because ordinary people weren’t allowed in for centuries, and it was occupied by Emperors and their servants. Walking around it, you can picture Chinese servants and important people moving around the massive squares and the Emperor and his family lounging around in the buildings!

This is the first thing you see at the South entrance – the Gate of Heavenly Peace – which isn’t actually part of the Forbidden City, you haven’t made it there yet!

Gate of Heavenly Peace, Beijing

Inside the Forbidden City are large squares and beautiful Chinese-style buildings

Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden Palace

On the corners of all the buildings roofs are a line of small animals (this is true for most traditional Chinese buildings). Our audio guide told us that the more animals there are, the more important the building is – the Hall of Supreme Harmony above had 11 which is the most you can have. This building below has 5 (there are always an odd number).

Forbidden city rooftops

After exploring the Forbidden City for several hours, we left by the North entrance and crossed the road to Jingshan Park (景山公园). This park is mainly made up of a large hill, which I believe was created from the earth they dug out to make the moat around the Forbidden City. From the top of the hill you get great views across Beijing and especially over the Forbidden City (all the red roofs you can see in the picture below).

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

We started our second day by visiting the Temple of Heaven Park (天坛公园). This is a beautiful park with several interesting structures in, the most striking of which is the round Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Once a year there would be a ceremonial procession when the emperor and a large entourage would come South from the Forbidden City to this park for prayers and sacrificial rituals. Today it is a lovely place to explore and to sit in and escape from the busyness of the city.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven Park

Temple of Heaven Park

In the afternoon, we headed north to the Lama Temple (雍和宫) (right next to the Yonghegong Lama Temple metro station), which is a sizeable and ornate example of a Chinese Buddhist temple…

Lama Temple, Beijing

…and then moved East to Gulou Dajie metro station and walked South through the hutongs (more about those in a minute) to see the Bell Tower (钟楼) and Drum Tower (鼓楼) which lie on opposite sides of a square. I think you can probably guess what lies in each tower! The drums in the Drum Tower used to be beaten to tell the time. You can go up each tower, but we didn’t. Instead, we went to the nearby Drum & Bell bar and sat on the rooftop with a cold beer, taking in the views over the square.

This one is the Bell Tower:

Bell Tower, Beijing

And this one is the Drum Tower:

Drum Tower, Beijing

On our third day, we headed to the North-West side of the city to visit the Summer Palace (颐和园), where the Emperors and their families spent the summers. To get there, I think the closest metro station is Beigongmen station but we went to Xiyuan station and had to walk for approx. 15 minutes to get to the entrance. I have to admit, by this point we were flagging a little so we didn’t see as much of the site as we could have done but it was very pretty and enjoyable nonetheless. Highlights include the beautiful lake which covers most of the park…

Kunming Lake, Summer Palace

…and the buildings on the North side of the lake…

Summer Palace, Beijing

Summer Palace pagoda

Summer Palace buildings

I think it would have been nice to walk all the way round the lake, but we couldn’t be bothered! We got a little way round though and enjoyed sitting in the parkland. It was very easy to avoid the crowds just by walking a little way round the lake.

Our fourth and final day was spent visiting the Great Wall, which is a must for every visitor to Beijing. It certainly lived up to its reputation! There are different sections of the Great Wall that you can visit, which have been restored to a greater or lesser extent. We chose Mutianyu (慕田峪长城), which is a little further away and not as busy as Badaling (八达岭长城). We went on a Tuesday and it actually wasn’t that busy, which was lovely. The most convenient way to visit the Great Wall is with a tour group – we were recommended one that is run by a hostel and not too pushy (details to follow) and were very happy with them. They took us by minibus to the car park and showed us how to buy tickets. There is a cable car up to the top of the wall (you can hike for an hour uphill, if you prefer!) and we had 3 hours before we had to be back at the bottom of the wall for lunch. The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is quite long and I think you would struggle to do it all in 3 hours, we certainly didn’t! But as you can see, it’s breathtaking.

Mutianyu Great Wall 1

Mutianyu Great Wall 2

Mutianyu Great Wall 3

Despite all this, one of Tom’s favourite parts was the toboggan run that you can get to take you down from the wall! It was quite fun ;)

If you really yearn for peace and quiet on the Great Wall (although as you can see, it wasn’t that busy when we were there), I heard that the afternoons are quieter than the mornings because all the tours go in the morning so you could do it yourself and get a taxi there and back instead.

Our tour included lunch (very tasty, mainstream Chinese dishes) and a stop-off at the Olympic park on the way back. I get the impression that it’s not used very much any more, which is a shame, although they do still hold some events there. Tom very much enjoyed looking at the structure of the Bird’s Nest Stadium!

Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, Beijing

At the end of our tour, we were dropped off near the hostel, which was situated in the hutong area around Nanluogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). Hutongs are areas of low-rise traditional style buildings with narrow alleyways criss-crossing them. They are prevalent in the area around the Forbidden City and give the area a very different feel than I was expecting from Beijing – much older and quieter. They are nice to walk around in but I’m not sure whether I’d like to live there in such confined quarters, without running water. I believe the government is gradually destroying the hutongs in favour of more modern buildings, which will change the nature of central Beijing irrecoverably. In the meantime, some areas have been ‘smartened up’ to make them more of tourist attractions, which is a little fake but also really nice to visit! The area around Nanluogu Xiang is now host to a plethora of little boutiques, eateries, tourist shops and restaurants and is a great place to pick up some slightly above-average souvenirs and snacks. We went to a nearby restaurant for dinner and ate in a beautiful courtyard – a lovely way to end our time in Beijing!

Beijing hutong

There were many things that we didn’t have time to do while we were in Beijing. Some friends of ours recommended hiring bikes and cycling around the hutongs and different areas, which must be a really nice way to see the city – it’s so huge that it’s hard to get around on foot. Also, we didn’t go to Tiananmen Square which is such an iconic part of Beijing.

All in all, we loved Beijing. Yes, it is big and smoggy but it has so much history and there is so much to see. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, I’d highly recommend that you do!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

The Karst Hills of Yangshuo and Guilin

The Karst hills around Yangshuo in the Guangxi Province of China are some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Tom and I love it so much there we’ve been twice already! This is what I mean:

Li River Karst hills

(Unfortunately both times we’ve been have been early spring so the photos are a bit cloudy and gloomy!)

This area is so easy to get to from Hong Kong – the flight to Guilin is only 1h05min! Both times we stayed at the Li River Retreat, just outside Yangshuo. The hotel organised a taxi to pick us up from the airport (upon request) and the drive takes over an hour. But the last half of the drive goes through the Karst hills and local towns so there is lots to see!

I cannot recommend the Li River Retreat enough. The staff are extremely friendly and helpful, the rooms are large, clean and beautifully decorated and the setting is amazing. It’s also really good value for money at 300 RMB (approx. £30) per night for a Standard room (which actually has 2 large beds in!). We found it through recommendations on TripAdvisor but it also has its own website. This is the view from the main terrace (which all the rooms look out onto):

Li River Retreat Yangshuo view

A must-do activity when you come here is a trip down the river. The Chinese prefer to get on large boats at Guilin and go down the river that way, but the best parts of the river are closer to Yangshuo and a fun way to see them is to hire a raft for an hour or two. Again, the hotel organised this for us and arranged for a taxi to take us to Yangdi where a local took our receipt and arranged the raft for us. It was a bit bewildering but we ended up on a raft in the end! The raft tour takes 1-1.5 hours and finishes in Xingping where you can either have arranged for a taxi to take you back to the hotel, or catch a local bus back to Yangshuo (they seem to be fairly frequent, but you first have to catch a tiny bus into Xingping village, which is free for people with raft receipts). The rafting is fairly expensive, I think it was about 200 RMB (£20) each, plus 300 RMB (£30) for a taxi one-way, but it was totally worth it! This is what I mean:

Li River rafting

Li River mountains

Li River hills

Xingping Li River view

On the raft

Another activity I’d recommend is to hire bikes and go cycling around the hills. The land is really flat between the hills so it’s very easy to cycle around and you can be out of Yangshuo and into very peaceful, quiet countryside in no time. You see paddy fields, small villages and local people going about their lives in amongst these amazing hills. I guess they just take them for granted.

Karst hills and villages, Yangshuo

Fields and hills of Yangshuo

Countryside around Yangshuo

We found it a little hard to navigate based on the map the hotel had (which is definitely not to scale!) but every now and again there is a signpost to tell you where you are. We planned to cycle to Moon Hill (which has a crescent-shaped hole in) but it took a lot longer than expected and the saddle soreness got quite bad so we gave up and stopped for lunch in a small village by the river! Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the village, but there was a great little restaurant right on the waterfront and the owner spoke very good English and was very friendly. And the food was lovely too! The restaurant also organised a raft back up to Yangshuo with our bikes on too, for 200 RMB altogether, so we got to see even more of the river :)

[Edit: I have since been reminded that the village is called LiuGong (see comments). It was signposted from the ‘main’ road we were cycling along.]

Yangshuo itself is pretty touristy, but in a way that’s quite fun when you’re a tourist. There’s a great market where you can pick up all kinds of Chinese tourist tat (and some nice things too!) and have some fun bartering the stallholders down. We found the restaurants to be a bit of a mixed bag – one restaurant that we ate in was terrible! Possibly the worst food I’ve ever had in China. But the next day we went to Cloud 9 Restaurant, which was recommended on TripAdvisor, and it was fantastic.

If you’ve never been to this area and would like a weekend away, or if you’re planning a trip around China, I’d thoroughly recommend that you visit Yangshuo. It’s so beautiful, and very peaceful and relaxing too!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

A weekend in Guangzhou

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Tom and I spent the weekend in Guangzhou, China in November 2012. It’s really easy to get to from Hong Kong, although you need a Chinese visa to get into the country!

Guangzhou (pronounced ‘gwang-joe’) is the third largest city in China and sits at the top of the Pearl river delta (Hong Kong is at the bottom of the same delta). It used to be known as Canton. It’s a massive industrial city, although the centre was quite pleasant to visit and we very much enjoyed our weekend there.

To get to Guangzhou from Hong Kong, you can take a train from Hung Hom station. It takes about 2 hours and costs about HK$350 (approx. £29) for a return ticket. We booked ours online in advance.

We stayed in the Jinjiang Inn Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall on Jiefang North Road. It was reasonably priced, clean and fairly modern although the room was pretty small. It was also conveniently located near the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall subway station.

Since it was close by, we visited the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall. Sun Yat-sen was the first president of the Republic of China as and such he seems to have many buildings dedicated to him all over China! We didn’t go inside, but this was an interesting building in nice grounds.

Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, Guangzhou

A really nice area to visit in Guangzhou is Shamian Island. This island in the middle of Guangzhou is where the foreign traders lived and traded after the Opium wars, since the Chinese would not allow them to live in the city. As a consequence this tiny island is filled with grand old colonial buildings and seems to be the place to have your pre-wedding photos taken! We saw about 20 sets of brides and grooms there!

Colonial building, Shamian Island

We went for lunch in the Thai Zhen Cow and Bridge, a Thai restaurant on Shamian Island. It came well recommended and the food was pretty good! In the evening we also had a couple of drinks in Lucy’s which is also on the island. Again, I’d recommend it as a nice place for a quiet drink or two.

I enjoyed walking around the area directly south of our hotel. It’s a pretty quiet, traditional area, with low rise buildings and narrow streets and it doesn’t feel like the middle of a big city at all. It reminded us a little of the hutongs in Beijing. Whilst we were there we visited the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees and the Temple of Bright, Filial and Piety, both of which are lovely examples of Bhuddist temples. They each charge a small entry fee so you need to find the ticket office before you go in. The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees has a large pagoda in the middle:

Temple of the Six Banyan Trees pagoda

On our second day, we went for a dim sum brunch in the Panxi restaurant, next to Liwan Park. This restaurant is huge, and has many large halls. We arrived mid-morning and didn’t have to wait very long for a table. There wasn’t much English spoken but luckily they had menus with a small amount of English and some pictures so we were able to order a yummy spread :)

Dim sum at Panxi restaurant, Guangzhou

After we had finished eating, we went for a walk around Liwan Park to walk off some of the food. It would appear that this was the place to go on a Sunday morning. It was full of people, with families walking around and lots of people playing with a type of hacky sack with feathers. We even saw an official hacky sack match, with a court, referee and score board!

Hacky sack match in Liwan Park

Our next stop was the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall. This is a wonderfully ornate building with several courtyards.

Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, Guanzhou

Chen Clan Ancestral Hall gate

Inside one of the rooms was an exhibition of embroideries. These were seriously impressive. They were so intricate, some of them looked like they were photographs until you got really close! The photo doesn’t do it justice at all.

Realistic Chinese embroidery

We finished our time in Guangzhou with a trip to the area around the Canton Tower. This is a 600m tall observation tower situated at the Eastern side of the city centre.

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We didn’t go up because it’s really expensive (about £30!) and the view wouldn’t have been that great because it was pretty hazy. Tom has been before though, and can prove that the view isn’t that great!

View from Canton Tower Guangzhou

For those who like that sort of thing, there is a bubble car ride at the top (i.e. you sit in ‘bubbles’ and go round a track) and one of those fairground rides where they pull you up to the top of the spire and then drop you really fast! Not for me!

Canton Tower bubble car ride

We walked around the area on the other side of the river which was a nice precinct with the ultra-modern Guangzhou Opera House on one side, and some remnants from the Asia Games, which Guangzhou hosted in 2010.

Guangzhou Opera House

These were some of the highlights of Guangzhou. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend a visit. It has a nice contrast of aspects of traditional China and the very modern, and on public transport and in the main areas there is a pretty good level of English.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel

Places to visit – Macau

Macau is a former Portuguese colony on the south coast of China, just across the Pearl River delta from Hong Kong. Its history means that there is a surprisingly European feel to some areas which have retained a number of colonial buildings. However, this is not the case in the areas where the casinos now stand – these areas are very modern and very gaudy! Macau is the only place in China where gambling is allowed (apart from betting on the horses in Hong Kong) so there are a LOT of casinos there, and apparently it takes more money than Las Vegas!

We went to Macau on our first weekend after we moved to Hong Kong because we needed to leave HK and enter again to get our visas stamped. As you will shortly see, August is perhaps not the best time of year to visit Macau!

The easiest way to get to Macau is by ferry. The ferry terminal is in Sheung Wan – leave the MTR by exit D and keep going up the escalators until you get to the ticket counters. We turned up at about midday on a Saturday in August and it was pretty busy, and the displays showed that the next available ferry wasn’t till 3pm! (the ferries go every 30 minutes) So we went home and booked tickets for the next day online. This was much easier – we still had to queue at the ticketing counter to pick up the tickets but that was fairly quick and we made our way to the ‘gate’ with plenty of time to spare.

The ferry is actually a high-speed hydrofoil, so it only takes about an hour to get to Macau. It looks like this:

TurboJET hydrofoil

Once we got to Macau, it took us over an hour to get through immigration. Yet another reason not to go in August, I think! Once you are finally out of the ferry terminal, take bus number 3 to Almeida Ribeiro if you want to see the colonial area, where there are lots of nice old buildings.

Largo do Senado Santa Case di Misericordia Colonial building, Macau

Particular highlights included the ruins of the Church of St Paul:

The Church of St Paul, Macau

…although this was the street leading up to the ruins (so busy!)…

The path to the ruins of the Church of St Paul The view from Monte Fort was also pretty nice:

View from Monte Fort, Macau

As was the Lou Kau Mansion, on Traversa de Se:

Lou Kau Mansion

The casino district is perhaps worth a visit, if only to gasp at the gaudiness (is that a word?)

Macau's casino district

Gaudy Macau casino

Grand Lisboa Macau

I’d recommend Macau for a fun day out, but probably not really much longer. However, if I do go back at any point, I’d quite like to check out the House of Dancing Water show – it looks pretty impressive!

Thanks for reading!

Rachel