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Josiah's China Travelogue
May 25 - June 8 2014
Preparing for China

China is a country I've wanted go to for a long time, but I always figured it would be rather difficult to do unless I joined a tour. I thought that for a number of reasons, but my complete lack of Chinese (I know several non food words at best) was always a big part. More recently though, I made a couple of friends who live in China and we've been wanting to visit each other so I decided to take the plunge and plan a trip.
Naturally, when traveling to China you need to do all the usual international travel type things. But there is one area that sets China apart from the other countries I've visited...the visa process. In the past, I was always able to just fly to whatever country I was visiting, fill out a quick form, and get a tourist visa. For China, however, you need to apply for a visa ahead of time. On the bright side, the process doesn't take more than a week (and can be expedited for a fee), but it has to be done at a Chinese embassy which means that, if you're like me and don't live near one, you'll have to go through a company. There are several which will do the process for you, though you need to fill out and send them all the paperwork and your actual passport. The whole thing (the cost of the visa and the company's fees) could easily run you around $170, so keep that in mind when planning a trip.
Also, set aside a couple of hours for filling out the application form. It's long and you need to have the basics of your trip planned out before hand. Specifically, you need your arrival and departure tickets (and at least potential itinerary for a flight to your home country, if your departure ticket goes elsewhere) and a complete list of where you'll be staying and when for your entire trip. So you need to book those hotels early. Though it's more complicated if you stay with a friend or relative, since you'll need a letter of invitation from them and, after getting to China, you'll need to notify the local police of where you're staying (something hotels do for you).
So yeah, it's a long process but, if you want to go to China, you need to make sure you get it done.

Random China Comment: Time Zones
Mainland United States has four separate time zones, plus one more each for Hawaii and Alaska. So, for a country as big as China, how many to do you think they have? The answer...one. Yes, China technically covers a number of time zones but to simplify things (at least that's the reason I would assume), they keep the entire country on a single time zone. There's an element of convenience there, though I have to wonder how it works it areas with an especially early or late sunrise/sunset.

Day 1 - 2 (Sun - Mon May 25th - 26th): Flying to China

China isn't the shortest trip from the US, no matter where you're going from. I ended up getting a flight from Honolulu to Shanghai, changing planes in Seol, South Korea. I flew Korean Airlines, which was a first for me. Fortunately, the flights went really well. Nice planes with free personal entertainment systems and plug sockets, smooth, and with pretty good food too. Mostly Korean, unsurprisingly. I actually got three meals. Two on the 10 hour flight to Seol, and another on the less than two hour flight from there to Shanghai.
I had a window seat on the first flight, so I was able to get a bit of a look at South Korea on the way in. It looked really pretty from the air, lots of green hills (often shrouded in fog), rivers, bays, and islands. Other than that through, all I saw the was the airport. It's a pretty nice one, by the way. Felt more like a fancy mall than an airport with lots of duty free shops selling name brand clothing, jewelry, and accessories. There were even frequent performances by a string quartet (though they weren't playing Korean songs).
Once I got to China, the immigration and customs process was surprisingly quick and easy (I suppose because everyone already went through the big visa application), so that was nice. Especially since I got in fairly late. Because of that, I'm actually spending my first night at a hotel that's right inside the Shanghai airport. The hotel itself is so-so, but the location is really convenient. So far, everything as gone well, but I think my first real test will come tomorrow as I attempt to make my way to my first "hub" hotel...

Day 3 (Tue the 27th): Shanghai

My primary goal for the day was to get to my hotel in Wuxi (a city a bit outside of Shanghai), where I'd be staying for the next few days. There was a bus directly there from the airport, but it was rather on the slow side and didn't run all that frequently so I opted to take the quicker, though more complicated, route. I started out by getting ticket for the high speed maglev train into the city proper. If you haven't heard of maglevs, they're a fairly new kind of super fast train (up to 400kph). Anyway, from where the maglev ended, I needed to switch to the metro or subway. Fortunately, it proved to be pretty easy to use (I'll go in detail on it in a future RCC) and before too long I made it to Shanghai Railway Station, the city's main train station. At that point, I could have gone straight to Wuxi but, since I didn't really need to be there until evening, I went looking for a coin locker or some such where I could leave my luggage and start touring. They didn't seem to have lockers, but there were some places (called "left luggage" where you can pay to have your stuff stored for a while) so that worked too.
I decided to go to the Bund, a rather famous part of the city, but I took a wrong turn and ended up on East Nanjing Road so I started exploring there instead. It's another popular Shanghai destination, composed of a lengthy shopping street that's mostly closed off to traffic. It's pretty high end stuff, for the most part, and I spotted a number of name brand retailers from the US and Japan, along with some more local places. It made for a pleasant stroll, and one building had a big food court with English menus so I was able to grab a late breakfast as I went. There was also some kind of performance or ceremony going on. I'm note quite sure what it was, but it was interesting to watch. On a side note, didn't everyone stop using bayonets long before guns like that came into use?
Anyway, after walking the length of the shopping area, I turned around and headed back towards the Bund. It's an stretch of the city following one of Shanghai's rivers, with a nice wide walking area following the water. The thing I noticed first was the view across the river. I have to say, that's got to be the most sci-fi-ish skyline I've ever seen. Aside from the view, the Bund is also known for its collection of fancy European style buildings. They were built a long time ago when the city served as something of an internationally controlled port. They're pretty impressive from the outside and even more so on the inside. I looked in one that I heard a passing tour guide recommend to his group. Marble everywhere, lots of columns, and mosaics... Certainly one of the fancier interiors I've seen (no pictures allowed, unfortunately). These days, quite a lot of the buildings are used as banks, though I spotted a hotel and some high end stores as well.
As I was strolling up and down the bund, I came across a couple of odd English signs. The first, this coffee place. What's a muskcat anyway? Then there was this sign (and a whole lot just like it), which I would assume are an overly poetic way to say "stay off the grass". There was also this rather epic statue, and a girl in one of the more interesting dresses I've seen in a while. She was there with a guy in a maroon suit for a photo shoot, so I'm going to guess it's a wedding dress, despite the unusual color... And here's a couple more interesting buildings I spotted towards the north end of the Bund. Doesn't the one on the left look like it should be someone's evil fortress in a video game?
That futuristic looking tower on the other side of the river was intriguing, so I decided to take a closer look. The cheapest way to cross the river at the Bund is to walk back to the metro station at East Nanjing Road and take it to Lujiazui. But if you want to do a bit less walking, or like trippy light shows with your subway rides, you can take the underground tunnel from right at the riverside. The ride itself isn't all that great, but it does get you across and they sell slightly discounted combo tickets for the tunnel and various attractions on the other side of the river, including that tower (which I learned is call the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower). Fortunately, there wasn't much of a line at the time so, before long, I was up riding what they claimed to be the world's fastest elevator up to the observation deck for some impressive views of Shanghai.
I should probably note the the day was pretty hazy (which I've heard is normal here), as you can tell from the pictures. Actually, I ran a number of my distance shots through Photoshop to reduce the haze, what you see here, it was worse. Still a good view though.
Much like Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Skytree, the Pearl Tower has more than just an observation floor. For more money there's a higher outer space theme viewing floor (which I passed on) and a revolving restaurant. There's also a slightly lower floor with a full 360 degree transparent floor. There was also an arcade with a roller coaster (all indoor though), which I skipped. And back down on the very bottom floor are some restaurants, gift shops, and assorted attractions.
The Shanghai History Museum caught my eye and was free (with admission to the tower), so I decided to give it a look. Glad I did too. The museum traces the development of the city from its early days up through the present. It's divided into sections for different periods, each of which features recreated buildings and street scenes, some life size and some scale models. The museum ended up being a lot bigger than I expected, was very well done, had plenty of English signs, and was quite interesting. It also had signs like this which is, if you ask me, a very dramatic way of saying that there's more upstairs.
Once I'd finished making my way through the museum, it was about time to start heading for Wuxi so it was back to the train station to retrieve my bags and get a train ticket. That part worried me a bit, as getting train tickets here in China is a lot more complicated than in Japan (I'll write a RCC about it in the future), but I was able to pull it off. The scenery from the train wasn't too exciting, but it did hammer in just how large China's population is. The view seemed like an almost endless parade of apartment buildings. The vast majority looked both new and fairly nice, and were clustered in groups or developments. What was really impressive was that each building in a given group was around 40 stories tall. That's a lot of apartments, and there were many, many more being constructed. While most of what I saw throughout the day was moderate to fancy, I'll note that I did spot the occasional poorer looking apartment building and, from the train, I glimpsed a handful of apartment and housing areas with a distinctly third world vibe.
Anyway, in the end I managed to make it to my hotel and meet up with a friend of mine, who I'll be hanging out with a bit while I'm here. All in all, it was a fun day and my ability to successfully get around and get things done without any Chinese made me a lot more confident about this trip as whole.

Random China Comment: Traffic
One thing I soon noticed is that traffic in China can be a bit of a mess. Cars, bikes, and motor-scooters all share the roads leading to some interesting traffic situations, especially since the "rules" of the road seem to be taken as suggestions at best (I've never heard so much honking). Bikes and motor-scooters not only weave between traffic, but tend to ignore all traffic lights and occasionally drive on sidewalks so, as a pedestrian, you really need to pay attention, especially when crossing a street. Speaking of which, Chinese pedestrians don't seem to pay much attention to walk / don't walk signals themselves, and will often make their way across the road whenever and wherever they can. And don't get me started on the way the taxi drivers I've had here drive... Honestly, I'm surprised I've yet to see an accident. That said, as a pedestrian in China, make sure to stay alert. Far more than anywhere else I've ever been, China leaves me feeling like I'll be run over if I don't pay enough attention.

Random China Comment: "Name" Tags
It probably doesn't surprise you that employees at train stations, hotels, and the like in China wear name tags. Except they're not name tags, they're ID number tags instead. Not that I could read Chinese name tags anyway, but it reminds me of a bunch of dystopian sci-fi stories... So far, the only place I've seen to use actual name tags was one restaurant, but I haven't really done any shopping, so maybe retail is different in general.

Day 4 (Wed the 28th): Yu Garden

On Wednesday morning, I headed to the train station, ready to go back to Shanghai and continue touring. Unfortunately, I had to wait around at the station for a while (see the RCC at the bottom of this post for more about the train system here), so by the time I did arrive in Shanghai, it was a good deal later than I would have liked. And, since I had plans to meet up with my friend that evening back in Wuxi, I couldn't stay too late. So, I headed straight for the main spot on my touring list for the day, Yu Garden. I really didn't know much about it, other than that it's an old Chinese garden (from the 1500's) and my tour book recommended it highly. But, as I approached the area, I was pleasantly surprised, and rather excited, to see a distinct change in architecture. After all, all the buildings I'd seen in Shanghai so far (outside of that museum) were more American or European in style than what I'd think of as Chinese. But actually that was just the outskirts. A little further on, I found my way into Shanghai's old town, which surrounds Yu Garden, and that's when I really started to feel like I was in China. Amazing old buildings, a maze of shops (mostly touristy stuff), restaurants, and tea houses, and just a really great atmosphere all around. It reminded me a bit of Asakusa in Tokyo, though Asakusa doesn't have anywhere near as many cool old buildings. Ok, the Starbucks in that last picture does seem a bit out of place. But hey, that has got to be the coolest looking Starbucks anywhere. I spent quite a while wondering around and exploring before eventually coming to the zigzag bridge right outside the entrance to Yu Garden itself.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from the garden. Old Shanghai was amazing enough, and I've seen a lot of really good gardens in the past, but Yu Garden really impressed me. Chinese gardens actually differ quite a bit from the Japanese kind I'm so familiar with. There are a number of differences but a few of the key things that especially stick out in Chinese gardens are their heavy use of interestingly shaped rocks (to a far, far, greater extant than Japanese), the incorporation of walls (along with their gates and latticework windows), and the large number of pavilions, towers, and walkways (Japanese gardens may have a single tea house or pagoda, if anything), all with very poetic names and beautiful (if relatively simple) interiors. The garden was surprisingly large and there were so many great views no matter where you went. The whole place was just spectacular (though it's too bad the water and sky weren't a bit bluer).
When I finally pulled myself away from the garden, I walked around old Shanghai for a bit longer before deciding that I needed to move on. I didn't really have time to do any of the other major things on my list, so I walked though the city a bit instead, heading towards a metro station where I could catch a subway back to the train station. As an aside, I passed by some lower class areas along the way, so here's a quick glimpse at a less glamorous residential area. It's actually not nearly as bad as a handful of spots I glimpsed from the train. Though, to be fair, the vast majority of the residential areas I've seen here so far have looked quite nice. I also passed through The People's Park which, though a nice enough park, isn't anything all that special.
Back in Wuxi, I met up with my friend Melissa again. We strolled for a bit in an old temple complex turned shopping center. It could use some repairs and other improvements but, with that kind of architecture, it could potentially turn into a pretty cool area. After that, we went to another nearby shopping area for dinner, though it was a lot glitzier, with a European theme going. And that was the day.

Random China Comment: Trains and Subways
Since Japan's public transit system is the one I'm most familiar with (and have written about in the past), I'll be doing some comparisons here. Many major Chinese cities feature a subway or metro for getting from one part of the city to another (trains, on the other hand, are primarily used for going to different towns/cities entirely. If the one in Shanghai is any example, they're pretty easy to use. The lines run frequently, the ticket machines have an English language option (use the touch screen to choose your destination and then put in the money required), then run your ticket through a machine, wait at the platform and you're off. They're also extremely cheap (less than $1 per ride). Well, there is one notable difference compared to Japan (or any other subway system I've used). If you're carrying a suitcase, backpack, handbag, or really any sort of baggage, you have to put it through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector (though you don't need to take anything out of your pockets). Trains are the same, though you have to go through a quick wanding after the detector as well. For the most part though, the Shanghai metro is quite and pretty easy to use even if you don't speak Chinese (though I'd recommend picking up an English map).
Trains are a bit more complicated. First off, trains are lettered (though not in order). G are the fastest (roughly equivalent to Japanese shinkansen in design), D are similar, though they make a few more stops, and all the other letters are best avoided unless you're trying to go to some rural area where the faster trains don't stop. Also, all trains are reserved seating only, which means tickets can sell out (unlike Japan, when a train is only full if you can't smash someone else in. Speaking of tickets, you have to go and buy them at a ticket office (at the train station and scattered about here and there) before you can proceed. If you just tell the person where you want to go, they'll probably offer you the next available time though, due to the reserved seats, you may end up having to wait quite a while for a train with a free seat. However, you can buy your tickets hours or even days in advance (though a working knowledge of Chinese, or reference sheet of useful phrases, is very helpful), which is a good idea and it ensures you 'll get your train (so long as you show up on time) and reduces the amount of time you'll be stuck in a ticket line (they tend to move rather slowly). As a note, you'll need to show your passport to buy a ticket. The locals, however, can also use their China ID cards for the automated ticket machines (which foreigners can't make use of). All in all, it's rather inconvenient compared to Japan, so buying your tickets ahead of time is a really good idea if you don't want to be late. This site has a service where they'll buy your tickets for you (for a a fee) and mail them to your hotel, so long as you do so at least a couple days in advance. Or you can just do what I did and use it to check train schedules.
Anyway, when you have your ticket, you can show it (and your passport again) and go through security to get to the inner part of the train station. From there, you need to find what waiting room relates to your train (check your ticket or the departures board) (in some stations, the entire area is one waiting room. while other stations could have quite a lot of them). Show your ticket and passport one more time to get into the waiting room (if they're seperate areas) then, if there's more than one gate, find the one for your train (check your ticket or the signboards). They often start boarding 15 minutes or so before the train leaves, and getting on requires putting your ticket through a ticket machine. Make sure to take it back afterwards, as you'll need it to leave the train station at your destination. Speaking of which, you need to take your ticket back after scanning it at your destination as well (even though the subway machines eat your used tickets).
So yeah, trains work, but you really needed to plan ahead, get there early, and buy tickets in advance to take advantage of them. Oh, as a side note, trains, subways, and their stations announce arrivals, departures, stops, and the like in both Chinese and English (with a British accent), which helps ensure you don't miss anything important.

Day 5 (Thur the 29th): Around Wuxi

My friend Melissa was able to take the afternoon off of work, so she offered to show me around Wuxi. First, a couple random shots (I used the morning to walk around a bit and get some work done). Here we have one of Wuxi's canals, here are some drinks I'd rather not try, and here's one of those gigantic apartments complexes I mentioned. Those are all apartments and there are a lot more of those buildings you can't see in the shot. And that's only one such development, there are tons of them, with many more being built.
Anyway, Melissa took me to a nice little noodle place for lunch and then to the Xi-Hu Hills Park. I really wasn't expecting much from Wuxi since it shows up little if at all in English touring information, but the park was quite nice. One side split off into an old (though not especially fancy) town type area and a temple complex with some nice views and a number of different buildings. Here's the temple itself (sorry for the lousy photo, the sun was in a horrible place) and here's some things they had up for an ongoing butterfly based event.
After strolling around the temple complex for a bit (and watching out for lightning) we rode a cable car to the top of one of the hills for a nice, if very hazy, view of Wuxi.
Finally, we meet up with several of Melissa's friends and coworkers (shockingly, one is from the same town in Colorado as I am) at a Chinese restaurant (the kind where you order a lot of different things and share them. The food was good and the people were nice, making it quite an enjoyable dinner. After that, Melissa and I went to that huge apartment complex from earlier and joined one of the couples from dinner for a couple rounds of Dominion (a fun card game). As a side note, that apartment complex has nice landscaping and facilities inside. But, strangely, the interior halls and elevators of those fancy looking buildings are extremely simple and unadorned (to the point of looking run down). The apartments themselves, however, can be really nice inside (interestingly, Melissa said that each apartment is usually sold entirely unfinished and then completed by the new owner, who then often rents it out.
It was a fun, if lower key, day and got me thinking that maybe Wuxi should be in some of those travel guides after all...

Random China Comment: Money and Pricing
China's currency is the Yuan (also known as the RMB). As I'm writing this, it's around 6 Yuan to $1. Bills come in 1, 5, 10, 20, and 100 (yes, that's the highest, despite only being worth around $16. There are also 1 Yuan coins, and 1 and 5 coins for Jiang (there are 10 Jiang in a Yuan), but you'll only see Jiang if you shop in a grocery story or the like and they can be rather hard to use due to their very low value. Credit cards are accepted sporadically (like in Japan), so you might want to bring a giant briefcase of bills if you want to go antique shopping or some such (seriously). Conveniently, American cards will work in many ATMs.
Prices in China vary from dirt cheap to US level, depending what you get and where. Starbucks, for example (or western places in general) charge more or less what you'd pay in the US. On the other hand, I got this nice Chinese meal for all of $2. And, you can go to one of the many little tea stands or stalls where coffee, milk tea, and other drinks cost only cost $1 - $2. Same thing at restaurants. Nice Chinese ones (ranging from ordinary to quite fancy) can be incredibly cheap, while foreign ones tend to cost considerably more.
For a few other things, Metro rides average 75 cents or less and trains are far cheaper than Japan. A 20 minute cab ride can be had for $5, a bottle of water is 16 - 50 cents, and one of those electric scooters people ride? Around $400 for a pretty nice one. As for my hotels, I only paid $27 a night for my place at Wuxi which, while not fancy, is fairly nice. I've got moderately fancy and really well located places choosen for the rest of my time in China though, never spending more than fifty something a night. So yeah, if you eat Chinese and don't overdo it on hotels, China an be an extremely cheap trip (airfare aside)

Day 6 (Fri the 30th): Suzhou

Suzhou is a small city (by China standards) around 45 minutes outside of Shanghai. It's a canal city and has the nickname of The Venice of the East. Having been to Venice myself (back before I started Pebble Version and these travelogues), I can say that modern Suzhou itself is nowhere near as picturesque, though it does have its moments. However, the main reason to visit Suzhou isn't its canals but its gardens.
My first stop was The Humble Administrator's Garden, the largest and most famous one in the city, which was built in 1509 by a former court official. Water is a key feature, and there are streams and ponds all throughout the garden. It's also the only Chinese garden I've seen so far to include a large number of flowers (which normally seem to be rather absent). Of course, it also makes use of a lot of rocks, pavilions, and walls. It's a pretty big place, and there's a seemingly endless number of scenic views. Other features include a bonsai garden and a number of different types of gates. There's also a nice (if somewhat hard to find) museum on Chinese gardens and gardening in Suzhou.
From there, I took a walk south, stopping briefly at a small folk museum, and arriving at Lion's Grove Garden (or Lion Forest Garden, depending which sign you look at), which turned out to be my favorite one of the day. In order to dodge some big tour groups, I started by skirting the edge of the garden, which took me though some small halls and courtyards, along with a display of especially aesthetic rocks. It wasn't until I emerged into the main section of the garden that I realized just how different it was from the others I'd visited so far. In Lion's Grove, rocks are the main element of the design. And the rocks do much more than create a rather otherworldly landscape. As you can see in the previous picture, they're riddled with paths, tunnels, and stairs, which you'll need to navigate if you want to see all the garden has to offer such as waterfalls, beautiful pavilions, and excellent views. I loved climbing over and under the rocks and, to make things more fun, there's a bit of a maze element as well as the twisting paths rarely lead where you expect them to. While I suppose not everyone will appreciate getting lost amidst the rocks like I did, it's really one of the most unique gardens (Chinese or otherwise) I've ever seen.
My next stop was a bit further and required a walk through some residential and shopping areas, complete with oddly named restaurants. As it turned out, the Temple of Mystery (a Taoist compound) is in the middle of a big shopping street. It's not especially large, but its very brightly colored and features a large number of golden statues.
A rather long walk further south brought me to this little alleyway and the Master of the Nets Garden. It's the smallest of the gardens I visited, but very nicely laid out, and incorporating pretty much every major element I've seen in Chinese gardening. Fancy pavilions, walls and gates, places for art and poetry, water, rocks, etc.
Continuing my walk along more canals and past some strange pubs, I reached the Blue Wave (Clanglang) Pavilion, the city's oldest garden (over 900 years). It's partially surrounded by a moat and, like all Chinese gardens, completely surrounded by a wall. The plant life is a bit more wild than in the other gardens and its main features is the latticework in the windows, as every single one has a different design. There was also a rather unique collection of furniture carved out of Banyan tree roots.
At that point, it was time to start heading back towards Suzhou Station. Though, so you know, there are a number of other gardens that I didn't have time to see. It was a rather long walk (I probably should have taken a bus or taxi), but I did have time to take a quick climb up the North Temple Pagoda back near The Humble Administrator's Garden. It's too bad Suzhou doesn't look all that impressive from above.
Back in Wuxi, I met up with Melissa one last time for supper at a Chinese hot pot restaurant. If you've ever had Japanese shabu-shabu, it's pretty similar, though with a somewhat different selection of broths and ingredients. The food was good, the restaurant was very fancy, and the total bill only came out to 100 Yuan (around $16) for the two of us. I'm really starting to like eating out in China.

Random China Comment: Old Names
Old places in China be they gardens, pavilions in said gardens, streets, and the like tend to have very elaborate names, often taken from lines of famous poems. For example, The Pavilion of Sleeping Amidst the Clouds, The Elegant Bamboo House, and the Pure Fragrance Pavilion, just to name a few. Its rather fun to read the names, though their length can make them difficult to remember and talk about.

Day 7 (Sat the 31st): On to Nanjing

In the morning, I left Wuxi behind to move on to my next hub, the city of Nanjing, where I'd be meeting another friend. Nanjing is only around an hour and a half from Shanghai (less than an hour from Wuxi). Situated by some major rivers, it served as the country's capital on multiple occasions throughout China's history. As such, it's got a lot of older buildings and historical sites. It's also a good bit greener than Shanghai, with trees lining many of the streets (though the sky is still just as hazy).
My hotel in Najing is an interesting one, as it's more like renting out an apartment for a few days. It's pretty nice (that picture only shows the first floor, of two) and has a good central location. The only problem, it's pretty much impossible to find. I got to the general area with no problem (interesting note, the subway in Nanjing uses blue plastic coins as tickets) but couldn't seem to find the building. So I tried the directions in my Agoda app (the site I used to book the place), which were way off. Once I got back to where I thought the hotel should be I started asking for directions as well as I could without speaking Chinese and was directed a couple blocks further down the road (turns out, the numbering on both sides of the street weren't exactly in-sync). Anyway, that got me to the right group of buildings but I still couldn't find the hotel and no one seemed to know where it was. In the end, I gave up, waited for my friend Connie to arrive, and enlisted her help. As it turned out, it wasn't really my fault. You need to go into a building which shows no indication it's the correct one and take the elevator up to a specific and unmarked floor to find the reception desk. I'd be shocked if anyone found that without help. Even Connie had to call the hotel and have someone come down and show her the way (something I considered earlier but gave up on since the hotel lacks English speaking staff). Agoda really should have listed something about the location...
Anyway, once we'd settled into our rooms, Connie and I headed out. I let her plan the itinerary for this entire leg of the trip and this first day didn't disappoint. We started with a walk through the area around the Confucian Temple, which is filled with old buildings (now shops and restaurants). Highlights included a park with various old buildings and scenic bridges, Wuyi Alley (which also happened to be voted number one on the list of Nanjing's top ten old place names (seriously)), and an old house belonging to a series of government officials, which is now a museum including some nice works of art. We then took a boat ride on the nearby Qinhuai River, which seems to be the area's main attraction. The boat tours last for the batter part of an hour and go past a number of ancient buildings and other points of interest, with an audio tour (in Chinese) along the way. You can go during the day to get a good look at all the structures, or at night when everything is lit up. Connie and I began our boat tour at dusk, getting a bit of both and avoiding the significantly longer lines that sprang up after dark. The ride was really nice with lots of great views of the river and older parts of the city.
Finally, we finished the day in a nice Chinese restaurant. Connie went a couple steps further than I usually do in my planning and read reviews to find which menu items were the best. My favorites were three cup chicken (which features a special sauce and great use of basil) and a mixture of fried mushrooms. All in all, aside from the problems finding the hotel, the day was a great start to my stay in Nanjing.

Random China Comment: Cleanliness
If you've ever been to a China Town in the US, you've probably noticed that they tend to be rather grungy. As such, I naturally expected the same of China proper. But I was pleasantly surprised. While not on the same level as Japan (which is really in a class of its own), everywhere I've been in China so far, be it ordinary city streets, flashy shopping areas, or even some lower class residential sections, the streets, canals, buildings, and the like are all pretty clean, with minimal litter or other problems. I'd say that the places I've seen in China are more or less on par with the US in terms of general cleanliness, which certainly makes the trip more pleasant.

Day 8 (Sun June 1st): Nanjing's Purple Mountain

Connie and I headed out fairly early in the morning and headed to the Purple Mountain (or Zijishan) area. We were a little worried about rain, but everything seemed ok...at least for a little while. It did eventually start raining, quite hard at one point, but we had our umbrellas and picked up some rain ponchos, so it all worked out.
Anyway, our first destination was the Ming Tomb, one of the country's largest and most important burial mounds, which holds the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The path to the tomb has a few different sections. One is guarded by a number of animal statues, both real and mythical, and another features large stone warriors. There are also some smaller buildings along the way. While the tomb itself is actually underground, this impressive structure marks its place. The rain was getting bad at that point, but we climbed to the top and hung out in that building for a while, where they have a gift shop and some info (in Chinese and English) about the country's imperial tombs. According to a passing tour guide, who Connie was listening in on, the underground portion of the tomb (which isn't open to the public) is massive and still hasn't been fully explored.
Once the rain had died down a bit, we headed back to the start of the tomb area, grabbed a quick lunch, and caught a tram to another part of the mountain to visit Lingu Temple. I have to say, Buddhist temples in China have a very different style to them than those in Japan. Note the hanging flags, candles, and the fancy "tree" of hanging prayers on the left side. There were also some very nice carvings and statues, though I wasn't able to photograph the best ones. The temple area also features a neat old building turned small history museum (mostly focused on Sun Yat-sen, whose mausoleum is nearby (he was an important figure in the formation of China's current government, though it went in a very different direction after his death)) and a pagoda (though a relatively recently made one).
After that, we went to another part of the mountain to the botanical garden, which is part garden and part forest with walking paths. It was nice, though probably not the best time of year to visit in terms of flowers and the like. After walking around for a while, we headed back to our hotel to rest up a bit before supper. On the way, I was reminded of some important subway rules and spotted an ad for a supplement that probably won't be catching on in the US.
We took some time to rest up and dry off, then headed out for supper. We went to the same part of the city as the previous night, a nightlife hot spot called 1912 which is filled with fancy bars and restaurants. The restaurant where we ended up was themed after China in the 20's or so, including a guy walking around and pretending to be a key historical figure from that time. We got a few different dishes to share but this was the highlight. As you can probably tell, it's a fish, deboned and fried. The sauce uses a tomato base but it's a lot more than that. Kinda tangy, with pieces of cucumber, dragon fruit, and watermelon. I've never really had anything like it before, but it was excellent, and a good way to finish the day.

Random China Comment: Salesmen and Scams
As in Japan, non-Asians in China tend to stand out quite a bit. Unlike Japan, that means that you'll get a number of people coming up to you for one reason or another. In Shanghai, I had people coming up to ask if I wanted to buy an iPad, designer handbag, or the like (probably all bootlegs). In Suzhou I had people trying to offer me various tour packages. And everywhere, there's the occasional person who will come up to me for a friendly conversation (supposedly to practice their English) and invite me to come with them to chat over a cup of tea or coffee. Now, I'd like to think that at least some of those people are sincere but my tour book, along with a few signs I've spotted in various places here in China, warn not to accept their offers as the goal is generally to get you to some tea shop or cafe they have a deal with and rack up an extremely high bill. They can be very hard to dissuade (as can legit salesmen, once they get started), so I recommend acting like you're in a hurry and walking away as you explain that you can't go. After a while, I actually started doing my best to entirely ignore them from the get go, pretending that I either can't hear them or don't speak English.

Day 9 (Mon the 2nd): History and Gardens

Once again, Connie had a good day planned out. After a quick stop at a bakery, we came to the presidential palace. It's not used now but, in the past, it served as the headquarters for various dukes and other high ranking officials for hundreds of years, eventually hosting Sun Yat-sen during his period as president. There's a bit of interesting history to learn about inside, a bunch of stuff about the rise of the current Chinese government, and various relics of rulers past. But the best part is really the attached gardens. Here's Connie by one of the ponds.
After finishing our exploration of the palace, we visited a nearby museum. Its main focuses were the Chinese silk industry from past times to present and a classic Chinese novel called Dream of the Red Chamber, which looks like a rather interesting read. There was also a garden, unique in the fact that it used multiple levels of the building to great effect.
Once we'd finished there it was off to the Nanjing Folklore and Cultural Heritage Museum, which is set in an extremely large (supposedly 99 1/2 rooms) old house. Though it's more of a compound of numerous building than a single house. There were a wide variety of exhibits inside, including traditional toys and crafts such as paper cutting (in some cases, the artisans were there for you to watch or talk to), various items and costumes from Nanjing's festivals, and a section devoted to traditional marriage and child rearing customs. Here, for example, is an old bridal headdress. Apparently red is the traditional bridal color. And this is a place to stick your baby when you want to make sure it won't go anywhere. English was rather limited, but the displays were all very interesting. Of course, the house had its own gardens as well. Someone was actually doing a cosplay photo shoot there at the time (Japanese anime is pretty popular in China).
Next was a late lunch / early dinner at Nanjing Da Pai Dang, a rather famous local restaurant themed after China a couple of hundred years ago. It has an extensive menu (with English), great food, and very reasonable prices. Highlights of the meal included duck filled steamed dumplings, salted duck, and red bean and mochi in a wine based soup. Definitely my favorite restaurant of the trip so far.
Connie and I were going to do a little more touring after the meal, but it started raining again so we decided to call it a day a little early and ended up watching a movie back at the hotel instead.

Random China Comment: Staying Hydrated
China tour books warn you not to drink the tap water and that's a sentiment that seems to be shared by the locals as well. Water fountains are pretty rare (though train stations usually have a drinking water dispenser you can use to fill a bottle). Fortunately, bottled water is easy to find and really cheap (often less than 20 cents a bottle, $1 at absolute most) so you should get into the habit of keeping some around both while you're touring and in your hotel (you'll want to use it for brushing your teeth as well). Train stations and subway platforms sometimes have vending machines, but generally you'll need to buy you water from a shop or snack stand. Fortunately, the water served at restaurants (usually hot), along with their other drinks and those to be found at tea and coffee shops/stands, and the like is said to be safe.

Day 10 (Tue the 3rd): Wrapping Things Up in Nanjing

This was my last day in Nanjing before moving on to the next and final stop on my China trip. Connie and I started out the day with a walk by Xuanwu Lake. It's a large lake with a pretty walking trail going at least most of the way around. Another thing surrounding much of the park is an ancient wall which, aside from looking cool, blocks out the noise from the traffic. There's actually a place where you can climb the wall and walk along the top too. The lake also has a few historic sites such as a pavilion where the emperor would site and observe his army and navy back when Nanjing was the capital.
Leaving the lake, we walked a short distance to Jiming Temple. It's a nice temple with a pagoda and a good collection of statues and paintings. Also, lots and lots of hanging lotus blossoms (not real ones) used to hold prayers. It also had a considerable amount of plant life, adding to the ambiance. Another good reason to visit is the view you can get of Xuanwu Lake and its wall. The temple also has a fancy vegetarian restaurant, with lots of elaborate mock meat dishes.
At that point, we'd pretty much run through everything on our sightseeing list and, since Connie and I both like super hero movies, we ended up going to see the new X-Men (which was very good, by the way). The theater was nice, with reserved seats like in Japan and similar pricing to the US. Though Chinese people don't seem to care quite as much about talking loudly, turning their phones off, and the like. After that it was back to the 1912 area for another great dinner then chatting with Connie for a while and that pretty much wrapped up my time in Nanjing.

Random China Comment: Sanitization
I already talked about general cleanliness and the water quality, but I should also note that most Chinese restaurant don't have a place for your to wash your hands and, unlike Japan, they usually don't provide those nice little wipes or hand towels. Combine that with the dodgy tap water here, and you need some way to clean your hands. Carrying about a packet or wipes or a small body of anti-bacterial stuff for your hands is a good idea (and something many Chinese do as well).

Day 11 (Wed the 4th): Off to Beijing

Connie had to leave early in the morning to get back to work, leaving me the chance to sleep in a little bit and then head to the train station. I already had my ticket so, before long, I was off to Beijing. The scenery on the ride wasn't anything too impressive. Farms mostly, with a couple of small cities here and there.
The entire ride took about 4 1/2 hours, which wasn't bad at all. My hotel this time (chosen for its cool Chinese style and not its rather problematic internet) is right by the Forbidden City. By the time I found it and checked in, it was a bit late to go to any tourist sites so I walked around for a while instead.
Anyway, my walk put me near what my tour book said was supposedly the best roast duck restaurant in the city so I decided to swing by. I had to pass through a very old residential section on the way. Despite the run-down looks, it didn't feel dangerous. More like I'd stepped back in time a hundred years or so (aside from the cars, at least. As luck would have it, I was able to get a table at Li Qun almost immediately without a reservation. While the place doesn't look like much, lots of famous people have eaten there. The main event is the roast duck. The proper way to eat it is to lay a few of the pancakes (though they're more tortialla-ish) on your plate. Then take one piece of chicken, dip it in the sauce, and use it to paint the sauce on the pancake. Add that piece of chicken and a couple others, along with onion (and maybe cucumber) to taste and wrap it up. I got duck three ways which also included a peppery duck broth soup and the bones (with bits of meat left on them) salted and lightly fried. I actually got a bit confused with the menu (despite the English) and ended up ordering a whole duck worth of food. Fortunately, I hadn't really eaten much of anything that day and was able to make it through most of it. Kinda a ridiculous amount for one person to eat though. I don't know if Li Qun is really the best roast duck, but it was good and a fun experience.
On the way back to my hotel I stopped by a fancy shopping street and then stumbled across the night market, a alley packed with stalls selling all sorts of things by mostly food and drink. There was some odd stuff there including scorpions and other bugs. As a note, some/all of those scorpions are still alive when you order (you can occasionally see them moving on the stick). Though, even for the Chinese people, they seemed to be more of a photo op than something to buy and eat. If you're not hungry, there are some small alleys lined with souvenirs, Certainly worth a walk through, anyway.

Random China Comment: Early Impressions of Beijing
Some initial impressions on Beijing:
The traffic seems just a little bit calmer compared to other places I've been. Maybe because of the significant police presence.
It seems a little bit dirtier than Shanghai and Nanjing.
You don't see a lot of tall buildings in Beijing, at at least not in any of the areas I've been to. Likely to preserve the old stye of many parts of the city.

Day 12 (Thu the 5th): The Forbidden City

When you think of top things to see in China, the first two that come to mind will probably be the Forbidden City and Great Wall. In fact, those two sights are the reason I was determined to add a few days in Beijing to my trip, despite not having anyone to visit there like I did in Wuxi and Nanjing. Well, this was my Forbidden City day. It may also have been a record setting day for me in terms of number of photos taken (I ended up with somewhere around 470, though I later cut the number down to less than half that). Remember film cameras? I really had to think hard about whether or not to take a picture then when I only got 24 to a roll. Now, I've got a memory card that can hold thousands of shots...
FYI: If you don't know, the Forbidden City is a massive palace complex built in the early 1400's to serve as the home of China's empire and the heart of its government.
Anyway, one of the reasons I chose the hotel I did is because it's in Beijing's old town, right by the Forbidden City. My first stop was the (in)famous Tiananmen Square, which is right in front of the Forbidden City. Security was pretty tight. Getting into the area required a bag scan and a pat down, one of several I'd have to go through that day. I'm not sure if security is always that tight, or if it's because it was right around the anniversary of a certain even which took place in that very square... There really isn't much to see in the square itself so, after a quick look around and a few pictures, I headed to the Gate of Heavenly Peace (shown in the previous picture), which is the southern and main entrance of the Forbidden City. You can actually got up to the top of that gate, which I did. Though it requires an extra ticket, you have to leave your bag with a storage guy (who also charges), and go through another metal detector and pat down. You do get a nice view of Tiananmen Square from the top, but it's not really worth the trouble. The only other thing up there is a few displays focused on Chairman Mao and the founding of the current Chinese government.
Back on the ground, I got a ticket or the Forbidden City (note that, unlike other attractions, you need to show your passport to get a Forbidden City ticket). I also picked up an audio guide, which I highly recommend. The place is absolutely massive and the guide not only gives you a lot of interesting info, it also had a little map of the Forbidden City, with lights that turn off as you visit different areas so you can keep track of where you've been. It also works off GPS, meaning that the different audio segments start playing automatically when you reach different areas. I thought that was rather cool, though there were a couple times where I either couldn't get it to trigger, or had an explanation cut short because I moved too far away.
After passing through the initial (large) entry area and through the Meridian Gate, I ended up in the Forbidden City proper. One of the first things you notice about the place is the scale. The courtyards, the walls, the gates, everything is huge. And that picture was only one of several such courtyards. The entire complex is 180 acres with 980 buildings, though a large chunk of that is closed to the public (either due to administrative use or because it has yet to be restored), but there's plenty to see as is. The attention to detail is quite impressive as well, with elaborate carvings and paintings throughout. Before going deeper in I went off through a more park like side area to a pavilion which now houses a rather nice little museum of Chinese art and calligraphy.
Then, onward past some lion statues (which are everywhere in the Forbidden City and at old important Chinese buildings in general), and into the Outer Court. That's the Hall of Supreme Harmony in that photo, by the way. It seems every structure in the city has an overly grand name. Do you see how the central staircases in the photos are fenced off and seem to have something in the center? That something is a carving (usually of dragons) and indicates that said staircase is for the exclusive use of the emperor. For another trivia bit, see the little figures on the corners of each roof? They're used to indicate the importance of the building or structure. The more figures, the more important it is. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, by the way, is the most important building in the Forbidden City. Here, inside it, is the emperor's throne. Well, one of them anyway. He's actually got thrones in a number of the buildings.
Next up, the Hall of Middle Harmony (or moderate, depending which translation you look at) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony come one right after the other. Note that all three halls are raised fairly high off the ground. And, despite how popular the Forbidden City is with tourists, some of the areas, such as the ground level of that section, are pretty deserted. One of the side buildings there houses a collection of assorted imperial treasures such as this lacquer plate. And really, you know your treasures are valuable when the notes about them are carved into jade.
The next major destination was the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but I took a detour to check out the set of Western Palaces. The palace areas are where the emperor lived with his empress and concubines. As such, they're a bit more compact than the central areas with all the halls. No less fancy, but since they're not used for meetings or other functions, they don't need the same amount of space, so things are a bit more compact.
In seems that, in most cases, residents were free to choose which palace they wanted to live in and all were pretty fancy. But there were some with specific purposes. If I remember right, this one is the rather amusingly named Chamber of Eternal Bliss, where the Emperor and Empress spent their first few nights together (and later where the emperor would spend the first few nights with his new concubines).
FYI, if you need a bathroom break, the one in the Western Palaces area is apparently very highly rated. Yes, they apparently rate rest rooms.
The Eastern Palaces originally served the same purpose as the Western, but now they've all been converted into display areas for various relics and treasures such as this fancy porcelain bowl and this old bronze sword (which looks like it came right out of a video game). Though you need to pay extra fees for the most interesting ones, like the Hall of Clocks and Watches (which is filled with the fanciest clocks you could ever imagine) and the Treasure Gallery, which has fancy carvings like this red coral lion and this jade...cabbage? There's also the Nine Dragon Wall, and if you don't get why it's named that, you need to get your eyes examined. And then there's the hall of ridiculously large jade carvings. According to the audio guide, it took many men and horses three years to transport the original rock from that pictures to the capital and another ten years of transportation and work before it was ready for display. And, of course, the usual Forbidden City scenery.
Towards the north end of the Forbidden City are the Imperial Gardens, which are nice but crowded. I think this large stone hill (which only the emperor could ascend) is probably the coolest part.
I think I spent somewhere around 4 - 5 hours in the Forbidden City, but I was pretty thorough in my exploration. If you just wanted to go through and hit the major halls, you could probably finish in 90 minutes.
Leaving from the north end of the Forbidden City (via the Gate of the Divine Warrior), I could see Wanchun Pavilion at the top of the hill in the park across the street. For a very small fee you can enter the park (which is nice in its own right) and climb the hill to the pavilion for good views of Beijing and great views of the Forbidden City. And here I am up there.
Since I'd started early in the day, I still had time to do a bit of sightseeing. I was originally planning to walk to my next destinations, but at that point I decided I was getting more than enough exercise as is, so I took the subway to Lama Temple, the most visited religious site in Beijing. One thing you see at Chinese Buddhist temples, but not Japanese, are these prayer wheels. They've got a prayer either engraved on them or on a scroll inside and spinning it around is supposed to be as good as saying the prayer yourself. It's a nice temple, and has this really cool statue in one of the courtyards, but the main reason to go is to see this statue of Meitraya Buddha. If you can't tell from the photo, it's a towering 85 feet tall and carved from a single block of wood. I've seen a lot of Buddha statues, but this was certainly one of the most impressive.
Right nearby is the Confucious Temple. From what I know of Confucious (mostly learned from informative museum on the temple grounds, I don't think he was really the kind guy who would want people worshipping him. But anyway, it's an interesting museum and a nice temple. Plus, the ticket also gets you into the Imperial Academy, which is right next door. It was a very long standing public school, where people studied and took tests in order to become government officials. The emperor was also known to give speeches there in the past, and has a pavilion and throne ready and waiting.
After that, it was getting near closing time for most attractions so I went to get some food and then called it a day.

Random China Comment: The Internet
I was able to get internet access at every hotel I stayed at (via either ethernet or wi-fi), though the connections were all on the slow side. Most things worked just fine but China does its best to filter all internet traffic, going so far as to block some sites entirely. The major ones that could impact travelers being Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Dropbox. Google and its related sites (such as gmail), which are usually ok, also get blocked every now and then. For example, for the last half of my stay, everything Google was blocked, presumably due to the anniversary of that event I mentioned earlier.
If you can't live without certain sites, there are ways to get around the blocking, though the reliable ones aren't free. Also, I noticed that I had no trouble accessing gmail and Facebook via their official aps on my phone. So there are options. But, if you're planning a trip to China, you may want to give some thought as to whether the internet issues could pose a problem.

Day 13 (Fri the 6th): The Summer Palaces

While the emperor mostly lived in the Forbidden City, he also had a nearby summer palace as a retreat of sorts. There's actually two summer palace areas in Beijing, which are right near each other. I decided to start with the Old Summer Palace, which was used from the 1600's - 1860. It used to be filled with palaces and other buildings but they were mostly destroyed by invading British and French armies during the Opium War, so at this point it's pretty much a large park. There are three sections, so I planned my route to take me in a rough loop through all of them.
The first is filled with ponds, streams, water lilies, and a number of bridges, all in different styles. There's also a small temple, which has been turned into a museum about the palace's history. The second area has its own ponds, bridges, and water lilies, but it's also known for its black swans and its ruins. See, this palace originally had a section filled with what must have been very elaborate European style stone buildings. With all that stone, they fared better in the fires than the traditional Chinese buildings, but fell into disrepair and also fell victim to looters who wanted the stone for other things. The only structure that's intact (and only because it was restored) is this pavilion and its surrounding maze. Yep, maze. It's not a very large or complicated one, but I had fun going through it. The final park is mostly taken up by a lake, with a walking path winding all the way around. The whole place is very pretty and a nice area for a stroll or some such. Unfortunately, it started raining after I'd made it about a third of the way around the lake. I was prepared, but it didn't really make me want to linger.
Hopping back on the subway, I took it a couple stops to the Summer Palace. Finding the ticket gate proved a little tougher than I expected. Partly due to poor directions on the part of my tour book, and partly because of the rain. It wasn't all that hard, but some of the streets in Beijing really weren't built with good drainage in mind.
The (not old) Summer Palace is a a bit newer, having been built in 1750. It too took a lot of damage in the Opium War, but was renovated in the late 1800's as a retirement retreat for China's most well known and powerful empress (Cixi). In retrospect, I wish I'd gotten an audio guide because the place is huge and there were a lot of interesting things to see, but I did ok without one. The first place I came across after entering was Suzhou Street, a picturesque canal lined with old style buildings. They were nearly all souvenir shops, but it still made for a nice walk. I then started up Kunming (Longevity) Hill, going through a large, if not especially fancy, temple complex. Turns out, the more fancy structures are all on the other side of the hill, like the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, and the Bronze Pavilion. Most things were also connected by covered walkways, which was nice with the rain and all. I eventually made my way to the bottom of the hill, where the rest of the area is situated around a large lake. There was a lot to see. Long covered corridors, small collections of old buildings, a marble and stained glass boat (it can't move, if you were wondering), and even an opera stage like in the Forbidden City. I you walk around the lake for a little while you'll also come to the pavilion where the Empress lived, a nice gallery of ancient Chinese carvings, pottery, metal work, and he like, and a breathtaking view of the hillside.
It was getting near closing time, so I headed for the nearest subway station, thinking I'd get something to eat at the fancy shopping street near my hotel. As it turned out, I passed a little restaurant area and ended up finding a nice Chinese restaurant there with a very extensive menu, complete with English (side note, they had a couple things on the menu made with donkey meat, which I've never seen before). I got some Sizchaun pickled vegetables and spiced lamb (some of the best lamb I've ever had). Also, I'd been reading my tour book the other day and it recommended trying chicken feet so I decided to be adventurous and give them a try. Well, the texture is a little weird and there's a ton of small bones inside, but they actually don't taste bad.
After that it was back to the hotel and that was it for the day.

Random China Comment: Hotels
Hotels in China can be very cheap or very expensive by US standards. I stayed in four different hotels and the cheapest (at less than $30 a night) was actually the best overall (though not the fanciest). In every single case none of the rooms were quite up to the cleanliness standards I'd expect in the US, but not so far off that I'd complain. I'll note that in one case I had to buy my own toilet paper since it wasn't provided by the maid. Also, there were a couple of hotels who asked for a deposit when checking in. Though, in both cases, I was able to recover it by showing the receipt to the front desk staff when I checked out. I'll also note that hard beds seem to be the standard in Chinese hotels, so you may want to keep that in mind if you have trouble sleeping.

Day 14 (Sat the 7th): The Great Wall of China

I'm sure you've heard of the Great Wall. I mean, who hasn't. Built and strengthened over the course thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of workers and stretching an estimated 4,000 miles in its prime (the 14th - 17th centuries), it's up there with the pyramids when it comes to incredible feats of ancient engineering.
Now a days, there are only several sections of the wall which are open for hikers. My tour book, and everyone I heard speaking on the matter, recommend Matianyu, which is the second most popular section. If you've got some extra cash, you could get a tour, rent a car and driver, or some such to take you there. There's also a bus during the summer which runs directly there (though only twice a day). Finding the bus isn't especially easy, and it's kind of slow (about and a half hours each way, but it's the cheapest way to go by far. That's what I did. Looks like the bus is actually fairly popular on weekends, so I'm glad I left rather early and got there before there was much of a line.
About half the drive was in Beijing and the rest through some rather pretty (if touristy) mountain towns. When I finally got off the bus, I could see the Great Wall at the top of the nearest mountain. To get from the base to the wall, you have your choice of a chairlift, cable car, and hiking trail (all letting you off in somewhat different spots). I decided to go on foot. My tour book called the path a grueling hour long climb. I'd say moderately strenuous, and I made it to the top in half of that time at most.
As a side note, the weather was perfect. For one, it was the first and only day on my China trip with a blue sky. The temperature was also pretty good, with a nice breeze and enough clouds to keep it from getting too hot.
Of course, getting on top of the wall is only the beginning. Sure you can pose for photos and get some great views, but what's the point of going all the way up there is you aren't going to hike along the wall for a while? Only when you're on the wall can you really appreciate how they managed to build a wall over such uneven terrain. It twists and turns across the mountains, going up and down, and often quite steeply. Walking along the wall can get you quite a workout. I was prepared and brought plenty of water but there are vendors here and there selling cold drinks, snacks, and souvenirs (at suitably inflated prices). Aside from them and the other tourists, I also found myself passing through ancient towers and by the occasional oddly worded sign. Being a weekend, there were a lot of other people about (both Chinese and foreigners), but there were still some places where I pretty much had the wall to myself. As I reached one of the highest parts of the wall (at least in that area), the view continued to get better. I could even make out Beijing in the distance.
If you go far enough in either direction along the wall, you'll eventually hit a sign saying not to go any further. Everyone seemed to ignore the one I saw. There were even souvenir stands past it. Following their lead, I continued on for a bit. Before long the wall started to get a bit rougher, evidence that it hadn't been fully restored like the area I'd been on. Then, eventually, I reached a fully unrestored area, which was crumbling and overgrown. That's where I decided to turn around, though apparently you can keep going and hike between different major sections of the wall that way. From there, I returned the way I'd came, eventually going past where I'd started. I made it pretty far (looking at that picture, I went a bit past that writing way up on the mountain in the distance), though I didn't quite reach the other "end point" since I wanted to make sure I didn't miss the last direct bus back to Beijing.
When you're ready to get down from the wall you once again have the choice of the path, chairlift, and cable car. Or there's the fun way. I've done toboggan rides like this before in Colorado. This is one of the longer ones I've done but, unlike in the US, they don't make you wait until the person in front of you is most of the way down before you start, so it's up to you to regulate your speed and make sure you don't crash (which means you probably won't be going as fast as you could). Still, it's a fun way to get back down.
I made it in plenty of time for the bus (which is good, since it filled up).
Back in Beijing, I got one last nice Chinese dinner and walked around the night market again. But this travelogue isn't over quite yet, there's still one more day to talk about...

Random China Comment: Smoking
Smoking is extremely common in China and there aren't too many restrictions limiting where people can smoke (and, even when there are, not everyone follows them). So expect to encounter plenty of second hand smoke, especially when walking down the street. Fortunately, most of the restaurants I went to weren't too bad and it is banned on trains and subways and in some tourist attractions (like the Forbidden City and Great Wall). Many hotels also have non-smoking rooms. Still, it's the worst place I've been for second hand smoke (Japan used to be pretty bad but has drastically improved since I first visited), so keep that in mind if you have raspatory problems.

Day 15 (Sun the 8th): A Last Stop

This was my departure date from China but there was one last thing on my Beijing list that I hadn't made it to, the Temple of Heaven. Fortunately, it opens early so I figured that I'd have time to run down there and look around for a couple hours before checking out and heading to the airport.
The Temple of Heaven is in a large park which actually opens a while before the temple and other buildings do so I walked around for a bit. It's a pretty place, and seems to be quite a popular spot for seniors looking to play games, do tai chi or other group exercises, and even play instruments.
There are a few things on the path leading up to the temple proper. The first is the the Round Altar, where the emperor used to offer sacrifices to heaven and pray for things like good weather for crops and the like. There are smaller altars scattered around as well, but the Round Altar is the main one. There's no more sacrifices, but you can get a nice view from the top. On a side note, there were these warning signs throughout the whole area. Why?  I don't know. Did someone get electrocuted in the past while using a cellphone during a storm? Would a cellphone actually increase the danger of a lightning strike?
Anyway, next up was the Imperial Vault of Heaven, sort of a smaller version of the temple which was mostly used for storage. From there, it's a nice walk across the lengthy Danbi Bridge to the Temple of Heaven itself. As you can see, it's quite the impressive building, inside and out. Both areas also featured some museum displays about the temple, the treasures stored there, and the like. Though I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn't look at them as closely as I normally would have.
My last stop was the Hall of Abstinence, a small palace where the emperor would stay for three days to purify himself before the big temple ritual. Now, it has various artifacts from the temple and other buildings on display.
While I wish I'd have had time to go a bit more slowly, I'm glad I went. The Temple of Heaven itself is a beautiful building and rather unique in its architecture compared to everything else I've seen in China and I enjoyed people watching in the park.
After that it was back to the hotel to check out and then to the subway to make my way to the Beijing airport. As a note, I don't like the Beijing airport. The layout is rather confusing and I had to ask for help just to find the check-in counter...which wasn't open yet (one of the disadvantages of flying a smaller airline). At least there were some other English speaking people in line to chat with. I eventually managed to check in and headed for my gate, figuring I'd find something to eat after I went through security. Now I don't know if the entire airport is like this, but my gate was off by itself, separate from all the other gates, with its own security checkpoint and absolutely nothing past that except chairs and a vending machine. So yeah, one of my lousier airport experiences.
Unfortunately, it didn't get much better. I had opted to save some money and take a flight on China Eastern (one of China's second tier airlines), which had a stop-over in Shanghai rather than flying direct to Tokyo. After getting on the plane I waited, and waited, and waited... After sitting around on the tarmac for way too long without any explanation, it started to rain and we were told that we would be delayed due to the storm. So we waited some more... By the time the plane finally took off, we were an hour behind schedule. To make things a little more annoying, China Eastern apparently isn't down with the new ruling that it's ok to use electronics during take-off and landing. Despite the fact that there was no need to change planes in Shanghai, everyone was forced to get off and those of us continuing to Tokyo had to go through immigration there in Shanghai, which left us with just a few minutes to get back on the plane...where we sat around and waited for ages and ages without any explanation once again, before finally taking off even more behind schedule. Are late departures a normal thing in China? Was it the airline? Was it just a really bad day? Whatever the reason, it made me wish I'd paid the extra $100 for a direct flight. And with that, the China portion of my trip ended and it was onward to Japan (which will be covered in its own travelogue).

Random China Comment: Politeness
Every country has its own quarks when it comes to manners and politeness. But I have to say that, by American and Japanese standards, people in China can come across as rather rude. Spitting loudly on the sidewalk is common and I've already mentioned the traffic, which has a strong tendency to ignore signals and any hapless pedestrians who happen to be in the way. Many people also seem to think nothing of cutting in line or blasting music from radios or cellpones in public places. Salesman can be extremely pushy and I rarely found clerks or waiters to be especially polite (though it's not like they were surly). All in all, it's quite a big difference from Japan (where politeness is an art form) and many parts of the US. It's really not that bad, but it takes some getting used to.

Final Thoughts
Over all, I really enjoyed my time in China. It's far cleaner and easier to get around than I expected, there are a lot of interesting things to see, the food is great, and it's really affordable. While there are a few issues that detract from the overall experience, such as the pollution, smoking, and occasional sanitation problem, none of them are likely to ruin a trip. While I wouldn't recommend it over Japan if you're trying to choose between Asian countries, China has a culture and style all its own (many of them, actually, since it's so big) and is worth a visit. And it's totally doable without a tour. I can easily see myself revisiting Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Beijing (especially Shanghai, where I feel like I barely scratched the surface) or exploring some other parts of China on a future trip.

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