Make the Most of Your Yuan in China.
By Alev Gefen
Ni hao! Alev here, again, with Private Paparazzi Productions.
What happens, when you have a big yen (desire) to make the most of an incredible destination for as little yen (money) as possible?
What happens when the place is as enormous as China, but you have only ten days to see it in? Break your itinerary down into two or more parts and savor each one, as I did. The fourteen-hour flight fades into oblivion, as you step into what feels like another world, where history converges with new values and trends, where attitudes, dialects, and cuisines shift from one city to another. China is so much more than dragons, silk, and Kung Fu. It is an epic story.
Part I: Beijing
If your journey begins in Beijing, then the place to be is the Xizhaosi (Xizhao Temple Hotel). This hub is in the middle of nearly all the historical sites that you might conjure up at the thought of China: The Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square (both the administrative and shopping districts), and the Forbidden City are within a few steps of the hotel. If you are fond of long walks, like I am, then strolling to either of these sites is the perfect way to spend the day. If you are more keen on the actual destinations than on the scenic route to getting there, then the Line 5 metro is for you. (Another metro transfer shall take you to the renowned Olympic Pavilion, which held the momentous Summer Games of 2008). Amazing sculptures, tall buildings (less characteristic of Beijing than are the traditional temple complexes and pagoda-style shops), and tranquil parks all have a fascinating mix of sprawling squares and narrow pathways. All of the pedestrians and vehicles share the same road, so weaving in and out of the way of zooming scooters definitely can give you a rush!
Two hours outside the wonderful chaos of Beijing lies the one and only Great Wall. Began during the Qin (Chin) Dynasty (221-206 BCE) as a fortress against Mongol invaders, this wonder of the world was finished (albeit not completed) by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The winding “path” of steep, awe-inspiring steps is definitely a work of art and a mighty display of prowess. Many Beijingers refer to the Chairman as saying that you are not a hero, until you have climbed the Great Wall. (Sorry, Hollywood celebs: Flying your private helicopter over it does not count!) Words alone cannot do it justice, so I shall let the photos do the talking. A few minutes away are the majestic Ming Dynasty tombs and the jade museum, which showcases some of the finest carvings and jewelry out of what was once off-limits to everyone but the Emperor, himself.
After you complete your trek up the Great Wall, there are fewer better ways to celebrate than with a traditional kaoya (roast duck) dinner at the famed Quanjude (chuan-joo-duh) restaurant, where the duck is the prized specialty in all its forms (My top two favorite dishes are the duck tongue in aspic and the braised duck hearts.) No reservations needed, if you go by yourself or as a couple. Should that not be enough for the night, then karaoke at a cool bar a few blocks away ought to do the trick! Flex your vocal chords and, if you feel adventurous, flaunt your Mandarin or Cantonese skills to some of China’s hottest chart-toppers. Sing, play, and laugh, while taking in the cultural kaleidoscope of the mighty Beijing.
Part II: Shanghai
If you wish for a major change of scenery and climate (away from the frigid winter winds), then Shanghai awaits you (two hours by plane or eight hours by rail). The spectacular port city is one of the world’s most renowned trade ports and most cosmopolitan locations. It is said to boast a sizeable French population, as well as palpable signs of a strong presence from British and German settlers. (The latter is seen in the architectural style.) Speaking of architecture, Shanghai has some of the most impressive skyscrapers with innovative designs and colors. (One pink high-rise particularly stood out.) These giants are signs of cultural and economic advancement that continue to propel China towards cementing its status as a global superpower.
Stellar skyscrapers, peaceful parks, soothing seas, cool canals… You might think you are either in Venice or New York City. Why not both?
If you find yourself in Shanghai, then the Bund is the place to be. This amazing waterfront has it al: You can take a leisurely promenade by the water, while watching ferries pass by and people frolic with cameras in hand. Whatever the time of day, the Bund is teeming with activity. Can’t sleep? Then watch the gorgeous sunrise on the docks, while virile Shanghainese go about their morning routines: Some are briskly jogging; others are gleefully flying kites and chattering in the local dialect (vaguely different from the one spoken in Beijing).
Day or night, the Bund is an indescribable location. Staying at the Bund Riverside hotel means that this, the Shanghai Art Museum, People’s Square (probably twice the size of Central Park), and the Shanghai Tower (to be officially unveiled later in 2015) are all within easy reach. Feel like shopping? The square near the Bund, a few blocks away from the Riverside Hotel, has a ton of brand-name stores to choose from, including a few local finds like Inisfree (The Quiet Man, anyone?). Of course, you will find the famous Shanghai Bazaar and a number of funky “underground malls”, after a short trip via metro in the Pudong district. If you are craving true flavors of the city, then savor the famous “soup dumplings” (fried or steamed dumplings with actual soup broth inside), or have some of the coveted Yancheng Lake crab (my portion being part of a delectable soup). You honestly cannot go to Shanghai without tripping over something amazing. It is New York and Venice bound together by an unparalleled aura of Eastern charm.
Part III: Suzhou
Make sure to catch a glimpse of the historical, seemingly time-capsuled side, as well. While still in Shanghai, you are about an hour away from Suzhou, a town in the Gansu Province. Known as “Venice of the East”, Suzhou was actually founded in 514 BCE, while Venice, its Western counterpart, made its mark around 166 CE; therefore, calling Venice “Suzhou of the West” is more appropriate. Setting foot in this town is almost like stepping back in time, as you sense an easygoing vibe from locals transporting their products on wheelbarrows and washing their clothes in the “baby canals”. Laid-back and gentle, Suzhou is a favorite wedding destination for young Chinese couples; many of them flock to the spot on November 11th (a.k.a. Singles’ Day) to tie the knot. Beaches, gondolas, and music (serenades in the Suzhou dialect) make for an unforgettable experience.
China is a rich tapestry of cultures, histories, languages, and foods. The climate varies from region to region, making each one feel almost as a distinct country. China is a nation of many universes in one. I have lived in three of them for an incredible ten days, and you can do the same by packing your bags and soaring over to the Jade Empire.
Have fun planning your adventure in China.