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Home » Adventures » China


June 2013

I chiefly went to Beijing, China for the start of my trans-Siberian railroad journey on my way from New Zealand to Europe. Unfortunately this plan did not quite work out due to my poor execution of the Russian visa process at the last minute. I already had a visa and tickets to China though, so I could at least ride the trans-Mongolian railroad. Little thought about the date of my flight versus which day of the week the train went to Mongolia left me with a little over a week in China — slightly more than I expected, so I made the most of it, visiting Beijing and Xi’an. Rather than reading about my time, you can also just look at all pictures from China.


Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is where the Emperor, his family, and servants once lived and ruled. Now in the middle of Beijing, it is no longer forbidden as ten of thousands of tourists flock through its halls and gardens everyday. With the crowds it was hard to even image this place sparsely populated, with just the imperial family residing here. I joined the present day throngs and for several hours wandered about the Forbidden City’s many buildings, gates, courts, and gardens. The structures were ornately detailed, especially the roofs. The complex was amazing both in size and detail. Many rooms had been restored to as when the royal family lived there, or else repurposed to display artifact from the time period.

View of the Forbidden City from Prospect Hill in Jingshan Park
View of the northwest corner of the moat around the Forbidden City
Hall of Supreme Harmony

Great Wall

Perhaps the most wall-known spot in China, the Great Wall is a series of stone walls in various conditions that stretch over a thousand kilometers. I choose to hike on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China. A several hour minibus ride (which for some reason did not take the highway) was my first time in a vehicle on Beijing streets and resulted in a few grey hairs from just being a passenger — I was very glad not to be driving. We eventually got to the start safely though.

Much effort had been put into upgrading the visitor facilities in this area, but thankfully this stretch was not inundated with tourists. Only a few other small guided groups and a handful of independent visitors shared the wall. I seemed to almost have it to myself — except for the people hawking wares, who were only mildly aggressive.

This stretch of the wall was magnificent, passing through twenty-two watchtowers over a several kilometer stretch. The wall followed the ridgeline and climbed up and down, quite steeply in places. Most stretches had been restored to pristine condition but a few spots were still crumbling — usually without any safety barriers. Just walking on such a famous landmark was an experience.

I was glad to have chosen this particular stretch of wall, which was very picturesque and not crowded, even if it meant spending a lot more time in a minibus than I would have liked.

Myself on the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China
The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China


Beijing Zoo: With my only information being a stop on the subway labeled “Beijing Zoo”, I went to give the animals a visit. The Beijing Zoo had a large variety of diverse animals, from polar bears, to Bengal tigers, to kangaroos, and of course pandas. The zoo was typical of ones in the west I have been too, although the people behaved a little different. Guests banged on the glass often and even fed the animals. There were signs not to do this, but no workers that tried to stop it.
Olympic Green: Being a runner and triathlete, the Olympic venues from the 2008 games peaked my interest. The National Stadium (a.k.a. Bird’s Nest) was very interesting to gaze at, walk about the large complex (which admittedly on the inside not much different than any other stadium), and climb to the roof. The Aquatic Center (a.k.a. Water Cube) was again more engaging from the outside but at least still more in active use, with water polo championships being contested and a very fun looking water park inside (which I did not have a chance to splash in). Outside the stadiums were large open parks and squares, where vendors sold all manners of goods.
Summer Palace: A large set of ornate buildings, vast gardens, and the massive Kunming Lake were the main sights at the Summer Palace, where the imperial family went for relaxation in the warmer months. I strolled about the vast complex admiring the architecture, stood in awe of its scale, and enjoyed the gardens. Not everyone there seemed to be a tourist either. People did Tai-Chi, sung in group songs (and not for show or money), and paid respect at the temples. Plenty of tourists milled about too though, and like most spots it was very crowded. Although a few corners of the Summer Palace were less packed.
Tianamen Square: Most famous in the west for the footage of a man standing up to a tank, Tianamen Square is a large open area in the middle of Beijing. It is flanked by the Forbidden City, The National Museum, and Great Hall of People. Located in the square are the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. I visited all the sites except the corpse. Almost everyone there was tourists wandering about or people trying to sell stuff to them. The Chinese seem pretty sensitive about security there, with police and military everywhere and multiple cameras covering every square meter.

The National Stadium (a.k.a. Bird’s Nest from the 2008 Olympics)
Gate of Heaven on Tianamen Square
A panda at the Beijing Zoo
Lanterns along the street. It was mostly Chinese around, so they did not just put these up for tourists…at least foreign ones.
Tower of Buddhist Incense at the Summer Palace


Xi’an’s Bell Tower lit up at night

The Bell Tower lit up at night

With poor scheduling of my time in Beijing (the train to Ulaanbaatar only leaves once a week), I found myself with a couple extra days in that city having already explored most of the major sights. So I instead found myself on a long, crowded overnight train to Xi’an to explore sites there and see slightly more of China.

Terracotta Warriors

Xi’an is the main city nearest the famous Terracotta Warriors. A long bus ride with lots of stops finally brought me to the archeological site itself. After dodging all the hawkers, I browsed through the museum before seeing the large army itself. The complex encompasses three main pits of statues, the largest being Pit 1 with thousands of warriors. The commanding army was impressive in its size and stillness. Even with their age, each solider had remarkable detail. Thinking about the work needed to create this force was amazing. Some of the warriors were preserved in near perfect state while others had crumbled. Many had been pieced back together like a big jigsaw puzzle.

The army was initially intentionally placed underground in the large dugout pits. They were then covered with an earthen ceiling, with all surface evidence of the warriors removed. They were never intended to be shown off or serve as warnings, but apparently to solely help the emperor in his afterlife. They were only discovered in modern times accidentally.

Panoramic view of the large army of Pit 1
Warriors that have been pieced back together