I have always dreamed of going to see the Great Wall. I'm not sure exactly why, but I just knew in my heart that I would see it one day. So visiting Beijing was a trip that I was really looking forward to during our time in China. The trip was extra special because we were able to share the experience with 7 students.
Usually students don't want to spend their money on tours because they think that they are too expensive. But if you get a big enough group, the price is reasonable and the convenience is worth it! Many of the sites in Beijing are also not located close together, so having a driver and tour guide are super helpful. We had an amazing tour guide named Andy (WeChat ID: ni420193) who spoke English really well and was so knowledgeable! I HIGHLY recommend him for a tour if you are ever visiting Beijing.
We left Shanghai on Friday around 2pm, and took the bullet train to Beijing, which takes about 4.5 hours. The students bought a 2nd class ticket, and Richard and I bought a 1st class ticket. There is more room in 1st class, and it is very comfortable. Websites say that most foreigners buy 1st class tickets. There's another level of comfort in business class, but we felt that 1st class was sufficient.
We stayed in the Wangfujing area and ate at The Cheesecake Factory on Friday night. It was delicious! Our tour guide Andy and our driver picked us up from our hotel early (8am) on Saturday morning and we had a very full day visiting all the iconic sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. I was amazed by how big all the sites were! It took over an hour to drive to the Great Wall from the main city. In the evening, we walked through the Olympic Village as well.
The following morning we were picked up at our hotel again and went on a rickshaw ride through town. Then we enjoyed lunch prepared by a local family and did some shopping before heading out to the Temple of Heaven. I was impressed that we saw so much in just one weekend. We were also lucky because the air quality was fairly good and the sky was pretty clear. We didn't have to wear masks at all!
Quick tips when traveling to Beijing:
1) GET A TOUR GUIDE & DRIVER: Trust me on this one. Book a tour guide and driver. You will not be sorry! It's so convenient and truly helpful to have someone show you the way and teach you about all the sites.
2) TOBOGGAN DOWN THE WALL: I was surprised how much I enjoyed tobogganing down the Great Wall. It was so fun! They take a picture of you on the way down, and it's only $5 so we bought it. It captured the Wall behind us - so fun!
3) SPEND AT LEAST A WEEKEND THERE: I was really surprised that you could see all the iconic sites in Beijing in one weekend! I think there would be plenty to do if we stayed longer, but it might be good to know that you can do so much in one weekend.
After returning from Tibet, we looked forward to spending the week in Shanghai and taking a break from travel the following weekend. I have found that it is best to travel one week and then to stay local the next week in order to maintain some level of balance. We have also really enjoyed breathing normally in Shanghai again after living at such a high elevation while in Tibet last week.
This week was all about getting back into the rhythm of classes and enjoying spending time with friends on the weekend. We were really blessed to visit Mona (one of the staff members) in her home which is outside of the city. It was refreshing to be in someone's home, and Mona was so dear to make homemade dumplings and a very delicious lunch for us. I always tell Mona that she is my pretty and smart friend, so she wrote that I am hers in Chinese calligraphy for me.
Kendall (our RA) also helped us find "Charlie's," which is a burger joint in the Kerry Center. Sometimes a good 'ol American burger, fries, and milkshake is what a girl needs. Thank you, Kendall!
Terra cotta soldiers: Imagine being the farm workers who were digging for a water well and uncovered the site where over 6,000 soldiers were discovered! Over 38 square miles of this historic monument have been excavated since 1974. The site is known as the 8th wonder of the world. It has been a dream of mine to see the terra cotta soldiers in person, so it was breathtaking to be in Xi'an to realize this dream.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda: We were fortunate to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda around noon and be present for the daily water fountain show. Beautiful!
The Ancient City Wall: Built in the 14th century and still truly impressive, the ancient city wall is an outstanding site to visit in the middle of the city.
For our second free weekend, we decided to stay in Shanghai and explore some of the local sites. We invited any students who wanted to join us and spent a wonderful day in Qibao (*Chee-Bow). We were able to take the metro to this place and only had to transfer to one other line. The streets were crowded with people, and we were able to enjoy our first sampling of famous Chinese street food. I played it safe with a vegetarian scallion potato pancake, while the students got more daring with squid and meat skewers.
For our first weekend day trip, Richard and I decided to treat ourselves to a guided tour of Tongli & Suzhou. Tongli is a water town known as the "Venice, Italy of China." Suzhou boasts of its beautiful gardens. These towns are about an hour from our Jia, but due to the congested traffic, it can take up to two hours one way. Our drive out took about 1.5 hours, but the drive back was about 2 hours because we returned to Shanghai during the dinner rush hour.
It was so nice to be taken care of all day by our tour guide and driver. We were picked up at 8:30am by our driver and our tour guide. I was amazed that the car was so spacious - a minivan for just me, Richard, and the two others. The air conditioning was a definite plus because it has been so hot here. I also really appreciated the details that they included like providing water bottles for us in the car. Our guide Nora was SUPER helpful! I highly recommend Jenny's Shanghai Tours. They were so easy to work with via emails and the tour was well worth the money. Nora bought all of our entrance tickets to the venues and the boat ride, treated us to local delicacies, and ordered our lunch. She also spoke English very well, and explained so much about China and its history during our day together. At the end of our tour, the driver also dropped us off at our favorite Western hamburger spot that we found in Shanghai, The Habit! It was a perfect day!