Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great
Part #8: Beijing’s Art District

I confess: I was pretty excited to experience China’s bullet train to Shanghai. Sure, we have Acela in the U.S. but it’s a poor excuse for high-speed rail. At its fastest, Acela travels 150 mph, but on the DC to New York City route, it averages a measly 81.7 mph. I’m generally a rah-rah America is the best kind of girl, but when it comes to high-speed rail, Asia and Europe have us beat. The G category train is the fastest on the Beijing – Shanghai route with a maximum speed of 186 mph and an average speed of 173 mph. Suck on that America!

The G trains offer second, first and business class, with business class being the most luxurious and expensive. We decided to splurge on first class seats (approximately $140) which feel and look similar to Amtrak’s Acela business class seats.

Our Hilton concierge purchased the tickets for us a couple days in a advance, and we hopped a cab to Beijing’s South Railway Station Friday morning. The train station was extremely busy, but it was easy to find our way around. We had to go through security (you have to go through security everywhere in China), but it was quick, and we had plenty of time to spare.

photo 1

China’s famous bullet train!

photo 2

The seats were comfortable – I fell asleep pretty quickly upon sitting down, but given my preternatural ability to sleep pretty much anywhere, that may not be much of an indication. photo 3 (1)

And the view was pretty neat too!

photo 4Seat61 has all the details on the different train options, prices, and times. At just over five hours, my sister and I found the train trip very relaxing and enjoyable. I highly recommend it over flying any day.

Part #8: Beijing’s Art District

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great

After three intense days exploring Beijing and the Great Wall, we spent our last day in Beijing taking it easy. We grabbed a cab (which is not as easy as it sounds in Beijing) to Beijing’s hip new art district, also known as, the 798 District. Located in northern Beijing, the district is not very accessible by subway, and the cabs are pretty cheap — assuming you can manage to find an available one. The district is built out of an old factory site and has a modern, grunge feel. It was fun to simply walk around and take funny pictures with the statues. Well, at least we found them funny…






statues side by side







Tagged , ,

Never Take No For An Answer (Oh, And I’m Going to Cancun!)

I’ve been AWOL for too long. Work has been busy — which is a good thing — but I have too many fun trips on the horizon and I can’t help wanting to gloat about them. So here’s the latest: Holy contributing to the delinquency of minors – I’m going to Cancun! (Andy yes, that is a real quote from the first season of Batman.)

I’ve never been a beach person so Cancun may seem like an odd choice. But I got the Hyatt Chase credit card last fall when my sister and I were thinking of going to Hawaii, and now I have two free nights at any Hyatt in the world that I need to use before September 30, 2015. I know, you’re crying on the inside for me.

I’ve read great reviews about the new all-inclusive Hyatt in Cancun, and Southwest offers nonstop flights from BWI to Cancun. I asked my friend Eliana if she wanted to go to Cancun for a weekend and this was her emailed response:

“I would freaking love to.”

So I transferred 17,000 Chase points to Southwest and booked a nonstop flight for 26,000 points and $75. Not bad for a flight that would have cost upwards of $500. I also transferred 17,000 Chase points to my Hyatt account to combine with my 8,000 Hyatt points. This gives us a third night in Cancun for a nice little weekend get away. And it gets sweeter still: Hyatt is offering a 20 percent points back promotion for award stays through July 31, 2015. So I should expect 5,000 points back in my account after our stay. More details on the promotion here.

When I called to book the free Hyatt nights the representative told me he only had one free night available. I insisted that I had called 10 minutes ago to confirm availability before I booked my flights, and he told me he couldn’t help me. I insisted on speaking to his manager, but he insisted that no one could change the available inventory for me. So I did what any intrepid travel hacker would do: I hung up and called back five minutes later. I got a new representative who, magically, had no trouble finding the free nights for me. The lesson I learned: NEVER TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER. Especially when free nights in Cancun are on the line.

Despite the fact that Cancun has never been on my bucket list, I’m pretty excited. Every room is a suite (around 650 square feet) with an ocean view that looks mind-blowing. Somehow, I think I’ll manage to enjoy this view for three days.


Tagged ,

The Benefits of Amtrak Select Plus

I had a short trip to San Diego for work (more on that later), and the only return flight that worked with my schedule was a redeye from San Diego to Newark with a three-hour stopover en route to Baltimore (and then an hour trip to my apartment). I don’t have status with United (or any other airlines for that matter) so upgrades were not an option. I simply prepared myself for a hellish journey home, counting down the hours until I could collapse in my own bed.

There was one silver lining: Amtrak Select Plus. Thanks to all the Amtrak traveling I did in 2013, I still have Amtrak Select Plus status through February 2015. Amtrak Select Plus isn’t all that great, except for one little known perk: It gives you access to United airport lounges.

select plus

Now a lounge doesn’t make up for sleeping in 40 minute increments in economy, but it is a nice pick-me-up in between layovers. The Newark lounge even had showers.

San Diego:

2015-01-17 19.36.18

2015-01-17 19.36.58


2015-01-18 05.45.04

2015-01-18 05.45.12

2015-01-18 05.45.28

2015-01-18 05.47.10

2015-01-18 05.48.10

Tagged , ,

2014: A Year in Review

It has been another year of amazing trips, new places I didn’t expect to see, and new places I didn’t expect to love.

There was an overall decrease in my travels. This is partly due to the ebb and flow of my work schedule. I took two big vacations in 2014 (Peru and Northern Asia), but far fewer smaller trips, especially to New York City.

My year in numbers:

  • 1: New states visited: Alabama.  I have now visited 38 states in the U.S.
  • 1: New continent visited (South America)
  • 4: Credit card applications (pretty dismal for me)
  • 5: New countries visited (Peru, China, Japan, Panama)
  • 6: Number of free Amtrak trips I received
  • 7: Countries visited (counting the U.S.)
  • 16: Number of states visited (counting DC)
  • 20,000: Number of Amtrak points redeemed
  • 11,418: Number of Amtrak points earned (4,051 fewer than 2014)
  • 15,000: Number of Amtrak points purchased
  • 27: Number of Amtrak trips I have taken (14 fewer than 2014)
  • 40: Number of flights (five fewer than 2014)
  • 39,676: Number of miles flown (17,890 miles fewer than 2014)
  • 657,560: The number of miles/points I’ve redeemed this year. This includes: One business class seat to Peru; one economy seat locally in Peru; one economy ticket from Peru to DC; six hotel nights in Peru; one business class seat from DC to Beijing; one economy seat from Shanghai to Osaka: one first class seat from Osaka to DC; four hotel nights in Beijing; four hotel nights in Shanghai; five hotel nights in Osaka; two hotel nights in Philadelphia; and four hotel nights in Mississippi.
Tagged ,

Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

The Great Wall is truly great. I mean it’s fucking great. Like mind-blowing, ass-kicking, I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-in-person great. It is one of the main reasons my sister and I decided to go China. It’s been on my bucket list for years. And it lived up to my expectations.

Scratch that. It exceeded my expectations.

Great Wall Map

The Great Wall of China is huge. It stretches for hundreds of miles and there are many different places you can see the Great Wall. The most popular tourist area is Badaling – it’s closest to Beijing and most accessible by public transportation. But it’s also crawling with tourists.

From the get go, I know I wanted to do an actual hike (not a walk) and visit a less touristy part of the wall.

As we began our research, it seemed like there were hundreds of guides to choose from, and we had no idea how to choose one from the other, or even which location to choose. Somehow, we stumbled on Dandelion Hiking, which does group hikes for a fraction of the cost of other companies and received good reviews on Trip Advisor. The owner was very responsive and spoke excellent English. And so even though no one else signed up for the hike (it was late November after all), we decided to stick with them and do a private hike. It cost us $150 per person which is comparable to all the other companies out there.

Our guide was a Belgian fellow named Jan who was just perfect. He and his driver picked us up from our hotel at 9:30 a.m. on the dot. His English was great; he answered all of our questions (even the stupid ones); and he took a ton of pictures of us, even when we insisted on doing silly poses that would try any normal person’s patience. Sadly, Jan informed us that he was going back to Europe in a couple of days, but I’d still recommend Dandelion Hiking. They were phenomenal.


Our trusty guide, Jan, taking pictures of us.

Jan recommended a hike called Chen Castle, slightly northeast of Badaling. It was perfect. It started with a steep hike up to reach the wall which tested our lungs and legs. But when we got to the top after much huffing and puffing, it was all awe and amazement and me shrieking, “We’re at the Great Wall of China!”

Starting out. You can see the Great Wall all the way at the tippy top.

Starting out. You can see the Great Wall all the way at the tippy top.


Reaching the Great Wall after 1,300 feet of climbing.


Showing off my yoga skills. Or skill. That is the only cool yoga pose I can do.

It helped that we literally had the Great Wall of China to ourselves. There was not another person or vehicle in sight for miles and miles.

The steep climb up was the hardest part. After that, there were a few hills, but we mostly walked along the Great Wall admiring the view and snapping hundreds of pictures. And I do mean hundreds.





















And of course, here is my requisite cartwheel pose. It’s not the most graceful cartwheel, but I’m about twenty years out of practice.



Let me conclude by saying, the Great Wall of China is amazing, and worth a trip to Asia. I’d recommend going in the spring or fall, though we managed just fine with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees. Dandelion Hiking does a variety of trips you can choose from, some which include camping out overnight on the Great Wall.



Tagged , , ,

Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

In case you’ve missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park

My one piece of advice for seeing Beijing’s most famous landmarks: Put your walking shoes on. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are huge.

For starters, there is a lot of security and a lot of waiting on lines for security. We went to Tiananman Square first and simply walked around. There isn’t much else to do, other than marvel at the massiveness of the world’s fourth largest public square and contemplate all the history that transpired on that very spot. At one point I turned to my sister and remarked: “It’s kind of crazy to be standing in the same place where history was made, walking around like it’s just a regular public square.” It really is crazy. I have no other word for it.



Next, we crossed the street and entered the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads to the entrance of the Forbidden City. Once inside the gate, you can continue on to the Forbidden City or buy a ticket to climb to the top of the gate and look down on Tiananmen Square from above. That meant more lines – both for security and for bag check. But the view over the Square make you appreciate the bigness even more.




Next up was the Forbidden City, China’s imperial palace for over 500 years. Many of the rooms are closed to visitors, but you can enter some, and purchase additional tickets to side exhibits. Otherwise, there is simply a lot of walking and saying over and over again, “Oh my god. This is f*cking huge!”

Also, I would not mind living in a house this big.





The end of the Forbidden City leads to a beautiful garden filled with Chinese landscapes.



Here I am taking a quick nap.


When we finally emerged on the other end of the Forbidden City, our feet were killing. All I wanted to do was sit down someplace. But we looked up and spied a Chinese-style building in the distance high in the clouds. A local official informed us that this was the Children’s Palace, and we could climb to the top for a mere two Yuan.

Despite our legs’ protestations, we wanted to get a view of the Forbidden City from above. And it was worth it. The views are very pretty, although marred somewhat by Beijing’s famous pollution. I can only imagine how great this picture would look on a clear day. Nevertheless, you can still get a sense of the Forbidden’s City’s daunting size.




Forbidden City

  •  Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are located on the number one subway line between the Tiananmen West and Tiananmen East stops. The very wide Chang’an Ave. divides the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, and you need to go underground to get from one to the other.
  • You will need to go through separate security lines to enter both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
  • Tiananmen Square is free, but the entrance ticket for the Forbidden City is 40 yuan in the off-season. It costs 15 yuan to climb the Gate of Heavenly Peace and you will need to check your bags (8 yuan). There is an additional cost of 10 yuan per ticket to enter the Treasure Gallery and the Clock and Watch Gallery.
Tagged , ,

Park #5: A Walk in the Park

In case you’ve missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs

I don’t need to write extensively about beautiful Beihai Park because the pictures speak for themselves. Beihai Park is an oasis in the heart of bustling Beijing. The park was originally built in the 11th century as an imperial garden, and is now open to the public (for five yuan).

Beihai Park










Tagged , ,

Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa

On our first day in Beijing, we valiantly resisted jet lag and set out to explore Beijing’s hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are narrow alleyways or streets, a throwback to what old Beijing used to look like. Located just north of the Forbidden City, the massive shopping malls and modern structures disappear into a glimpse of ancient Beijing.

Hutong map2

The main artery, a pedestrian only road named Nanluoguxiang, is populated with small shops, peddlers, throngs of locals, and very persistent rickshaw drivers who insist on giving you the grand hutong tour. It is a charming scene filled with leafy trees and hidden crevices, a stark contrast form Beijing’s massive roadways. Tiny alleyways branch off in either direction begging to be explored.

*2014-11-23 12.05.41

The entrance to Nanluoguxiang Road.

*2014-11-23 12.07.42

The aforementioned rickshaw tour guides.

*2014-11-23 12.09.44

*2014-11-23 12.15.15-1

*2014-11-23 12.16.58

*2014-11-23 12.29.37

*2014-11-23 12.30.17


After the hutongs, we made our way to the Drum and Bell Towers, hoping to get a pretty view of the hutong rooftops beneath us, but both towers were under construction and closed to visitors. We did not realize yet that the bright blue sky was a happy miracle. Our subsequent days in Beijing would be plagued by the city’s all too famous pollution.

**2014-11-23 12.47.40

Totally random couch on the streets on the way to the Drum Tower.

*2014-11-23 12.58.21

The Bell Tower

**2014-11-23 12.56.05

The Drum Tower

So we sat on the steps of the Bell Tower and bemoaned our exhaustion and took pictures of the adorable kids.

**2014-11-23 13.11.13(C)

And then, for the hell of it, I decided to do a cartwheel. I blame the jet lag.



Tagged , , ,

Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold

This post should have been written two months ago when I went through the process of getting a visa, but being slightly paranoid, I wanted to wait until my Asia trip was said and done.

Americans traveling to China have to apply for a visa with the Chinese consulate, which can be a grueling process and costs $140. At best, it’s at least half a day of standing on line at the Chinese consulate and hoping for the best. At worst…well, you’ll see.

Instead of spending a day at the consulate, I decided to use a well-reviewed visa service, Allied Passport and Visa. I dropped off my application and passport at Allied’s DC office, and a nice guy named Steve assured me that I’d get my visa in a couple of days. The next day, Steve emailed me, informing me that the Chinese consulate would like more information.

Ruh roh.


Once the Chinese realized I work in politics (the application asked for my employer), they wanted to make sure my trip was purely for pleasure and not for business. Apparently, they thought I might foment a political coup on my vacation.

At the consulate’s instruction, I wrote a short letter avowing my intention to visit China as a tourist and sent the letter to Steve.

The next day, I received another email from Steve. The consulate requested more information — three new items to be specific. I sent a letter written and signed by my boss on company stationary affirming that I will not be doing any business in China; a detailed 591-word letter detailing every step of my itinerary; and copies of my hotel reservations. And I shipped them all off to Steve and hoped for the best.

Two days later, Steve called with the good news: The Chinese consulate accepted my application. I thanked Steve profusely. Going through this process by myself would have been a nightmare. Allied Passport and Visa were an immense help, and I highly recommend their service.

Tagged , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers

%d bloggers like this: