|The Great Wall, Beijing China. Taken in 2010|
The Great Wall stretches over five thousand miles through mountains and grasslands. What remains of the wall no though is no less majestic than what you might imagine it had been when it was built. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve hiked various stretches of remains of the Great Wall. But I do know that I visit the Great Wall every time I’m in China. It doesn’t matter if I’m embarrassingly out of shape, this is one of those when in Rome moments…
The closest stretch of the wall is about an hour drive outside of Beijing, that is if you get out before the traffic. I typically find a driver to take me out there for the day since the last stretches of road before you get to the Great Wall can be through rural towns and small villages. If you don’t speak the language, book a tour of the Great Wall ahead of time with a tour company you like. My preference is Urban Adventures - the tours are small, the company has a great mission of mindful travel, and the guides are informative, and speak English.
|The Great Wall of China, 2010|
|Looking out to the mountains from the Great Wall, 2010|
|Great Wall of China, 2014 - still magnificent|
|The Great Wall of China, 2014|
|The winding stretches of the Great Wall of China, 2014|
|Onto the next watchtower, and the next.|
You haven’t experienced China until you have hiked the Great Wall. Start at one end of the ruins, stop often to take in the view and study the stretches of the wall in front of you, and behind you. When you think you’ve had enough, push yourself to go a little further, tell yourself you’ll stop when you get to the next watch-tower. You’ll never regret staying on the Great Wall a little longer.
Bring lots of water and comfortable shoes, you are going to hike up and down century old bricks and stones that have been morphed by the weather and wear of time. You’ll be sweaty, so consider taking a change of clothing also if you can help it. After the hike, resist the urge to eat at the installs immediately at the entrance or exit of the Wall. If you have a great tour guide, then they should be taking you to a village restaurant on your way back towards the city where you can enjoy some proper local cuisine.
Before we formally bid China goodbye, we left our beloved Hong Kong to experience the mystical Macau. I’ve heard a lot about Macau and pretty much everyone recommended that I visit once I told them I would already be in Hong Kong in the better part of a week.
Macau was an elegant blend of Eastern culture and Western influence. It’s got a lot of shopping and gambling, of course, and indeed makes for a great short getaway from it’s neighbor, Hong Kong.
11:am arrival after a 1 hour ferry ride from Hong Kong
Arrive in the morning by ferry from Hong Kong. The roughly 1 hour ferry ride offers a scenic and relaxing view while you cruise the calm waters between the islands. If you know you’re traveling during a busy day, try to get the the terminal early to buy your ticket. We purchased our ticket from a ticket scalper who sold us regular-priced tickets from a sold-out ferry since we only got there 20 mins before the scheduled departure.
Once you’ve arrived at the Macau ferry terminal, you can head to the casinos right away on one of the free shuttles provided by the hotels and casinos. Or, you can take the bus for ~20 mins into the heart of Macau.
Noon: Senado Square
Senado Square is quaint town square with traditional Portuguese mosaic that echoed the architecture of what I saw when I was in Porto last summer. Stroll the area and check out the buildings nearby. The Square is a UNESCO World Heritage city and was the civic square of Macau when it was a Portuguese colony. Stalls in the streets and alleys around the square offer souvenirs and decent food.
As someone who spent a year living in Europe, I have to say that the architecture is not as authentic or grand as you would find if you were actually in a European country. Still, the uniqueness of its location, and the proximity of Macau to mainland China, makes this unexpected find worth the visit.
2pm: Checkout the Ruins of St Paul’s
Depending on the time of year, you may find yourself among a pretty big sea of tourists at Senado Square. If so, follow the flow of the crowd as it twists and turns into the narrow streets and find yourself at the foot of the Ruins of St. Paul’s. What once used to be an impressive cathedral like those you’d find in the European capitals, today only the church’s facade remains. The rest was burned down in the 1800s, but it’s still worth walking the grounds and checking out the artifacts they have on exhibit.
3pm: Head to Ah Ma Temple
You’ve just enjoyed the ornate facade of St Paul’s cathedral, so now let’s switch it up and visit one of the many Chinese temples in Macau. Ah Ma Temple is a famous one, along with Na Tcha Temple. Follow the traditions and light an incense while you’re there.
4:30pm: Get up the Macau Tower
I’m generally a big fan of going to a viewpoint with great height advantage. As a photographer, I’m almost certain that it would produce a great image of a city. At 338 meters tall, the Macau Tower is a popular attraction with an observation deck. You can even bungee jump from the tower, which more than 1 friend of mine has done in the past.
6pm: See you at the slots
Macau rivals Vegas as the biggest gambling hub, and no trip to Macau is complete without at least spending some time in the casinos. Even if you aren’t going to gamble, some of the casinos have ornate interiors that are worth checking out. Wynn Macau is one such casino, and some would probably say the same about the Venetian Macau, although I admit that the fake sky in the Venetian really makes me feel boxed in. Spend the rest of your night enjoying Macau lit up in the glimmers of the casino strip or find yourself reveling in your good fortunes at the casino tables.
If I had to live in Japan, I would live in Kyoto. A city of temples, shrines, and imperialism, the ancient Japanese capital is a beauty with culture and history. I spent 3 days in Kyoto exploring the city. It was my first time in the city, and I did not expect how much I would fall in love with this cultural gem.
The quiet streets of Kyoto has a way of drawing you in, inviting you into the street front sushi shops, tempting you to try a local-favorite ebisu, greeting you to a tea ceremony accompanied by a Geisha or a Maiko, or walking you through the gates of the imperial palace.
The appeal of Kyoto is entirely in its rich but somehow understated array of cultural offerings. Most first time guests arrive in Kyoto without expecting to spend hours hiking up the mountain at Fushimi-Inari shrine. They don’t expect to find a real life Geisha in the Ginza neighborhood of Kyoto. They don’t expect to spend all their cash on matcha products. They don’t expect to get lost on their way to the next temple, and some hours walking the quiet quaint streets of Kyoto that has the feel of a traditional Japanese town. Yet, they do.
I was a sort of unwilling participant on the trip to XiAn. I’d wanted - begged and demanded - to go to inner Mongolia. But at the insistence of relatives whom I haven’t seen in decades, I found myself in XiAn for a week. Maybe it was this sort of unwillingness and dissatisfaction that initially clouded my judgement and lowered expectations that made me fall in love with XiAn. Whatever the cause or the catalyst, XiAn was my favorite part of this trip to China.
A far less crowded and dense version of Bejing, XiAn has many resembles to the current Chinese capital. Indeed, the city was once the capital of the country until the Tang Dynasty. Today, XiAn is a perfectly moderate combination of ancient history, muslim culture, street food, and religious sights. As I write this post, some 1 month after I’d left the city, I remember XiAn in humble colours of red lanterns, brown bricks, and grey rooftop tiles. I recall the smoky street stalls cooking Muslim delight. I remember clear skies that followed thundershowers. I remember the smell of sweetness in the air.
My suggested itinerary for a perfect three days in XiAn:
Morning: make the 1 hr journey out of the city to see the amazing Terracotta warriers. It’s worth the trip. A UNESCO World Heritage Site displaying more than 8,000 terracotta warriors from the Qin Dynasty, many come to XiAn for this attraction alone.
Afternoon: come back into the city and spend your afternoon touring the Bell Tower & Drum Tower. Serving practical significance in the historical era, the Towers give you a glimpse into how people used to live back in the day when ringing the city bell performed the task of a clock and drums reminded people of the calendar year.
Evening: spend your evening sampling the delicious food in the Muslim District, right off of the Drum Tower. The Muslim Quarter houses more than 20,000 Hui inhabitants, a Muslim ethnic group living in China. You’ll want to go light on portions so you can eat at a few different street stalls.
Morning: you get to sleep in this morning, but make it to the Old City Wall by mid-morning to catch some performances there like the changing of the guards. Next, hike up the city wall and rent a bike so you can bike all around the wall. From the wall, you get a nice view of the city.
Afternoon: get away from the high noon weather by hiding out in the Shaanxi History Museum. There are a few hundred thousand cultural relics on exhibit here, dating all the way back to the stone age. It’s free to visit although it only allows 4,000 visitors per day.
Evening: tonight, you’ll visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Constructed in the Tang Dynasty, when XiAn was the capital of China, the Pagoda is to XiAn as the Statue of Liberty is to New York City. The area around the Pagoda is home to lively entertainment and you can observe how the locals spend their evenings. Stay until 9pm to enjoy a musical water fountain show.
Today, go east and make the trip out of the city to Hushan, one of the five famous mountains in China. Huashan is known for its steep slopes. For the truly adventurous, you can walk on the wooden trail built along a mountain cliff more than 1,000 meters above ground. The 50 meter walk is all supported by wooden blanks 50 centimeters wide. Enjoy the adventure!