For all the tea in China
Beijing, Xi’an & Shanghai - 11 Night Holiday – April 2012
So, following our thoroughly enjoyable trip to Hong Kong in 2011, Charlie and I thought it might be a great idea to see more of China by visiting the mainland. This would tick several items from my Bucket List. There are few countries in the world with a culture as distinct as China. It is HUGE; there’s over a billion people here covering 9.5 million square kilometres! It’s also a country of contrasts, China offers thriving metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong as well as beautiful mountains, valleys, rivers, and plains in the West and Southern parts of the country.
So, we wanted to do a taster trip showing us the present (Beijing), the past (Xi’an) and the future (Shanghai) of China. In looking back now 8 years later what I remember most are the
crazy drivers and the pollution of the big cities; but these were completely compensated for by the fascinating history, iconic buildings and architecture, stunning countryside, delicious food, but mostly by the warm, curious, funny, friendly people. China left us in awe and forever changed.
We thought the best way to tackle such a huge country was to go with an escorted tour (especially considering how well the escorted tour had worked for us in Australia the previous year). As luck would have it, we found a trip offered by an Irish company, The Travel Department, which took in the places we wanted to experience. They promised that “In Beijing you will explore a 14th century ancient city of the elite, stand where General Mao rallied his troops and stroll along the impressive Sacred Way, the burial place of Ming Dynasty emperors. You will visit the Great Wall of China and have an opportunity to walk along a section of this incredible Wonder of the World. In Xi'an, marvel at the extraordinary Terracotta Warriors and the Wild Goose Pagoda, before rounding off your adventure with a visit to Shanghai, where East meets West in spectacular style.”
So we chose their trip with 10 nights’ accommodation in China and 1 overnight flight. They gave us all the info we needed for our Chinese travel visas obtained from the Chinese Embassy in Dublin (a bit of a cumbersome procedure so be sure and apply in plenty of time if you need them)
Visas obtained; soon we were on our way. Click here for The Travel Department’s current version of the trip we did.
Back in 2012, here were the flights we took and the hotels we stayed in:
11 Apr 12 Aer Lingus: Dublin - London, Heathrow EI164 12:00-13:25
11/12 Apr 12 British Airways: London, Heathrow - Beijing BA039 16:40-09:30 (9 hours 50 minutes +7hour time difference)
22 Apr 12 British Airways: Shanghai - London, Heathrow BA168 11:00-16:25 (12 hours 25 minutes – 7 hour time difference)
22 Apr 12 Aer Lingus: London, Heathrow-Dublin EI177 19:10-20:25
Four Points by Sheraton Beijing Beijing 5 Star
Arrive 12 Apr 12 for 5 nights (BB)
Howard Johnson Ginwa Hotel Xi’an 5 Star
Arrive 17 Apr 12 for 3 nights (BB)
The Radisson Pudong Century Park Hotel Shanghai 5 Star
Arrive 20 Apr 12 for 2 nights (BB)
All of the hotels were excellent and I would stay again without hesitation. I haven’t actually done reviews but check out TripAdvisor for other’s more up-to-date reviews.
Day 1 - Travel to China
Morning 11 April 2012
We departed Dublin at noon for our onward afternoon connection in London for an overnight flight to Beijing to begin this trip of a lifetime.
Day 2 - Arrive in Beijing & Temple of Heaven
Morning 12 April 2012
Upon arrival in Beijing at 9:30 am we were met by our travel representative, Donald, and met the rest of our fellow travellers – a lovely mix of only 12 people from Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.
Once through the airport we were soon on our way to see the Temple of Heaven, Beijing. This is a complex of religious buildings symbolising the relationship between earth and heaven. Originally, it functioned as a vast stage for solemn rites and rituals. All of the buildings in the park, including the Round Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, represent conversations between the gods and mortals.
These days, the sprawling gardens are where locals love to hang out and play chess, do crafts, perform Chinese opera and practice tai chi. I was mesmerised by the sheer amount of people and by the fact that the majority of tourists were in fact Chinese visiting Beijing from all over rural China.
Also amazing was their curiosity about our group being Westerners and their enthusiasm for taking selfies with us. We soon got used to people linking arms with us, asking us to “smile pretty” while their friends took a snap. 🤣 But all very good humoured and welcoming.
Day 3 – The Forbidden City & Tian’anmen Square
Morning 13 April 2012
After breakfast, we headed for this famous attraction in Beijing, the Palace Museum (also known as The Forbidden City), which was the Chinese Imperial Palace from the time of the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1420-1912 CE). The “city” covers over 175 acres and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, welcoming over 16 million visitors each year.
Nowadays, the Palace Museum holds artefacts from both dynasties and is a great place to learn about China’s history. It houses a huge collection of porcelain, paintings, jewels and sculptures. Impressive imperial gardens and some important shrines surround the site. The buildings, which cover over 180 acres, have been heavily renovated over the years but it’s still an epic complex worth visiting.
After the Palace Museum we walked across to Tian’anmen Square, one of the largest squares in the world and the site of many historic rallies and protests. The square is home to many important buildings and monuments and is separated from the Forbidden City by Tian’anmen Gate.
You’ve no doubt seen it in films and on TV, but it is hard to get an idea of the sheer size of this square until you’re standing square in the middle of it. There’s plenty to see here including the Tian’anmen Tower, the Great Hall of the People, the People’s Heroes Monument, the National Museum and Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. While you are allowed to take photos in the square itself, you cannot use your camera in the mausoleum.
Afternoon 13 April 2012
We then were transported back to the hotel where we had a free afternoon. We explored the local shops (fascinating) and gorged ourselves on food (delicious). China is a food lover’s paradise. Eating here will certainly put your take-away back home into perspective. In such a huge country, it’s no surprise that different areas have different culinary delights. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the four styles of Chinese cooking (Cantonese, Beijing, Shanghai, and Sichuan) while on your trip. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai you can pretty much find everything! There are plenty of options for vegetarians in China as well, and even vegans can get by without too much difficulty.
One thing that struck us straight away was the air pollution…a combination of coal burning and car fumes. Most of the locals wear masks over their mouths. While we were there the authorities were experimenting with limiting cars into the cities by registration numbers and also prioritising multi-occupancy vehicles. The smog gave a hazy glow to everything as you can see in my photos.
Day 4 - Great Wall, Jade Factory & Sacred Way
Morning 14 April 2012
Today began with a trip the Great Wall, a Wonder of the World, which was a highlight for me on this holiday. It dates back to the 7th century BC in certain sections and was built to protect the first unified Kingdom of China. It stretches for over 20,000 miles and we had an opportunity to walk along part of it at Juyongguan, about an hour and a half northwest of Beijing.
Genghis Khan once led his troops through Juyong Pass during his conquest of Chinese territory. The Wall here is really quite a climb in parts as the steps are quite steep and slippery….but well worth doing as the view from the ramparts is tremendous. There are hand rails to hold onto. Vertigo sufferers may have difficulty with the heights coming back down.
Afternoon 14 April 2012
After lunch we visited the Jade Factory, where we saw jewellery and sculptures with jade stones being carved. We then finished our day at the Sacred Way. This walkway is part of the Ming Tombs complex, which contains the tombs of thirteen emperors. The road is lined with eighteen pairs of stone statues and an impressive gateway.
Day 5 - Summer Palace, Beijing Zoo & Peking Duck
Morning 15 April 2012
Summer Palace & Beijing Zoo
We started day 5 with a visit to see the Summer Palace and Beijing Zoo. Featuring extensive gardens, the Summer Palace is located on the edge of a lake, and was once the destination of choice for vacationing emperors and empresses. It is absolutely gorgeous and sailing across Kunming Lake is gorgeous. Not surprised that this is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site Here I was inundated by a group of elderly Chinese tourists wanting to take my photo….which amazed me as I have dark hair and brown eyes and have often been mistaken for Asian.🤣 But the guide said they thought I looked exotic!!
After this we travelled to Beijing Zoo to see Ming Dynasty architecture and an impressive collection of animals including the native pandas. They are fascinating to see in real-life and I loved them. We turned around from snapping the pandas to find the Chinese snapping us!!
Evening 15 April 2012
Qianmen Street & Peking Duck
In the evening we visited Qianmen Street, which is one of the oldest pedestrian streets in China. This ornate shopping street has a mix of Chinese and Western shops and eateries, the most famous of which is Quanjude Chinese Restaurant, which sells over 2 million of its trademark Peking Roast Duck every year.
You can’t come to Beijing and not try the famous Peking duck. Its paper crispy skin and tender succulent meat are best savoured with plum sauce and thinly sliced cucumber all rolled up in wafer thin pancakes. The Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant– it may be a restaurant chain but it’s had a loyal following since 1864. There we watched the server deftly carve up the ducks. Boy was it delicious! I can taste it now!
Day 6 – Hutong Rickshaw Tour, Lama Temple & Sunlitun Village
Morning 16 April 2012
Hutong Rickshaw Tour
In the morning we all took a rickshaw tour of an old town hutong area, which contains narrow streets and ornate houses and gardens. It was an amazing insight into how people lived in the laneways…..and I thought of the historic similarities to my own hometown of Carrick-on-Suir where historically people lived in laneways in close proximity…..although I doubt if they ever lived as close as these Chinese people. We were transported past residents buying and selling vegetables and other foods.
We had the opportunity to visit one of the siheyuan (the traditional courtyard residences lining the hutongs), the proud home of a couple who had offered their home as a home share during the 2008 Olympic Games. You could see the pride they had in their home, although it might be considered quite sparse by Western standards. It was a very interesting insight to a very old area of Beijing.
Then we took a trip to the Lama (Yonghe) Temple, which is a monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. It contains a 26 metre tall wooden statue of the Maitreya Buddha and unique bronze statues of the Buddhas of the Three Ages.
Afternoon 16 April 2012
After lunch we had time for shopping at the Sanlitun Village shopping centre, which is a huge complex of shops and restaurants. I think Donald was a bit shocked by our group’s request to point out the shops selling copied designer handbags. Modern Chinese women prefer the real thing apparently
Day 7 – Olympic Village & Flight Transfer to Xi'an
Morning 17 April 2012
In the morning, en-route to the airport, we passed by the site of the 2008 Olympics. We glimpsed the unique Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube, which were among the most eye-catching structures built for the games.
Transfer to Xi'an
We took a domestic flight to Xi’an and I had the pleasure of sitting beside Donald on the trip. It was fascinating learning about his life and I saw how much he enjoyed his job and saw how much effort and preparation he put into it.
Afternoon 17 April 2012
Once we were checked into the hotel, Charlie and I walked to the nearby Old City Wall of the Ming Dynasty to see the towers and defensive fortifications, which protected Xi’an. Xi’an also has an air pollution issue so all of our photos of the amazing wall are dull….although in reality the Wall is amazing.
At night we had a great view of the illuminated wall from our hotel. As well as watching the crazy traffic antics of cars/buses at the busy intersection beneath our room window. One such escapade involved a woman getting out of a taxi stopped dead centre of the cross-road dual carriageway (complete with a million shopping bags) blocking 4 lanes of traffic!! When remarking on it the following day to our guide, he said “In China, traffic lights are only a suggestion!!”
Day 8 - Terracotta Army
Morning 18 April 2012
Today, we visited this UNESCO World Heritage site, where we saw a remarkable collection of life size terracotta figures of warriors and horses, arranged in battle formations. These figures were buried with the emperor Qin Shi Huang in 210–209 BC, to protect him in his afterlife. They were hidden until 1974 when they were discovered by local farmers, one of whom was present doing a book-signing when we visited. The Terracotta Warriors are now a must-see attraction for many who visit China.
Afternoon 18 April 2012
Wild Goose Pagoda & At Leisure
Afterwards we visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, which is an ancient 7th century Buddhist example of the iconic Chinese buildings. Situated in the Da Ci'en Temple, about four kilometers from the urban center, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is one of the most famous Buddhist pagodas in China. The Pagoda was built in the Tang Dynasty to collect Buddhist scriptures. Although it is worn by wind and rain, the architecture is well preserved.
Day 9 – Visit to Shaanxi Province (An Wu School, Cave Dwellings & Dairy Farm)
Morning 19 April 2012
Today was an optional leisure day ….but we opted instead to drive into the countryside to visit An Wu village. We were so glad we did, as almost 8 years later we still talk about this day as being one of the most memorable.
An Wu is located at Jiang Lu Township about 85 kilometres from Xi’an. Apparently, it is a very typical village in northern China. The village originally imitated the Beijing Forbidden city. But nowadays, there are only some old buildings left, such as an old compound dwelling house and a wood and brick making theatre where a rural school is located.
An Wu School
We had the pleasure of visiting the school during class time and talking to the kids who were just fantastic. They were all eager to practice their English; slagging each other off as only kids can. The female teacher told us she concentrated on the “three Rs” as with those the children can learn anything. The children were allowed to ask us any questions they wanted which were hilarious e.g. what do you eat for breakfast? Where is Ireland, near Iceland? Is it cold?
All were the children of farmers and none of them wanted to be farmers when they grew up; saying they wanted to get an office job in the city and earn big money ….as farmers in China are poor. We learned that under communism the farms are mostly run by rural collectives as they can’t own land in China. They are allocated plots by the collective often on decades-long leases. Food safety is a huge issue as in the bid to make small farms efficient chemicals are used. The return is relatively small resulting in farmers being classed as paid labourers. It struck us that in years to come China may have big issues with feeding the huge population if kids like these continue to migrate to the cities with no incentives to return.
We then had lunch in a local farmer's family home; to taste some local food, just like a family member.
Afternoon 19 April 2012
Underground Cave Dwelling
We then visited these cave dwellings. Once, it was a very popular dwelling in northern China till to the late 1990s, it’s a kind of underground construction. So, it’s cool in summer and warm in winter and also very economical to construct. As a type of dwelling existing only in northern China, the farmers' cave dwellings in Shaanxi Province, especially in Northern Shaanxi, are unique travel destinations. In some areas of Shaanxi Province such as the Yan'an area, farmers' cave houses abound.
A farmer's cave is usually 5-7 metre (16.4-23.0 feet) long, 3-4 metres (9.8-13.1 feet) wide and 2-5 metres (6.6-16.4 feet) high. The cave has a semi-circular door of stone and windows with sash bars set like fan ribs, the most ornate and dainty parts of the cave. Vaulted windows have beautiful designs in wooden sash bars decorated with folk paper cuttings.
We finished up the trip by visiting a Chinese dairy farm. Suffice to say that it was totally different from the ones in other countries. All the animals must be walled in according to the state policy; all the cows are Holstein Friesian cows from Holland, black and white cows. They are kept inside and fed a mixture of grains and fodder instead of munching fresh grass as they do in Ireland.
However adequate ventilation and sand bedding which is changed twice a day maintains a certain level of comfort. The cows are milked three times per day. They are much smaller than the cows in Europe. The Chinese government is promoting a shift away from village farms and giving subsidies to mega farms. This has huge environmental consequences.
Day 10 - Travel to Shanghai
Morning – 20 April 2004
Travel to Shanghai
We departed by internal flight from Xi’an to Shanghai, for a two-night stay. On arrival in Shanghai airport we travelled on the world's fastest train (Maglev) to Shanghai city centre, reaching speeds of 300 km/hr.
We then got a coach to the Oriental Pearl Tower (which was the tallest building in China at that stage at 1,535 feet from 1994-2007). We got fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding city but unfortunately visibility was poor the day we visited due to the air quality.
Afternoon - 20 April 2012
Arrive in Shanghai
We checked into our hotel, and had the afternoon at leisure.
Day 11 - Shanghai City Tour
Morning – 21 April 2012
This half-day excursion introduced us to fascinating Old Shanghai, including the beautiful Yu Garden, the old town of Shanghai, the bustling Xintiandi Street and Shikumen Open House Museum.
The afternoon was enjoyed at our own leisure. We shopped for some souvenirs in one of the huge shopping malls and took our last photograph of this amazing modern metropolis.
Day 12 - Return Home
Morning 22 April 2012
We were transferred to Shanghai airport by coach for the long journey home via London; saying our good byes and thanks to Donald for taking care of us so well and contributing to the success of our holiday. We all took leave of each other at the airport and all agreed that we’d had an amazing time. Emails and phone numbers were swapped and we swapped photos and memories in the following weeks.
I hope I’ve given you a flavour of China and whetted your appetite. It really is worth a visit and should be on everyone’s Bucket List!! (All credit to Charlie for any photos I'm in.)
Bucket List Items Ticked Off in the above Blog post
Number 34 (3) - Regional Food - Eat Peking Duck in Peking (Beijing), China
Number 38 (2) - Memorable Restaurant - Quanjude (Quimen Branch), Beijing, China
Number 50 - Say Thank You - in Chinese
Number 57 - Continents - Asia
Number 58 (3) - Countries - China
Number 59 (11) - Hotels - Four Points by Sheraton, Beijing, China
59 (12) - Hotels - Howard Johnson Ginwa, Xi'an, China
59 (13) - Hotels - The Radisson Pudong Century Park, Shanghai, China
Number 60 (9) - Cities - Beijing, China
60 (10) - Cities - Xi'an, China
60 (11) - Cities - Shanghai, China
Number 64 (2) - Memorable Train Journey - "Bullet Train", Shanghai, China
Number 67 - Man-made Wonders - Walk on The Great Wall of China
Number 76 (7) - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Number 76 (8) - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Forbidden City, Beijing
Number 76 (9) - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - The Great Wall, Beijing
Number 76 (10) - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Imperial Tombs/ Sacred Way, Beijing
Number 76 (11) - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Summer Palace, Beijing
Number 76 (12) - UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Terracotta Army - Xi'an
Number 80 (4) - Tall Buildings/ Vantage Points - Oriental Pearl Tower, Shanghai
Related Blog Posts
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Blog 12 - Hong Kong, China
So have you been to China? What do you remember most about it?
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My name is Mary and this is my bucket list blog ...having survived a near-death experience. I hope it encourages you to "live your best life". See how I'm completing my own bucket list items. And let me know how you're getting on with yours!