CONTRIBUTED BY AMY HICKERSON
When we found out we were coming back to Korea (this is our second tour), I immediately put a trip to China to see the Great Wall on the rapidly growing bucket list in my mind.
It took us a while to get around to it (we picked beach locations first!) but in planning the trip, we knew of several options from word of mouth of friends who had already done a China trip:
(1) plan everything ourselves
(2) book a group or private tour through the USO or MWR travel agencies on post
(3) book a private tour with a travel company in China.
We opted for booking a private family tour through a tour company in China, based on some recommendations we had received from friends who had also used them. We contacted China Culture Tour, and were very pleased. Via email exchange, I let them know the sights we wanted to see, and they crafted the perfect plan for our family. We were responsible for booking our flights to and from China, and acquiring the tourist Visas*, but they planned the rest. Our services included private pickup at the airport, and a private guide and driver for the entirety of the trip. We had a short visit (2 days in Beijing, 1 day in Xi’an with a travel day on either end) with full days, but never felt rushed.
On our first full day, we started in the morning around 9 am at the Temple of Heaven. There is a large park surrounding the temple buildings. Lots of people were already there; it is a time for groups to gather to play games and exercise. It was so interesting!
After passing through the entrance park, the temple buildings you will visit are so beautiful.
At the other end of the park, we saw more groups exercising, playing music, singing, and this display of documents. Our tour guide explained that this is how some Chinese parents arrange dates (and hopefully a marriage) for their children. They write up a description for their child, put it out on display, and then look at the other papers for a match.
From there we went to lunch, and then on to the Great Wall. It was about an hour and a half drive to the section we did, Mutianyu. At this section, we rode a cable car/gondola to the top, walked along the wall for about a mile, and then rode a toboggan style sled to the bottom. It was amazing… incredible… fun… everything we had imagined a visit to the Great Wall would be!
Gondolas on the way up:
ON the wall… so surreal!
This is the sled track on the way down. Each person sits in a sled type “car” with a control lever between your legs. Push down to go forward, pull up to slow down. It was so fun! And it is actually a pretty long windy path down the mountain!
After the Great Wall, we were taken back to our hotel for the evening. We still had some energy left, so we ventured out of the hotel for some dinner and exploring. We had read about the famous Donghuamen Night Market, a street food market with some “interesting” choices, and found out it was only about a 20 minute walk from our hotel, so off we went (to take pictures, NOT to eat… you’ll see why in the photos below…)
After a safe dinner at McDonald’s (we usually eat one meal there at each country we go to for the novelty of it!), we found the market. Holding our breath, we walked down the entirety of it. I didn’t see many people eating; most others were doing what we were doing (looking curiously and taking pictures!).
Our next day took us to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and a Hutong rickshaw tour. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are connected, so we started at one end and walked all the way through both in one long tour. It was about 3 hours, so if you go with little ones, make sure they can walk that long, and pack some snacks! Our son did fine walking that much, but he started getting bored about 2/3 of the way in, and it would have helped if I could have had a snack to shove his way!
The Hutong Rickshaw tour took us through a small neighborhood that reminded me of the Hanok Villages of Seoul. Part of the tour was to go inside one of the homes and see the layout. That was really neat; not what I was expecting! All the rooms are separated with a small courtyard in the middle.
That evening, we went to the airport and flew to Xi’an. Another option for travel to Xi’an is a train (overnight or express), but we opted to fly to save some time on our brief stay.
Our third full day, now in Xi’an, started off with a visit to the Terracotta Warriors. Another truly incredible sight to see!
Inside one of the displays of the Terracottas:
After the Terracottas, we went to see the Xi’an City Wall. Not nearly as old or as massive as the Great Wall in Beijing, it was still an interesting sight to visit!
From the City Wall, we went to the Great Mosque of Xi’an:
And then strolled through the Muslim Market. There were streets of food, and streets of goods. Exhausting to haggle for a good price, but also exciting. Our son really got into the haggling for prices, and scored some awesome deals on souvenirs!
To finish out our evening in Xi’an, we went to the Tang Dynasty Dinner Show which features traditional music, dance, and costumes. For dinner before the show, we were served 16 different types of dumplings. Several of them were shaped to represent what was inside. Can you guess what kind of meat was in this one?
Our last morning we had a few free hours before heading to the airport, so we walked out of the hotel and just walked the streets exploring a bit. Most intersections looked like this; a sharing of cars and pedestrians/bicycles, even though there were traffic lights for both. Amazingly, it seems to work!
We also found this pretty walkway/park along a different section of the city wall than we visited.
And that wraps up our trip to China! It was absolutely one of our best vacations. I would love to go back, and I encourage everyone to try to make it to China at least once while you are so close living here in Korea!
*Visa information: I tried to go get the Visas myself at the Chinese Embassy and Consular office, but was turned away from both. I was told I could only go through a travel agent. I am not sure if there is a way to get them yourself (it is much cheaper). The USO and Moyer Rec travel offices on post offer services to get the Visas. You will need time though, it takes about a week.