A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
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In A Nutshell

We spent months considering how to tackle China.  Take a tour?  Do it on our own?  Visit several places or focus on a few?

In the end, visa delays and the calendar decided for us.  We had to be in India date certain because we had arranged to meet friends, so we could not linger in China.  We were reduced to eight days.

Given the time limit, we decided to visit Hong Kong and Beijing.

You can’t learn a lot about a country in a week, but what we saw and experienced surprised and impressed us.  I can’t say for sure what we expected, but I can say that China exceeded our expectations.

Hong Kong to Beijing

Originally we had planned to spend several days in Hong Kong and pick up our visas for PRC there.  But for reasons too long and boring to explain, we decided to get our China visas in Phnom Penh.

As a result, we spent about 48 hours in Hong Kong — just long enough to have a quick look around and arrange our overnight train to Beijing.

During our one full day in the city, we walked all over Hong Kong Island, exploring interesting neighborhoods, alleys, gardens and shops.  One very uphill street we explored had a built in escalator instead of a sidewalk.  Now that’s ingenuity.

We also got a good view of the harbor by riding the Star Ferry and, in the evening, taking in the Symphony of Light from the Avenue of Stars.  It’s billed as the world’s largest outdoor light show – about twenty buildings ringing the harbor flash colored lights in sync with a musical score.

Hong Kong was an interesting introduction to China, and we knew immediately we would have to raise our game because not many people spoke English.  Every interaction became a kind of intelligence test.

Accommodations in Hong Kong were the most expensive we had encountered to date (we know Japan will be more).

We stayed at the Ah Shan Hostel near Nathan Road (there are plenty of hostels to choose from and we wanted to avoide the notorious Chungking Mansion).  Our hostel was in a good location, but it offered a tiny room.  I could stand in the center of the room and nearly touch both walls.  I’m not sure how they got four beds in that space.  Fortunately we there for just two nights.

We decided to travel to Beijing by train.  It was significantly cheaper than flying, and we had not yet experienced an overnight train on our trip. It turned out to be a good choice.

We booked a “soft sleeper” compartment and had four bunks in a room of our own.  It was quite comfortable and the journey went quickly.  The trip took about 24 hours and we pulled in to West Station in Beijing just two minutes behind schedule.

Beijing, Beijing

I think we were all surprised at how much we enjoyed Beijing.  We had a really good week there, saw great sites, had good food and had no problems navigating the city.

I’ve heard from others that Beijing did a lot of work to prepare the city for Olympic visitors. In our experience, it paid off.  We found many signs in English, plenty of “picture” menus, and at least some basic English spoken at most tourist sites.

One reason we had such a good experience in Beijing is because of the place we stayed:  The Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation.

It was a great hostel in a wonderful hutong.  The staff speaks excellent English and could not be more helpful.  We had a comfortable, clean room, free wi-fi and a substantial breafast was included.  Total cost: About $11 per person per night.

During our week in Beijing we took in the major tourists sites:  The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace, and The Great Wall. We also walked through some wonderful neighborhoods, including the lake district north of The Forbidden City.  And we loved exploring our hutong.

Two bits of advice I would offer to travelers to Beijing.  First, make sure to visit The Summer Palace.  Some people skip this because it’s a bit out of the way, but we found it to be more fun (and in many ways more impressive) than The Forbidden City.

Second, visit The Great Wall at Mitanyu if at all possible.  Our hostel arranged a private taxi to take us to this section of the wall.  It’s a little more expensive, but you avoid the touristy Badaling section of the Wall and the high-pressure sales stops at the Jade Factory and the Chinese Medicine Center.

The Mitanyu section of the wall is beautiful and you can hike for several miles.  Best of all when you are done, you can take a one mile luge ride down from the Wall to the parking lot.  Pure fun.

For the more adventurous (and more physically fit), the Beijing Downtown Backpackers also runs an eight kilometer hike along an unrestored section of the wall.

Finally, we would be remiss without thanking Alistair Nicholas and his family for treating us to an absolutely magical evening at A Fun Ti.  We enjoyed a wonderful Uighur meal and show.

It will surprise no one who knows Conor when I say this:  He ended the evening on stage, dancing to club music with about five beautiful Chinese women.  Some guys have all the luck.

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