China: Wrap up

After finally finishing up all my Beijing and Xi’an posts, I am writing my more detailed wrap up post on our trip to provide some more detailed insight into how our trip in regards to planning, and how everything went for us, etc. For a quick post trip summary on our favorites, you can read that here. We decided on Beijing mostly because we made a list of top ten Asian cities we would like to visit and went with whichever plane ticket was cheapest. Beijing won, with Tokyo coming in as second.

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Chinese Cuisine

As I did after I finished my posts from Iceland, I am doing a food wrap up of sorts for Beijing and Xi’an. Authentic Chinese cuisine is very different than what is served in American style Chinese restaurants. We knew it would be very different, but we were surprised just how different the food was. We rarely came across anything that our version of Chinese food even resembled. One thing we also learned is that Chinese cuisine varies greatly based on the area within China. Beijing is considered northern China and thus has a very different traditional cuisine compared to cities in the Southern part of the country. Xi’an food is more of a mix of multiple cultures due to it’s location at the start/end of the historic Silk Road.

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Temple of Heaven (China Day 8)

Our flight home from Beijing didn’t leave until early evening which gave us the entire morning and early afternoon for a bit more exploring. I had purposefully saved one of Beijing’s most popular attractions, the Temple of Heaven for the final day since it was a Sunday. Sunday mornings are known to be the best time to visit the immense park because it’s the day that has the most locals out playing badminton, cards, and a variety of other activities.

The Temple of Heaven was first built in 1420 and was where the Ming and Qing emperors held the Heaven Worship Ceremony. The park was continually expanded and eventually opened to the public in 1988. This was one of my favorite places we visited in Beijing and watching the locals enjoying their weekend morning was a lot of fun and brought a lot of smiles to our faces.

Locals enjoying a Sunday morning at the Temple of Heaven

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Peking Duck at Siji Minfu (China Day 7)

If you are a foodie (and honestly, even if you aren’t), the one thing you MUST eat while in Beijing is Peking duck. It’s probably the most famous dish that Beijing is known for. There are countless restaurants serving up the famous dish, but before I get into that, I will give you a bit of history on the dish.

Most historians estimate that the introduction of roasting duck dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and that the idea came from Europeans. While the Chinese didn’t have the abundance of geese like the Europeans, they did have plenty of ducks which made a fine substitute. Though there is some debate that it goes back even further to the 400’s when the capital was in Jinling. There is evidence that people roasted duck often in that area during that time period and that when the Yuan Dynasty moved the capital to Beijing, they took the tradition of roasting duck with them and from there Beijing refined the technique. It was traditionally only served to the Royal Family until 1861 and 1864 when the restaurants Bianyifang (using the older oven roasting technique) and Quanjude (using the newer hanging duck technique) opened.

I researched quite a bit for our Peking Duck dinner as I wanted to make sure we visited one of the top places for it. We were only going to eat Peking Duck once in Beijing, so I wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be a wasted trip. Everywhere you walk in Beijing, you will see duck being advertised, but only in select restaurants (though you still have plenty to chose from) will do the entire tableside preparation. The restaurant names that I kept coming across as the best depending on the source were: LiQun, Quanjude, Made in China, Da Dong, and Siji Minfu (in no particular order).

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798 Art District (China Day 7)

The afternoon we spent in the 798 Art District in Beijing is one of my favorite memories of our trip to China. The famous modern art district is known for being different than anywhere else in the city. While it is away from the majority of other tourist sites and away from any subway stop, I am so happy we made the trip here.

The 798 Art District was named after the 798 Factory that was built in the 1950’s. After the corporation moved out of the area in the mid 1990’s, artists started moving in owing to the many vacant plants and architectural design of the buildings. Eventually the entire area was converted into galleries, studios, shops, and cafes.  In order to promote community, the majority of galleries don’t charge an entrance fee. We walked in and out of many studios and galleries without ever being asked to pay an entrance fee. The galleries sustain themselves by doing fashion shows and other events that will charge fees. It’s a unique area that is full of countless exhibits and open air sculptures sprinkled in with trendy places to eat and drink.

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Old Summer Palace (China Day 7)

We spent a good amount of a morning at the Beijing Old Summer Palace (or Yuanmingyuan). The Old Summer Palace is located a bit out of the main Beijing central area like the newer Summer Palace. We visited them on separate days, but they could easily be combined into a full day to save on transportation time there and back. Be warned however, to visit both in one day would require a lot of walking.

The Old Summer Palace was built in 1709 by Emperor Kangxi. The Old Summer Palace is roughly divided into three sections: Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness), Qichunyuan (Garden of Blossoming Spring), and Changchunyuan (Garden of Eternal Spring). The majority of the gardens are in ruins due to destruction by Anglo-French forces in 1860.

We entered the Old Summer Palace via the South Entrance. The Old Summer Palace is incredibly tranquil compared to many other tourist sights in Beijing. The park is full of plants, water, and willow trees. It was a very easy, relaxing morning spent walking around the immense gardens. It’s an interesting blend of Chinese and European structures.

The first main sight in the Qichunyuan area, we saw was Jianbi Pavilion located on Juchi Lake. It’s a small pavilion that dates back to 1811.

Jianbi Pavllion

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Beijing at Night (China Day 6)

This will be a relatively short post. I was originally going to just add these on to the end of my Summer Palace post, but it got too long as it was, so I opted to just add a short post about Beijing at night. After exiting the Summer Palace, we had a short walk back to the subway station. Along the way we passed some guys selling roasted chestnuts. They smelled amazing and we bought a bag to eat on the subway. They were absolutely delicious and incredibly cheap, even though the guy marked up the price for us since we were clearly tourists. They were 2CNY for the guy in front of us in line, but even at 5 CNY they were quite the bargain.

Our food tour guide had recommend walking the National Centre of Performing Arts (also referred to as The Egg) at night when it is lit up. The Egg is located just off of Tiananmen Square, which she also recommended walking around at night. Since we were still pretty full from our food tour and not quite ready for dinner yet, we opted to do the loop from The Egg, around Tiananmen Square, and back to our hotel before dinner to experience Beijing at night all lit up.

The National Centre of Performing Arts is an opera house located in Beijing. Construction began in 2001 and the building was designed by a French architect. The first performance was in 2007.

National Centre of Performing Arts

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Beijing Summer Palace (China Day 6)

After finishing our hutong food tour, we headed to the Beijing Summer Palace. In order to visit the Summer Palace, you will need to commit a good amount of time. The Beijing Summer Palace is not a place you can just visit if you have a two hour window in your day, mostly because it takes close to an hour to get there via public transportation from most places within Beijing. It’s an easy metro ride, but it’s many stops away and does take awhile. In addition to the long commute there, the grounds of the Beijing Summer Palace are massive. We were there for a few hours and didn’t get close to visiting the entire area. We skipped several sections altogether, though to be fair we did visit the majority of the most popular areas within the Summer Palace.

The Beijing Summer Palace ended up being one of my favorite sites that we visited while in China, which maybe because I didn’t have any expectations for what it would be like. We had read that the two best times of day to visit are either first thing in the morning before tour groups arrive, or at sunset because it’s one of the few places in Beijing you can watch a decent sunset. We chose to visit close to sunset. We arrived a little before 3pm which gave us a few hours to really enjoy the grounds before sunset. There are also multiple entrances to the Summer Palace so you will have multiple options on how you want to visit. We chose the main entrance (East Entrance). The north entrance is technically closer to the metro station, but our guide for the food tour recommended starting on the eastern end due to timing and she mapped out a route for us to hit most of the important buildings while not having to backtrack a lot.

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Hutong Food Tour (China Day 6)

A recurring theme on our China trip, was eating food. We did a food tour in Xi’an, ate our hearts out in Muslim Street in Xi’an, a cooking class in Beijing, and now a hutong food tour in Beijing. We booked our tour through Viator, but we were given a business card by our tour guide (who actually owns the company) at the end. She runs Discover Beijing Tours if you want to book directly or book one of her many other tours. Our guide Qing, was amazing. She added so much to this tour, that while we may have enjoyed the food more on the Xi’an tour, we preferred this one. But more on that in a minute.

After arriving back in Beijing in the early morning after our overnight train ride from Xi’an, we took a taxi to our hotel. This time around in Beijing we were staying at the Beijing Raffles Hotel. It is located extremely close to the Forbidden City and Wangfujing Street is just around the corner. A metro stop is located on the corner as well. Brian had been wanting to stay in a Raffles for a long time and Beijing provided our opportunity to splurge just a little and stay there. Though splurging on a 5 star hotel in Beijing isn’t nearly as costly as in the US, Europe, or other countries. + Read More

Xi’an City Walls (China Day 5)

One of the top things to do while in Xi’an is to visit the City Walls that surround the ancient city. While on top of the walls, you can rent bikes and cycle around a portion or the entire 13.7km (or 8.5 miles) route along the Xi’an City Walls. We had visited Dubrovnik in 2014 and when we read that you could cycle around the Xi’an City Walls, we were picturing walls the width of the ones in Dubrovnik. How wrong we were. The walls circling Xi’an range from 12-14 meters (or 40-46 feet) in width! That leaves plenty of room for people, bikes, and battery powered vehicles to zoom around without crashing.

Xi'an City Walls from below

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