China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

China Explored, Part II: Great Wall, Gorgeous Garden, and Grand Buddha

I was pretty excited about day 4 of our itinerary when we would visit the Great Wall of China. Unlike the optional excursion we booked on our free day in Beijing that took us to the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City, the activities on day 4 were included as part of the guided tour package and participation was mandatory. If a guest chooses to bail on any component of the guided tour, Rewards Travel China reserves the right to cancel the remainder of the guest’s itinerary, including hotel and flight reservations. However, we learned that it is possible to opt out of certain days of the guided tour for a fee by making arrangements with the tour company. We made friends with another couple on the tour who opted out of day 4 so that they could visit a few families they knew in China. We stuck with the guided tour itinerary and off we went to the Great Wall…after a visit to a jade workshop and showroom, that is.

Another group of tourists from Rewards Travel China leaving the showroom as we arrived.

Here we had our first taste of those government sponsored shopping spiels I mentioned in my previous post. Our bus pulled up to a huge building where we were given a brief introduction on the history of jade, tips on how to spot the difference between fake and authentic jade, and information about the importance of jade in Chinese culture.

Afterwards we were given free time to shop (almost a full hour), or in our case, walk around the showroom attempting to avoid salespeople. The jade we saw was all very beautiful and many people from our tour group bought pieces to take home. We considered buying a few pieces and thought of giving some as gifts to friends and family, but after we converted the prices into U.S. dollars we realized it was a bit out of our budget. The salesperson who helped us followed us around trying to show us other things we might be interested in purchasing. Even though we explained we didn’t have enough money she still stuck to us like a shadow until another browsing couple caught her eye and we made a quick getaway for the exit. It all felt a bit uncomfortable though those who were interested in shopping seemed to enjoy the experience.

At last, we were off to the Great Wall and feeling excited to get outdoors and do some climbing. We visited the Juyongguan, or Juyong Pass, section of the Great Wall, which is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and known as one of the most popular mountain passes along the wall.

Juyong Pass is also known as one of the more steep and challenging sections of the wall. While a few sections of stairs were nice and uniform, most had steps that varied from one to the next in both depth and height, making it somewhat of a difficult climb.

There weren’t a ton of people visiting this time of year, so it was easier to find quiet, peaceful moments and to snap pictures of the wall unobstructed by hordes of tourists. The downside of visiting during winter is that it was windy and absolutely frigid. It was hard to hold on to the handrails because they were ice cold. The other downside is that much of the surrounding foliage is brown or grey, closely matching the color of the stone and making it more difficult to see how the massive wall travels for miles upon miles into the horizon. Still, the Great Wall was a beautiful sight and so much fun to climb.

Using a selfie as an opportunity to stop and rest.

Spanning just over 13,000 miles, the Great Wall of China is the longest manmade structure on earth. It is also sometimes regarded as the longest cemetery on earth because an estimated one million people perished building the wall, and in many situations it was not possible for their remains to be recovered.

We were given about two hours of free time to do as we pleased. We wanted to see as much of the wall as possible so we split our time in order to hike up both the eastern and western ends of the pass.

Next on our itinerary for the day was lunch followed by a trip to the Chinese Herbal Institute. A few of the provided lunches we had were hosted in typical Chinese restaurants where we ate among local patrons. However, most lunches were hosted in the government-sponsored facilities where we ate among other tourists from the Rewards Travel China group. Though the group we were assigned to was smaller, with around 25 people, Rewards Travel China had three buses of tourists that roughly followed the same itinerary and lunch schedule, each with their own local, English-speaking guide. I think it would have been nice to eat in typical Chinese restaurants more often for the typical experience of dining in China, but I completely understand how these private, catered meals are easier to manage with such a large group and probably save quite a bit of money. None of the dinners were included in the tour package, so it was still possible to visit a few typical Chinese restaurants on our own during our trip.

At the Chinese Herbal Institute we entered into a large room with big, cozy chairs, sat down, and were asked to remove our shoes and socks. Next we were given buckets of warm water for a relaxing herbal foot soak. After a few minutes of soaking, in came a troop of staff members who sat on a stool opposite of each guest and provided a 15 minute foot rub. It was pleasant overall, especially after our morning climb, although there were some awkward moments of silence and we sensed that rubbing the sweaty feet of tourists might not be a top career choice.

During the foot rub, we were given a quick but informative introduction to the principles of Chinese medicine and a few guests were treated to fire cupping therapy, a practice beneficial to reducing stagnation and improving one’s qi. Qi is the name for the life force believed to exist in each person’s body. Chinese medicine practitioners liken having balanced qi to having something similar to a super power that results in a healthier, happier, and longer life. Think of it almost like “the force” used by jedis in Star Wars.

While our feet were being rubbed, several Chinese doctors went around the room and met with guests to provide a quick health assessment, discuss any health concerns, and offer treatment. The doctors appeared to start with and focus on the older folks in our group and we were never visited. We noticed that the doctors were recommending expensive creams and health supplements to those they met with, and not wanting to deal with more sales pressure for the day, kind of felt glad we were overlooked.

For our last stop of the evening we visited the Beijing 2008 Olympic Center. This was a highlight for some of the sports fans in our group. While I enjoy the Olympics, personally I’m not a big sports fan and admit this wasn’t my favorite stop on the tour. Still, I enjoyed the free time we had to walk around the huge complex.

On day 5 we had the morning to ourselves. We were pretty tired after two packed days of sightseeing so we passed on the optional 1/2 day Beijing city tour excursion ($79/person) and took the opportunity to sleep in, grab breakfast and coffee at a leisurely pace, and enjoy a little nap before heading off to the airport for our flight to Shanghai. Food served on the Chinese flight was pretty interesting and not bad for airplane grub. We were offered a shrimp cocktail appetizer and choice of entree.

Beef, rice, and veggie entree.

The flight to Shanghai was approximately 2.5 hours and after landing we met up with a local representative from Rewards Travel China who would be our guide for the remainder of the tour. Once we collected our baggage, we loaded into buses and drove another 90 minutes to our hotel in Suzhou. Our hotel in Suzhou was smaller than the one in Beijing but still very nice and had a great view of the sunrise in the morning. Breakfast was buffet style and delicious as always.

Day 6 was a jam-packed guided tour day. We started off with a trip to the lovely Lingering Garden, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally privately-owned, the 400-year-old garden is filled with beautiful stone walkways, ponds, temples, and pavilions covering approximately 6 acres.

We had a lot of fun walking around the garden, admiring the traditional Chinese landscaping and architecture, and of course, posing for many, many pictures with friends.

After some free time in the garden we headed over to a silk factory and showroom. Though mostly a stop for purchasing silk bedding and apparel, the factory did house a small museum with information about silk production. Here we heard a little bit about how silk is made and a lot about why we should buy silk. There was even spare luggage for sale and the showroom offered vacuum packing to ensure that travelers would have a way to take their new silk goodies home.

After lunch at the silk factory we visited the Suzhou Grand Canal, which is, you guessed it, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are actually 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites worldwide with 52 being in China, a huge number when compared to the U.S. where there are only 23. These special sites have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as treasures to all of humanity for their cultural, historical, or scientific significance. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a few in the U.S. (the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and Grand Canyon, Hawaii Volcanoes, Yosemite, Olympic, Yellowstone, Waterton-Lakes, and Redwood national parks) and was thrilled that I was able to see so many more through this tour.

We declined the optional boat ride down the canal ($30/person) and instead were given a little over an hour of free time to walk along the waters. This area is touted as the “Venice of China” but since I’ve never seen Italy myself, I have nothing to compare and may need to plan a trip. For research purposes.

The area where we walked along the canal was probably the most “real” and depressed bit of China we’d seen yet. Humble homes line the waterways and residents could be seen doing laundry in the canal. Clothing and bedding was strung up on a line to dry between trees, occasionally accompanied by pieces of fish and curious cuts of meat. Open, grassy spaces in between homes were covered in mounds of rubbish. No matter how intriguing, shocking, or different a neighborhood may look, I don’t think it’s respectful to blatantly photograph someone’s home as if it were a spectacle for someone else’s entertainment. Therefore, I saved my photo ops for shots of the canal, empty alleyways, and a cute local pup. Oh, and this one public squat toilet we used that had a beautiful window but no doors.

After our stroll we hopped back onto the bus and headed off to our next city, Wuxi. After about a two-hour drive we arrived in the late afternoon at the Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area.

The park covers over 70 acres and includes several stunning sculptures, gardens, fountains, and temples. Though China is technically an atheist country, it is home to the largest population of Buddhists in the world, making the park a very popular attraction.


We were given two spurts of free time, with the first being in the lower section of the park to view the musical fountain show known as, Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni, or baby Buddha.

The Nine Dragons Bathing Shakyamuni fountain plays a musical water show 5x daily.
The fountain rotates, giving everyone in the crowd a great view.

After watching the fountain performance, we hopped onto trams and headed to the base of the Lingshan Grand Buddha statue where we were given more free time to explore and climb to the top.

The drive through the park was absolutely gorgeous and I could see spending hours walking the property and taking in all the beautiful sights. The enormous Grand Buddha statue was naturally the star of the show, especially later in the afternoon when the sun began to set.

At an incredible 289-feet-tall, it’s the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world. There are 216 stairs to reach the statue, representing 108 troubles and 108 wishes. The panoramic view from the top was nice, though a bit of smog filled the air.

Candles.

An impressive museum spread over 3 stories is located in the pedestal of the statue, though unfortunately we were not afforded enough time to read through all of the exhibits. For those who want an even closer look at the big bronze Buddha, an elevator from the museum takes visitors to an upper terrace where it’s possible to touch the Buddha’s feet for good luck.

Our sightseeing for the day was over and we headed off to our hotel in Wuxi. This ended up being our favorite hotel from the trip. I was so happy to have a room with a large bathtub and a great city view.

We met some of our new friends for dinner at a Japanese restaurant located within the hotel then scurried back to our rooms and drifted off to sleep. And with that, day 6 of our adventure in China was done. Stay tuned for my final post covering days 7-10 where we caught some of China’s most famous performances, visited a green tea plantation, and experienced the beauty of Shanghai on a cruise after dark. Thanks for reading!

Hitched Up: Taos, New Mexico

After a hot two weeks in Palo Duro Canyon we were excited to hitch up and head over to Taos, New Mexico for cooler temperatures. We drove through some heavy crosswinds on our way out of Texas but our Tundra handled the drive with ease. Once over the border, we traveled via the incredibly scenic NM-518 through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and got a good taste of what it’s like to tow our RV on steep grades. Using lower gears and minding the speed limit is a must. The heavy wind and mountain passes definitely had an impact on our fuel economy as we dropped from an average of 11 mpg to only 9.5 for this trip. 

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Fun fact, the bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge ranks somewhere between fifth and seventh (depending on the source) for the highest bridge in the United States. I made sure not to mention this to my heights-loathing husband until after our visit.

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When our navigation indicated the destination was just a quarter mile ahead, I was sure we had been led to the wrong place. I’m not sure what I was expecting but as we traveled down the flat road, the massive gorge and bridge pretty much came out of nowhere.

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Visitors headed from Taos can drive over the bridge, park in the lot, and use the sidewalk that crosses the bridge for spectacular views of the gorge. I expected there to be more parking and I imagine finding a spot can be difficult on a busy day. Along the bridge there are several suicide prevention phones that call out to a crisis hotline with the push of a button. It was sort of a sobering moment to see the phones and remember that not everyone visits the bridge for the same reason. I learned the phones were installed a few years ago in an effort to end suicides at the bridge. For anyone who is thinking of suicide, please know there is help. You can confidentially chat online with someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.

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We visited the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge a second time to hit up the West Rim Trail on our mountain bikes. As the name implies, the trail runs along the west rim of the gorge offering dramatic views of the scenery.

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The trail is mostly flat with large rocks making it the perfect challenge for beginners, like us. We visited on Memorial Day and surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the trail. We ran across fewer than 10 hikers and bikers during our trek. There’s no shade along the trail, so visitors should come prepared with water and sun protection.

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Adding to the magic of the area, we came across a rock garden with prayer flags and an encouraging note that said, “Don’t quit your daydream.” I couldn’t agree more!

Accessibility Notes: Accessible parking and restrooms are available in the parking area for the bridge. Paved pathways allow access to restrooms, covered picnic tables, and a few scenic overlooks with benches that run above the rim of the gorge.

At the time of our visit there was not an accessible sidewalk or path from the parking area to the paved sidewalk that crosses the bridge. In others words, I saw no safe way for someone in a wheelchair or scooter to get to the sidewalk and cross the bridge without entering the roadway. To access the bridge’s sidewalk from the parking area, visitors must cross a dirt and brush field and step over a steel road barricade.

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There was an open area that could possibly provide an accessible route to the bridge’s sidewalk but it was barricaded off during our visit, possibly for construction.

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Taos Pueblo:

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Designated as a World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Taos Pueblo has been inhabited for over 1000 years.img_1636.jpgWe arrived at the Pueblo just in time to participate in the free guided tour (gratuity appreciated). As we were led through the Pueblo, our knowledgeable guide shared the history of the Pueblo Indians and talked about how they live and thrive today.

Made entirely from adobe bricks and plaster, the Pueblo walls are several feet thick and well-insulated, providing warm winters and cool summers. The Pueblo consists of many homes, arranged similar to apartments with adjoining walls. Each home in the Pueblo is owned and maintained by a family. IMG_1648.jpgMany residents operate curio shops in their homes, selling artwork, jewelry, crafts, and traditional foods to Pueblo visitors. Being the bread-lovers we are, we purchased a some fresh frybread, baked over a cedar fire in a dome-shaped adobe oven known as a Horno. It was absolutely delicious!

We learned from our guide that the Pueblo has no electricity or plumbing. All water for cooking, drinking, and bathing is supplied by the pristine Red Willow Creek. The water is so clean and pure, no filtration is needed.

Accessibility Notes: With its flat and solid terrain and wide pathways, the Taos Pueblo is accessible and can be enjoyed by visitors of all abilities. Some homes with curio shops have shallow steps (1-3 inches) and may be a tight squeeze for larger wheelchairs or scooters. I did not see any reserved accessible parking, however there were staff available to help direct visitors to parking areas.

Black Rock Hot Springs:

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When I learned there were a few hot springs along the Rio Grande I had to check it out. Out of Taos, a quick drive up Highway 522 North then a left turn down County Road B007 will take you to Black Rock Hot Springs. County Road B007 is gravel with some rather large potholes but you couldn’t ask for a more scenic drive as you head down into the gorge. Pass over a few one-lane bridges and you arrive at the Rio Grande with easy access to the water.

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Accessibility Notes: Unfortunately not much has been done to make the hot springs accessible. The trail that leads down the gorge to the hot springs is steep, narrow, and requires maneuvering over large boulders. However, there’s a road on the left just before crossing the John Dunn Bridge that leads to a parking area that sits directly on the bank of the river. The bank is mostly flat and visitors using wheelchairs or scooters who don’t mind a little dirt and sand could possibly access the water from here. There is no reserved accessible parking, however there is a fair amount of parking along the road, and the riverbank, and in the parking areas. On a busy day, parking could be challenging. That being said, we visited on Memorial Day weekend just after lunch when it was probably as busy as it gets, and we were able to park our big truck with no problem.

Thanks for reading!