Category Archives: Beijing

Part #10: Highlights and Lowlights

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!
Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey
Part #5: In Search of a Geisha
Part #6: The Not-So Silver Silver Pavilion
Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?
Part #8: The Very Gold Golden Pavilion
Part #9: First Class Baby!

My second trip to Asia was many things: Amazing, exhausting, eye-opening, cold, beautiful, empowering, and scary. Here are some of my favorite and not-so favorite experiences.

Highlights:

1) Traveling with my sister: This was my sister’s first trip to Asia, and it was exciting to see the excitement of travel through her eyes. She is now off to the Canadian Rockies this summer with my youngest sister, and I’m so excited for them.

2) Kyoto: Japan was a complete surprise. I didn’t have many expectations for Kyoto, and it turned out to be a beautiful, charming, and friendly city. I easily filled four days there.

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3) The Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China stands out as a top tourist attraction for a reason. It is truly stunning. I highly encourage you to to take a guided tour to a less touristy part of the wall so you can enjoy the splendor without thousands of other tourists.

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4) First-class: Traveling in first class – what is there not to like?

5) The Shanghai skyline: Despite the cold and the numbing sensation in my fingers, the Shanghai skyline was enchanting. The Shanghai Tower – now the second tallest building in the world – was the icing on the cake.

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6) The Shanghai Ghetto: We visited the old Jewish ghetto where my maternal grandparents lived for several years during World War Two. For years, I had listened to my mom tell the story of how her parents escaped the Holocaust. It was extremely meaningful and fascinating to visit the place they called home for five years.

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7) Traveling solo: Yes, traveling by myself for the last couple of days of my trip was slightly terrifying, but it was also empowering. I came home knowing not only that I am capable of traveling solo, but that I am capable of enjoying it.

Lowlights:

1) Jet lag: The jet lag on the way to Asia was no picnic, but the jet lag I endured after I came home was brutal and incapacitating. It was enough to make me swear off of Asia for a year.

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2) Traveling solo: Like I said, the anticipation of traveling by myself in a foreign country was terrifying. All my bravado and wanderlust aside, I’m not very good at being alone. Being alone in a foreign country kicked my normal anxiety into overtime.

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3) Navigating in China: The lack of English and general expanse of China’s mega cities made the simple act of navigating challenging – although not impossible.

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4) The Beijing smog: We were lucky to have a day of clear blue skies in Beijing, but found out just how bad Beijing’s famous smog truly is. There is nothing like a grey curtain hanging overhead to ruin a good picture.

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5) The cold: We knew it would be cold in China so this wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still a nuisance.

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Part #18: Thoughts on China

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
Part #9: Bulletting Toward Shanghai
Part #10: Radisson Blue Shanghai – A Review
Part #11: Family History in Shanghai
Part #12: Breaking News: I Did Not Find a Husband in Shanghai
Part #13: Traveling Like a Local to Zhijiajiao
Part #14: Traveling Solo and the Great Tea Festival Scam
Part #15: Ancient Shanghai
Part #16: The Perfect Night in Shanghai
Part #17: Loving the Indigo in Shanghai

I spent a week and a half in Beijing and Shanghai, which makes me nothing close to expert. But it allowed me to form some very definitive views about traveling in China.

1) First and foremost, traveling in China is hard. This surprised me. I have been to other foreign cities that were neither as big nor as urban as Beijing and Shanghai and had no trouble getting around. I had heard that English was a rare commodity in China, but I convinced myself that the mega-cities of Beijing and Shanghai would be different.

I was wrong.

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English fail! This is supposed to say: “Across People’s Ave… Please Walk Through Pedestrian Tunnel.”

If I didn’t have my destination written down in Chinese letters, the cab drivers had no idea what I was talking about. One day, I hailed a cab for a quick ride across the river in Shanghai, thinking I could simply point to the towering Oriental Pearl Tower to guide my driver…disaster ensued.

Shanghai and Beijing are also huge. Transferring subway lines underground might mean a 10 minute walk. I’m embarrassed to admit that crossing the street was sometimes a challenge. We often underestimated distances, thinking we could walk what turned out to be a 30-45 minute “stroll.” We often accomplished less in a day than we intended, and were often more tired by the end of the day than expected.

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A wide boulevard in Shanghai and the pedestrian bridge above it.

2) Jet lag is a bitch. There are some magical people out there who have no trouble traveling to foreign countries. I am not one of those people. The jet lag was at its worst when I returned to the U.S., but it was no fun in Asia either. We often fell asleep at six p.m. and woke up around three a.m. starving. Good thing we brought snacks. Thank god for Trader Joe’s trail mixes.

3) China is big and it’s getting bigger. As I walked around Shanghai I was surprised by how much construction and development there was. New apartments, new hotels, new shopping malls – there are signs of a bigger and better China everywhere.

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4) China is a mix of modern glamour and old-school poverty. High-end shopping centers mix with decrepit poverty. I suppose every city has elements of this dichotomy, but the images are so striking and so close to one another.

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Shanghai’s swanky French Concession neighborhood with its high-end shops and restaurants.

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How the other half lives in Shanghai.

5) The Great Wall of China is worth it. Go hike it. Now.

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6) The wifi is shitsville. The wifi was incredibly slow and drove me a little nuts, never mind the limited access to gmail and Facebook in some locations. I know some people love disconnecting when they go on vacation, but I love being connected. The contrast with the wifi in Japan was stunning.

7) The Shanghai skyline is impressive. I prefer the Hong Kong skyline with it’s mountains, but it is a sight to behold in its own right.

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Summary: The trip to China was fascinating and eye-opening and not at all what I expected. I expected a little more Hong Kong and a little less cultural isolation and grit. But those unexpected details are part of what made the trip interesting. As a student of politics, it is fascinating to watch China enter the twenty-first century, bursting with technological advancement and modernity, while it drags the rest of its expansive population in its wake. China is growing and building at such an accelerated rate, the China of today is nothing like the China of 10 years ago. Similarly, I would not be surprised if the China of 2035 will be vastly different from the China I experienced in 2014. Perhaps in 20 years, I will go back and see for myself.

 

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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): 7,500 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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The Ultimate Challenge: Booking our China Hotels

Booking our China hotels was simultaneously a challenge and an obsession. I love investigating hotels and figuring out the best options for my points. If that makes me something of a travel geek, well, I’m perfectly okay with that. And China is a travel geek’s heaven because there are so many chain hotels and so many options.

In Beijing, I knew I wanted to be close to the main attractions – The Forbidden Temple and Tiananmen Square — and also close to a convenient subway stop. This meant some terrific hotels were struck from the list: The Conrad and the Park Hyatt for starters.

So I made this awesome map:

Beijing hotel map

Key: The red pins are hotels. The purple pins are tourist attractions. The yellow heart is our hotel. And the circles and stars are subway stops.

Once my lovely map was complete, we had a couple of options: The Grand Hyatt, the new W hotel which doesn’t open until late September, the Hilton Beijing, and the Park Plaza. I have gold status with Hilton and Club Carlson (Park Plaza), and platinum status with Hyatt thanks to my new Hyatt credit card.

While the new W hotel looks amazing, I have limited SPG points, and the combination of my lack of status and the desire to use my SPG points elsewhere knocked it out of the running. My sister and I both recently applied and received our Hyatt credit cards which gives us two free nights each, but again, I decided to save that perk for a more expensive Hyatt property. The Park Plaza’s reviews were just okay, so that left the Hilton, where my gold status will get us lounge access, free wifi, and hopefully, an upgrade.

Here are some pictures:

Choosing our hotel in Shanghai was even more of a challenge. Shanghai’s tourist attractions are spread across several neighborhoods. Despite the allure of staying in one of the sky-high (literally) Hyatts in Pudong, we will probably spend more time across the river in Puxi, and I don’t want to bother with the constant commute.

This left us with a couple of options in central Puxi: Waldorf Astoria on the Bund (too expensive and used all my Hilton points in Beijing); Hotel Indigo on the Bund; Hyatt on the Bund; Radisson Blu Shanghai New World; Le Royal Meridian Shanghai; the Westin Bund; Shanghai Andaz Hotel.

It was time to make another beautiful map:

Shanghai map

Key: The red pins are hotels. The purple pins are tourist attractions. The yellow heart is our hotel. The gift boxes are shopping centers. And the circles and stars are subway stops.

My sister will be with me in Shanghai for four nights, and I will probably stay another two. The Hyatt on the Bund got amazing reviews, but it is a little out of the way. The SPG properties are similarly amazing but I have decided to go to Kyoto for a couple of days after my sister abandons me and want to save my SPG points for my limited hotel options in Japan. So I took a second look at the Radisson Blu New World and really liked what I saw. It is not as glamorous or modern as the sky-high Hyatts, but it is pretty nice. Thanks to my Club Carlson credit card, I get the last night of every reservation free, and my gold status should get us lounge access, free internet and possibly, an upgrade. Plus, the Radisson Blu is in a great location, overlooking the People’s Park, near the intersection of three subway lines.

Some pictures to whet your (and my) appetite:

I saw a little trick on one of the blogs that I will be putting to the test. When you redeem your Club Carlson points, the credit card gives you the last night of the reservation free. But I wanted to get at least two free nights out of our stay. So I booked one reservation for our first two nights using 44,000 Club Carlson points. I paid in full ($170) for the third night. And then I booked the fourth and fifth nights using another 44,000 points.

For my last night in Shanghai, I am using my free IHG night (I get one free night certificate a year thanks to my IHG credit card) at the rave-reviewed Indigo on the Bund. I’ve stayed at plenty of IHG properties over the years from Holiday Inn Express to the Intercontinental in Paris. But I’ve never stayed at the boutique Indigo brand and am very much looking forward to it. Its modern, artsy decor is totally up my alley and the views of the Pudong skyline look amazing.

More pictures:

 

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Holy Chicken Coop Batman, I’m Going to Beijing and Shanghai!

Yes, I just got back from Peru a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I’m a crazy person who can’t stop buying travel books (I now own more than 70). And yes, I love planning trips almost as much as I love taking them. So pretty much as soon as I got back to the U.S., I began searching for my next travel partner and destination.

The advantage of working in politics is that the dead time is entirely predictable. Nothing happens in December of an election year. Nothing. So I knew I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted, so long as I could find someone to travel with and I could make the miles and points work.

When my sister agreed to accompany me for a week and a half, that’s when I really went into crazy mode. We considered Argentina, Hawaii, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, and Chile. We seriously considered Hawaii because of the warm weather and the ease of staying in the U.S. But we were both somewhat daunted by the high prices and the annoyance of hopping from island to island. We considered a tour of Budapest, Prague and Berlin because of my weird obsession with Communist era history and my desire to stay in this freaking awesome hotel.

But then, in one of our many gchats, I typed: “Hey, you know, you could fly to Beijing for only 35,000 United miles in economy.”

And my sister typed, “Oh, I really want to see the Great Wall.”

And suddenly, it just became clear: We were going to China.

Sure, it’s going to be cold. Maybe even freezing. But there are so many great sights between Beijing and Shanghai that excited both of us, it became a slam dunk. And to top it off, this trip will be personal for us.

Our maternal grandparents escaped German-occupied Poland during World War II via Japan and then Shanghai. They were lucky enough to secure Japanese visas at the last minute and made their way to Kobe, Japan. When the Japanese realized they didn’t want a bunch of European Jews on their hands, they dumped them in Shanghai, where my grandparents lived for five years. Today, much of the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai no longer exists, but there is a museum dedicated to the community, and I’ve heard good things about the experience.

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Finally, being the points-obsessed person that I am, I love how many great hotel options we have to choose from. It’s a cliche, but I really do feel like a kid in a candy store. So many gorgeous hotels for so few points — how will we ever choose?

Somehow, I think we will manage.

Here is the challenge: My sister doesn’t want to take too many days off of work, so she will be abandoning me after a week and two days. The question is, what do I do then? Do I stick around Shanghai and just explore the city’s many neighborhoods? Do I hop a plane to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors? Do I hop a plane to Guilin to see the pretty karst mountains and these amazing rice terraces?

Rice Terraces

I’m a little wary of exploring China’s countryside by my lonesome. Big cities I can handle solo, but I literally do not speak a word of Chinese and I’ve heard it’s not the easiest country to navigate by yourself. Another option is to hop a plane to another country on the way home. I’m considering Kyoto, Japan because it’s actually warmer than China. I considered stopping off in Europe but the inefficiency of the trip gave me pause. A nonstop flight from Shanghai to the U.S. is about 13 hours. A nonstop flight from Shanghai to Germany is 12 hours! That is nuts. If I hadn’t already been to Hong Kong, that would be an obvious choice, but I was just there in November 2013.

So faithful readers, where should I go in early December?

China map

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