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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Here I am taking a quick nap.

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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.

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 Practicalities:

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.
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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

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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.

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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.

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The entrance to Nanluoguxiang Road.

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The aforementioned rickshaw tour guides.

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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.

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

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The Bell Tower

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The Drum Tower

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

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

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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.

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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.

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Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China

After arriving in Beijing, we took a cab to our hotel, the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing. At 40,000 points a night, it was not exactly a steal but I had the points and it turned out to be the best hotel of the trip. While Hilton has dramatically devalued it’s award system, it is one of the best hotel programs for gold status, which I have thanks to my Hilton Reserve credit card. Specifically, we were updated to a gorgeous, large suite-like room, had access to the lounge, and enjoyed free wifi.

First the room. It was amazing. It was very spacious with a massive walk-in closet which was itself the size of some hotel rooms. We had the largest bathtub I have ever seen in my life, and plenty of space for our stuff.

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The lounge on the sixteenth floor was a treat, stocked round the clock with food and drinks, which for me, meant endless diet coke.

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Concierge spoke a passable English and were extremely helpful, especially with booking our train tickets to Shanghai.

Finally, the location was perfect. Beijing is massive, so we had to travel to most sights, but we were located near two subway lines in the center of town, within walking distance of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There was also a mall just down the block with a supermarket in the basement when we need to restock on snacks and other paraphernalia.

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The super convenient APM mall.

I have been down on the Hilton program since it was massively devalued, but this stay made me appreciate the good parts of Hilton HHonors. Yes, some hotel rooms will cost an exorbitant 80,000 points a night, but you can find cheaper options and Hilton points are relatively easy to earn. There are several Hilton branded credit cards, and there is a Hampton Inn in nearly every podunk town in America. And since I travel to a lot of podunk towns, I end up staying in a lot of Hampton Inns.

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Part #1: Off to China!

Two weeks ago, I set off for my second trip to Asia. My itinerary included four days in Beijing, six days in Shanghai, and five days in Kyoto, Japan.

Itinerary map

Step one: Getting to Beijing. My sister and I booked Saturday night flights (me from DC, she from NYC) that had us meeting in Frankfurt. My first leg was United business, and while comfortable enough, it was one of the worst international business products I’ve tried.

Now, I almost feel bad writing this. Flying in business class is a luxury most people can’t afford, and the only reason I can afford it is with miles. And the truth is, as long as I can lie down and sleep, I’m pretty happy. And by that extremely low bar, United passed with flying colors.

But I’ve flown several different business class products now, and my newfound knowledge demands an honest comparison.

The seats were lie-flat with a two-four-two configuration. Some of the better products – like Cathay Pacific – have a one-two-one configuration. At the very least, most planes have a two-two-two setup. While the seats lay flat when fully extended, they were only 20 inches wide. I was fairly close to my neighbor and did not have a lot of personal space for my stuff. Many of the newer products have pod-like seats that afford greater privacy and space.

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That said, the movies were good, I slept about three hours, and it sure as hell beat economy.

Air China was surprisingly better. For starters, they offered a two-two-two configuration, with wider seats (22 inches of pitch) and a lot more space and privacy. Unfortunately, the English movie selection left something to be desired, but the hard product was a significant improvement over United.

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And, they provided slippers! I love when airlines give me slippers so I don’t have to put my shoes back on every time I go to the bathroom.

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Travel Apps That Saved Me

Before I get into detailed posts about my trip to China and Japan, I must rave about the travel apps that revolutionized my traveling.

I turned off cellular data on my iPad and iPhone so as not to incur a bagillion dollar bill, but downloaded offline maps for Beijing, Shanghai and Kyoto. At the time, I had no idea how useful these maps would be. Unlike paper maps, these apps use GPS to mark my location and direction even when I’m offline. So, for example, if I get out of the subway and have no idea which direction to go in, I simply check the app. As I wandered around the western parks of Kyoto with no English signs, I pulled out my iPad and made my way to my next destination. Gone are the days of walking 15 minutes north only to realize that I meant to walk south!

Some people say getting lost is part of the fun of traveling, but not me. I hate getting lost. I like the puzzle of figuring out a new city and knowing exactly where I’m going. But wandering around with absolutely no sense of where I am frustrates me, and to be honest, scares the shit out of me.

Since Beijing and Shanghai are large cities, I had plenty of free apps to choose from, and ended up using Ulmon maps. There may be better versions out there, but these worked for me.

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The app allows me to save personal locations with colored stars. Also, the free version clearly comes with ads.

Kyoto was a bit harder. Many of the options were in Japanese which was, for obvious reasons, completely useless. After an extensive google search, I stumbled upon MapsWithMe, and downloaded their Japan app. So far (I am still in Kyoto), this map is working amazingly and could not recommend it enough.

Kyoto map

Notice the little blue arrow that tells you my location.

 

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IT’S TIME TO GET EXCITED

It is officially time to get excited. In three weeks and two days, my sister and I will board a plane (two planes, to be exact) for China. We are finalizing plans, and I’m starting to get that thrill in my bones that makes me want to turn the music up to its maximum volume and break out some very uncoordinated dance moves.

Some of the things I am excited about:

(1) Hike the Great Wall: We finally settled on a guide and hike for the Great Wall. As you probably know, the Great Wall of China is huge and you can see it and hike it at many different portions alongs its windy route. We settled on Dandelion Hiking which received very good reviews on TripAdvisor and offers guided hiking trips at half the price than many other companies ($73 compared to $150 and up). So far, they have been very responsive and helpful. They deliberately offer “off-the-beaten-track” trips, which means I won’t have throngs of tourists obstructing my photographs. They recommended the Chen Castle Great Wall hike, which is about five miles and looks amazing.

Chen Castle

(2) The Shanghai Marriage Market: I just discovered this gem. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of Chinese parents gather in the People’s Square, hawking pictures and descriptions of their single children, looking for prospective marriage partners for them. The People’s Square is right across from our hotel, and I am definitely going to this.

marriage market

(3) See the second tallest building in the world: At 2,073 feet, the Shanghai Tower is now the second tallest building in the world, behind the Burj Khalifa which I don’t expect to see anytime soon. Growing up in Chicago, I always took for granted that the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was the tallest building in the world and would always stay that way. Boy has the world changed.

Shanghai tower

(4) Visit a canal town: There are a whole bunch of canal towns a short distance from Shanghai, and we plan to take a day trip to explore one of them. We haven’t chosen which one yet, but it should be fun.

Suzhou

5) Acrobats: We plan on seeing an acrobatic show at Shanghai’s Circus World. Maybe it’s a little touristy and cheesy, but I like touristy and cheesy, especially if it involves gymnastics.

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(6) Take this picture: There is something quietly beautiful about Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I’m hoping the real thing lives up to the pictures.

arashiyama

(7) New hotels: You know you’re travel obsessed when part of the fun of traveling is trying out new hotels. In total, I will sleep in four new hotels from four different chains (Hilton, Club Carlson, IHG, and SPG). Woohoo!

(8) Mockingjay: What!?!? Why am I talking about the Hunger Games? Because I have a tradition of seeing movies I really want to see in foreign countries and the third installment in the Hunger Games series comes out the weekend I leave for China. I’ve already mapped out all the good theaters in Beijing and Shanghai.

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Oh Canada

I haven’t been doing much traveling lately since we are in the height of election season, but last week I stole away to spend the Jewish holidays with friends in Toronto. Dan and Daveeda are some of my favorite people in the world and I wish I could pack them up and take them with me wherever I live. But until they agree to that arrangement or I figure out how to teleport, I’ll have to settle for trekking to Canada every once in a while.

We spent most of the holiday doing what we Jews do best: Praying, eating, and sleeping — and then eating again. But we spent one day taking the kids to Edwards Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden in eastern Toronto.

It was a beautiful fall day and it was just nice to be outdoors and explore the gardens.

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And then the kids decided to take a bath in the river, which was a lot of fun for them and a little less fun for the adults.

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How Much Does It Cost to See China and Japan in Style?

I have finally booked all the pieces of my trip to Asia this fall. I will start off in China with my sister where we will see Beijing and Shanghai. After my sister flies home, I will spend a couple of days in Kyoto, Japan by myself. Here is the route.

Flight Map

Weirdly, the most expensive part of this trip has been my visa application to enter China. I could have applied for the visa myself, but I have limited time and even more limited patience, so I mailed everything to Allied Visa & Passport which was recommended by The Points Guy.

Here is the breakdown of all the costs:

  • Flight: Washington D.C. – Beijing (business class): 75,000 Aeroplan miles + $65.70 in fees.
  • Hotel: Four nights at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing: 184,560 Hilton points + $99.91. I booked three nights with points and one night with cash plus points.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Raddison Blu Shanghai New World: 88,000 Club Carlson points + $163.87. (I booked four nights using points and paid in full for one night, which I will split with my sister.)
  • Flight: Shanghai – Osaka, Japan (economy): 7,5000 British Airways miles + $91.82 in fees
  • Hotel: One night at Indigo on the Bund: Free. I used my annual IHG free hotel certificate.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Westin Kyoto: 40,000 SPG points
  • Flight: Osaka – Washington D.C. (business/first class): 80,000 United miles + $61.40 in fees. I will be flying business class to Beijing and then first class to Washington D.C. First class was only an additional 5,000 miles, so I said, why the hell not?
  • Chinese visa application: $140
  • Visa Service: $40 (normally it costs $45 but I should get a $5 discount for referencing The Points Guy) + $41 in FedEx fees.

Total out of pocket costs: $571.82 after my sister and I split the two hotel rooms I had to pay for. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.

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