Here is the main difference between backpacking and overlanding, schedule. With the car we pretty much had complete freedom of movement, WE decided how long we wanted to stay in each place and what time we should leave. None of the waking up at the crack of dawn just to make it to the airport on time, no hassle with public transport. Sure we are affected by traffic just like the bus, but at least we get to sit in our comfy Hodori with the AC set just right, listening to the “Fifty Shades of Grayer the Darker Edition”.
At the same time, visiting larger cities is much more of a hassle. You have to find parking that will be able to accommodate the behemoth, and the packed city parking lots are not cheap either. Then there is always the deep down, peace destroying fear of your car getting robbed or stolen…so there is that.
My advice for travelers choosing between the different ways of travel would be to decide what you want to see. If your goal is to visit 10-15 major cities around the world, then backpacking is the absolute no-brainer, it gives you freedom to quickly move from city to city without the added worry of having to ship your vehicle.
But if you want to see this planet and everything that is has, the smooth and sometimes abrupt transitions in culture and environment, then some sort of motorized transport is the right choice for you. You can see the difference a single border makes, when you go from Honduras to Nicaragua and realize just how clean Central America can be when people just care about their environment. Or when you drive from Russia to Mongolia and see the sudden change from forests to steppes. Visiting Ulaanbaatar and never leaving the capital is a waste of a trip to Mongolia, here you would either need to do a tour or better have your own vehicle to explore. There are places on this planet far away from humans, where nature is still doing its thing and doing it beautifully. I’m afraid that plane hopping would not get you to see those places so easy.
There are other options, you can bicycle around the world or hitchhike. If you decide to pedal your way around the planet, then it will take you a LOOOONG time. In the first few days of our trip we met a french bicyclist on the ferry from Baja California to Mazatlan. He has already gone from Europe to China and Alaska to Baja, all in just 3 years. If you got that kind of time, then you are in for a treat because bicycling is much cheaper than overlanding. If you plan to hitchhike and my experience in US can be used as good basis, then be prepared for the same conversation over some bud.
Summer Palace (GPS: 39.99018, 116.265864)
No matter how you travel visiting cities and meeting with your friends is probably the highlight of any traveler. We are especially lucky because in Beijing we get to meet up with Ming (left) and Dian (right), Heyin’s classmates from IRPS. They recently got awesome jobs in Beijing and came back to their home city.
There are protocols for face masks, there are of course the beginners like us who don’t know any better and wear it all the time. There are the die hard fans of the masks, that like the hijab don’t come off in public and then there are the true bad-asses, the people who have seen it all and are beyond the smog, or how the like to call it “fog”, the true Beijingers. I present to you our friends. They thought it was cute that we were wearing our masks 🙂
We met up at the Summer Palace still in Beijing but a bit Northwest from the center of the city. Although the Beijing subway system is absolutely huge, there is no direct station in front of the palace and we had to take a taxi from the nearest station. For the uninitiated like myself, those golden characters on blue backdrop just say “Summer Palace” above the entrance gate. Honestly, could have guessed that by context and been proud of yourself.
Expecting much of the same openness and emptiness as Forbidden city, but was pleasantly surprised to find non uniform structures and layout. The palace is a collection of buildings on and around the lake. The tower coming out of the forest looks absolutely stunning, even with all the smog around. No i get it, maybe it was the absence of anything green in the Forbidden city that made it look like Times Square on the morning of January 1st?
The shore is beautifully paved with willow trees (lets just call them willows, not exactly sure what they are) with their long depressing leaves hanging down.
This is the most stereotypical Eastern view that i can imagine, just taking photo and think of it as a silk painting. Everything is there, the setting sun, the droopy trees, the mellow lakes and stone walkways. Probably not good for you health, the smog does add a nice hint of mysticism and apocalypse to the whole scene.
We are absolutely lucky to have good friends in Beijing. When you get a chance to visit a place with someone local, do it…drop everything you got and go while they are still there.
I have missed so many opportunities to visit my friend’s countries with them, that i’ve learned my lesson and i hope you will too. Your friends will know all the best places to visit, all the best places to get some food and most importantly the cool places to hang out and get a feel for the culture.
For me the trip to Beijing is more about seeing them than Tiananmen and Forbidden City. The first day, while walking around the Summer Palace we didn’t even look around much and spent most of the time catching up on the latest gossip in San Diego. The IRPS (International Relations and Pacific Studies) attracts people from all over the world, with major focuses on Latin America and Asia. You already know about Ani and Carlos, who visited in Honduras, then we caught up Eric and Chanyoo in Seoul. There are so many friends, we just don’t have the time to visit them all.
Last thing about the Summer Palace. The main building with the forest around it was closed for whatever reason, so my next favorite place was the island with the 17-arch bridge. Walking on the bridge is not the exciting part, but looking at the island with a beautifully craft bridge is something special. In my own opinion i preferred the Summer Palace to Forbidden city, but maybe the company is what made it special for me.
For dinner Ming and Dian took us to a traditional Beijing food restaurant. We usually are very serious about our food pictures, but in the excitement and hunger we forgot. So we only have this picture of honey shrimp. There were beef ribs, tofu, noodles… a million different dishes and ALL of them absolutely delicious. To date this is the best Chinese food i have ever eaten. The flavors are crisp and the food is so light that you just want to eat all night, nothing like the chinese take out food in New York city. I know, i’m not doing an honest comparison. Maybe i’m hungry as i’m writing this right now, but i’m craving those ribs and shrimp. If you have some perception about Chinese food being spicy, its probably not about Beijing food. They like it sweeter and saltier here…no spicy to speak of. So don’t be afraid to order. Oh yeah, in a little fast food noodle shop we did get a bowl of spicy noodles, but nothing too crazy.
After dinner we hit up a few bars and reminisced about how much we miss California, the people, the food and the good weather.
Although we didn’t even stay past midnight, we had to take a taxi home as the subway closes quite early at last trains around 11-11:30pm. Our hostel was in the Hutong district, station Dengshikou, so pretty centrally located. Hutong basically means an alley, so the district is composed of cute little one or two-story houses with narrow streets and old-timey feel to the place. Most major attractions are in the walking distance from the district and there are plenty of food and shops around. Definitely recommend this as the place to stay.
Tiantan Temple of Heaven (GPS: 39.882311, 116.4066)
When traveling you develop certain habits, I need to have a good breakfast spot. There needs to be a decent coffee and some fast, cheap (affordable) thing i can buy and eat within 2 minutes. In China we finally found a coffee shop plus bao-bao place next door to each other, it was a bit of a walk but right next to the subway. Means I can get the whole breakfast sorted out in less than 10 minutes and under $4 usd, not bad considering Beijing prices. Don’t have me for saying this but i miss having a starbucks on every corner, in just 5 minutes and 5 bucks your breakfast is done…perfect for travel.
Today we are on our own for the first half of the day, as Ming and Dian have some errands to run on their day off. We are visiting the Temple of Heaven, also located in central Beijing.
One of the main features of the temples is this really long covered walkway, that basically turns into a very long veranda where people hangout, play chess, cards or just sit around a gawk at tourists.
Originally bought an entrance tickets, but turns out that those are only for the garden area surrounding the temple. China has really taken to this capitalist thing, at least they are not really outrageous with their prices.
Thats the Temple of Heaven.
Just a single building on a pedestal with stairs spreading out in all directions from it.
In one of the surrounding courtyard buildings there is a museum where you can read about the history of the ceremonies that were performed here. A brief look at the museum exhibit shows just how much of an exhausting task the ritual was. There are ton of steps, with prayer, manuscript readings, animal sacrifice, more prayers, more sacrifice, meditation, artifacts moving from one sacred place to another. It seems like the emperor had to really, really work for it. On top of that if he made ANY mistakes it was considered to be a terribly bad omen and anything from a bird pooping on your head to a drought would be blamed on the poor guy.
We walked around the temple and came back to the main entrance to find our path blocked by police tape. Turns out someone more important than us was visiting and they get special treatment. We couldn’t figure out who it was, i only heard “wai guo ren” (white person) all around me.
I still prefer the Summer Palace as my favorite place to visit in Beijing, but if you want to kill some time and see something truly Chinese…then absolutely visit the Temple of Heaven.
We got better things to do. Ming and Dian just told us to meet at a subway station and they will take us to a Peking duck restaurant. I hate looking at menus and deciding what i want to have, i just want to have something delicious and spent as little time as possible deciding it. So when Dian picked up the huge menu and just ordered the food…best part of the meal, and we haven’t even eaten anything.
Your mouth SHOULD be salivating by now, its normal don’t fight it. Usually you have to reserve the duck a few hours in advance so they can have it ready for you when you arrive. Once you are ready, they bring out the most amazing, golden brown duck and carve it right in front of you. There is not that much actual meat on it, you can easily finish it between 4 people.
Just to the let of the tortilla dish you can see the 3 little plates with the duck meat on them, that’s all you get from one bird. The skin is mind-boggingly crispy and literally melts in your mouth. The best thing is to dip it into pop-rock sugar before eating it. The sugar compliments the fattiness of the skin and pop-rocks really create little explosions of flavor in your mouth. Then you can grab a piece of the meat, put it on the flat bread, garnish it with veggies and whatever sauces you like eat it.
With the rest of the duck you have two choices, you can either fry it or make a soup out of it. We went for the fried version and didn’t regret it, although its not a turkey still it was fun gnawing on the delicious fried pieces.
Went back to the hostel, you know the drill. Tomorrow they go back to work and we wont see them again in Beijing. I really hope that they will visit us back in California…whenever we actually make it there. Ming…Dian…thank you for making Beijing awesome, without you it would have been just another cold wintery city. I think our happiness brought a bit of the California weather to Beijing.
Mutianyu Great Wall (GPS: 40.426007, 116.554891)
There are few places to visit the Great Wall, we chose Mutianyu because it was closer to the city and they included a free breakfast in the tour fee. The breakfast was a complete disappointment, it was raining and cold when we got on the bus, knowing the smog situation in the city i was ready for an absolute disaster of a day. Not that i wanted it to be a disaster, i just was getting myself ready, trying to find ways to console each other if its absolute shit. But the bus was so comfy i fell asleep and woke up to blue sky and a brilliant sun.
The entrance ticket was included in the tour but once inside you have a choice…pay for the cable car or just walk up the stairs to get up on the wall. We are young, we are frugal…we are stupid, so we walked up. Luckily the weather was on our side and it only took us 30 minutes to get up to the wall.
You know its just like HIMYM Barney’s CD mix…it only keeps going up!
The stairs bring you to the wall at Tower #10, then you can either go left or right. Its really up to you, there really isn’t an “end” to the wall. It stretches across the land for thousands of miles.
We went left, according to our tour guide if we go past Tower #20 we will be able to look at the “old” part of the wall.
What you see in front of you is actually from 1980’s when this section was reconstructed by the government. The wall itself has gone through about 20 phases of reconstruction with the first wall constructed in the 7th century BC.
The original wall was mostly constructed from tamped earth and some wood sticks. Nothing like we see today.
The iconic Great Wall made from stone that we know today actually dates back to the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century AD).
There is just no end to it, you just walk and walk passing from one tower to the next. We got super lucky with the weather and lack of tourists. A Monday in winter i guess is the perfect time to see it.
As you walk along the wall you realize that it perfectly connects the highest ridges, making it impossible to walk or climb around. The towers served also as troop quarters and provided for a fire communication system…yes, just like you saw in that “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
You do get a sense of Middle Earth as you walk along, i guess in that scenario i’ll be Sam and i’ll let Hyein be Frodo. Or maybe better we would be Pippin and Merry, those guys had a way better time in the books.
I’m not sure if this obvious to other people from the photos…but the wall is basically a very nice raised road. Can you imagine how was the Chinese army was able to move troops along the the wall? While whatever invading army had to fight their way through the rocks, trees and steep terrain, the Chinese army could be able to run on top of the wall.
We only had 4 hours of free time for the wall before we had to go back to the tour bus, so we literally ran up the stairs and as far up the wall as we could. Stopping to take pictures and enjoy a truly breathtaking view. From each tower there is a new and even better view, like little kids we were so excited to take pictures every few minutes.
Btw in the photo above in the top right corner in the plains is the city of Beijing. The visibility was so good that day that we were actually able to see the skyscrapers from the wall.
Some parts are super steep and get you out of breath in a matter of minutes. But we had a goal of reaching that Tower #20 and seeing what it looks like.
We got there just in time for us to turn around and head back. I looked around but honestly didn’t see any difference in the integrity of the wall. Sure some of the steps were missing and the sides didn’t look perfect, but i expected collapse and complete rubble pile.
I’ll do the summary for both China and the Great Wall here, so you can enjoy some pictures while you read my subjective opinions.
The Great Wall is the absolute highlight of the trip (excluding friends) it has the grandeur and the awe effect that i look for when visiting a new place. Beijing itself is just okay, absolutely a great city but doesn’t really stand out much in my eyes. In the 5 days that we were here we experienced the worst and the best of the smog, with our opinion raising with each passing day. Considering that is the 3rd largest city by population, i expected complete chaos on the streets with people in thousands just moving about, overflowing trash bins, crazy traffic…
No, none of that, even the subways were decently packed. The traffic was smooth and i noticed that there were a TON of electric mopeds, trikes and rickshaws. Silently they would creep up on you in a small dark alley on your way back to the hostel, only to scare you to death with the loudest honking right behind you. But hey…at least they are all using clean energy within the city.
The streets were clean, not Singapore clean…but hey not many places match that. Smog aside, i didn’t feel suffocated in the city, it wasn’t over crowded by any means.
It was nice to leave the city behind for a day and get out into the nature, get some “fresher” air for a change and let your eyes rest on the horizon. Here is my advice, just like Singapore if you can do a short layover in the city. If you stay for less than 72 hours, then you don’t even need a visa…just go to the immigration show them your ticket out of Beijing and they will let you out. The first day you could hit the Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Second day visit the Great Wall and eat some Peking duck in the evening…go out for drinks in Sunlitun neighborhood. Nurse your hangover on the morning of the third day and head back to the airport feeling accomplished.
I know there is much more to China than just the Great Wall and Peking duck. Hyein was super excited to visit, she was able to use her Mandarin and get to see China with her own two eyes. With this in mind and i dont say that about all the countries we visit…i know that we will be back here again. There is just so much to experience here, i really wish that we can easily overland here…i know not yet, we can wait, we got time.
For now i thank the gods of weather for giving us a beautiful day on The Wall!