Xi'an, Pingyao, Datong and Beijing
Where would you go if you only had 1 week for all of China? Or how about 2 weeks? Those were the questions we tried to answer when our kids came to visit us in Shanghai. Our son Eric brought our two older grandsons, Josh and William, for one week in March during their spring break and our daughter Laura and her partner Sarah came for two weeks in May after the semester was finished. So of course we spent a couple days in Shanghai and the nearby water towns and Suzhou and then we decided the must-see spots were Xi’an and Beijing. Since Laura and Sarah had a week longer, we added in the ancient city of Pingyao and Datong which are more or less on the way to Beijing. Because of the limited time, we flew to Xian from Shanghai. They scheduled their flights to China to arrive in Shanghai and depart from Beijing. I will write this blog by location, mixing the experiences with the two groups.
An important consideration when traveling in China is to try to avoid travel and touring on weekends or holidays when the crowds can be oppressive. So we tried to make use of the weekdays for visiting the big tourist attractions. Since Eric and boys arrived on a weekend, we first stuck to things to see in Shanghai. They arrived on a Saturday evening, delayed by about an hour, so we took the Maglev train (top speed 200 mph) from the airport into the city, where we got on the Metro and got off in the center of the shopping district/high rise skyscrapers in Pudong, which is across the river from the main part of the city in Puxi. After walking around a bit and admiring the tall buildings and hubbub, we took the subway home to our place where we had a little bit to eat before going to bed. They were of course coming off a 15 hour plane ride.
On Sunday we went to Yu Yuan gardens, walked on the Bund and visited the Shanghai Museum and city museum when it started raining and then had dinner at Din Tai Feng for xiaolongbao. Monday and Tuesday I had to work so Lil took them to Qibao, one of the small water towns near Shanghai, on Monday and to Suzhou on Tuesday after which we were going to meet at the Hongqiao airport to fly to Xian on Tuesday night.
We averted a near disaster when we started out on the morning of going to Suzhou/Xian. I accompanied them to the Hongqiao train station to make sure that they bought the right tickets. On the way walking to the subway I asked Eric if he had their passports, since that was the one thing that they really needed. The passports were not in the bag they were supposed to be in. So on the sidewalk he started going through all of the pockets and coats without success. I was envisioning a 3 day delay in their travel plans while applying for lost passports. With no other choice, we walked back to the Airbnb in hopes that they has fallen out somewhere the night before. Sure enough, they were on the floor next to the bed. Disaster averted!!
We planned to meet at the Hongqiao airport, which is next to the railway station for the bullet trains to Suzhou, to fly to Xian about 8 pm on Tuesday. Both the railway station and the airport are massive buildings which are not easy to negotiate when you don’t know the way. Lil and I had taken the train several times so we knew the routine there but we hadn’t flown before. My class ran until 5:45 so I had to rush to get to the subway and to the airport. Apparently William had some rather serious breathing problems in the long walk from the railway station to the airport but it all worked out fine. We managed to all meet up though no one had had dinner so we unwisely went for the Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken place in the terminal while waiting for our plane. Surprisingly, the Colonel has a heavy presence in China, along with Starbucks, MacDonalds and Kohler plumbing supplies.
Xi’an is the oldest of the four ancient capitals of China and an important city in the long history of the country. It is now a gigantic city with a population of 18 million, but its modern fame rests primarily on the discovery in 1974 of the Terra Cotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang by some farmers digging a well. The Terra Cotta Warriors Museum is undoubtedly one of the great archaeological discoveries of the century and truly one of the wonders of the world but astonishing is that the actual tomb of the Emperor has not yet been uncovered, though its site is thought to be known.
In Xi’an we stayed at the Hilton since we knew we would be arriving at nearly midnight. Getting a taxi from the airport to the Hilton proved to be a major problem. One of the reasons was that with 5 of us, we could not easily fit into a single taxi. It turns out we later learned that it is actually illegal for a taxi to take 5 passengers and if they are caught by the police, the drivers face a penalty of some points and a fine. Of course there were no shortage of taxi cab drivers wanting to take us but the 5 passenger thing was an issue and also the guy we were dealing with had difficulty figuring where to go. This is still a mystery because the Hilton is on one of the main roads in the city and obviously has many people going there. However, an oddity is that the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Hilton’ sounds just like ‘Sheraton’ to our ears, so we would tell them, no, not the Sheraton, but the Hilton. We went around and around on that for a while before he finally decided where to go. We also couldn’t call the hotel from our phones for some unknown reason (probably because we weren’t dialing it just right). Finally the guy we were talking to said he would take 5 passengers so we committed to him, put our luggage in the back, whereupon he announced that he couldn’t take 5 and some of us had to ride in another taxi. By that time (we were quibbling over something less than $10) we said fine and we ended up in two taxis. I think what happened is that while we were putting the luggage in the trunk, a buddy taxi driver came up and they struck a deal to take us in 2 cars.
So all along the rather lengthy ride from the airport around midnight, the two drivers were texting or WeChatting or talking to each other on the phone about one thing or another. For example, I asked our driver what the population of Xian was, and he didn’t know so he called the other driver who did know the answer. They were also driving very slowly for some unknown reason since the roads were empty of cars. All in all, it was a bit of a farce.
The next morning we had a great breakfast at the Hilton and then set off to see the Terracotta Warriors Museum which is a long ride out of the city. Again we had the 5 person/taxi problem though we were not yet aware of the essence of the problem, but our driver was quite willing to do it though he kept telling William to sit back. I thought he was saying it for fear that William would bump his head if the car stopped suddenly but later we realize he’s saying that he doesn’t want the police to see 4 heads in the back.
Terra Cotta Warriors Museum
The Terracotta warriors museum is truly incredible. It was build by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who is credited with unifying the country. He died in about 200 BC and work on the sculpture was started shortly after he ascended the throne with the intention of protecting the emperor in his afterlife. It’s estimated that the 3 pits contain over 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 horses, much of which has not yet been uncovered. The scale of the work is unbelievable: not only the size of the pit where they were found and reconstructed, but also the artistry of each person. There is also a pair of half-size bronze chariots that were found and reconstructed that is astounding, considering the time they were built. The actual tomb of the emperor has not yet been uncovered though it is known where it is located. These 3 pits were first discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974 and the location of that well is marked in the pit. As one example of the astounding features of the display, the weapons had a chrome plating to protect the knife edges, a technology that predates the modern discovery of chrome plating in 1920-37 by over 2200 years!
An unfortunate aspect of Eric’s (and the kids) visit was that the weather did not cooperate: it was cool and rainy for many of the days that they were here in Shanghai and Beijing. However, that didn’t seem to phase the kids. William in particular always wore shorts (as well as his dad) and like clockwork many of the locals would tell us or him that he should wear long pants so he doesn’t catch a cold. So bus drivers, people taking tickets at entrances to parks, people in the subway, waiters in restaurants would invariably make a comment that he shouldn’t wear shorts. This is quite unusual in that, as in most big cities, commonly strangers would not say anything to other strangers. Of course it didn’t bother William because he couldn’t understand what they were saying and he probably thought they were talking about other matters. I found it amusing that it happened so often.
When Laura and Sarah came to Xi’an in May, the Airbnb we rented was very close to the Muslim quarter which we had visited with Eric and the kids so we sort of knew what to expect. One problem was that Mei wasn’t feeling well so she stayed in the Airbnb while we went out for dinner. The next day she wasn’t feeling better so we took her to a hospital, a small local hospital in the area. Surprisingly that turned out well. We were only there for a couple of hours, and they did a blood test and gave her some antibiotics all for a pittance in cost. She stayed home for the day and we went off with Sarah on bikes to explore the town, chiefly the Shaanxi Museum. We had intended to stay in Xi’an for 3 days with a visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors museum and to Huashan. Because of Mei’s illness we spent the day at the museum instead. Luckily the medicine seemed to help and she felt better enough on the following day to go to the Terra Cotta Warriors museum which is the must-see in Xi’an.
We had interesting experiences with our cab drivers in Xi’an which you can read about in my “Socialism is dead in China’ blog.’
In Xi’an just near the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower is a section of the city which is called the Muslim quarter. At night, the 4 or 5 block area becomes very lively and a great place to walk around, people watch, and eat spicy Muslim food. We strolled around sampling the wares and then found a place for dinner. The specialty of the area is grilled lamb with spice. The kids loved eating the lamb so when we came the second time with Laura and Sarah we bought a bag of the spice so that Eric could try to replicate the grilled lamb at home.
With the girls we also visited the mosque which is located in this part of town. During the day the narrow streets are also crowded with cars, bikes, pedestrians. The day that Laura was sick, we biked around town and came through the Muslim quarter on our bikes since our Airbnb was located just at the edge of the Muslim quarter.
Biking around the city wall in Xian
The next day with the boys we spent most of the day riding bikes along the city wall. At first our plans to do this looked like they would not work because there is a rule that no one over 60 years of age is allowed to rent a bike. Fortunately I was able to convince them that I wouldn’t hurt myself, and I signed a note to that effect on the rental agreement. William was barely big enough to ride the smallest bike they had so he didn’t have an easy time but it was a nice activity to do. In the afternoon we boarded the bullet train to Beijing. It was on the taxi ride to the train station that we learned all about the legal problems of having 5 passengers from our taxi driver who was very friendly and talkative. When I asked him about the local Xian accent we had a discussion of language and I asked him if he spoke any English. He said that if he knew any English, he wouldn’t be driving a cab, which I thought was a pretty cogent comment on his life situation.
Pingyao is a famous ancient town which is reputed to be the first place in the world to establish a bank. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site as are all of the sites we visited on these trips. For centuries it has been a financial center for the country. Importantly for us, the ancient houses and structures have not been torn down so it retains the look of an ancient town.
With Laura and Sarah we took the fast train to Pingyao. The train service in most of eastern and central China is superb. In our experience it is actually faster to ride trains from city to city than to take a plane. First of all the trains are fast and on time, to the minute. Secondly, you depart and arrive at the center of the city, not at some remote spot from which you need to take a taxi to get into town. Finally, from our experience in taking planes, almost none of them are on time, and in many cases delayed for hours. The good thing is that when the plane is very late, they will usually provide a free lunch in the boarding area.
A word about making travel arrangements in China. Back in 1980 on our last trip to China, you were not permitted to travel on your own. All travel arrangements were made by the government, and even when we were traveling without an escort, for example when we went to visit relatives in Qingdao and Beijing, we were met at the train platform by a representative of the government, as well as by our relatives. So the government made sure where we were at all times. That’s not so much the case anymore. For almost all of our travel, I made arrangements and bought tickets for trains and airplanes from a central agency CTrip, which was very convenient and I believe not that much more than the price for the native Chinese. Of course for all travel one needs to provide a passport, or, in the several cases when our passports were out of our hands because we were applying for an extension, a substitute passport. At the airports and train stations they scanned your ticket and sometimes also your passport but it really wasn’t much more trouble than showing a driver’s license to board an airline. In the far west when we were traveling by bus or minivan, there were a couple cases where there were police check points and one had to surrender the passport, or for the natives, their ID card, for them to scan them. So the government always had a way to trace your movements.
From Pingyao we took a fast train to Taiyuan where we hurriedly caught a taxi to the airport to catch our flight to Datong. After we checked in at the counter and were waiting for the plane in the boarding area, a message came over the loudspeaker that I had to report to the desk. They sent me to a room where they had our luggage which had just gone through the X-ray machine. He asked me if there were any lithium ion batteries in the luggage. I said I din’t think so. Whereupon he showed me the X-ray which seemed to indicate a couple of bright spots. When I opened the luggage, sure enough, there were a couple of small camera batteries that I had forgotten about. It was an impressive demonstration of their X-ray technology.
Our Airbnb in Datong was also interesting. The hosts were a young couple who were engaged to be married in July and the apartment was the one they were going to be moving into. Prominently on the wall in the living room was a unique double happiness paper cut which featured their names, date of the wedding and many hearts. They were a very sweet couple who came early every morning to check on us and make sure that we had the right taxi for the day’s activities. One of the days we were there was a festival, Duanwu jie, the date on which it is traditional to eat tzungzi, so they brought some for us to eat for lunch. Datong itself has little to recommend it but it is close to two famous spots: the Yungang grottoes and the hanging monastery of Hengshan. We spent the first afternoon exploring the city and then went to Yungang the next morning.
This is located about 10 miles from the city of Datong. It represents outstanding Buddhist cave art from the 5th and 6th century. In total there are over 250 caves and 51,000 statues. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. In general the statues are in good shape considering their age. Obviously being protected inside a cave was important to their longevity. The statues and caves are carved out of the face of a sandstone cliff.
Hengshan and the Hanging Monastery
The other major attraction near Datong is Hengshan and the Hanging Temple or monastery (Xuankong Si, 懸空寺). The temple is literally hanging from the side of a cliff, supported by oak crossbeams that were chiseled into the rock of the cliff. Unfortunately we were visiting on a national holiday, Duanwujie or the Dragon Boat Festival) so there were big crowds. It is located about 40 miles from Datong and we could not get the taxi driver to show some urgency in getting us to the site early. When we finally got there, they told us that the line to get into the temple was 3 hours long. Since there was also a mountain Hengshan to climb, we opted for climbing the mountain rather than standing in line for half a day.
There were three essential things to see in Beijing: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Peking duck. With the kids, we stayed in an Airbnb in a hutong very close to the Lama Temple. It was rainy or wet for much of the first day which we spent visiting Tiananmen, Imperial Palace, and Temple of Heaven. The rain didn’t dampen the crowds much so we were fighting all the Chinese tourists taking selfies for the prime photo ops.
When we came to Beijing with Laura and Sarah, I had to go back to Shanghai to finalize some visa issues, so I was gone for two days. During that time they went to visit the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace..
Of course, how can one come to China and not see the Great Wall? When Eric and the kids were here, on their last day the weather was much better and we set off for the Great Wall. After much discussion we decided to go to one of the more remote areas in an attempt to avoid the mobs. We went to Jinshanling (金山嶺) which involved a long bus ride in a city bus where we weren’t quite sure if it was going where we wanted to go but in the end was just right. The bus left us some distance from the Wall so we took a taxi to a spot where we could walk to the wall. The decision to go to Jinshanling worked out great since there were almost no crowds. The only down side was the additional time and uncertainty of getting there and back. The taxi driver actually stayed for the whole 3 hours or so in which we were walking on the wall so he could take us back to the bus stop. This part of the wall sees so little traffic that some of the bricks supposedly have the names of the original bricklayers when the wall was built.
A down side to this day was that the UW-Florida sweet 16 basketball game ended right at the time we were on the wall. We could follow the game on the phone and it looked like UW was going to lose but then Schowalter hit a 3 at the buzzer to send the game to OT. In OT UW led for most of the time and looked like it had won as it had the lead with like 3 seconds on the clock but Florida ran the length of the court and hit a 3 at the buzzer. Hard to follow a basketball game with so many twists and turns from a phone in China
That evening we had dinner at a very nice Xinjiang restaurant which was recommended by Agnes’ daughter Cat, who worked for Time Out in Beijing before she moved to Shanghai. William especially liked the lamb skewers which were much better than we were used to eating on the street. I liked the caramelized sweet potatoes.
Great Wall, part II
With Laura and Sarah two months later we had planned to revisit Jinshanling since it was such a nice experience the first time. And this time we knew which bus to take and where to catch it. However, after we took the subway to catch the bus to the Jinshanling great wall, these drivers came up and said that the bus was not running that day and we should take their taxi. My initial reaction was that they were not telling the truth, but there was indeed a sign posted that indicated that on that date, June 1, the Jinshanling great wall was closed. But then if the wall is closed, why would we want to take a taxi out there? He assured us that it didn’t matter if it were closed, you could still get up on the wall. So at first he was telling the truth, but then the second part sounded sketchy. We ended up back tracking and going to the more crowded Badaling site since we wanted to make sure that Laura and Sarah did get to see the beast. The reason that Badaling is the most crowded is that it is also the part of the wall that is most easily accessible. From the guidebooks there were clear instructions on how to go. It was indeed quite a bit more crowded but satisfying nonetheless. The Great Wall is one of those things that you really have to experience it first hand. All the pictures in the world can’t give you a sense of how remarkable it is to see this huge structure snaking across the mountain tops.
With both groups we went to a Peking roast duck restaurant (Luqun Roast Duck Restaurant) which was well received by all. However the presentation of the duck was not the way I remember in our last visit to a roast duck place in Beijing. At that time there was a woman whose only job was to carve the duck at your table and they served the skin separately from the meat. I learned to have a bowl of cold water to use to cool your fingers in order to handle the hot duck skin. This time the duck was carved in the room but not at the table and the skin was kept with the meat.