Even though I was born in China, I moved to the U.S. at the age of four, and I have no memories of living there as a child. Aside from my parents and my brother, all of our family is still residing in China, so we don’t get to see them very often. I have been back to visit three times. The first two times, I went back with my parents and only visited the two provinces where my maternal (Hebei) and paternal (Hunan) grandparents lived to visit with family. For my most recent visit, I brought my husband back with me, and I had the opportunity to visit many of China’s popular tourist attractions for the first time with him.
We purchased the tour on Groupon, through a company called Affordable Asia. The cost included airfare, 5 star hotel rooms with breakfast, and the major tours in each city (Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai). I also used Ebates and got 6% cash back! Overall, it was a terrific deal, and I would highly recommend it.
Our first stop was Beijing. On the first day, we visited Qianmen, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace.
Qianmen once guarded the the southern entrance into the Inner City.
This was a very meaningful spot for me. The Tiananmen Square protests (Tiananmen Square Massacre) took place in April-June 1989. I was born only 20 days after the protests ended. My father was was one of the students who were present, and my mom talks about how she was afraid that I would be born fatherless. I hope to interview my dad about this and expand on this story in a future blog post.
The Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty the to Qing dynasty. It contains 9999 rooms and was forbidden to the common people.
The Summer Palace is composed of lakes, gardens, and palaces, and was the summer retreat for the emperor.
The next day, we saw the Great Wall, Ming’s Tombs, and the Olympic Park.
The Great Wall is one of the most well-known landmarks of China. It spans over 5000 miles and is still considered one of the most impressive architectural feats ever constructed.
I have never been to the Great Wall before and didn’t know what to expect. The first realization I made about the wall was that it is EXTREMELY STEEP. It was also extremely crowded, as most tourist locations in China are, so it was even more precarious to try to maintain balance while climbing up. For some reason, people liked to stop randomly in the middle of the wall, so that proved to be an additional challenge. Going back down wasn’t easy either. I had to use my knees to keep myself from propelling face first down the wall, and towards the end, my legs felt like jello. However, after seeing so many photos of this impressive structure, actually being at the Great Wall was pretty amazing and surreal.
The next stop was the Ming tombs. There are 13 Ming dynasty emperors buried in this area, a spot specifically chosen according to fengshui 风水 principles, surrounded by both mountains and water.
A 7 kilometer road, known as the Spirit Way, leads into the complex. It is lined with stone animals and officials, which guard the tombs. At one end is the Dragon-headed Turtle Tablet Pavilion.
For our last stop of the day, we went to the Olympic Park, which is where the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest are located. I still am in awe of the opening ceremony that China organized in the Bird’s Nest in 2008. It really was unparalleled.
Our tour guide told us about one of the most famous Beijing roast duck restaurants, HePing Men. A group of us from the tour decided to go there for dinner that night. Everyone relied on me to converse with the waiters, since none of the workers there spoke English. We ended up with way too much food, but the roast duck was superb. We also gave the restaurant a huge headache when we told them that we wanted to split the bill. This is simply not done in China. Somebody always foots the entire bill, and fighting for it (including physical contact) is required in order to save face.
The next city on the itinerary was Xi’an, a city full of historical treasures. It is one of the oldest cities in China and was the former capital. The city marked the starting point of the Silk Road and is home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. We visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Terracotta Army that day.
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist pagoda originally built during the Tang dynasty. The pagoda has five stories and leans to the West.
One of the pagoda’s main functions was to hold sutras (scripts) and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by Buddhist monk and scholar, Xuanzang.
The Terracotta Army was constructed for the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang and took over 700,000 workers to complete. The site was discovered in 1974, by farmers digging a well in the area. Four pits have currently been excavated, and excavation is still ongoing. Pit one is the largest pit and contains over 6000 figures.
That night, we went to go see the Tang Dynasty Show, one of the most popular attractions in Xi’an. The performance started out with musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments while we were served dinner. The two ladies wearing purple and red dresses are playing the erhu 二胡, which is actually the instrument that my mom played and performed in college.
The show was primarily comprised of dancing, accompanied by a live orchestra, that told the story of the concubine Wu Zetian, and how she rose to power to become an empress. The combination of the music, dance, and costumes, made for a breathtaking performance.
Shanghai was the last city on our group tour as well as the most populated city in China. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great while we were there, but we were still able to enjoy much of what the city had to offer.
The Bund runs along the Huangpu River and from it, you get a glimpse of the impressive modern skyscrapers in the Pudong district. It was formerly part of the Shanghai International Settlement and features 52 buildings of various architectural styles from all over the world.
While in Shanghai, we went shopping during the day, and at night, we went to a few bars as well as karaoke, with our new friends from the tour group. Then, it was time to say goodbye and fly into Changsha, Hunan to see my dad’s family.
We arrived in Changsha and was picked up by my uncle and my cousin-in-law, whom I had never met before. We drove back to my uncle’s condo and unpacked our things. For dinner that night, my aunt, cousin, and her husband took us to a restaurant that served street food local to Changsha. The Hunan province is well-known for its love of spice in its dishes. My husband loves eating spicy things, but my relatives in China were skeptical that an American could handle the Hunan level of spice.
At the restaurant, my husband definitely had to step out of his comfort zone when my cousin ordered chicken feet, snails, and whole turtle, just to name a few, all of which contained lots of spicy peppers. His favorite were the spicy crawfish (called little lobsters in Chinese). My relatives were very impressed with my husband’s ability to handle the spiciness and keep up.
The next day, we drove with my uncle to the town of Zhangjiajie, which was a four hour drive from Changsha. After arriving there, my uncle told me that he was deathly afraid of heights and that my husband and I would be seeing the sights on our own.
On the day that we arrived, we rode a cable car for 30 minutes to the top of Tianmen Mountain. We climbed to various spots around the mountain and also walked on the glass bottom bridge.
It wasn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. It was extremely crowded, though. I’m at least glad this didn’t happen when we were on the bridge.
To come down the mountain, we rode escalators for what seemed like an eternity. Then, we had to walk down these 999 steps, going through the Tianmen cave, which formed naturally after a cliff collapsed in ancient times. My legs felt like jello again, for the second time this trip.
The next day, we went to Zhangjiajie National Park, the first national park of China, and covering over 50 square miles. What sets Zhangjiajie apart are the pillar-like formations throughout the entire park.
The park contains an abundance of flora and fauna due to its high humidity and subtropical climate. The pillar-like structures were formed by physical erosion due to the vegetation that grows on it and when ice on the peaks expanded during the winter.
These peaks were the inspiration to the floating peaks featured in the 2009 movie, Avatar. This particular column shown has been renamed “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” in honor of the movie.
Overall, the trip was a magnificent success. It was an amazing opportunity to be able to visit the iconic landmarks of my homeland with my husband, as well as be able to visit with relatives I hadn’t seen in years.
✿ Katie ✿