Visiting mainland China was one of those enriching travel experiences that took me out of my comfort zone, tested me, and left me with a better understanding of the people and culture. From navigating through the country without being able to speak any of the languages, drop toilets and taxi scammers to culinary delights, gorgeous natural scenery, impressive man-made structures and the kindness of strangers, a trip such as this one is why I travel. To learn something that I cannot learn at home.
Peking duck pancakes
Forget everything you think you know about Chinese food based on what your local takeaway restaurant serves. When you happen upon one of those authentic meals that every traveller seeks, served by friendly waitstaff in unassuming surrounds, you’ll never look at beef with black bean sauce in the same way again. We had two of these memorable meals. The first was peking duck pancakes. Two beautifully cooked whole duck breasts with the most delicate crispy skin, a stack of the finest pancakes, served with fresh vegetables and sauce for about AU$12. The second was what the waitress described as burnt skinned duck, discovered late one night in an eatery off Nanjing Road in Shanghai, for no more than AU$10. If anyone knows where to find similar in Australia, please let me know!
Great Wall of China
Seeing the Great Wall of China was one of my bucket list items. A tip we were given which I will share with you is to make your own way there and arrive before the tour buses, which means you’ll have the wall almost to yourself. You can jump on a bus with the locals, or you can do what we did and organise a private car from your hotel. It takes about about one and a half hours to drive from Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the wall, and this cost us 600 Chinese Yuan or about AU$120. We organised to leave our hotel at 7am, which meant we were walking on the wall by 9am. Mutianyu is accessed by cable car, and the wall here has been repaired, which makes it a good option for families and those who seek an easier hike. The wall and its towers winds on and on as far as the eye can see, and its surrounding mountains and plains are stunning, even in early winter when we visited.
Beijing and the Forbidden City
When we landed in Beijing, the first thing we noticed was the thick layer of smog. Coming from Australia, this really was an eye-opener. I’ve visited my fair share of larger cities — London, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul — and the air quality in those places has nothing on Beijing. Visibility is poor, but on sunny days at ground level you can almost forget what you’re inhaling. Smog aside, Beijing is beautiful, in a grand, orderly, traditional way. Wide, flat streets and oversized buildings, and pretty lanterns lighting up the wall of the Forbidden City at night. The enormous size of the structures masks how many people there are.
The Forbidden City is a must-see in Beijing. It is an impressive area steeped in tradition, culture and history, and takes the better part of a day to see properly. The self-guided audio tours are a great way to explore at your own pace. Enter through its iconic Meridian Gate and admire the guardian lion statues.
The Maglev and Shanghai
The coolest and fastest way to travel between Shanghai Pudong Airport and the city is the maglev train. Using a magnetic levitation system instead of wheels (the same technology as Japan’s Shinkansen), it reaches a top speed of 431 kilometres per hour, which means the 30-kilometre trip takes a mere eight minutes.
If Beijing is serious, Shanghai is excess. It reminds me a little of Hong Kong, with its bustling streets and alleyways, cosmopolitan atmosphere and outward show of wealth. Shanghai is the perfect way to end a trip to mainland China. First soak up the country’s traditional offerings, then cap it off with a city that offers whatever your heart desires. Shanghai is divided by the Huangpu River into Old Shanghai and New Shanghai (Pudong). Old Shanghai, as its name suggests, is the original Shanghai, full of culture. New Shanghai is the business and financial district, and lacks that soul-full feeling. Not to be missed is the Bund, the area along Old Shanghai’s waterfront. At night it offers spectacular views of Pudong’s skyline. Nanjing Road and the pedestrian mall at its east end is the shopping destination for tourists and locals. The French Concession is a gorgeous area within the city that, as its name suggests, boasts French architecture, gardens and restaurants. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center in Pudong offer impressive views of the city’s skyline, with the former thrilling brave visitors with its glass-floored viewing platform.
Tips for ensuring your Chinese adventure is a smooth one
- If you plan to catch a taxi, make sure you jump into a metered one where the meter is clearly visible and running. It can mean a difference of handing over AU$60 versus AU$20.
- Beware of traffic (including bicycles) when crossing the road, even on a pedestrian crossing and a green walk light. Drivers pay these no heed.
- Drop toilets are common, particularly outside of Shanghai. Bigger indoor shopping malls provide a choice of drop versus seated toilet. Also carry your own toilet paper — it’s rarely supplied in restrooms.
- (For my Australian readers) Power points are the same as ours, which will save you remembering to pack an adapter.
- Be open-minded, flexible and understanding. Mainland China can provide a culture shock for first-time travellers, but that can lead to the most memorable travel experiences.