Crawling up the Great Wall of China 

The stunning Great Wall of China

It’s one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and on nearly everyone’s bucket list (or WanderList), including mine. In February 2015, I was lucky enough to be able to cross it off of my list!… for the first time! 

 So what was it like?

Tough. Like, extremely tough.

I have noticed that most people don’t mention this detail about the Wall. So here it is – it was tough!

And I loved every sweaty, heart-pounding moment!

The view from the bottom at Badaling. See all the ant-people climbing it?!

The Great Wall is more majestic than any preconception you gauge from even the most famous images to which we are exposed. Even from the bottom of the mountain you can see the giant forts and decorated temples dotting the hilltops, and snaking between them, like a giant dot-to-dot is the Wall, more solid and wonderful than in the photos.

It isn’t really the Wall itself that I found so magnificent – though it really is wonderful. It’s that it truly is a feat of human-borne magnificence. Millions of Chinese labourers cemented those block together, piecing together a wall that would withstand not only attacks from the Mongols and many other armies, but World Wars and, most impressively, time.

Millions of tourists a year flock to the site. Thousands of photos are circulated a year and hundreds of people wonder if they’ll ever have a chance to stand on it.

We joined the rest of our internship on a bus tour and were taken to Badaling (八达岭), the most climbed section of the Wall, about 50miles north of Beijing. Built at the beginning of the 16th century, during the Ming dynasty, its purpose was to provide a strategic military outpost and enhance protection around Beijing. It was the first section to undergo restoration and opened to the general public in 1957.

Crazy steep!

That wall is so steep. At one point we reached a fort, looked down, and it was as though the steps we had just climbed had vanished. It was a vertical drop. That is how steep it was. At times, I literally had to crawl on my hands and feet to get me up the massive steps. The blood was pounding in my legs and every step became a huge effort. I could feel my heart beat in my head. I was sweating through the layers I was wearing in the February cold.

And yet it was stunning. Every step (or crawl. Or haul.) was completely worth it. We stopped at every flat surface we arrived at to take in the scenery. We were surrounded by jagged mountains that were devoid of life bar some fuzzy grey-green shrubs that clung to every crevice. The valleys were coated with trees that had yet to grow their leaves back. Far below us, cars the size of ants raced down the highway, oblivious to the momentous struggles going on above them. Far in the distance, beneath its yellow-grey blanket of smog sat Beijing. On the opposite hill, the Great Wall snaked its way over inclines and depressions in the topography, a few brightly coloured tourists scattered along it.

According to General Mao, only one who has climbed the Great Wall can ever be deemed a hero. So apparently I am now a hero 😉

It was a fabulous experience, even the jelly-legged feeling as I crawled my way back down!

Lovely love locks along the Wall

Badaling Great Wall:

Cost: Approximately 45-50 yuan, dependant on time of year.

Opening Times: early till about 6-6.30pm, again dependant on time of year.

Time: Give yourself a few hours at least. You’ll need it unless you plan on jogging all the way up!

How to get there: If you’re staying in Beijing, most hotels and hostels are well set up for tourists and run tours either from the hotel itself or can organise one with a tour group. We were on a tour with our internship, and that day we went to other places as well as Badaling. A tour is by far the easiest way to get there, and they aren’t usually too pricy either.

 

Part 1: What to do in Beijing

Beijing is an eclectic fusion of sights, smells and sounds, right from the word GO. So in a city that spans over 500 square miles and a vast, almost unimaginable population, and plenty of tourist destinations, just where do you even begin? This series of blog posts will guide you through some of what Beijing has to offer!

1. The Forbidden City

The entrance to the Forbidden City

A World Heritage Site since 1986, the Forbidden City is a must-see in China’s capital. Since its construction in the 1400’s, twenty four emperors lived within its walls. And boy is there a lot to see here! It is no secret that the Chinese like to make a big entrance, and when you enter through the Meridian Gate, the giant red outer wall of which is embossed by a giant portrait of Chairman Mao, that sense of awe is definitely present. Once we got through the gate and out of Chairman Mao’s imposing line of sight, we copied the Chinese tourists and ran our hands over the wooden balls patterning the huge, solid, faded red doors, and found ourselves in a vast courtyard. Down the edges of the courtyard were small temples and buildings, all carrying the design of the entrance way. Directly ahead of us, in perfect symmetry with the entrance way, was another temple.

Such grandeur! What I didn’t realise about the Forbidden City was just big it actually is. In fact, when we were inside that huge outer part, I was convinced this was it, we were seeing the Forbidden City. That was until we realised there were people paying at kiosks, and after following them we entered the actual city. I was amazed!

You have to pay at the kiosk to enter beyond this impressive courtyard

We walked through courtyard after courtyard, all lined by knobbly, ancient trees and living quarters that are inaccessible, and all crowded with tourists. The typical pictures you see of the yellow and red buildings don’t capture the enormous size of them, nor the age. Each courtyard is headed at either end by the entrance gates. In the centre of these are sometimes elaborately carved old marble bridges or walkways, or smaller temples. In many of these are throne rooms, each one sumptuously in its gold majesty and each different from the last one. Definitely fit for a king (or an emperor)! There are two main palaces to see, with wonderful names (Palace of Heavenly Purity, and Palace of Earthly Peace), plenty of grand halls, as well as the Imperial Gardens.

I love temple roofs

 The stunning decor on the temples and halls of the Forbidden City. My favourite part of all the Chinese temples is the roofs. Each one tells a story, and no two are the same. All the temples I have seen so far have the same structural outline – long, with just one or maybe two storeys, with pillars down each length and width of the building. The roof is pointed, like houses are in Britain, and they extend outwards, past the edge of the temple, kind of like those big straw sunhats you can get! On the edges of these, at the four corners of the temple, there are sometimes depictions of some kind of animal – sometimes a dragon. In the Forbidden City, the décor was more modest than other temples I have seen. Navy blues, burgundy, dark green, laced with golden dragons. It looked grand, elegant, and beautiful to look at.

The beautiful decor of the buildings

Cost: It is around 40 yuan, dependant on the time of year. As we had student cards at the time, we got in for 20 yuan.

Opening times: Again, dependent on time of year, but from April to October it is open from 8.30am to 5.00pm (very important to note!)

Time: Give yourself a few hours at least. We had only 1 hour and it wasn’t nearly long enough.

Get there: Take subway line 1, the red one, to Tian’anmen East or West, and you will exit around Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City.

2. The Hutong

The eclectic, vibrant hutong of Beijing

I loved the hutong of Beijing. I could spend hours wandering around the narrow, winding lanes, watching its inhabitants go about their day.

So what are they? During the Ming dynasty (around the 15th century) the Forbidden City was the centre of Beijing, and the residents were arranged by social class, circling out from the palace. Close to the palace lived the aristocrats and people of a high social class, in rather grand houses. Further out were the commoners, who lived in the hutong. They run east-west because of the feng-shui (wind and water) and they face south to guarantee sunshine and because, according to the Chinese the north brings negative feelings. Facing south protects you from these bad emotions. The word ‘hutong’ derives from a Mongolian word meaning ‘well’. The oldest hutong were built even earlier than this however, some dating back to the Yang dynasty in the 1200’s – so old! Many have been lost thanks to Beijing’s race to development.

The higgledy-piggledy hutong

They are made up of super narrow alleyways barely big enough for a bicycle to squeeze through, and tiny one-storey home that once (some still do) housed entire families. We went to a very touristy part, in the Shichahai area, not far from the Drum Tower and Bell Tower (we had no time to visit these unfortunately, but I hear they are well worth a trip), to a little lake surrounded by hutong turned into shops, restaurants and bars. It was pretty, and crowded, but the area was quaint and relaxing. The hutong are just so charming!

On a pitstop return trip to Beijing in last July, we actually stayed in the hutong near Beijing Railway Station. Though I wouldn’t recommend the hotel (Shindom Inn – seriously, it was dirty and unsavoury, and we replaced the ‘n’ with a ‘t’, but that’s another story), getting to stay deep within the higgledy-piggledy streets of the hutong was pretty cool. It is a completely different, slower way of life compared to the hustle and bustle of the main city. There are multiple hutong to chose from, but the one I visited was Nanluogu Xiang, one of the most popular places and where you can find the drum tower. However, hutong aren’t difficult to find in Beijing!

Cost: completely free to wander around.

Opening Times: I’m not sure it ever closes!

Time: Depends what you want to do. We only had an hour, not enough time! You can spend ages wandering around the lake and the hutong, and you can try out a restaurant or the famous Beijing street food!

Get there: There are many to chose from but to get to Nanluogu Xiang, take Subway line 5 (the lime green line) to either Zhangzizhonglu or Beixinqiao. You then have to walk a short distance to the entrance of the hutong. Enjoy! 😃


3. Wang Fu Jing Street

The pedestrianised Wangfujing Street

I have been here almost every trip to Beijing I have taken. I love it. This long pedestrianised street is modern with pockets of tradition scattered around, full of modern malls with clothes stores like H&M and Zara, and then a Chinatown half way down the street. Around the corner is a street that leads to the Forbidden City, and at night comes alive with street food galore (apparently one of the best in China) and it is an area very much full of life. Here on Snack Street, pick up a stick of candied fruits for a couple of kuai or a stick of fried scorpions for the more adventurous! A trip to Beijing just wouldn’t be complete without a stroll and a shop down Wang Fu Jing.

Besides… for an expat like me, this street is absolute gold for another reason. It is home to an Actual English Language Book Store and I LOVE it. 

The bookstore 😍📚

Cost: Spending money. 

Opening times: The street itself doesn’t close. Obviously the shops close late in the evening but at night there are other things to do here.

Time: From a couple of hours to an entire day. Depends on your shopping desires 😍

Get there: Subway line 1, the red one, and get off at Wangfujing station. There are two exits and I always manage to come out from the wrong one. I take the stairs up to the street and can see Wangfujing across the huge intersection. So I haven’t to go back down and under the underroad pass to the correct side 😂


If you’ve enjoyed this post, stand by for Part II, coming soon… 🙏🏻

Xiamen, China: a weekend away


It’s been two years since I went to Xiamen, but it’s such a beautiful city that I am finally writing a post about our trip there, short though it was! 

Xiamen is in south-east Fujian Province. Once called Amoy, and known as one of the best cities in which to live due to the low pollution levels, he city has a population of just over 3 million, as stated in the last census, though that has since risen, and is therefore fairly small by China’s standards. There are several parts to Xiamen – Xiamen North is on the mainland, the bulk of the city is on Xiamen Island, and Gulangyu Island, just off the coast of Xiamen Island. After getting a 20 minute train from Jinijang, the city in which we lived at the time, into Xiamen North (total accident, I wouldn’t repeat this mistake if I were you!) for a mere ¥12.5, we then taxied it down into the centre of Xiamen on the island. What a long journey that was!

Having just emerged from a sleepy corner of Jinjiang, where the tallest building was our apartment block of just five floors, Xiamen seemed positively new-age and mind-boggingly modern! Just the other side of Xiamen Railway Station is one of the main shopping parts of the city. Huge, modern, glass skyscrapers towered above us as we made our way to our Ibis Hotel around the corner. Everywhere I looked I saw blaring signs for McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, clothes shops, and even a Tesco! The pavements were so clean, trees lined the six-lane roads, and there were people everywhere, crowding together and rushing around, weaving around each other and chattering loudly.

The most noticeable thing though? The duck-egg blue pillars holding up a road that ran around the city. A subway in the sky! At night it lit up fantastically and looked like something from Futurama. This is the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and is a bus-only road, with low fares and an easy-to-grasp ticket machine much like in a subway station. So easy and convenient!

Xiamen was a trip of many first for us in China. We had our first Pizza Hut-in-China experience, we went to our first Chinese bar and drank toothpaste flavoured, traffic light coloured cocktails, and we road on our first Chinese bus. These buses would certainly not be allowed in Britain, because they rattle their way down the road, jumping into the air at the slightest bump along the way. They also cram on as many people as is physically possible, with some wedged against the doors, squished up the aisles, breathing in each others body odours and getting way too close for my personal comfort. Still, it was an experience that would be repeated hundreds more times in China!

Nanputuo Temple

The bus took us to Xiamen University, apparently one of the prettiest universities in China. The city landscape changed as we drove south of the island. The skyscrapers and the glass towers thinned out and became instead quaint, little, one-storey shops and landscaped roundabouts with giant stacked books posing as fountains. It felt like a small town, very different to the bustling city we had just driven through.

The bus dropped us off in front of the white-washed stone archway standing in front of the university. Right next to us was another elaborately decorated archway crowded with Chinese tourists and students. A lake shimmered under the grey sky, and in the middle say a little pagoda on a tiny island. Best of all, sitting very symmetrically between two pyramidal white towers was Nanputuo Temple.

The nicely symmetrical Nanputuo Temple from the other side of the lake
It was stunning. Flanked by two stone elephants, the temple was a one-storey building with the typical pointed eaves on all four corners of the roof. It was multi-coloured and on each of the corners was a dragon rising from the coloured patterns, flames erupting from their mouths. The roofs are my favourite part of a Chinese temple. Each one has its own art work, all elaborately decorated with the most vivid colours. In north China they are more traditional looking, with elegant designs of animals or people, with delicate patterning. In south China they are bursting with bright colours, invariably have dragons on them, and more 3D patterns coming off of them, just like the dragons on Nanputuo Temple. When you think of the designing and labour that went into constructing and decorating these temples, they are even more brilliant.

The roofs are my favourite part of Chinese temples – so beautiful 💕
The lakeside and the path in front of the temple were crowded with people, and there were several huge copper cauldron-type troughs full of sticks of burning incense. The sickly-sweet smell from the curling smoke filled my nose, and I was already moved to some feeling beyond simply enjoying the view. In the sweaty heat, the scent was almost too much, but we moved on soon after.

Nanputuo Temple and the many, many tourists!
Walking through the doors next to the temple brings you to a little courtyard surrounded by buildings and temples similarly adorned with multicoloured dragons and flowers. Trees that had tangled their way between the temples must have been ancient, standing pretty, offering shade from the midday Fujian sun. Golden giant buddhas sat behind glass cabinets, and people were offering them flowers and food then kneeling with their hands together in prayer. Apparently the Buddha takes all the good things – nutrients and vitamins- from the offerings and then we presume the monks eat the ‘leftovers’.

We followed the trodden route up some stone steps and through huge, rather square boulders surrounded by trees. Between some of the boulders, wedged into the hillside, were tiny caves decorated with calendars and scrolls and offerings for the Buddha. Further up the hillside the steps carried on through what was now becoming a forest. Along the way were rest stops, some with amazing views of the surrounding hills, the sprawling city below, the rather grey sea under the polluted sky, and the island of Gulangyu. It was stunning.

It’s a shame I didn’t get a better photo but a stunning view nonetheless
Even better was that the hill was peppered with little temples and small pagodas, each with their own décor and quaint characteristics. My favourite was a really small temple with a white-washed, gleaming statue in front of it. It was built into the rock on the hill and the view from the platform was wonderful. Flowers had been placed before the statue, presumably a version of the Buddha, and the fresh sweet scent was refreshing after the sicklier incense. It felt so peaceful. Almost spiritual. Inside the temple was a large glass cabinet full of golden Buddhas, each different to the one beside it. I didn’t realise there were so many versions, including female ones.

My favourite little temple on the hillside
We carried on up the hill, trailing along after the crowds with our backpacks, sweating like crazy. The next level had a restaurant selling water so we sat on the wall outside rehydrating.

We actually made it to the top of the hill (which felt more like a mountain, but as we did it in an hour and a half with breaks, I’m going to guess it’s a hill), and the great disappointment that greeted us was completely unexpected. No beautiful temple nor pagoda awaited us. Just a recently built restaurant in the shape of a temple, selling sausages on sticks and surrounded by dozens of prayer flags.

But never mind.

The best thing?

On the way up, linking the trees together were Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, in their reds, oranges, greens, blues and yellows, and the Tibetan script lining each one…

I love prayer flags.

I adore prayer flags ❤️💙💛💜💚
Not only do they look nice, but they instantly return that feeling of pure peace, and a spiritual feeling that I cannot explain. The feeling fills me with happiness and I enjoy it, almost crave it. The contentment, even when knackered and sweaty, is amazing. I hadn’t felt it at any other attractions that we had been to by that point. The Forbidden City, for example, is beautiful, and you can spend a full day there exploring, but it doesn’t make me feel anything. Nanputuo Temple and the hillside temples felt more real to me, less commercialised and made for tourists. Despite the hoards of tourists, I felt far more amazement and joy at these temples than anywhere else in China as of yet, even despite the disappointing summit.

How to get there:

We took bus number 1 from the city centre, and I’m sure many other buses also run there, as it’s a popular place to visit. The bus is just ¥2 so definitely worth it!

Cost:

Completely free, no tickets to buy (as of March 2015 anyway. Maybe things have changed..).

Time:

You can spend a good few hours here, especially if climbing the hill too. Give yourself at least two hours to make sure you see it all, maybe three if you like to take it slow.

Later on, we went for a stroll by the sea, hoping but failing to find a beach, instead ending up on a long promenade high above the beach. Even higher than us, right above the sea, were cars and lorries on a highway suspended on huge pillars in the waves. It was so futuristic and cool! The calmness you usually get from the sea lapping against the sand wasn’t there, but looking at the bridge-highways intersecting and little boats chugging along beneath it was an awesome sight.

The awesomely cool and futuristic over-the-sea road!
Xiamen will forever remain in my mind as the nicest city in China that I have so far visited. The history and culture mixed with the unbelievable modernity and its aim to be a greener city with the BRT are just amazing to see. Chinese cities have a reputation of sorts for being polluted and crowded, and though Xiamen isn’t free of these things, the city is doing its best to be more environmentally friendly. For this, I admire it, and wish I had had more time to explore this gem of Fujian province.

I love Xiamen 💙

Off the beaten path in China – Xingcheng 兴城

It was by accident that I learnt about the little town of Xingcheng. I was browsing Googlemaps, looking for cities I could potentially go and visit during the Spring Festival in February, when I saw the city of Huludao. It is the next city east of Qinhuangdao, just a across the border in Liaoning Province. Searching for it on Trip Advisor, I was disappointed to find not much there, but mention was made of an apparent ancient city. With a little more research I found Xingcheng, roped some friends into going with me, and purchased our K-train tickets for our day trip! 

We weren’t so lucky with the weather. As it usually is in this area of China during the winter months, the air was heavy with smog, so bad in fact that we climbed the escalator to the station, where you have a fabulous view of Yingbin Lu below, we actually couldn’t see the station until we were almost at the door. The world was white, and we all made sure that we had our face masks firmly secured. The hour and a half journey went by fast as we sat amongst other travellers, playing cards and taking photos and chatting excitedly. We had made it out of QHD!

Blurry, but it shows how bad the smog was. Behind me you should be able to clearly see the station towering over me…

Xingcheng 兴城

Now part of the city of Huludao, Xingcheng was originally part of the city Ningyuan, which was a place of great importance in this part of China at the time. In the early 1400’s the city walls were constructed and it thus became a place of pivotal importance during the Battle of Ningyuan in 1626, when the Ming defeated the Manchu army. Today it stands as one of four best preserved ancient cities because the city walls are intact and contains an array of Ming Dynasty architecture and artefacts. I was very excited to get to see such a place.

The city walls are just a short walk from the train station, and we only had to walk about ten minutes before spotting them. The huge wall towered above us, and a temple sat atop the entrance archway, opening up the way to the cobbled streets of the ancient city.

Now, before I came to China I had so many images of it in my mind of what it was going to be like. Ancient cities surrounded by tall walls, temples on every corner, red lanterns hanging on lamp posts, higgledy-piggledy lanes lined with crazy shops… what I wasn’t expecting was the wide roads and the huge glass buildings everywhere and the new apartment blocks and the lack of all the things I had envisioned. Sure, you can find those places, but the chances are you won’t be living in them if you move to China.

So I was delighted with Xingcheng. It was exactly what I was looking for. Small one-two storey buildings with pointed rooftops, goods piled high in front of them, and the eaves of the buildings fabulously decorated in the traditional Chinese style. Some of the roofs had grass growing out the top of them. The streets were uneven and in every direction you could see the city wall. Motorbikes zoomed around, and there was barely a car in sight. Women and men stood outside their tiny shops, enticing you inside, and more stood behind little carts, selling street food. Meats, porridge, and nutty candies among other goodies. The best bit? Xingcheng isn’t well known and therefore doesn’t receive as many visitors as other far more famous places. We were the only foreigners there, and some of the only visitors. I could not stop smiling. This was the authentic ancient China that I had always hoped to see.

We followed the street in a straight line to the very centre of the ancient city – a huge drum tower that marked the middle, and from where you could fan out in a big square to see the whole place. It’s like one big complex. The drum tower is in the centre, and there are four streets coming off of it. All streets lead to the wall, so you can either follow the street to the end and return to the drum tower to find the next street, or go to the end and follow the wall around in a huge square. We decided to do the latter option, but first we paid for our tickets and climbed the stairs to the drum tower.

It had obviously been renovated and repainted, but it was great to see the huge drum, decorated with the traditional Chinese dragons, their flame-like tails arching around the circular instrument. The view over the city was amazing too. You can look out straight down all four streets that lead from the drum tower to the outer walls, and the symmetry is pretty cool to see!

The awesome view from the drum tower overlooking Xingcheng
The ticket to the ancient town doubles up as a map, showing the locations of all the places of interest. There were many, and we knew we wouldn’t have time to see them all, so picked the ones whose photos looked the best. Then we chose a route around and set off!

The first one took us down a street almost to the wall, and off down a tiny dirt track past dilapidated houses and fields of corn. On the right, looking rather nondescript, was a big grey wall, and the entranceway to a temple. The entrance way wasn’t as grand as most are, but it had the quaint pointed roof and the closed tube-like things lining it, following it down to the edge to create the look of an ancient building. Two circular windows with patterned grates over them sat either side of a doorway, over which hung a sign in golden Chinese script, and above that multi-coloured prayer flags. I like prayer flags. They give me a feeling of excitement and adventure somehow and I’ve found that my favourite temples all have Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags hanging from every available tree and roof. In front of the doorway, standing guard with a menacing growl on his face, sat a stone lion, and we patted his head respectfully as we walked past him and in through the doorway.

My favourite temple of the day 💕

It was a strange place. Quite a large courtyard surrounded by the grey wall, and multiple small buildings with the same design as the entranceway. Nearby stood a tree, one of those old banyan trees that stand for hundreds of years and get coated on every inch with red ribbons, put there by visitors making wishes or prayers or writing the names of loved ones on it. The tree was completely red with ribbons, stringing between the branches and some had been so long that the tree was growing back around it.

The temple courtyard

We wandered around the tree, glancing around us at the courtyard. It was deserted. Never had I been to a deserted temple in China. It was pretty exciting.
We went into the first temple. Despite the outside looking fairly ordinary, the inside was incredible. In the centre sat a giant statue, presumably some kind of religious figure, with a stern moustache and serious, staring eyes, and an orange cloak wrapped around him. In front of him was a trough full of half burnt incense sticks, as well as newly lit pink ones letting out sweet smelling swirls of smoke. All around him were gold and silver vases holding bunches of bright, coloured flowers, and plates of offerings to the figure. Two golden pillars were either side of him, with Chinese writing reading down the pillars not across. Above him was a reddish-brown sign with more writing on it, and tiny flags dripping from it. The whole room was amazing and there was something very special about it. It was the kind of room that demanded silence, so that in place of words you can simply feel the atmosphere the temple emitted.

The incredible inside of the temple

It was soon after this temple that we met an elderly man. Later we would joke about how strange the whole place was – the old man, wandering around in some kind of robes, lighting incense and manning the temples. It was like he had been there forever, like the place was frozen in time. The man spoke no English and we spoke even littler Chinese but somehow he taught us a lot about those temples. Using mostly hand gestures and numbers, he told us that the main temple in the complex was over 500 years old. We stepped into it, following his lead, and he watched as we gazed around at the spiritual figures towering above us, everything gleaming gold, and I felt so lucky to be standing there at that moment. The man was delighted to lead us around the place and enjoyed our curiosity about everything. I indicated with gestures and asked if I could take photos, to which he responded enthusiastically. Usually in temples photos are forbidden – it is said that taking a picture of the gods or the Buddha seeps away some of their power.

Inside the one we found a strange tower that looked vaguely like a varnished post box with lots of drawers. Intrigued, we gestured towards it and the man happily showed us how to work it. In the top of the tower was a bowl of long sticks. At random, you take a stick and read the number on the bottom of it. Then you find the numbered drawer that matches the stick. Inside are stacks of paper slips. You take one and on it is written your fortune. It was all in Chinese but the old man managed to give us hints about them. Basically the three of us would be happy! It was an interesting experience and as always it amazed me how well you can converse with people even when you don’t speak the same language.

The fun tower of drawers that reads you your fortune

We chose our next place on the tiny map and set off past rows of shops and people selling candied nuts on the side of the road. We stopped to buy a box of candies peanut bars which were as solid and rocks and kept us busy with our teeth glued together for quite some time! They’re delicious though and I recommend trying some!

Our next destination was an interesting one – an old court room.

From the outside it looked pretty much the same as most temples I’ve been to, though with a blue theme to the patterning and a slightly grander exterior to the previous temple. This place was much bigger too. After showing our tickets we followed signs to go into the courtyard. The first place we came to was completely unexpected – an old prison. Mannequins had been put in the cells, which all contained rather horrific looking devices of torture, and though I know it hasn’t been used for a very long time, it was still pretty creepy. I also can’t imagine how cold it must have been, with nothing but a stone floor and a bit of straw to sleep on. I was wrapped up in tights under jeans, a thick jumper, my winter coat, a scarf, hat, gloves and a face mask, but I doubt the prisoners of this place had such luxuries. 

A cell in the old prison
We walked quite quickly through, coming next to a garden, recently done up to look like a typical traditional Chinese style garden, but unfinished. A little bridge arched over a waterless stream, and we sat for a while on a bench overlooking the place. I could see that once finished it would look very pretty.

The court was interesting. Again mannequins depicted what a scene from the old days might have looked like, and in all honesty it seemed similar to what I imagine court rooms to be like today. The most interesting part for me were the two buildings either side of the courtroom. Inside each one were example of army uniforms, one from the Ming Dynasty, one from the Qing Dynasty. The Ming Dynasty began in 1368 and ended in 1644, and their army uniforms were simple designs. It was more robe-like, with a collar around the neck, patterned sleeve edges and a big square patch in the chest. The patch had a different design and informed of ones rank within the army. The Qing Dynasty began in 1644 until 1912, and their uniforms were much brighter, more complex robes with gold studs and no embroidery on it. I was much more fascinated by the ones from the Ming Dynasty – I liked the patch in the centre.

The interesting army uniform from the Ming Dynasty era
The more vibrant Qing Dynasty uniforms

After this we decided to have some lunch, though I don’t recommend doing what we did – we waited until after 2pm to find somewhere to eat, and of course everywhere was closed. We ended up in the only place still open and had a rather gross lunch of intestinal soup, fatty dumplings and celery. I’m not certain if you’ve ever tried intestines, with their carpet-like texture and octopus-tentacle appearance but I really can’t say I enjoyed the experience! We left still hungry and snacked on our peanut candies while we went off to find the next place. If ever you come to China, please remember that lunch time is between 12 and 2pm, and after this everywhere closes. Unless you like eating intestines…

It took a while to locate the next temple but eventually we found it and learnt that it was closing. We had to literally run around the Confucius temple and as such I can’t remember much of it. I do remember the calligraphy graveyard though. We assumed it was a graveyard at first but upon closer inspection it was a piece of art. Each stone was engraved with words I cannot read, in different styles of Chinese writing. It was really beautiful, and I genuinely hadn’t realised that Chinese can be written in so many different ways.

The Chinese calligraphy stones

Back on the street we knew that we had to leave the ancient city because it was closing around us. We found our way back to one of the four main streets and were delighted to come across the double arches that stretch over the street. They’re less arches as such, but they are truly amazing. The designs on the stone are incredible and it was cool to look through the middle of the first one to see the second one in the background and the drum tower in the centre in the distance.

The beautiful ancient archways over the street

Everything about Xingcheng delighted me. It was an interesting part of Chinese history to see and learn a bit about, especially in a place that was so important in northeast China at that period of time. I love going to place such as this, places that not many people know about and therefore maintain more of their integrity and realness instead of pandering to tourists and renovating everything almost beyond original recognition. If you’re in the area I definitely recommend taking a day trip there, and hopefully find it as fascinating and beautiful as I did.

How to get there:

Huludao is the nearest city and you can get to Xingcheng very easily from there. There’s many train that run between them. However, I bought K-train tickets from Qinhuangdao and they were super cheap, for just under 20 yuan.

From Beijing you can get directly to Xingcheng in between 5 and 8 hours on the K-train though I wouldn’t recommend doing that. I would take a D- or G-train to Huludao and then go to Xingcheng from there.

Cost:

The tickets to get into the city are about 100 yuan per person and there’s a lot to see for that money. Also bring spending money because there’s some nice shops selling traditional Chinese things that make nice gifts (either for family and friends or for yourself!).

Time:

All day. We spent from 10.30am till 5.30pm wandering around and we didn’t see everything. We took our time though and really soaked it all in, but there’s a lot to see in this wonderful place. 

Still Harbin-on: What to do in the Ice City of China 

Harbin is the capital city of the most northeastern province in China, Heilongjiang province. It’s a massive city – the 8th most populous in China with something like 10 million people living across its sprawling mass. As a general rule, I am not a fan of large cities but there’s one reason we decided to visit Harbin. Renowned as the “Ice City”, Harbin is home to the annual Ice and Light Festival, and I was determined to go and see it during our winter vacation in February! It’s also massively influenced by its close neighbour, Russia, and I was excited to see how different Harbin was from other Chinese cities. 

Getting there:
There are multiple trains that go to Harbin from Qinhuangdao, and therefore Beijing. G-trains from QHD are expensive but fast and considering the vast distance between the cities, you can be there in maybe five hours. Our original plan was to get a sleeper train, in order to maximise the time spent in Harbin and either give us an extra day there or save us a night in a hotel. However, due to visa and passport problems that I had at the time, we weren’t able to book far enough in advance and they all sold out.  

Thus, we ended up on an 8 hour K-train journey. Now, I’ve frequented the good old K-train a few days since coming to China and apart from the sometimes frustrating slowness of it, I quite enjoy them. There’s something friendlier about them, something more atmospheric, and there’s far more people willing to chat to you and help you out than on the faster trains. However, there was an added something to this journey. 

I had accidentally purchased standing tickets. 

Initially I panicked. But then my friend and I boarded, met a lovely kind train conductor who showed us to an empty carriage where we spent a very pleasant eight hours laughing and eating and wondering at our immense luck. 

The same thing definitely did not happen on the return journey. But that’s for later 😂 

What to do in Harbin: 

In total we stayed in Harbin for four nights and four days, and really tried to make the most of our time there. So what did we do? 

1. Snow and Ice Festival 

The primary reason for going to Harbin! We actually struck lucky on this one because it turned out that our work boss and all the managers of our school were also in Harbin during this time. Our first night there they invited us for a very fancy meal at a Russian restaurant and then invited us to the ice festival the next afternoon. Off we went in a tour organised bus, and got there at the perfect time, around 3.30pm, just before dusk.

Just as the sun set, the lights turned on. Beautiful 😍

It was incredible. We walked around the amazing ice castles and bars, huge blocks of ice piled like bricks atop one another, glinting in the low sunshine, all with built-in slides for added childish fun. I loved the castles, they were made so beautifully. I couldn’t help but run my hands along the ice blocks and found they were as smooth as glass.  

It turned out we got there at exactly the right time. We got to see it in the daylight, and then, right as we were next to a wonderful ice sculpture of a planet, the sun began to set, casting the most amazing golden glow over everything. The ice glimmered and shone in the lighting, and we couldn’t believe our luck.  

And then, just as the sun hit the horizon, the lights turned on. Millions of coloured lights shimmered through the ice, twinkling rainbows in the glass-like blocks. It was mesmerising. We climbed to the top of one of the castles and had a view over the whole park, all the colours against the ice… it was truly beautiful and we were so glad to be there. 

It’s hard to describe how beautiful the Ice Festival is, and even harder to capture a great photo

Another fabulous part of the festival is the ice sculptures. It’s amazing what can be carved out of ice, and they were so perfect, and so complex! As the lights shone through them they looked like glass, and my favourite, an ice skater seen below, shone a pretty pink colour in the darkness. 

A beautiful figure skater ice sculpture in pink at the Ice Festival

How to get there: 

You can book a bus there with a tour operator. Because our boss booked this I’ve no clue how to do it, but as the city is very geared for tourists your hotel should be able to help with this. Alternatively you can taxi it over the bridge. Just show the driver a picture and they will take you right there.

Cost:  

We paid 300 yuan for the entrance fee, but if you visit more of the snow parks you can get tickets cheaper in a bundle.

Time:  

We got there at a good time, just before sunset. Bear in mind that this place is insanely popular and queuing times are long. Due to connections our boss has, we didn’t have to queue with everybody else and went straight in. Get there as early as you can to avoid this problem.

The other thing to remember… it’s freezing cold. Like, mind-numbingly cold. I have never been so cold in my life. I wore unbelievable amounts of clothing and yet I was still freezing. We arrived into the park at 3.30m and didn’t leave until 7.30. It was far too long. By 5.30-6.00 we were done but because we were booked on the bus with our boss, we had to wait. We spent two hours dashing between the makeshift ‘buildings’ which had lots of body heat to warm up in. For every ten minutes spent outside in the ice sculptures, we spent about fifteen minutes in somewhere semi-warm trying to get feeling back into our limbs. I genuinely would recommend getting there for sunset, and staying maybe an hour after that, but unless you love the freezing cold, any longer is tough going. Eventually we managed to find a free table in a makeshift restaurant and got some coffees to warm us up.  

2. Sun Park Snow World

This was my favourite of the ice festival parks. We went on our third day in Harbin, around 11am and had so much fun. It’s set on an island in the middle of the massive Songhua River, and is a large park full of snow sculptures. Wearing our snow boots, we crunched our way around the park, admiring the amazing creations, which ranged from the standard igloo, to free-standing snowflakes, to massive fairytale castles. Check out some of my favourites in the photos! The park opens with some pretty designs, and in the middle of the park are the huge ones, with a skating rink right in the centre next to a giant elf and Santa pulling a sleigh. Every year the creations are different and it was truly magical wandering through. We also got lucky with the weather – the sky was a crisp blue and though it was cold, the sun reflected from the snow and we were actually at one point walking around without hats on!

Spelling out my name in front of a castle! 😎

After the snow park we decided to take the novel way back across the river… by gondola! The view was absolutely spectacular! Encased safely in a glass cube, we could see right across the sprawling mass of Harbin, but most amazingly was the frozen river below us. We watched people tubing and sledging across it, and I marvelled at how that amount of water can freeze like that. How lucky we were to get that clear a view! 

The view of Harbin across Songhua River from the gondola!

How to get there: 

Exactly the same way as getting to the Ice Festival. In fact if you book through a tour operator, most people do the two on the same day, visiting the Snow Park first, then the Ice Festival. If not, taxis are easy to find and a picture of the park is enough to get you there. I highly recommend taking the gondola back across – it takes you straight to Zhongyang Street, the pedestrian street of Harbin!

Cost:  

Sun Island is pretty cheap at about 250 yuan per person depending on the time of day you go. Bundle tickets with the Ice Festival are apparently cheaper but not noticeably so to be honest. Personally I thought the Ice Festival was a bit overpriced when compared to Sun Island because I adored the snow park. Definitely worth the money!

The gondola was 50 yuan each, and though perhaps a bit overpriced, and more than a taxi from the island would cost, the views were incredible. This was actually the moment I fell in love with Harbin. 

Time:  

You could probably do this park in an hour and a half, but, with a coffee break in the middle, we spent maybe three hours here. We had a lot of fun! There are also less tourists here at the time of day we went, which was a massive relief after the hoards of people to battle through at the Ice Festival. If you go with a tour bus then you will have a set time by which to return to the bus, so bear that in mind. Also, probably no gondola if you go for this option. I found doing this park independently worked in our favour!

Some fake but pretty blossoms and an amazing castle of snow

3. Zhongyang DaJie (Central Pedestrian Street)

We spent a lot of time here over our days in Harbin, basically any time we weren’t at the festivals themselves. This is one long street, completely pedestrianised, and super easy to locate, and the main place to find food and tourist places to shop in! Nearly a mile long, and lined on both sides with a mixture of restaurants, bakeries, delicatessens, clothes stores and amazing bazaars full of a beautiful array of souvenirs to buy yourself and family, you can spend hours here. It offers relative rest from the cold too as you weave yourself between shops and in and out of markets.

Zhongyang Pedestrian Street all lit up to impress

It is also a very pretty street. Zhongyang Street first came to be in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s, and takes its architectural designs from Europe – the buildings have Baroque-style facades on the front, and are unusual to see in China. It was exciting for us to walk down this street after so long in China with straight up and down apartment blocks and virtually no added décor. To see these beautiful buildings was really nice! In the day time you can stroll down this street, checking out all the different stores, my favourites being the bazaars, which are like market places full of tourist goods! At night, the street becomes a huge display of flashing lights, strung between the trees and dangling over the roadway. The lights glitter different colours, and I highly recommend stopping at a stall and buying one of the famous Harbin ice creams, in either vanilla or fruit (definitely go for vanilla, it’s amazing), and taking a walk through the lights. Though ice cream in the dead of winter downs bonkers, it’s said to actually warm you up, and it was certainly an interesting experience if nothing else! Also make sure to walk to the Flood Control Memorial on the banks of the Songhua River. The surrounding trees glow with lights at night, and it’s a nice memorial to those who displayed bravery in the big Harbin flood in 1957. 

The Flood Control Memorial on Songhua River

How to get there: 

With great ease! You show any taxi driver in the city the name of the street and you’ll be taken right there! I’m sure there are buses too but taxis are cheap and convenient especially given the cold. Waiting around for a bus isn’t ideal!

Cost

Free! But bring plenty of money for spending and trying out all the delicious bakery and street foods.

Time

No time limit. I spent any time not at the ice festivals here as there was so much to see and do. Definitely wait around the see the lights turn on too, it’s pretty special.

4. St Sophia Cathedral

St Sophia Cathedral will always be my favourite part of Harbin. The largest Orthodox Church this far East, it mesmerised me. I have never seen a more stunning church, and definitely never seen anything like this building in China. It has a complex history though. Originally built in 1907 by the Russians in Byzantine style, it has been rebuilt several times, and fallen into disuse at times too. In 1996 it was placed under state protection and was renovated to its former glory, including the murals and beautiful high domed ceilings that can be seen today.

I adore this stunning Cathedral 💕

I was happy to stand outside and gaze at all the carvings and the beautiful arched windows for a while. The rich red-brown walls, every inch carved somehow. There were elaborate arches around the windows, curves and squares elsewhere, like brush strokes on a painting, so perfect. The dark green dome topped with the gold cross, the white snowfall tucked into the curves and edges of the wonderful building. It was all stunning.  

Eventually we decided to follow the crowd and go inside. I was a little disappointed. The walls of the different sections of the huge space were covered in photographs. It was fascinating looking at them, they depicted the history of Harbin, and though the captions were all in Chinese and I’m unsure of what exactly they were saying, the photographs were very interesting to see. My disappointment came from the spectacle that the church has become. I was expecting to go inside and be in awe of the splendour and the quiet and the magnificence… and while you could just about see the splendour there was a thick layer of Tourist atop it. It was so crowded in there, so loud and the experience was kind of muted due to this. All in all, though I’m glad I went inside, I could have stood outside for much longer than being inside.   

Delicious caramelised fruit sticks are popular in Harbin.

How to get there: 

There are multiple buses that go here, or hop in a taxi and ask to get off at Zhaolin Street. Zhaolin Street also happens to be parallel to Zhongyang Street, and just a short walk from there, so it’s easy to find.

Cost

20 yuan per person to go inside and see the museum. Or free to stand outside and gaze for as long as you can withstand the cold.

Time:

As it’s not far from Zhongyang Street, I would put the two together on the same day. Give at least 30 minutes to fully appreciate this amazing building and to tour the museum, maybe longer if you’re a fan of stunning Russian architecture. Buy some carmalised fruit sticks for between 5-8 yuan as seen above, and have a long stroll around. 🙂