Getting Out and About — Beijing and Las Vegas

A few weeks back travel expert Kendra Thornton contacted me about doing a joint post on our favorite places to visit. It sounded like a fun collaboration, and this post is the result. I write about a few fun things to see and do in Beijing, and Kendra writes about one of her favorite destinations, Las Vegas. Given the fact that I live in Minnesota, ground zero of the “polar vortex,” reading her suggestions makes me want to jump on a plane right now!

Joann: Getting Out and Enjoying Beijing

It’s kind of strange for me to think of Beijing as one of my favorite places “to visit,” given the fact that I lived there for 15 years! Prior to moving there in 1998 I lived in other (less developed) parts of China, so it definitely was my favorite destination in China, not because of the history or culture, but because it had western food! During my time living in Beijing I had the opportunity to host tons of friends (old and new) and I came to absolutely love showing folks around my adopted hometown. Here are my suggestions on a few things to see and do in Beijing.

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1.  “The Big Three” – Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.

These are arguably Beijing’s most famous historical/cultural sites. Built in 1959 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Tiananmen Square is the closest thing that a secular state has to a ‘sacred’ space. Situated in the direct center of the city, Tiananmen Square is home to the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and the Monument to the Martyrs. It’s also a favorite spot for Chinese tourists who are not accustomed to seeing ‘foreigners’ so don’t be surprised if people ask you to pose in their photos with them. Just smile and agree; it will make their day.

The Forbidden City is on the north end of the Square, on the other side of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen), from which the Square derives its name. The Forbidden City, as its name implies, is a vast complex of ceremonial and residential buildings that used to be the home of the emperor and his courtesans. Rent the wireless audio tour and give yourself several hours; otherwise the red buildings with yellow roofs will start to run together in your mind.

The Temple of Heaven, in the southern part of the old city, is where the emperor went once a year to offer prayers for a good harvest. In addition to the gorgeous Ming buildings, you’ll see local senior citizens playing cards, singing, dancing, and just hanging out. Much less crowded than the Forbidden City, it is one of my favorite parks in Beijing.

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2. The “Hutongs”

Another fun activity in Beijing is touring the old section of town, often referred to as the “hutongs” (lanes). Even though it is a bit touristy, it’s a nice break from the oversized buildings and highways that make up Beijing. The pace in the hutongs is much more relaxed and will give you a bit of a feel for what Beijing used to be like. Stroll around the two lakes or take a rickshaw tour. And be sure to visit the ancient drum and bell towers nearby.

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3. The Great Wall of China

No trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to The Great Wall of China, which runs through the mountains to the north of the city. The two most famous tourist spots for visiting the Wall are Badaling (northwest of town) and Mutianyu (northeast of town). I prefer Mutianyu because it tends to be MUCH less crowded. Don’t forget to take the alpine slide down off the Wall; it’s great fun! The best way to get to Mutianyu is hire a car and driver to take you from your hotel. Go early and give yourself plenty of time to hike to the top.

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4. Wangfujing “Snack Street”

A fun evening activity is visiting the Wangfujing “Snack Street” where you can sample everything from starfish to scorpions on a stick! Even if you’re not brave enough to sample the food, it’s fun to see what’s available and watch OTHER people eat.

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5. Chuandixia Ming Village

It’s always fun to get out of the city and see a bit of the countryside. I would recommend hiring a car and driver to take to the ancient Ming village of Chuandixia, in the mountains to the west of town. Built and settled in the Ming Dynasty (1300-1600’s), Chuandixia has somehow survived relatively intact. Very few people live there permanently now, but it has been preserved as an example of traditional life and culture. Be sure to take your hiking boots, because there are lots of trails in the mountains surrounding the village.

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6. Beijing Duck

Finally, no one can visit Beijing without eating its most famous food, Beijing Duck (Peking Duck). The dish is served in most restaurants, but it’s good to go to a place that specializes in duck. The most famous (and oldest) Beijing Duck restaurant is Quanjude. However, its fame means it’s the most expensive. I would suggest Da Dong Beijing Duck.

A word about transportation: In the past ten years, Beijing has built a very extensive subway system, making it very easy to get around the city. And thanks to the Olympics, all of the signage is in English!

Kendra: Getting Out and Enjoying Las Vegas

If you think of casinos and nothing more when you hear the name “Las Vegas,” it’s time for you to learn more about Sin City. This is one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. The amazing desert oasis features things for grownups to enjoy as well as activities that the kids can enjoy too.

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1. Eat, Drink and Be Merry

There’s no lack of food and drink in Las Vegas. I love trying new things to drink and fresh cuisine. My favorite pairing is a beautiful steak with a choice red wine. Selections at places like SW Steakhouse, Tom Colucchio’s Craftsteak and Fiamma Trattoria are difficult to rival. Wine lovers will find award-winning selections, and those who prefer hard liquor will find plenty quality beverages to savor as well.

2. Catch an Aerial View

You don’t have to be 21 to enjoy an aerial view of the Las Vegas Strip. Maverick Helicopters gives guests an unparalleled experience. Their professional pilots narrate each flight. Every guest gets the opportunity to participate in the interactive tour via headsets. This activity features a show where every seat has an amazing view.

3. Relax at a Spa

If you need some serious “R and R”, head to one of the city’s spas. My favorite is the spa at Aria Las Vegas. As an escape from the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, I enjoy relaxing on the warm Ganbanyoku beds. Massage options here include Thai Poultive massage and Ashiatsu massage. Regardless of the reason for your trip, time at a spa should make it onto your agenda.

4. Bum on the Beach

In Las Vegas, you can experience the desert heat while riding the waves. Personally, I enjoy just relaxing on the sandy beach at Mandalay Bay. They have plenty of activities for everyone to enjoy here. The kids love the wave pool. Cocktails and the lazy river are more my speed.

Don’t get locked into thinking that blackjack and poker are the only activities to enjoy in Las Vegas. Whether you spend your time on the strip or choose to experience other parts of the city and the surrounding area, you can take your pick of activities here. This city truly has something for everyone and certainly is not short on hotels. With so many useful sites including those like Gogobot allowing you to read user reviews, you will be a step a head of the game in knowing what to expect when you visit.

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Related Posts:

100 Fun Things to See and Do in Beijing

An Afternoon in the Square

A Nation Mourns

Temple of Heaven

Marxist Mama!

Duck Number 100560

 

 

Where did the Wall Go?

Well, it seemed like a reasonable idea.  Due to time constraints, we would take our group of 60+ new teachers to the Great Wall at Badaling instead of Mutyianyu in the afternoon.  Since it is closer, we could get up, climb a bit, then make it back into town before the dreaded Friday evening rush hour descends. Our collective memory of Badaling is that the wall was easier to get on (no hiking up 1000 steps or having to ride a cable car), and for those who didn’t feel like hiking, there was always Starbucks, KFC, and a bit of shopping.

What we didn’t count on, however, was the  fact that vehicles are no longer allowed within about 1km of the entrance to the wall.  Our driver dropped us at a parking lot I had never seen before that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere and told us to continue walking up the highway.  So there I was, being followed by 60+ laowai (foreigners) trudging up the highway looking for the entrance to the Great Wall.  I kept looking up the mountains towering around us and saw nothing of the wall.

“Where’s the Wall,” they asked.

“Beats me!” I replied.

This did not instill them with confidence.

But we kept walking.

We finally staggered into another parking lot (why the driver hadn’t taken us there, I don’t know), which had a sign over a doorway that said “this way to the great wall.”

Huh?  They moved the wall inside?

Half the group went on in, while I stayed back with the dozen or so who had been lured into the toilets. We too entered the “this is the way to the great wall” door, climbed the stairs past the trinket-peddlers, and then emerged once again onto the road, where we still had to walk for another 200 meters to get to the wall. We finally arrived at the actual entrance about 45 minutes after we had gotten off the bus, and following a 1 km walk UPHILL!

The poor folks only had about 30-45 minutes to actually be on the wall before we had to begin making the trek back down the valley to the bus.

Those who weren’t climbing got shut out as well since the KFC was another 500 yards up the highway from the entrance and the Starbucks is no longer.

When we returned to the parking lot, the driver was waiting to give me a thorough scolding for bringing the group here and not to the Juyongguan Great Wall, down at the entrance to the valley. He said in all his years of hauling foreign tour groups around he’d never taken one to Badaling.

I hung my head in shame and said “Yes, we are stupid foreigners. We should have listened to you.  I promise we will next time.”

That made his day!

(Image Source: Beijing Holiday)

Winter Wall

Last month’s unusually warm fall weather has given way to this month’s unusually cold winter.  With the three snowfalls and frigid temperatures it feels more like January than November.  Some friends and I decided to take the tourist train to Badaling this afternoon to see the Great Wall in the snow.  Although we nearly froze our….well everything….off, this scene was worth the trip.

After spending about 15 minutes on the wall, we fled to the Starbucks to await our train back to the city. A good time was had by all.