Today we embarked on what we feel is our most ambitious trip so far. We are off to the other side of the world for a 10-day visit to China!! Following is a day-by-day, place-by-place account of what turned out to be an amazing journey from start to finish.
Wednesday, August 28 - Nashville to Seattle: Since we have to head west to get to The Far East, we flew out today on a non-stop Southwest Airlines flight to Seattle where we would spend the night before boarding the big plane to Beijing, China. We had the afternoon to enjoy the Jet City and did so very much with a visit to Pritty Boys Pizza for lunch which was delicious, Emerald City Brewing for a few tasty afternoon libations and the grand finale: a evening boat ride and houseboat tour of Lake Union.
|Made famous in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, "Sleepless in Seattle" this beautiful floating lake house is just one of dozens of private homes that surround Lake Union.|
Thursday, August 29 - Friday, August 30 - Seattle to Beijing - We boarded our Hainan Airlines flight around 2 PM on Thursday and would fly all night to arrive in Beijing on late Friday afternoon. Kinda trippy, and the really weird thing with this flight was we never flew in darkness. Despite that odd date-line fact, we were able to get some sleep, the food served was pretty good and our coach seats weren't bad for the 12-hour flight. After an "interesting" car-ride transfer from the Beijing airport to downtown (evidently you can use the emergency lane in China for passing), we arrived at the nice Dong Fang Hotel where we checked in and just basically crashed for the rest of the evening.
|Our first glimpse of China was dazzling with the crinkled mountains in the northeast of the country in shimmering green.|
Saturday, August 31 - A Day in Beijing - After a good night's sleep and a hearty complimentary breakfast that included "breakfast bowels" (i.e. sausage). We were somehow able to get on Facebook (we read that we would not be able to in China) and a picture of the sausage tray with it's interesting "description" on my timeline brought howls of laughter and pangs of disgust from several folks back home. Yep, this was going to be a fun and interesting trip. After breakfast and with a free day in Beijing before our official tour of China started, we were picked up for a day-tour of the city with three stops that weren't on the list of places we would visit with our main tour: the Giant Panda Garden at the Bejing Zoo, the Summer Palace and the Lama Temple. All three places, plus lunch across from the famous "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium were great. Our guide, Jason (bet that's not his real name since he's a native), was excellent and easy to understand.
|This great zoomed-in shot was taken by Ashlee of two of the Beijing Zoo's most popular residents, giant pandas, noshing on some morning bamboo.|
Michael - our guide - his real name is Huang Hai Tao and he couldn't have been nicer, more helpful, more patient and honest about our trip, his country and the overall experience.
Bob - a very successful businessman from Toronto
Kevin - Bob's son, and a charismatic and funny guy
Richard - an always-smiling, globe-hopping Brit who most recently worked on oil rigs in Russia and was heading to North (yes, North) Korea for his next adventure after this. EDITOR'S NOTE: He made it out fine and enjoyed the trip. Whew!
Olly - a young, friendly Aussie businessman who was squeezing a visit to China in between international business meetings
Katharina - a young college graduate from Austria who had never left Europe and was now continuing her studies in China after this trip
Joe - a witty and intelligent Brit who loves adventure and hasn't met a dark, dingy alley yet he won't explore
Natalie - a young British medical student with Indian heritage and a bubbly personality
Usha - Natalie's mom, a recent widow and a warm, sincere and classy lady
Thanks to all these new friends for making our entire trip even better than expected!
Sunday, September 1 - Beijing to The Great Wall of China - Our "official" tour with G Adventures started off with a bang as the ten of us loaded up in a small tour bus and headed for The Great Wall of China, the first place on the agenda to visit. BUCKET LIST GO BOOM! Wow! What an amazing thing to see in person. Pictures will NEVER do it justice and we feel privileged and fortunate to have seen and experienced at least a small part of it in our lifetime.
|Our guides for the next 10 days in China. They were excellent and we hope to use them again.|
|The Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall is about an hour from Beijing and one of the best preserved portions of this modern wonder of the world. As the picture above shows, we couldn't have asked for better weather for our visit.|
|Pagodas near and far in The Forbidden City.|
|Let's eat!! All our meals together as a group were served family-style at tables with giant lazy-Susans on them. The big giant Chinese beers were usually cheaper (about $1.50 each) than bottled water.|
Tuesday, Sept. 3 - Xi'an to the Terra Cotta Army and Back Again
The wall around the city of Xi'an is impressive and in immaculate shape. The city is busy and full of students since there are several universities here. Unfortunately, we encountered the worst smog around this area than anywhere else. We were expecting more in Beijing which has been suffering from some of the worst air pollution on the planet in the last decade, but it wasn't too bad while we were there. The smog in Xi'an was somewhat depressing and definitely altered one's view (literally and figuratively) of this obviously impressive city focused on history, culture and art.
|Above is a shot of our awesome guide, Michael, giving us an intro to The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, our first stop in his hometown, the ancient walled-city of Xi'an. This huge Buddhist temple was built in 652 A.D.|
After lunch we loaded up on a tour bus and trekked out to see country's "newest" ancient tourist attraction, the life-sized Terracotta Army that was buried with the first emperor of China dating back to 209 B.C. Re-discovered back in the 1970's, it has become an incredibly important archaeological site in China as well as a hugely-popular tourist destination.
|Only 6 of the of estimated 8,000 life-sized clay army were found intact. All others were smashed by a preceding dynasty to insure the first emperor would not return from the afterlife with his army.|
|one of the intact "survivors"|
|Jig-saw puzzle masters at work on site.|
|Coming back to life. The army is being painstakingly reassembled and the site of them standing in rank and file in their original location under a giant airplane hangar is quite breathtaking.|
|Xi'an was prettier at night with the smog hidden in the darkness. The strikingly beautiful Bell Tower Pagoda is the true center of the city as it sits amid a huge traffic circle constantly buzzing with activity.|
Weds., Sept. 4 - Xi'an to Hangzhou - This morning we took a short flight (on Hainan Airlines again) due east toward the coast to the larger city of Hangzhou (8 million+). The city's most distinctive feature is West Lake, a huge half-natural, half man-made body of water the embodies peacefulness and tranquility. It recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
|We took a private cruise on West Lake with a nice view of the Hangzhou skyline in the distance.|
|Like most things in China, even the koi pond at West Lake is BIG.|
|Tea time! Just outside Hangzhou, we had a great visit at this family tea plantation in the Longjing Valley. Both sides of the steep valley were terraced in tea plants in all directions, including up and down the mountain sides|
|No tea bags here!|
Thursday, Sept, 5 - Hangzhou - Wuzhen - Shanghai - We had about a four-hour drive (with traffic) from Hangzhou to our last destination, Shanghai. On the way to break up the drive, we stopped in Wuzhen for a couple of hours. Wuzhen is a "water town" and is known as the "Venice of the East." Having been to the actual Venice and ranking it as still THE BEST place we have ever visited, I would beg to differ on this comparison. Nonetheless, it was a charming little town with a ton of cool exhibits and shops and a place we could have easily spent a whole day exploring instead of such a short period of time.
|A little rain doesn't matter in a water town like Wuzhen.|
|East Nanjing Road is like the Broadway of Shanghai on the old side. A quick subway ride from here under the river puts you on the "new" side of the city with its massive skyscrapers in a matter of seconds.|
|This was my favorite jade sculpture at The Shanghai Museum which boasts and incredible amount of priceless Chinese artwork and heritage pieces dating as far back as...get this...circa 4800 B.C....wow!|
|Oh, the shopping you can do in Shanghai and at 16 cents to one Chinese Yuan, there are bargains galore!|
|Our last night in China was a doozy with tickets to an amazing, live acrobatic show followed by goodbye drinks with our group on the 14th floor outdoor bar of The Peninsula Hotel. Another one of those unforgettable nights.|
Saturday, Sept. 7 - Shanghai - San Francisco - Denver - Nashville - HOME!
The package flight deal we bought on Orbitz.com was a good deal, but it meant we would be flying a different airline back to the U.S. That direct flight to San Francisco clocked in at just over 10 hours and was handled quite nicely by China Eastern Airlines. Just like going over on Hainan Airlines, the food was decent, the coach seats were comfy (and a bit roomier even) and the entertainment system was top notch (tons of movies and TV shows to choose from - so many in fact, neither of us slept coming back which was probably a mistake in terms of some jet lag when we got home). We had a fairly long layover in San Francisco and couldn't help ourselves not to take a kinda expensive round-trip cab ride downtown to grab a burger in one of our favorite cities in the U.S.. We connected back home on Frontier Airlines with a quick stop in Denver and were home by 11 P.M., exhausted but happy that we had just completed an amazing journey to an awe-inspiring place with some of the nicest people in and from around the world (literally). And, we would be able sleep in our own bed tonight (and all day tomorrow!!).
|Hey, that's The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. We're home! (kind of).|