Saturday, November 17, 2012

China – Beijing and Xian

At the end of September, I jumped off the Korean peninsula for the first time since my arrival to travel to China for a week.  The weekend of September 29 - October 1 was a Korean holiday called Chuseok, a mid-autumn festival celebrated on the day of the full moon.  In Korea, this is a time when Koreans hit the roads to go see their families, hence why Americans have dubbed this "Korean Thanksgiving".  With another holiday also scheduled for October 3 (National Foundation Day) and as my vacation was fully usable from day 1 on the job, the opportunity to travel for a week while using only 3 days paid vacation seemed too good to pass up.

One of many delicious roast duck restaurants in Beijing (Quanjude)

I'm writing this long after the fact (it's funny how much you forget so quickly after you travel) but I wanted to jot down some quick thoughts about my 2nd trip to China before it fades into memory even further.

I traveled to China with my business school and Samsung colleague Dave and his wife Mor.  They convinced me that they would be good travel buddies and indeed they were!  Thankfully we had similar travel preferences – my days of hopping around with a backpack through youth hostels are over and the three of us agreed on just about everything in the itinerary.

It was their first time in China and my second, though I had never been to either Beijing or Xi'an before.  Also, unbeknownst to us when we booked the flights from the US, the mid-autumn festival is also celebrated in China, even more intensely than Korea.  Many Chinese take the whole week off to travel and domestic tourism sites are absolutely mobbed.  The weather was wonderful in China at the beginning of October – perfect temperature and no rain – but lesson learned to travel either the week before or the week after!

Inside the crowded Forbidden City (not-so-forbidden these days)

Getting to Beijing from Seoul is not hard, takes less than two hours by plane.  You do need to get the Chinese visa in advance, which is relatively straightforward though does require completing a long application form and paying a stiff fee if you're a US citizen (about $165 for a double-entry visa).  When we landed at Beijing's enormous airport (2nd busiest in the world), the train into the city was easy to find and a helpful Chinese lady helped us figure out the pass system to ride the subway.

We were staying at a hotel near Tiananmen Square and after settling our bags down walked over.  The square is quite large and can hold about 600,000 people.  Chairman Mao's portrait stares at you from the end and you can see all sorts of Chinese people walking around and kids with their rear ends exposed. The Forbidden City is relatively close but we saved that for another day, taking a long walk through a small part of massive Beijing.

On our second morning we weren't quite ready for the Forbidden City just yet, so we toured the Temple of Heaven, a big complex south of where we were staying.  After a few hours there and another scarily cheap meal, we took the subway to Tiananmen and thought we were entering the Forbidden City from there, but ended up in the Working People's Cultural Palace.  We thought it was lovely and surprisingly empty, which given that we weren't in the actual Forbidden City wasn't too surprising!  There were a number of Chinese shooting wedding pictures.

Light moment at the Great Wall. Every bit as good as the hype.

Eventually we found the moat surrounding the Forbidden City but it was too late for us to enter, so instead we got up high into a pagoda on a hill overlooking the City in Jingshan Park.  The perfect place to view the sunset!  Beijing is a very flat city, so being up on a high felt unusual.

Day 3 in Beijing was Great Wall time.  We wanted to hike the Mutianyu section because we had read it was less crowded than the other sections, though still well-maintained.  We figured out how to board a 7AM bus to the wall – difficult to find and we had to ignore a Chinese lady trying to trick us into riding her tourist van. The bus was mobbed with Chinese and we stood for almost three hours to get to our destination! But the end result was worth the painful ride. The Wall is very impressive and surrounded by beautiful lush green mountains.  The parts of the wall that weren't packed with Chinese were a relaxing treat and the hiking is good exercise too – some sections are quite steep. And at Mutianyu you can ride a toboggan down! I can't recommend the $1 bus, though.  Mor used some serious Israeli fighting skills to get us seats on the ride back to Beijing.

Thoroughly exhausted after a day of wall-climbing and bus-riding, we treated ourselves to some of Beijing's finest roast duck at DaDong. A culinary masterpiece at an affordable price, less than $50/person!

The Working People's Cultural Palace looks a bit like the Forbidden City, as is unfortunately overlooked.

For our last full day in Beijing, we decided to brave the crowds at the Forbidden City.  On China's crazy, psycho touring week known as Mid-Autumn Festival, this place is to be avoided! A must-see on any person's Beijing itinerary, the city contained an endless stream of people, starting with the 45 minute line to buy an admission ticket. But I can't say I regret going. Even with the outrageous Chinese crowds the Forbidden City was fascinating, which can only mean it must be more incredible without the mobs of people. The City is huge, literally a city within a city, and one of the grandest palaces you will ever visit.

Our last day found us at the Summer Palace, also lovely but far too crowded, and the Beijing Olympic Park, which isn't all that exciting. You can go into the Birds Nest stadium but we were put off by the price to get in, which was almost equal to the Forbidden City.

An overnight bus transported us to Xi'an, one of the four great ancient capitals of China. The city is historic and contains a mix of historic temples and bell towers alongside modernity, and has the largest city wall in the world (though the city now extends far beyond it). Xi'an is overpriced compared with Beijing – less impressive attractions but higher prices. The only tourist attraction begging your attention here are the Terracotta Warriors, uncovered only about 40 years ago about a 90 minute bus ride outside the city. The Warriors are impressive, each with different facial features and some quite well-preserved. That said, I thought the place was disappointing. You don't actually get to walk amongst the warriors...instead you're staring at the pit where the archaeologists did the excavation back in the 1970s. Well, if you're Bill Clinton the Chinese make an exception!

As close as I could get to the Warriors

China was a good trip but it felt really great to return to Korea.  I enjoyed the relatively friendly Chinese people, the outrageously inexpensive prices (for everything except Xi'an tourist sites), the many tourists who took pictures of us, and having all the logistics work out in a difficult-to-figure-out country. However, by the end of a week in China a combination of physical exertion from constantly being on my feet, some dubious Chinese food, and the awful air pollution had me rather worn down. China is like Vegas for me – I can only handle it in small doses – and a full week in China left me exhausted and my immune system weakened. I could have used another vacation to recover from this one!

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