China Explored, Part III: Lakes, Lanterns, and the Lights of Shanghai

China Explored, Part III: Lakes, Lanterns, and the Lights of Shanghai

I woke up for day 7 of our adventure in China feeling pretty crummy. The air pollution got to me and it hit hard. You probably noticed that in many of our photos from the first 6 days we are wearing face masks. Reason being, China has some of the most polluted air in the world and the masks are specially designed for lung protection.

The air quality index (AQI) used by the Environmental Protection Agency provides a measurement for how polluted and safe or unsafe the air is, as shown in the chart below.

I used the weather app on my phone to check the AQI values daily while we were in China. The scores can vary greatly from hour to hour, day to day, and between cities. For example, the first day in Beijing the value was over 160, the next day in Beijing the value was only 100, and when we arrived in Shanghai the value was 205. Since I tend to develop a sore throat from inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke or chemical fumes from cleaning products, I made sure to wear a mask most of the time we were out. The problem with wearing the mask in cold weather is that condensation and moisture build up pretty quickly, especially when walking, and things can start to feel uncomfortable. I made the mistake of not wearing my mask as often when we were in areas where the value was under 150.

Pollution over Lake Lihu 

So, here I was, far away from home with a fever, aches, chills, and a hacking cough that wouldn’t quit. Mitch went for breakfast alone while I stayed in the room and slept. He talked with the guides about the possibility of seeking medical attention and brought me some fresh fruit and hot tea. Since we never get sick and don’t even own any medicine, we were terribly unprepared for this sudden change in health. Thankfully, the new friends we made from California and Texas kindly hooked me up with an assortment of cough drops, cold and flu medicine, and decongestants from their stashes. I popped a few pills, hoped for the best, and off we headed to a wetland park for a morning walk.

Although I wasn’t feeling my best, the Wuxi Lihu Lake National Wetland Park, part of the larger Lake Taihu, did not disappoint. The energy was very calm and even in the cold of winter, many of the trees and shrubs were lush and green. Scenic and peaceful, the park appeared to be a popular spot for practicing tai chi and strolling the trails around the lake with a cup of coffee or tea.

This beautiful wetland is also a place of mystery and romance. According to Chinese legend, the famous businessman and philanthropist Fan Li, gave away all of his fortune and possessions then disappeared to live a life of seclusion with his lover Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. The iconic couple retired to Lake Taihu, making their home on fishing boat and never to be seen again. Our guide prompted couples in the group to cross the bridge hand-in-hand if they wished to spend 5 lifetimes together like Fan Li and Xi Shi.

Our next stop was to a freshwater pearl market in Wuxi. I’m no pearl expert but others in our group said the prices here were very reasonable. There was a variety of pearl jewelry available in every color and setting from rings to bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. I didn’t purchase any but I will admit it was all very beautiful.

After pearl shopping we had lunch then settled into the bus for a nice, long 3-hour drive to Hangzhou. We purchased tickets for the optional excursion that evening which included a trip to the Songcheng theme park, also knowns as the Song Dynasty Town, to see the show, Romance of the Song Dynasty ($65/person). I have always loved performing arts and was glad that we had the opportunity to experience a variety of performances on our tour.

Just inside the gates of the Song Dynasty Town theme park.

The park was much bigger than I expected and heavily decorated with lanterns, lights, colorful paintings, and garland. The theme park is meant to tell the story of the song dynasty in ancient China and includes three components: high-tech facilities, performances, and cultural activities. Throughout the park there were lots of little shops and an abundance of snack stands.

Lanterns galore!

We had about an hour and a half of free time to explore the park before the show. By this time I was feeling awful and not very interested in walking around or checking out the exhibits in the park. I decided to take some Nyquil, which made me feel better but, as expected, super drowsy. After walking around for about 30 minutes, I plopped myself down on a bench for some people-watching. I soon realized that being some of the only western folk in the park meant we would be the ones who were people-watched. I felt as rare as a unicorn sitting there in my Nyquil haze being photographed and videoed by people passing by.

Needless to say, we didn’t see much of the theme park nor did I remember to take many pictures. We met back up with the group and headed to the theater. The show, which has been seen by over 60 million people, was completely sold out.

The performers all wore beautiful costumes and there were many set changes. At one point during the performance we were spritzed with water during a rain simulation. The show told the story of the Song Dynasty, and although it was very entertaining, the dark lights and pleasant music had me nodding off to sleep a few times. Hopefully no one noticed.

I hardly remember walking to the bus or the ride home. It’s possible that I sleep-walked my way back. The next morning I was feeling somewhat better as we headed off to West Lake in Hangzhou for Day 8 of our tour. Once the capital of the Song dynasty, Hangzhou was described by explorer Marco Polo as the “finest and most splendid city in the world.”

Situated in the center of Hangzhou, West Lake is another of China’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and credited as the source of inspiration for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean gardens for several centuries. We declined the optional boat ride on the lake ($35/person) and opted to enjoy its beauty by land instead. But first, a short walk for some coffee…

Walking along the street searching for coffee in Hangzhou.

We had about an hour of free time and decided to walk to a nearby Starbucks. There were many small shops and restaurants along the way and the streets here were very clean. I ordered a caramel macchiato and was pleasantly surprised to find that my drink was only a tad sweet, unlike the super sugary version served in the U.S.. I also loved the assortment of cute cups and different prepared foods. With our caffeine-fix met we headed back to walk along the picturesque lake.

Zooming in on the bridge.

Next we were off to the Dragon Well Tea Plantation in the mountains above Hangzhou. Also known as Longjing, Dragon Well tea is known for its high-quality and longstanding status as the most famous variety of green tea in China.

Garden at the entry.

If there was one thing I wanted to buy in China it was some good green tea, so I was thrilled about the opportunity to visit the country’s most famous plantation.

Rows of tea bushes.

We sampled brewed tea and dry roasted tea leaves while learning about tea production from plantation staff. Usually we think of tea as something we drink, but in China they say “eat your tea” because the flavorful leaves can be eaten with each sip or saved to be eaten after brewing several cups.

Eat your tea!

Even in China this famous tea isn’t cheap. We ended up purchasing two packed canisters of tea leaves and were given a bonus mini canister for free. For 300 grams of tea, approximately 126 servings, we paid about $85 USD, or 67 cents per cup. However, the leaves are so potent they can be re-steeped up to five times, assuming you don’t eat them all while enjoying your first cup.

We had lunch at a local restaurant near the tea plantation then drove to Shanghai, our final destination on the tour. We purchased the optional excursion for the evening that included a trip to Daning: The Life Hub followed with the acrobatic circus performance ERA: Intersection of Time ($60/person).

The Life Hub is an open-space multi-use center with restaurants, trendy shops, apartments, coffeehouses, hotels, and landscaped green areas with benches and walking trails. We had free time to wander about or grab dinner in the Life Hub before the show and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat pizza in China. We ate at Pizza Marzano, an upscale pizza chain with restaurants scattered over the United Kingdom, Europe, China, and India. It was delicious and a welcome change since we’d been eating noodle and rice dishes all week.

After dinner we strolled the Life Hub, admiring the bright lights and Chinese New Year decorations.

The Cirque du Soleil-esque, ERA: Intersection of Time was wonderful and featured many talented performers. While we didn’t think the storytelling was quite on par with Cirque, we still enjoyed the show very much. The most jaw-dropping act featured six performers on motorcycles riding around the inside of a metal globe.

Our last full day in China would be spent exploring Shanghai. Day 9 started with a visit to the Bund, a waterfront area showcasing the tall skyscrapers that make up Shanghai’s iconic skyline. These modern buildings lining the Huangpu River are known as China’s Wall Street. The view was beautiful though the air was heavily polluted. Masks on!

The other side of the river features buildings of many different styles and is sometimes referred to as China’s museum of international architecture. We enjoyed a bit of free time walking around the Bund area before heading to an art gallery featuring painted and woven silk.

After lunch we visited the City God Temple Bazaar. The streets in this area are filled with all sorts of shops selling artwork, clothing, souvenirs, and more. It’s also a foodie’s dreamland with teahouses on every corner and countless restaurants and stands selling local street food.

Perhaps the most coveted foodie item from the bazaar is the Xiaolongbao, a Shanghai-style dumpling invented by a street vendor in 1900 and still wildly popular today. Not your typical bao, these soft, delectable buns are filled with crab meat and hot, savory broth. Delicious.

Three’s company.

We also went on a hunt for the giant scallion pancake vendor after seeing dozens of happy people walking around with the jumbo-sized treat in-hand. The line was long but the pancakes were totally worth the wait. The best way I can describe the taste is to imagine a big, freshly-fried potato chip.

We expected to see more western tourists in Shanghai given that the city is known as China’s international hub, but seeing none, we definitely stood out among other visitors. One man asked if we would pose for a quick picture and was surprised when we asked him to hop in the photo with us.

We finished the evening with a cruise on the Huangpu River to see the Shanghai skyline all lit up at night, which was offered as the final optional excursion of the tour ($50/person). The architecture and colors have an otherworldly look like something out of a sci-fi flick.

Day 10 involved an early flight to Beijing, a long layover, and an even longer flight back to California. We felt lucky that our new pals were booked on the same flight so the fun time we were having together could continue for a bit longer. Overall it was a wonderful trip. We visited a ton of historical places, saw ancient relics and exhilarating performances, learned a lot about Chinese culture, and made great new friends all in just 10 short days. Until next time, China! Thanks for reading.

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.


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!

China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

I’ve always dreamed about visiting China and seeing the Great Wall someday but it seemed like a bucket list destination that was just too far out of reach. That all changed when I saw an amazing travel deal on Groupon offering a 10-day guided tour of China for $649. If you’re not familiar with Groupon, it’s essentially an online marketplace where you buy vouchers to redeem for activities, goods, and services. Groupon vouchers are usually available at a fraction of the usual cost for the purchase, making the service a great way to try new things. For example, when we lived in Texas I purchased a Groupon voucher for a beekeeping course for two with a local farm. The voucher was $79 and had to be used within 90 days of purchase, but had I bought the course without the voucher I would have paid $200.

From our 3-hour beekeeping course in November of 2016.

Since I use Groupon pretty frequently to try things I wouldn’t normally jump to spend money on, I didn’t think the fact that I booked this trip using Groupon was even worth mentioning. That is, until I started mentioning it to people who seemed surprised and eager to hear more. I also learned about a little thing I can only describe as “Groupon shame.” Our trip to Iceland back in December was also made possible through a Groupon deal and now that I’ve got two trips under my belt I’ve had several questions about how to book travel through Groupon. I’m working on a follow-up post that includes everything you need to know and how you can travel cheaply using Groupon that I will share later. For now, I want to tell you that there is nothing shameful or inauthentic about booking a discounted vacation package through Groupon (so long as you read and understand the fine print), and I hope to show you this as I guide you through our 10-day itinerary.

High rise homes in Beijing viewed from the airplane.

Our Groupon travel package was for a 10-Day guided tour of China with stops in Beijing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, including hotels and roundtrip nonstop flights. The package was offered by the company Rewards Travel China and also included transportation, 13 meals, and several day tours. The price was a bargain at only $649 per person, especially considering that the airfare and transportation between cities alone is over $600 when priced separately. So what’s the catch? A series of mandatory visits to government-owned showrooms featuring popular Chinese exports where visitors sit through tours and heavy sales pitches. That may be a dealbreaker for some but we considered the value and opportunity to visit a place we never thought we’d have the chance to see and decided to book our tickets.

Government owned jade factory and showroom. More on day 4.

So off we went! Day 1 and 2 were essentially travel days. We had a direct flight that left San Jose, CA at 1:30 pm and arrived in Beijing just under 13 hours later, which would be around 6:00 pm on the following evening, China time. We quickly spotted our guide with Rewards Travel China after we landed and he helped us through the security checkpoints and assisted with obtaining our travel visa. Prior to departure, Rewards Travel China applied for a group visa on our behalf- all we had to do was scan a copy of our passports and fill out a simple form. We waited for more travelers from the tour group to arrive, then loaded up into one of those giant charter buses that seat about 60 people and headed off to the hotel.

Checking in at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing.

I’ll admit I always thought traveling with a huge group of tourists in those big charter buses seemed kind of lame but it’s actually quite practical. You get to meet other travelers (we made some great new friends in our group), there’s always someone nearby who won’t mind taking your picture, and the massive carpooling is definitely better for the environment- especially in China where the air pollution is so terrible (I’ve been home for over a week and am still coughing from exposure to air pollution as I type this). They also sold water and Chinese beer on these buses for super cheap- so that’s also a plus!

Bus beer.

Our hotel in Beijing was very nice, 5-stars to be exact, and offered a massive breakfast buffet spread across 3 large dining rooms every morning. Not a bad place to call home for the next three nights.

View from our room in the morning.
Part of the buffet.

Our first real chance to explore Beijing came on what was technically day 3 of our itinerary. This was a free day but we decided to purchase the optional full-day excursion ($65/person) that included a trip to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square with a provided lunch. These are all popular attractions in Beijing and places I would want to visit on our free day anyway, so booking the excursion was the most convenient option.

Our hotel.

Our first stop was to the Summer Palace. We saw an interesting snack shack on our walk to the gates from the bus. In addition to honey covered fruit kabobs there was a variety of dried, fried, and barbequed critters, including scorpions, starfish, spiders, snakes, and beetles. Though our guide pointed out that finding critters on a stick is pretty common in Beijing, it seemed more like a novelty and less like an everyday food so we decided not to try any.

Outside the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace was stunningly beautiful, even in the winter, and rich with history. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this lavish royal retreat is filled with grand pavilions, colorfully painted halls, decorative statues, vast lakes and gardens, and an iconic bridge with 17 arches.

Frozen Kunming Lake below the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

During winter, Kunming Lake freezes over and people take to the ice on skates and sleds. I’ve visited several indoor and outdoor rinks but ice skating on a frozen natural body of water is one of my bucket list items, so I was tempted to head back to Kunming and give it a try.

The gardens in the Summer Palace are a popular meeting space for singing and dancing. We were treated to the sounds and sights of locals practicing Tai Chi and singing traditional songs.

Singing group.

Something I noticed on our first day out was the lack of foreign tourists. Since we were visiting popular tourist attractions in Beijing, I expected to see many tour groups filled with Americans and foreigners from other countries. Surprisingly, all of the people and tourists we saw were Chinese. In fact, I did not see any Americans or foreign-looking folks outside of our own tour group for the entire trip. Not a single one. This probably explains why many of the Chinese people we encountered tended to stare when we walked by and many whipped out phones to take pictures of us. On several occasions, we were asked to pose for pictures with Chinese people who admitted they had never seen Americans in person before.

We stopped for a quick lunch with rice, veggies, noodles, soup, tea, and beer before heading off for more sightseeing. All of our meals were served family style where dishes were placed on a large lazy susan at the center of the table.

Our next stop was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest city squares in the world and a place of deep cultural and political significance. I couldn’t help but feel a bit solemn as we walked through the area, knowing its dark history. In 1989, students who protested in support of democracy, were met in Tiananmen Square with gunfire and massacred by the Chinese Army.

Tiananmen Square.

The official death toll from the tragic incident is unknown. Following the attack, the Chinese government suppressed media coverage, discussion, and investigation efforts, ultimately reporting the casualties ranged from 100-200 civilians. However, files that were more recently declassified from the U.S. and British governments revealed an estimated death toll of over 10,000 people. There are no memorials to be found in Tiananmen Square, and in fact, those who appear to be mourning publicly without government approval can be arrested.

Bridge from Tiananmen Square to Tiananmen.

Next we moved on to Tiananmen, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. The gate with it’s imperial-style architecture is featured on the National Emblem of the People’s Republic of China.

At the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The Forbidden City was our final stop and had much more upbeat vibes. For nearly 500 years, this huge complex sitting on over 180 acres served as the home of China’s emperors and was the center for political proceedings.

The Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City.

Worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Forbidden City holds the worldwide record for the most ancient, preserved wooden structures. Building rooftops are covered with intricate patterns while their interiors and exteriors are adorned with bright, detailed paintings.

During our tour I learned that the Forbidden City took 14 years to build and it required the hard work of approximately 1 million laborers. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat and 32-foot wall. As the largest imperial palace in the world, it attracts between 14 million and 16 million visitors every year.

Frozen moat around the Forbidden City walls.
Rocks in the Imperial Garden.

Another new experience was using a public squat toilet. All of the hotels had regular old toilet bowls and it was business as usual. However, most public restrooms in China have squat style toilets and are strictly BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I kept a small baggie of TP in my pocket (except one day when I made the mistake of leaving it on the bus and had to borrow from a friend) and antibacterial wipes for hand-washing afterwards. The plumbing systems aren’t equipped to handle wads of toilet paper, thus a small trash bin is provided. Most of the public restrooms we visited had multiple squat toilets and usually one or more western-style toilet bowls. Typically the western toilet stalls had a line, so I ended up using the squatters. If the stalls are occupied, the protocol is to line up outside of whichever individual stall you want, vs. forming one single line and taking the stall that opens up first. If you stand back and wait, you’ll definitely miss your turn.

It had been a long day of sightseeing and new experiences but we still weren’t done. We went back to the hotel for a quick dinner on our own, then hit the town again to go see a Shaolin kung fu performance. We walked to a restaurant across from our hotel and managed to order by pointing at the items we wanted on the menu. A little embarrassment but ultimately a success!

The food at dinner was really good, though it didn’t seem too different from American Chinese food in my humble opinion. Of course there was no “General Tso’s chicken” but most places we visited served a variety of rice, noodle, and steamed bun options.

Kung fu performance.

The show was pretty spectacular and featured insanely talented artists who told the story of Chun Yi, a boy who went to a monastery to become a buddhist monk and faced many challenges before becoming a kung fu master and reaching enlightenment. My jaw dropped at the sight of children who did front and backflips landing directly on their bare heads. After landing the flip they balanced for a moment then continued to flip from feet to head over and over again, hands never touching the floor. I should have grabbed my phone to take a picture but I think I was in too much shock.

That’s a wrap on days 1-3. Initially I was concerned that since we were participating in a guided tour, we would have little time to do things on our own. However, at each place we visited we were allowed a specified amount of free time (usually between 45 mins and 2 hours) to explore and roam around independently. For me this was a pretty good compromise.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading along so far and I hope you’ll stay tuned for my next post detailing days 3-6 when we climbed the Great Wall of China, walked in the beautiful Lingering Garden, sat through a sales spiel in a silk factory, and fell awestruck by the giant Lingshan Grand Buddha. Thanks for reading!