Exploring China – Beijing, Shanghai, Pingyao

Where to go in China:

China is a fascinating place for a vacation. It is developing fast with some cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing very modern while others are still traditional and apparently unchanged for centuries. It is a country of contrast, with some wonderful sights such as the Great Wall and Terracotta Army. This article is all about these and some more obscure places that I visited on my very extensive itinerary, travel tips, advice and hotel recommendations.

In July 2007 I went on holiday to China. I wanted to see it before the Olympic Games, although I had perhaps left it a bit late to see Beijing before the massive construction activity had begun. We pre-arranged accommodation, flights and some other transport and guides where needed, but otherwise we were on our own. Total cost of the two-week trip including international and internal flights was a little over £2,000 each.

Getting There(Beijing):

There are many international flights to Beijing from all over the world, and this is perhaps the best place to start when touring China.

The flight-time from London Heathrow to Beijing with British Airways is about ten hours; a fairly long flight, but bearable and direct. Taxis are readily available at the airport, but pre-arranging a car makes the arrival less traumatic.

Where to Stay in Beijing:

We stayed at the Peace Hotel which is hardly luxurious but comfortable, and inexpensive, probably costing about £60 ($100) per night for a double room including breakfast. It is in an extremely good location near many of Beijing’s major attractions, with the Forbidden City visible from outside the hotel. There are several new, expensive, luxury hotels near Tiananmen Square which would also act as an ideal base while in Beijing and offer rather more style and luxury albeit at far more expensive “international” prices. We explored a few of them.

The Peace Hotel had little excitement to offer on our first evening so we took a short taxi ride to Raffles Hotel near Tiananmen Square, costing just £0.70. Raffles, while not having the history and character of the original Raffles Hotel in Singapore, did provide a touch of oriental luxury after our long flight, at quite un-Chinese prices, with a “Singapore Sling” costing £5.00 and the smallest Sherry in the world costing £4. Afterwards we walked towards Tiananmen Square and took a rickshaw ride round the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, initially haggling the driver down to £3.50, but ended up foolishly paying £14 because he did a far bigger tour and took us to Beijing Hotel for dinner. The Beijing Hotel is another very new hotel next to Raffles offering a range of restaurants and bars, which, although very luxurious, expensive and pleasant, is really just another international hotel similar to so many around the world, but with a slightly Chinese flavour. The inexpensive Peace Hotel was, for me, a good choice because the posh hotels did have an air of shopping mall about them and I disapprove of paying to go into a shopping mall. Our dinner at the Beijing Hotel was, however, very good. We chose the most oriental looking restaurant there and ordered Peking Duck, which was good, but certainly not the best I had ever had and extremely expensive.

Beijing has a modern, disappointingly western atmosphere about it, with many of the same shops, cafes and restaurant chains as everywhere else and terrible traffic problems. We tried to find local restaurants or bars, but the ones my partner would contemplate eating in were generally quite expensive. We decided to try to find a good bar for an aperitif and after some research and recommendations in out guidebook we took a long and expensive taxi-ride (just one mile away, but we sat in traffic for 45 minutes) to Capone’s Italian bar. It turned out to be in yet another modern characterless shopping mall, and the bar was O.K. but distinctly American in style. We did however find a chain of Duck restaurants with huge plastic ducks outside which did produce some extremely good Peking Duck, which was carved in front of us and served by hand in hygienic plastic gloves.

The Forbidden City:

The Forbidden City is a short walk from the Peace Hotel, but our first attempt to visit was thwarted by the presence of a huge new shopping centre on the way which apparently was more enticing to the other member of my party than ancient Chinese treasures, so we ended up back at the hotel with little cultural enlightenment achieved in the first day. We headed back there the following day, once my other half had her finished her shopping. The Forbidden City was home to emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties and was closed to the majority of the population for over 500 years. It covers a huge area filled with architecturally fascinating buildings in bright colours. It gets busy with many foreign visitors, and even more Chinese tourists with their umbrellas permanently up to protect them from the sun.

Tiananmen Square:

Tiananmen Square, now rather infamous for the pro democracy protests of 1989, is a huge square designed to accommodate up to a million people, while not the most attractive is one of the many points of interest on any tourist’s itinerary and is the heart of modern Beijing. The Forbidden City is on the northern side of the square behind the famous, huge portrait of Chairman Mao. Chairman Mao’s mausoleum is also located in Tiananmen Square (incidentally David Baddiel’s cat is called Chairman Meow) but was closed for renovation while we were there, but should have reopened by now.

The Bell Tower and Hutongs:

There is plenty to see in Beijing and it is certainly worth spending a few days there exploring what remains of the wonderful architecture, and some rather less attractive modern architecture. The Temple of Heaven is another fascinating, beautiful place to explore Chinese history and religion. It is set in 267 hectares of parkland. For an insight into everyday life in Beijing it is possible to hire a rickshaw and explore the hutongs, the old narrow back streets in the Changiao area of the Western District. We did this, starting at the old Bell Tower for a view over the hutongs, then spending a couple of hours weaving between them. We even stopped off to visit some inhabitants. The houses are tiny and have shared toilets for each small street. Apparently the rent was REM 200 per month rent (£14). The house had a nicer kitchen than mine and a 42″ plasma TV. I wonder if they are all that posh inside or if this was some kind of propaganda? After the tour we found ourselves diverted into a “Tea Ceremony”. It was of course a touristy shop where they gave us many types of tea to sample, then tried to flog it to us. A bit sneaky but quite enjoyable.

The Great Wall:

The best place near Beijing: Simatai to Jinshanling

We spent a full day exploring part of the Great Wall. We had already arranged a private excursion with vehicle, driver and guide, although apparently it would have been possible to arrange a trip once we arrived at the hotel or even take a taxi to part of the wall nearer the centre of Beijing. This full day excursion was fantastic and had the advantage of being a stretch of the wall that receives far fewer tourists. We left early for the two and a half hour drive on deserted, brand new roads for the walk between Simatai and Jinshanling. The full walk is about 10km along the top of a Ming dynasty section of the wall, but we only managed about half of the distance because it was extremely hot in mid-July. The views were stunning, exactly as expected, but still incredible, especially with almost no tourists in sight. The other advantage of this section of the wall is the air-quality is far batter being a long way from the city. We took a cable car back down, and then set back for the2.5 hour drive to hotel.

Beijing to Pingyao by overnight Sleeper Train:

We needed to get to an airport to fly to Xian. A prearranged driver and car arrived at our guesthouse in Pingyao to take us to Taiyan airport. To break the journey we stopped at Shuang Li Temple which is about 30 minutes out of the city, then the historic Jinci Temple which is a huge complex of buildings that date back to about 1030, although mostly more recent or rebuilt. The origins of the site are from several centuries BC. Very interesting architecture. We reluctantly ate in an extremely dirty looking restaurant nearby. We then flew for one hour from Taiyan to Xian with TBC airlines.

Pingyao: The old banking centre of the Ming Dynasty

Pingyao is a fantastic place to visit. Just how I imagined China to be. It was the banking capital during the Ming Dynasty, although ironically there is no cash machine there. I asked for directions to the bank and was shown to a 500-year-old museum. Never mind, I had plenty of sterling, which was readily accepted at the guesthouse. There is so much to see and do in Pingyao, including several ancient temples of various varieties and many small houses and banks with courtyards now converted into museums covering the history of this important walled city. The city wall and gates are still intact and can be climbed for a good view over the city. The straight roads still mostly filled with bicycles rather than cars and lined with proper Chinese buildings housing the shops, restaurants and the temples and museums. It would take a whole day to see everything included on the tourist entry ticket, and we decided to take it easy and not try to visit everything.

We were sure that we hadn’t arranged for any assistance in Pingyao, but a gentleman was waiting for us when we got off the train and took us to the guesthouse and seemed intent on accompanying us all day. We politely asked him to go away and once he’d taken us for registration with the official tourist office and helped us collect our tickets for every single attraction in the city he did disappear, although he was still waiting for us at the hotel when we finished our day’s exploration. The restaurants in Pingyao were inexpensive and many were very real Chinese restaurants with just a few selling western food. The first one we tried for lunch, was serving dog stew, but my other half made it clear that if I even contemplated eating it she would leave me, so we went next door and ate very mediocre pizza. Dinner was far better however, in a beautiful Chinese courtyard restaurant.

We stayed in the Yide Guesthouse, which I would certainly recommend. Very simple and extremely cheap (just a few pounds for a simple ensuite room), with a decent breakfast included. Reasonable food was available and the restaurant and bar made a great place to relax.

Pingyao to Taiyuan to Xian:

We needed to get to an airport to fly to Xian. A prearranged driver and car arrived at our guesthouse in Pingyao to take us to Taiyan airport. To break the journey we stopped at Shuang Li Temple which is about 30 minutes out of the city, then the historic Jinci Temple which is a huge complex of buildings that date back to about 1030, although mostly more recent or rebuilt. The origins of the site are from several centuries BC. Very interesting architecture. We reluctantly ate in an extremely dirty looking restaurant nearby. We then flew for one hour from Taiyan to Xian with TBC airlines.

Shanghai:

The following day we flew to Shanghai from Xian and checked into the Sofitel Hyland Hotel. Shanghai is a massive contrast, both to Beijing and to the smaller places we had been to. It has been a modern city for a much longer time than Beijing. In some places it looks and feels like a1950s prediction of the future, with its concrete flyovers and high-rise buildings, while in other parts it is a mixture of 1930s art deco and a more modern interpretation of what the future ought to look like.

The main areas of interest to tourist are Nanjing Road, perhaps Shanghai’s equivalent of Oxford Street and The Bund, the riverside area famous for it’s views of the Shanghai skyline. It is a busy city with hoards of people all desperate to get rid of their money in the abundant shops. I was however interested in getting away from these areas and went in search of markets and older areas of the city. We found the Metropole Hotel, which still retained it’s slightly tired art deco features and made a nice alternative to the ultra modern style elsewhere, but renovation work was already in progress, so I don’t know if it will still exist in this form. Another good area to head for to get an alternative view of Shanghai is Hangshan Road. 1930s style European architecture with a selection of interesting bars and restaurants and some quite reasonable food. Eating in up market restaurants in Shanghai proved to be quite expensive, almost on a par with London, with meals occasionally costing up to £100, with wine costing up to about £10 a glass, (except in our hotel where at lunch time the wine was free and they made up for that with outrageous food prices)

The Sofitel Hyland Hotel was very good. Modern and fairly standard expensive international style, but in an ideal location in the centre, apparently well run, with a good, if a little pricey, restaurant. But most important of all, it has it’s own brewery and it even brews it’s own dark beer. None of this Chinese style lager, but full-bodied thick brown beer.

Conclusion:

China is a wonderful place for a holiday with a huge variety of different and unusual sights, sounds and tastes to keep even the most blasé traveler intrigued. From the ultra modern shopping malls and luxury hotels of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong to the stunning and unique scenery of a Li River cruise and evidence the of ancient culture everywhere, there is something to entertain and enlighten everyone. It can be a very cheap place to stay and eat or very expensive if you opt for a luxury experience, although hygiene was a bit of a worry in some of the cheapest restaurants and air-quality is an issue almost everywhere. China is developing fast and will become more expensive and possibly less interesting in the future. Go soon.