Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall (Part 2)

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.

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It was such a beautiful day, we could see for miles. 

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.

 

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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.

 

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The entrance to the Badaling Funicular

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…

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Now see where we were…

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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!

 

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Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall of China (Part 1)

IMG_7637Whenever 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.

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It’s hard to miss the evidence of the previous evening’s smog-rain!

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.

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Entering the outer courtyard of The Forbidden City

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.

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Extraordinary gardens around the square.

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.

Santiago, Chile: A city to live in

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The ever-present Andes mountains looking down over Santiago in the central valley of Chile

Have you ever visited a city in a foreign country and said to yourself, “I could live here”? We’ve had this feeling only a couple of times in our lives. The most notable time was when we visited Sydney, Australia a couple of years ago. When we returned home, we said this to our son: “If we had visited Sydney 30 years earlier, you would be Australian instead of Canadian!” More recently, we had a similar experience: perhaps not quite as passionate, but close. We thought the same thing when we visited Santiago, the capital of Chile: We could live there. And we don’t even speak Spanish. But back to the beginning of our Santiago story.

We arrived in Chile not at an airport after a tiring 10-hour flight (that would come later – on our way home), rather via cruise ship – cool, collected, rested and met at the terminal by our wonderful “Tours-by-Locals” guide, Leo. We had arranged a four-day Santiago-area sojourn that we hoped would give us the flavour of the city and beyond –wine and mountains were calling to us.

The wonderfully personable Leo also turned out to be a passionate and exceptionally knowledgeable Chilean who generously shared the secrets of his country. We were in for a real treat. That treat began with our tour of the port city of Valparaiso before the inland trip to Santiago and the Andes.

The most striking thing about Valparaiso was the street art. Much more than what we have come to know as graffiti, this street art provides the true essence of this port city that is past its heyday. The opening of the Panama Canal (which we had recently transited) made sure of that. Before ships could make their way from Europe and the east coast of North America via that shortcut, they had no choice but to round the southern tip of South America and make their way north along the coast. Valparaiso was a major stop on that route. But no longer.

After getting a sense of Valparaiso, Leo took us up the coast to Vina del Mar, a seaside bedroom and vacation community before heading inland via the very well-maintained, four-lane divided highway.

As we entered Santiago proper, the first thing we were struck by is the ever-present Andes. Every time you look up you could swear that you weren’t in a big city because all you can see in the distance is mountains. The city lies in the country’s central valley about 1700 feet above sea level. A city of some 6 million people, Santiago is also one of the oldest of the major metropolises in the Americas. It was founded in 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. What makes this city especially interesting is the juxtaposition of the old – represented by the centre of the grid-like old city and the exquisite examples of modern architecture. Like our home town of Toronto, it is also a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own character.

The old city square is not a place you want to meander through without ensuring the safety of your wallet. Gazing around at the old and the new, you might forget that you are also surrounded by throngs of unemployed immigrants hanging around either doing very little or waiting for jobs as Leo explained.

We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel which is located in a leafy, upscale residential area known as Viticura. As Leo explained, each of these districts within the city has its own mayor and municipal building. The one in Viticura is an extraordinary modern structure on street bordering the most exquisite city park.

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The “town hall” in Vitacura, Santiago, Chile

Everywhere you look there were places for people to picnic, play and just enjoy being outdoors. The ponds were full of swans and flamingos. And where else in the world might you see a Nespresso bar at a Sunday street market? In Vitacura, for sure.

We spent a couple of our days in the Santiago area in the city proper, another in Chilean wine country, and another up in the Andes in places that no other tourists seem to have found – thanks to Leo. But those are stories for another day!

…and if you have a few minutes and want to see a bit more…

 

Visiting Lima, Peru: A private guided tour

We live in Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA. But our population is just shy of 3 million (LA is just shy of 4 million). When Canadians think about Toronto, they have a perception that it is large…enormous…populous…crowded…massive. Well, that’s because they’ve never visited so many of the cities on other continents. Take Lima, Peru. Who knew that the population of Lima is in the vicinity of 10 million with a population density of over 3000 inhabitants per square kilometre! Until we visited the city a few weeks ago, we certainly didn’t.

Lima locator map

We arrived at the port city of Callao, 14 kilometres west of Lima. Since the city of Lima is largely built on oceanside cliffs overlooking a long stretch of beach, no cruise ships – or ships of any type for that matter – dock in the city itself. So, we boarded the cruise line shuttle, a modern, air-conditioned bus, that transported us from the pier to a part of Lima called Miraflores. Although we didn’t know it at the time, there is a very good reason for taking this shuttle and not meeting a tour guide at the entrance to the port, but we need to back-track for a moment.

We really are not fans of shore excursions organized by cruise lines. The reasons for this are many and we’ll spend a bit more time on those reasons in a future post. For now, let’s just say that we like to be in control. However, that doesn’t always mean that we want to be completely self-guided; we just want to be able to go at our own pace and see the things that interest us. Enter the world of the private guide.

When we planned the recent cruise to South America, we perused the cruise-line’s offerings for shore excursions then surfed on over to Tours-by-Locals, a Vancouver-based, internationally-focused tour company that offers private, licensed, vetted guides in some 158 countries. We had the pleasure of discovering them a couple of years ago when we were searching for a guide in Ephesus and Istanbul. [See our post here.] After that wonderful experience, it only made sense to see what they had to offer in a few of our port stops. In Lima we discovered a tour-guide whose offerings looked like just what we wanted.

We contacted Aaron through the Tours-by-Locals site, and conducted all our preparations directly through him, using the site as a way to document and pay for the experience. It was during these preparations that Aaron mentioned that he would meet us in the “safe” spot that the cruise shuttle would drop us. We wondered about the 45-minute drive into Lima (only 14 km. but lots of traffic!) to meet him, but as soon as the shuttle bus pulled outside the port gate, it was clear to us why he had wanted us to meet him in Lima.

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The J.W. Marriott Hotel in Lima where the Silversea shuttle dropped off passengers

The port shuttle took passengers from the pier only to drop them in a seedy spot just outside the gate populated by unlicensed taxis, questionable characters, and lots of grime. We considered how we might have felt waiting for our guide at that spot, or later on waiting for the shuttle to be dropped off. All in all, it was much preferable to be dropped in front of the uber-modern J.W. Marriott Hotel in Miraflores, one of the chicest neighbourhoods in the city of Lima. Yes, it was a good call on Aaron’s part. We called him as we left the port on the bus and as promised, he was waiting for us on the sidewalk when we arrived in Lima.

Aaron had arranged for his brother to be our driver. We knew from previous experience touring other cities (Rome & Istanbul come immediately to mind) that having a driver in addition to a guide makes city touring even more enjoyable. That obviates the necessity for a guide doubling as a driver who is forced to spend time searching for parking spots. It also means that we can be dropped off at any corner, in any amount of traffic with plans to meet the driver at some other point. The we can walk which is, of course, the best way to see a city.

DSC00775Aaron started our tour in the historic area of Barranco. Considered to be the city’s most romantic and bohemian districts, Barranco was at one time a summer beach resort. Aaron took us to a lovely, small café for coffee before we carried on to Lima’s downtown financial district then on to The Larco Museum, which must hold the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the world! It consists of over 50,000 pieces of ceramic art including a large selection of pre-Columbian erotica. It is not to be missed.

Of course, no visit to a Spanish colonial city is complete without spending some time in its Plaza des Armas, a central fixture of every city with Spanish roots. The plaza was originally building the sixteenth century and of course has as one of its most important features, the Cathedral of Lima. Completed in the seventeenth century, 1622 to be precise, it still stands in the square today.

 

A lively square populated with all manner of tourists, the square gives the that sense of history that holds the key to the city’s past. But after that visit, it was off to lunch. At Aaron’s apartment.

We arrived at Aaron’s apartment where his mother was already hard at work preparing for us a typical Peruvian lunch whose centrepiece was her ceviche which she taught us how to make.

But it was Aaron’s Pisco sour lesson that, for us, was  the highlight. We didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of our remaining two weeks in Peru and Chile, we would have one every chance we had.

A brandy-type of liquor, Pisco is distilled from grapes and is a staple of bars in both Peru and Chile, although the actual process for making the liquor is slightly different in each country. It can be used as the basis for a number of cocktails, or taken over ice, but Pisco is best know for it use in the ubiquitous Pisco sour. The drink’s ingredients are Pisco, fresh lime juice (which Aaron squeezed from tiny Peruvian key limes), and egg white in a blender with ice. Then he topped it with a drop of orange bitters – Aaron’s own recipe. We swooned.

Soon, however, lunch was over and Aaron deposited us back in Miraflores where, true to his promise, he led us to a shop where Patty began her search for an alpaca sweater. It wasn’t successful that day, but we still had a week in Peru! She’d find one.

Bottom line: our top pointers for visiting Lima via a cruise ship:

  1. Meet your tour guide in Lima rather than in the port of Callao. You will be happier and safer. Take the cruise line’s shuttle, sit back and enjoy the mostly beach-side drive.
  2. Book a private guide on Tours-by-Locals. We have found them to be a terrific value and have given us experiences you just cannot get with a group.