Flying to China
Mike and I traveled from Osaka, Japan to Beijing, China on an 3.5 hour Air China flight, which would have cost us $900 USD, however, we used Chase Sapphire Preferred points and were able to have free flights! From the second we landed in China, we experienced our first culture shock where people from the back of the plane were trying to push past us to get off of the plane first. Out of everywhere we’ve traveled before, we had never experienced this. Western culture is that you get off of the plane starting in the front, whoever is closest to the door, and take turns getting off.
Cell Phone Communication in China
Once we got through customs and were allowed to use our cell phones, we turned on our portable Wifi hot-spots and our VPN’s that we purchased (1. Express VPN, and 2. Nord VPN), so that our phones would fully work. We needed portable Wifi so that we could communicate with a driver via Didi (which is like Uber and Lyft in western countries). Also, you cannot access a lot of apps from the US like Facebook or Google in China, so you need a VPN in order to do that.
Transportation in China
Once we got our phones working, we called a ride via Didi (similar to Uber and Lyft) to take us from the airport to our hotel downtown Beijing. We had no idea where we were going, and we could not communicate with most people because they did not speak English. It took us a really long time to find our driver that was in a parking structure waiting for us. He was unable to communicate with us where he was, and we were unable to communicate where we were. I was pretty afraid, but we just walked around all of the different rows looking for the certain car and license plate number and finally found him. We found Didi to work the best for us because we could put in the destination, and then the language barrier did not matter.
Hotels in Beijing
We stayed in Beijing for 2 nights, and we used points both nights for free hotel rooms. We stayed in the Waldorf Astoria for the first night, and then the Renaissance for the second night.
Waldorf Astoria Beijing
The Waldorf Astoria is definitely a 5 star hotel; they treated us like a king and a queen with amazing service. While we were visiting, Mike and I celebrated our 5 year anniversary, and they sent roses, champagne, and treats to our room, free of charge. We were so exhausted when we arrived at the hotel that we decided to stick around the hotel, relax, and take a quick stroll through the Wangfujing shopping area.
PINK Rosé afternoon tea
We went to the afternoon “tea time” they offered in the main dining area, and everything was so well thought out and beautiful. We were offered rosé Perrier-Jouët brand and many rosé themed offerings: champagne sponge cake, almond cake, green tea tiramisu pot resembling a plant, and a strawberry watermelon cake. Everything looked great and tasted great.
Wangfujing Pedestrian Street
The Wangfujing Pedestrian Street was a very busy shopping promenade. We walked around and sampled a few different foods (Mike ate Fish Bones), and looked at the different stores. Many of the stores are stores that we have in America, so we did not buy anything, but it was still fun to walk around and see what they have to offer.
Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Hotel
On our second night, we stayed at the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Hotel, and it was a beautiful modern hotel just down the street from our first hotel. We visited the Marriott Lounge and ate dinner there after our private day tour (see below).
Private Day Tour: Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and the Mutianyu Great Wall
We used the website www.viator.com/ to book a private day tour of the Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Muianyu Great Wall. The tour included the driver, tour guide, water bottles, lunch, and the tickets for the round way cable car or toboggan at the Great Wall. The tour was $200 USD per person, but we visited during the busy season. I think it was worth it so we did not have to worry about coordinating anything at all; everything was taken care of.
The driver and guide picked us up at our hotel and drove us over to Tiananmen Square (Tiananmen Guangchang) to start the day. Every morning at Tinanmen Square, the National flag is raised when the sun rises. Tiananmen Square is a big square with buildings around it and a big monument. The Tiananmen Tower (Gate of Heavenly Peace) is the symbol of modern China and featured on the emblem of the People’s Republic of China. Everything is very closely monitored in the square, so it felt a bit eerie. There is not that much to see in Tiananmen Square, but it was interesting to see since we know that is where the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests occurred.
Forbidden City – The Palace Museum
The Forbidden City is China’s most well preserved imperial palace, and its the largest in the world with over 9,000 rooms and spread over 250 acres. The imperial palace was used from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, and it now houses the Palace Museum. We were shocked at the number of people inside. We learned from our tour guide that it is the most popular place in the country to visit. Most visitors are actually Chinese people from all of the different Providences, and the visitors are not foreigners (we also learned they call anyone not from China a foreigner). Our guide also taught us about the architecture of the buildings according to fengshui as well as the traditional emblems of the dragon, phoenix, unicorn, turtle, lion, and lioness. When we were visiting, there was also a popular elected official there, so they closed the exit for about 30 minutes. This caused chaos and everyone was pushing and shoving trying to get out of the Palace Museum; I was actually quite scared, and our guide felt really badly for how everyone was behaving.
After we left the Forbidden City and were heading towards the Great Wall, we passed the Lama Temple, which has very similar architecture as the Palace Museum. The Mongolian-Tibetan temple is built of beautiful colorful pavilions. The temple houses a Buddha carved from one piece of Tibetan sandalwood.
Great Wall of China – Mutianyu
The Great Wall of China is 13,170 miles long. We visited the Mutianyu section, and I think it was a great choice by our guides. We went in the afternoon, so the morning rush with all of the tour buses were already gone. We were also lucky that it was a really nice day, and there was no smog. Once you arrive, you have the option to climb up to the wall via stairs or ride a cable-car/chair lift for a fee. I think it is totally worth riding up to the wall because once you are on the wall, you still have plenty of climbing to do! The wall is broken out into different tower sections that are numbered, and you can walk as far as you’d like. Once you have had enough fun walking around on the wall, make sure to take the thrilling toboggan slide down! I was pretty scared to get on it, not going to lie, but once you are on it, its really fun.
Other Things to do in Beijing
We were planning on also visiting two other large historic sites in Beijing, but we opted for some relaxation since sometimes you just need a day of rest while you are traveling for an extended period of time. If we had time, we would have visited the following:
The Summer Palace is the largest royal park in China, and it has been recognized as ‘The Museum of Royal Gardens.
Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven Park is the largest sacrificial building where the emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) and Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) held the Heaven Worship Ceremony.
Train to Shanghai
We took a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, which is one of the world’s fastest trains with a top speed of 217 mph (350 km/h). We booked First Class tickets to ensure that we had a great seat and places to stow our luggage (cost about $130 USD). The trip took 4.5 hours to go 819 miles (1,318 kms) between the Beijing South Railway Station and the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. During the train ride, we had Wifi most of the time (it was spotty and would go out). It was incredible to see some of the gigantic cities that we passed. They looked like they had hundreds of high rise buildings where people lived very closely together, but they were not necessarily major cities.
Le Royal Méridien Shanghai
Once we arrived in Shanghai, we took a Didi to our hotel: the Le Royal Méridien Shanghai. We used Marriott points to stay here for free as well. The hotel was very nice, and we had an incredible view of the Shanghai skyline. We also had access to the Marriott lounge, so we were able to get there whenever we wanted. After we settled in, we headed off to explore the city.
We started our day exploring the Yu Garden, which is an extensive Chinese garden located in the Old City of Shanghai. The garden is also known as the Garden of Happiness, and it was very nice to walk around and explore. We saw many monk’s walking around, and they all looked so happy, which added to the experience. The garden’s centerpiece is the Exquisite Jade Rock, which was very beautiful. We also were enjoyed the large coy pond. I’ve never seen so many LARGE coy fish, and they tended to follow people around expecting to be fed. The fish drew large crowds.
Yuyuan Old Street Market
The Yuyuan Old Street Market, also known as the Yuyuan Bazaar, or the Old Town God Temple of Shanghai, is a large area located outside the Yu Garden in the heart of Old Shanghai City. There are many traditional Chinese buildings filled with tourist shops selling tea, antiques, jade, pearls, silk, etc. as well as many restaurants. It was extremely crowded here. We were shocked how people did not appear to follow western “queues”. Many people cut in front of us when we thought that we were waiting in line. Also, we learned personal space is different, and people would stand close enough where they are touching you. It was a very interesting experience walking around.
Jade Buddha Temple
After we were done grabbing some food in the market, we took a Didi over to the Jade Buddha temple. There are many Jade and Marble Buddha’s throughout the various temple rooms. It was much more quiet and peaceful at this temple. We enjoyed walking around and exploring, seeing people praying, and taking in the smell of the incense.
Food Tour – Eat Like A Local: Shanghai Night Food
Since Shanghai is such a massive city, we decided to participate in a food tour to get an experience of the local cuisine with Unfood Tours. Our guides were great, and they took us through the Changning & Jing’An districts where we sampled local food and spirits including rice and wheat-based noodles, twice-fried bamboo, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings, classic Sichuanese dishes, and a Cantonese fruit dessert. We would have never gone into these restaurants on our own. Mike was very willing to try any of the dishes, including some that were extremely spicy, and another that was a rabbits head. We also tasted baijiu, which is the most popular Chinese drink. It is extremely strong; I would not recommend drinking much. My favorite part of the tour was tasting Shanghai’s most famous dish, xiaolongbao (soup dumplings).
We started our day walking around the site of Shanghai’s municipal government headquarters buildings. Our hotel was right next to this area. We weer surprised how many police and cameras were out on the streets. The People’s square has many places to visit:
- Contemporary art museum: The museum holds temporary art exhibitions. The staff were not very friendly or helpful. We walked around, but honestly it was not really worth it.
- Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center: displays Shanghai’s urban planning and development. The focus of the exhibit is a large scale model of the entirety of urban Shanghai, showing existing buildings and approved future buildings.
- Shanghai Museum: A museum of ancient Chinese art and is considered one of China’s first world-class modern museums.
Airbnb Food Walking Tour around the former French Concession
We took another Food Tour around the former French concession during the day, which I really enjoyed walking around the old neighborhoods with traditional stone-gate houses (Shikumeng) and modern streets. We saw the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party and learned about the history and culture of the quickly changing city. We tried many different foods: scallion oil noodles with three to six different toppings; teas such as pu’er, oolong, and longjing green tea; baijiu; and a hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop joint that serves wontons, pan-fired dumplings, soup dumplings, and other side dishes.
After our tour, we went back to our hotel for a bit, and then we walked down the Nanjing Road, which was also located right outside of our hotel. The Nanjing Road is a touristy stop with global brand stores and restaurants and very bright lights at night. The road reminded us a lot of times square in New York City.
At the end of Nanjing Road is the Bund, which is a waterfront area with views across the western bank of the Huangpu River. It is popular visit because of the many distinctive western-style buildings. Our tour guide told us that Shanghai was built to be as western as could be so that people from all over would visit. The Bund is honored as the “World Expo of Architecture”.
Hot Pot (Top One Pot)
Mike has a friend from college that was living in Shanghai, so we visited her and her boyfriend at a Hot Pot restaurant. It was such a fun experience. Hot Pot is a Chinese cooking method prepared with a simmering pot of soup stock in the middle of the dining table, and you put in various meats and vegetables. Mike and her boyfriend got a spicy soup, and they ordered frog legs! His friend and I got a more mild soup and ordered chicken and pork.
Flying home from Shanghai, we were able to upgraded book seats on Delta, and because of my status, we were able to hang out in the airport lounge before our flight. After a long two weeks abroad, we were extremely happy once we landed in Los Angeles and got home into our beds after the 12 hour flight.