We spent a month in mainland China (max duration of the visa, but not nearly enough time!). The first two weeks we mostly visited key sights in the North-East part, between Beijing and Shanghai – and here’s a little summary.
We got our first taste of China here, and just loved it! Not at all the polluted, industrial, overwhelming city we imagined. The are many cycling paths, and mostly super-silent electric bikes and tuktuks (we were told the pollution is really bad in winter though). At least in the centre, there are many parks and there are still several neighbourhoods of little leafy streets lined with traditional houses – they are called the hutong.
I would say that walking in the hutongs was actually our favourite part of Beijing, but somehow… well, we forgot to take any pictures of the streets :-0 They didn’t necessarily have anything special, they were just cute, calm, with some little shops and old people sitting and gossiping outside.
Our other favourite were the parks, with beautiful lakes, willow trees and pagodas. People seemed to use them like an extension of their living room: pensioners playing cards or singing cheesy 1960s songs on loudspeakers, ladies jumping in elaborate choreographies to stay fit, couples dancing together to some local rhythmic music (we joined in a few times hehe).
We also just had to go to the Forbidden City, but the heat and the crazy crowds of tourists made it hard to enjoy…
We loved Beijing so much that we decided to stay a week instead of 4 days initially planned. This allowed us to walk around many markets, artsy neighbourhoods, more palaces.
And of course we went to see the wall, in Jinshinling which is not very touristy and half-restored. Straddling the mountaintop edge as far as the eye can see, it was even more impressive than the photos can show! The more we walked, the more crumbling the wall – interesting to see both what it looked like back in the day, but also the current state.
Datong and Pingyao
After Beijing, we visited 2 smaller cities, each a night-train ride away. Problem is… we didn’t book the tickets enough in advance and there were only “hard seats” left, no sleepers. The “hard seats” are not necessarily very hard, but the back is 100% vertical because it’s used on both sides, and the coach is brimming with people (including those with standing tickets, luggage, children, people jumping on and off at each station – basically not good for sleeping).
On the upside, both times we met nice Chinese guys who spoke English and who took care of us, even taking us out for a meal (explaining that they could not let us pay, because of “chinese manners”.
Afterwards we took the bullet train (much more comfortable) and spent 2 days in Xi’an. We decided to skip the famous terracotta warrior museum, to avoid getting into another tourist craze. Instead, we went to the Emperor Jingdi’s tomb, from a previous dynasty – much smaller figurines but very impressive.
We ate at the Muslim street food market – it was very interesting to see the Muslim community having preserved their traditions for centuries, right in the middle of China.
Then we continued on to Shanghai, this time by plane (if you look at the map, Shanghai is really far in the East…). Which was great, because we got a chance to experience the pre-landing fitness exercise: the crew gives instructions and all passengers proceed to banging their legs to improve circulation, stretch their articulations, etc. Wow, that is real customer care!
Shanghai really does feel much more cosmopolitan and modern than Beijing or anywhere else in China. We saw many westerners everywhere, and overall it just felt like any big modern city.
Coming up next > the rest of our adventures in China!