I am a writer of non-fiction, historical fiction & memoir, and am currently recovering from over a quarter of a century as a university professor in communication. Along with my husband, I am obsessed with travel and together we write the blog The Discerning Travelers.
Snaking across a vast length of China, protecting an ancient border from marauding hordes from the north, The Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the few man-made structures that, at least according to space mythology, is visible from the space station. Although it may be a cliché bucket list item, it’s one that truly ought to be on a traveler’s radar. We finally visited it this spring.
We left the marvelous Four Seasons Beijing on sunny morning heading for Badaling Great Wall Funicular, one of the points at which gaining access to the wall relies not on a half-day climb, but a shiny new funicular on the north side of the wall.
The Badaling section, less than a two-hour drive from downtown Beijing, is one of the best-preserved parts of the wall and somewhat more accessible because it is not as steep as some sections.
After exiting the funicular, we left our tour group to walk the wall on our own. What a beautiful day it was standing there imagining what it must have been like back in the day when the wall actually served a purpose for protection and not tourist amusement. It’s hard to fathom something so ancient that construction on parts of it began some 2700 years ago, although as you probably know, not all of the wall is that old. In fact, much of the oldest part is now in ruins. What we visit is much younger, perhaps only 600 years.
And speaking of tourists, most of the other tourists we encountered were not from foreign countries; rather they were Chinese nationals who were visiting the wall for the first time themselves. And the young ones could not get enough of taking selfies with us Westerners in them!
So why did our tour guide take us to the north side you may reasonably ask? After all, this funicular is more expensive than other options, Well, just take a look at a photo of the south side access…
Now see where we were…
When you visit – because visit you must – take it slowly, and wear good walking shoes. As you look at the tower ahead of you and up at what looks like a mild incline, don’t be fooled. It’s much steeper than it looks. And hope for sunshine!
Whenever you pick up a postcard on your travels (even if only to look) you’re likely to find that that postcard-worthy photograph has the following characteristics: it’s framed to show the scene from its best perspective (which includes being minus the mobs of people who might be there from time to time) and the weather – if it’s an outdoor photo – will be perfection. For most people we know who have visited Beijing and The Great Wall of China, finding that perfect-weather day where the sun is shining, the air is clear and the crowds are minimal, seems just about impossible. But we did it. We were there that day. Let’s back up…
Using a small cruise ship – the Silversea Silver Shadow – as our transportation, we leave Shanghai to traverse the Yellow Sea enroute to Beijing. But Beijing isn’t on the coast, you might reasonably interject. No, it isn’t, but that won’t stop us from visiting inland. Before we left home in Toronto, we booked what Silversea calls and “Overland Journey.” This means that in mid-cruise, we will leave the ship, travel by bullet train to Beijing, tour the city, overnight in a first-class hotel, visit the Great Wall the next day, then rejoin the ship.
We arrive in the early hours of the morning to the eerily silent cruise-ship terminal in the port of Tianjin.
Steeling ourselves for the fact that this is a group tour (and everyone knows how much we love a group excursion – not!), we meet the tour guide shore-side then board a surprisingly well-appointed bus that leaves precisely on time and transports us to the Tianjin train station. It is a huge facility. Since we have a bit of time before we have to board our train, we take a walk around the terminal. It’s a peculiar feeling to be examined so closely by so many sets of eyes, as if they have never seen a people from the West, and it turns out that many of them in the station that day had seen very few.
We finally board the train for the 35-minute ride to North Beijing station at a speed that reaches 297 km/hour – we know this since the speed at which the train is travelling flashes across the screen in the front of the car. If we had taken a bus a many of the other cruise-ship passengers did, it would have taken upwards of two hours to get there. We arrive in Beijing. Despite the expectation that we will suffer from the smog, we marvel at the clear sky and sunshine. Our guide explains to us that it rained heavily the night before and the ever-present pollution is now spattered on every car, window and leaf. We notice. Then we are off to visit the Forbidden City.
The largest imperial palace in the world, The Forbidden City is truly the heart of Beijing. It was constructed in the fifteenth century through the efforts of over 1 million workers over a period of 20 years during the Ming Dynasty and was the imperial home of 24 Emperors of China for over 400 years. It comprises some 980 buildings and almost 9000 rooms! Forbidden to the common Chinese for centuries, it ceased being the seat of Chinese power in 1912 with the abdication of the last emperor of China. (Have you seen the film The Last Emperor? It was filmed here.) Of course, now it is known as the Palace Museum, because that’s what it is. According to our guide, it’s not very busy today. We beg to differ.
We spend time getting to the heart of the city through a series of courtyards and are mildly disappointed that you can’t actually go into the buildings. Even the throne room must be viewed from afar. But the architecture! Amazing. Tiananmen Square is next on the agenda.
The square itself seems smaller than it looks on television news reports. We are all old enough to be remembering the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, odd since the word Tiananmen is the name of the gate at the north end of the square that means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The two of us break off from our tour group (nothing new in that!) and walk the entire square taking in the buildings and monuments: The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he National Museum of China, and of course, the mausoleum where Mao’s body still lies in state (we didn’t get inside). But we also see beautiful gardens and more security cameras than we have ever seen in our lives – even in Monaco! It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition of the political and the aesthetic.
We notice that one thing is missing: city noise. According to our guide, sirens and other loud nose is forbidden in the area surrounding the square. It is oddly peaceful.
It has now been a long day and we check into our room at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. What an extraordinary property! We aren’t sure what we expected, but a five-star hotel smack in the middle of a very upscale, leafy neighbourhood of high-end shopping was not it.
The hotel has spared no detail in its amenities or décor. We choose the Asian restaurant (why would we choose North American while in Asia?) and are delighted with the ambience, the food and the service – the Chinese servers really seem to care. And even their halting English is a lot better than our Chinese, for which we are truly grateful.
We have only one night at this wonderful, surprising hotel and would like to spend longer enjoying a night cap in the beautiful bar, but tomorrow we are visiting The Great Wall and have to be up early. So, good night from Beijing.
Who said it couldn’t be done? Well, we did it – with the help of a Tours-by-Locals guide named Jacky – “A Local’s Tour of Hong Kong” is how he billed it – and he delivered.
We arrive right on time at 1:35 pm at Hong Kong International Airport after a pleasant 15 hours traversing the North Pole on Air Canada. It was too soon for jet lag to set in. Thankfully!
Just as planned, we are met at the arrivals area by a driver sent by Jacky who we’d meet up with at our hotel at 9 am the next morning to “do Hong Kong.” Despite the lengthy flight and the 12-hour time change, we can’t just settle in to the beautiful Harbourview Renaissance Hotel on Hong Kong Island without spending an hour or two exploring the area around our hotel. So, we take a 25-minute walk to IFC (International Finance Centre) to see Lane Crawford – Asia’s premiere high-end department store whose former boss was nabbed by Hudson’s Bay in Canada to reinvigorate our department store scene a few years ago. What we find so startling about this mall on the other side of the globe is how much it resembles high-end malls at home. If we just squint, we could think we were back in Toronto. As daylight begins to wane, the lights in Hong Kong begin to come on and we make our way back to the hotel for a bite to eat and a good sleep. We will need it.
Jacky meets us in the lobby of the Renaissance the next morning and we jump into a cab to get quickly up to the top of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island before any other tourists make their way up. Peruse any tourist brochure on Hong Kong and Victoria Peak will probably be the number one place to see. The reason is the views. It’s a great place to begin because as you take in the breathtaking view itself, you begin to get your bearings: you’re on Hong Kong Island and as you stare toward the harbour, you see Kowloon (the mainland, older part of Hong Kong) spreading out in front of you toward the hills that lead onward to the border with The People’s Republic of China. Then you’re aware that behind you is the side of Hong Kong Island that borders the East China Sea – although you can’t see it.
The requisite photos well in hand, it’s time to make our way down to carry on with our jam-packed day. Jacky leads us to the Peak Tram. A funicular railway, this iconic Hong Kong landmark is the traditional way to get up to the top of the Peak and has a long and fascinating history. And it’s not just for tourists. Residents who live at various levels of the Peak make their way to work and play using this tram that travels at sometimes impossible angles. The trip takes about 5 minutes.
Jacky leads us through the streets among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island’s financial core stopping to consider the history of the area and stop for a coffee. These days the island itself has a population of about 1.3 million people – the entire Hong Kong area is 7.35 million and seemed every one of them was being disgorged from bus after bus and making their way into massive buildings that swallowed them up, wave after wave.
We hop aboard a city bus just as the skies open and are transported through a tunnel under Victoria Harbour to Kowloon where we find Sham Shui Po, a market area famous for its stall after stall packed with fabrics (among other things) – Patty is a bit of a fashion designer and couture sewer and wants to take a look. Jacky tells us he wants us to experience the markets like a local. The rain keeps us from spending too much time or money as we meander through the vegetable and dried fish markets as well as the fascinating street of fish – pet fish. Thousands for fish of every imaginable type in myriad aquariums as well as individual fish floating in plastic bags hanging on every stall. And hardly a tourist in site – the local experience, indeed.
After the markets, it’s time for lunch and Jacky thinks we need to discover the real home of dim sum. It’s hard to believe that neither of us has ever eaten dim sum before, but what better place to be introduced than to experience it in the place where it was first introduced to cuisine? Jacky selects a spot and we go inside what seems to be an office building then take the elevator up several floors. When we emerge, we are in an enormous room which looks exactly like a banquet room – because that’s what it is. It seems that these banquet facilities open at lunch time to serve dim sum to the locals. We are truly the only non-Hong Kong people in the place. But no one seems to mind.
We leave it to Jacky to select the lunch menu and are only too happy to try out everything on offer. We find some of the textures unlike anything we have ever experienced in Canada and decide we probably should try North Americanized dim sum when we get home. After lunch it’s time to head to Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon’s busy shopping, restaurant and nightlife area. We opt to get there via the small public bus system which is fascinating and worth finding if you’re there – but we don’t think we could have found the stops without the help of our guide!
After the subway to a Buddhist temple garden (a fairly new addition to the Hong Kong experience we’re told), and a visit to a Daoist temple, we eventually make our way to the harbour front on the Kowloon side which provides a wonderful vantage point from where to see the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. A hop on the Star Ferry – not to be missed during a Hong Kong experience – and we’re back almost where we started, but we’re not finished our day yet.
Back on Hong Kong Island, Jacky takes us to Aberdeen on South Horizons Island, a fishing village area on the south side of the peak where we ride a small, local boat back to the main island. We hop on another city bus and we’re shortly back at the Renaissance.
Although we say good-bye to our guide, we have at least a half a day ahead of us to tour a bit more on our own before we have to board the Silver Shadow, the small, luxury cruise ship that will be our transportation for the next couple of weeks. But before we leave Hong Kong, the magic of its night lights…
It seems to us that if everyone in the world just had the chance to visit one another’s countries, we would all understand one simple fact: we are all more alike than we are different. That has certainly been the case in China ( and in the past in Turkey, Chile etc.)
The more we see in this astonishing country, the more we wish our respective leaders could look into the eyes of the children and others on the streets and see the smiles…and smile back. We’ve been here in China through a long weekend where folks from the countryside flock to the cities to see their own tourist attractions, and these are people who have seen few Westerners. We have provided endless amusement, and have been asked on numerous occasions to pose with the kids and the older family members for selfies! We always agree to their delight.
In the past few days we’ve strolled Tiannamen Square, explored The Forbidden City, and climbed the Great Wall which was made even more outstanding as a result of our Silversea overland experience. We had the good fortune to have a tour guide who took us to the northern entrance to the Great Wall area and we climbed the wall in almost utter seclusion, far from the crowds we could see in the distance. Oh, and overnight in Beijing? The Four Seasons was beyond divine.
We are now on our way to Japan but will forever be grateful we visited surprising China.