Of all the countries we had planned for this trip, China was the one we knew least what to expect but that we felt most nervous about. The visa process was intense and expensive and many things we’d heard from others indicated we wouldn’t have phone or Internet access and that we would have to stay hyper aware of ourselves while there…
and you know what?
We really, truly LOVED China. Hands down one of our favorite spots. We are both trying to create a list of each of our “top 3 countries we want to go back to ASAP” and China is the only one we agree has to be on both of our lists so far!
For those that don’t know, we initially chose China as a stop for a somewhat random reason…we saw the traveling exhibit of the Terracotta Warriors when it came to the Franklin Institute in Philly. And we were sooooo blown away and intrigued. When we learned that they were discovered by a farmer out in his field digging a well, we knew we wanted to see this…so China was thrown into the mix! We figured we could see the Warriors, pick another major Chinese city and see what we wanted to get ourselves into! And we were so sad to leave!! We did 3 days in Beijing and then 3 days in Xi’an (northern China where the Warriors are!).
Landing at the Beijing airport and seeing how massive everything is was our first shock. Things are mostly orderly with enough English signs to figure out what we needed to do but the airport is just massive and the line just to get thru immigration took at least 45 minutes. And apparently it’s not even busy season! We learned that every year, 110 million domestic tourists visit Beijing while only 2.4 million foreign tourists visit.
So, onto our time in Beijing! One of the first things we noticed on our drive into the city was how clean, enormous and modern everything was. Literally skyscrapers in every direction you look and as far as the eye can see. How else do you house 21 million people? Beijing is THE largest city we’ll visit on this trip. And it sure felt like it. Whether it was the endless traffic at all hours of the day and night or the crush of people at major attractions, you know Beijing is an enormous place. Not surprisingly, Nick and I stuck out like sore thumbs…and we knew it everywhere we went when people would literally do double takes or just obviously stare at us. Mostly men would turn around to watch Nick – they stared at his tattoos, they stared at how big he is and they stared at how different we both looked. But they were all very, very friendly and welcoming.
The Great Wall
While we didn’t head to China FOR the Great Wall, we knew we had to take a trip once we were there. We knew the easiest way to do it would be to jump onto a group tour of some kind and it was really perfect for what we wanted – a pickup at our hotel, a trip to a much less touristy part of the Wall, lunch and bottled water included, etc. We couldn’t have asked for more perfect weather for our day and it was incredible to be there and feel like we had the Great Wall all to ourselves!!! The hike up was MUCH more intense than we expected – the stairs are uneven and very, very steep but we hiked as far as we could and the views made it all worth it. One of the most fun parts was how you get there and back – you take a cable car up…and a toboggan back. THAT was a fun sled down the side of a mountain!!
The Forbidden City & Tiananmen Square
We chose a perfect spot in Beijing – only a 10 minute walk from some of the “major” attractions. We took a day to take a stroll thru historical Tiananmen Square and then explore the Forbidden City. More of the Forbidden City is open now to the public than has ever been before and there were so many ancient, beautifully detailed and constructed buildings to look at. Worth every moment of the visit! We left the City by walking two entire sides of the wall, giving us a chance to see as much of Beijing as we could from a better vantage point!
Xi’an – the City
We decided to stay in Xi’an for 3 nights in the hopes of taking a full day for the Warriors visit and then the other time to explore and wander the city at a leisurely pace. Xi’an did not disappoint – we really enjoyed all of our time there and ate some delightful food (see below!). Until we went to Xi’an, we honestly didn’t know much about it besides that it was home to the Warriors. And we sort of fell in love with the smaller feel of it – ironic since it’s still home to 10+ million people. For reference: more people than New York City. Similar to other cities we’ve visited like Chiang Mai, it has an old city that is protected by massive walls on all sides. We wandered side streets full of street food, local bars, upscale restaurants, etc.
So, the whole reason for our stop through China!! And it was soooooooooooo cool!!! For those that don’t know much about this incredible historical spot, these warriors were discovered in northern China by a farmer in the 1970s. It’s a HUGE collection of terracotta warriors of all different kinds meant to depict the armies protecting the first emperor of China (who died about 200BC) as he went into the afterlife. They are lifesize warriors with full armor, weaponry, etc. and the design of each was meant to indicate their ranks in the army – generals (only 7!), archers, commanders, etc.
- Archaeologists estimate there are 8,000 warriors estimated to exist but given the damage to nearly all of them, the exact number may never be known
- This is still an ongoing excavation – Monday thru Friday there are archaeologists diligently working to dig up and preserve every detail
- EVERY SINGLE WARRIOR is unique – they were modeled after the members of the Emperor’s actual army
- Sadly, all but one of the warriors uncovered so far were broken – some into hundreds of pieces – but ONE lone archer was discovered fully intact!!
- The warriors were originally painted to look real but once excavated, their age plus exposure to the elements stripped away nearly all the paint with very little remaining – according to scientists, it is almost certain all the paint will have flaked off within 4 minutes of its exposure to the air
- The Emperor’s tomb itself has never been excavated and there are no plans to – according to tradition and culture in China, mausoleums are never “opened” on purpose. They have done lots of testing with modern technology and people speculate there are even grander things to be uncovered within. (Elizabeth waits impatiently for this moment)
- Speaking of the mausoleum/the Emperor’s tomb…Chinese history and legend suggest that the Emperor was worried about the 700,000 workers constructing his tomb wanting to come back and take things or damage the interior and so he had the exterior doors sealed with them all in it!!
- Chinese legend and history (mostly a Han dynasty historian’s book from the second century) also suggest that within the Emperor’s tomb, there were rivers of mercury created underground to represent the major rivers of China- and even today (2000 years later), when they test the soil near the site, it has extraordinarily elevated levels of mercury!
If you can’t tell, the Terracotta Warriors were everything we wanted to see and more. If you ever go to China, PLEASE go see them!!!!!
So Much. Food.
Everybody loves Chinese food…it’s just a thing, right? But we had NEVER had Chinese food quite like we did in China. One thing we discovered we realllllllly enjoyed were Chinese hot pots. We ate hot pot two nights in a row. The “system” you use is as follows: choose spicy or not-so-spicy and they bring you a massive pot of beautifully seasoned, veggie filled broth that they start heating right on your table. Then you pick what you want to cook in it – we would choose a variety of meats and veggies and order more as we went and figured out what we really liked. Nick discovered that he enjoyed BULLFROG and we figured out together that we really can’t handle the spicy hot pot. It was tear inducing heat, no joke. The first place we went was a local but Western-friendly spot where we had the best broth and our entire meal (with beer) cost $30 but the second place was HYPER local, no English spoken and for our entire meal cost…$11. And we ate a LOT. We loved both places, both hot pots and will actively look for a hot pot place when we come home.
Our first day in Beijing, we wanted to immediately go eat. When in China. We made it less than two blocks from our hotel before we saw a loooong line of locals next to a window of a duck restaurant. We knew we had to stop and figure it out. They turned out to be peking duck tacos with slices of Chinese cucumber and a plum sauce. We literally ate them every day, sometimes in packs of two (5 per pack!) – they were moist, delicious, perfectly balanced and obviously a local favorite that we were fortunate to have stumbled upon.
We asked our lovely hotel staff if they had a recommendation for a good food spot nearby and they suggested a very old (started in it’s original form over 300 years ago) spot that serves a variety of things but specializes in whole peking duck. So of course, we had to order the whole duck. The chef brings it steaming hot out of the kitchen and you watch him butcher and serve the entire thing – literally. Head included. The meat was perfectly cooked, so flavorful and one of our best meals in China.
Last Night in China = DRAMA
So for context…the second to last night we were in China, we were sitting at the outdoor bar just next to our hotel when we saw a VAN of police pull up to the corner our hotel was situated at. The police didn’t look all too concerned but 5 of them walked casually into the front door of our hotel as we sat watching from the bar next door. Our first thought was “oh my gosh, are there here for us?? What could we have done?? Are we gonna get out of China??” Paranoia to the point of watching the window of our room to see if anyone went in there to find us.
Of COURSE curiosity got the best of me (Elizabeth) and I waited all of…5 minutes before I “casually” left our outdoor table to walk into the hotel lobby to see if I could see what was up. Was it a fight? Was there a problem guest? I had no idea so I tried to just peek in…there were a few young guys not-quite-yelling but sounding very displeased about whatever the cops were there for so I decided that maybe the best idea would be to walk out, and wait for things to die down a little. So, nearing the end of the cops’ time there, one of the guys we had seen in the lobby of the hotel a lot working came out of the hotel and almost yelled “f*ck!!!” This, of course, piqued our curiosity even more. But we found nothing out that night. No one was arrested, no one went with the cops, the cops didn’t seem to leave with any particular purpose or mission and nothing seemed overtly different at the hotel when we walked back in an hour later.
The next day was our last full day in Xi’an and we spent it walking around the city, minding our own business and only thinking of the police visit sporadically. When we got back to the hotel, we started to notice some odd things. The signs on and above the reception desk for the day tours they arranged were mysteriously gone. But we went upstairs to shower, start packing for the next morning, etc. When I came back downstairs to run a quick errand, I noticed more signs from the wall were down, the staff was looking nervous and a few people were checking out late into the afternoon…it all felt odd but no one at the hotel mentioned anything so I just carried on. When I got BACK from my errands, the main sign for the hotel on the front of the building had been taken down and more people were checking out. Still, no one from the staff said anything…I had no idea what was going on but obviously ran straight away to tell Nick my newest findings. Our flight was at 7:00am the next morning to Tokyo so thank goodness we had packed if we needed to make a quick escape.
As we left the hotel to find dinner and hopefully tour the old walls of Xi’an at dusk (around 7pm), the hotel staff stopped us to say they were very sorry but they were having a problem with the hotel and we would have to leave and stay at another hotel. We were shocked…but not that shocked given the slow deterioration of things over the last 24 hours. We were actually more shocked that the manager immediately said they had already booked us a room at another hotel nearby and that they would arrange a taxi to come pick us up – on them – and get us there once we were ready. We had no idea what had happened and they were *not* keen on telling us but we quickly finished throwing the last things in our bags and got into the taxi to the unknown hotel. The best part of this was that the hotel we ended up at was a VERY nice hotel – definitely a step up from where we were – and that we felt like we had hit the jackpot for our last night. What a last night in China!! Luckily we got out safe and sound and Japan is up next for over two weeks!!