Day 254: The ONLY Way to See the Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Wall runs 8,851.8 km in length (5,500 miles!!!) and was completed during the Ming Dynasty in 1644 after nearly 2,000 years of construction. It was built mainly as protection against invasion*. Seeing the Great Wall was our main purpose in traveling to Beijing, so Michael and I decided to splurge on this last tourist activity of our time overseas. We booked a Beijing Sideways tour, one that I had seen in an Expat Living magazine when we first moved to Singapore.

Our Sweet Ride for the Beijing Sideways Tour

Our personal guide, an Italian expat named Riccardo, picked us up from our hotel bright and early along with another driver. Michael and I applied a few additional layers (Riccardo had extra jackets, gloves, and scarves) to protect us from the chilly winter air and we got situated in our respective sidecars. Our first stop was in the city, to pick up fresh French bread for our lunch on the Great Wall. Stop #2 was at this bizarre replica of a French Castle that was built just outside of the city. Stop #3 was at the Ruins of Fu Hua, a forest filled with pagodas that had been built in the 1400’s. Stop #4 was what we had been waiting for – The Great Wall.

I didn't actually drive!

Michael and I posing in front of the “French Castle”

The Pagoda Forest

There are several high-traffic, easy-access segments of the wall that are visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Beijing Sideways let’s you enjoy your ride in the sidecar and takes you further afield to a little-visited section near the village of Zhuangdaokou. Because of the remote location and the fact that it was off-season, we saw a grand total of THREE other people on the wall during our half-day spent there. Three!

The Never Ending Wall

After a short trek on a rocky hill, we were upon the Great Wall. I was amazed at the way it seemingly went on forever, climbing and descending the mountains before it disappeared in the distance. Since the wall follows the land’s natural shape, it’s mostly steep and winding, making our “hike” along the wall actually a climb. We climbed for about 45 minutes before stopping just outside a lookout tower to eat lunch. Our guide Riccardo had previously been a professional chef and we were spoiled by the spread. He had carried a camping grill along in his backpack and heated up homemade pork tenderloin, pasta Bolognese, and roasted potatoes to go with the fresh French bread we had picked up along the way. Lunch was served with a bottle of red wine, and after we were done eating we had sips of his homemade limoncello.

Cassie relaxing while Riccardo prepares lunch!

Salute! Cheers!

The hike continued for another hour or so, with a stop near the end for a steep wall photo shoot. This portion of the wall declined so sharply that we had to shuffle down slowly so we didn’t tumble down. With a clever turn of the camera, Riccardo set the wall even with the horizon line, making it look like Michael and I were defying gravity. Having led many tour groups to this same spot, Riccardo was an expert and placed us in his favorite poses. These are some of our favorite shots!

Barely Leaning

I’m the one standing straight!

Matrix Pose

Our climb concluded and we returned to the motorcycles in a nearby village. On our way back into the city we made a stop to see the famed ‘bird’s nest’ and ‘water cube’ from the 2008 Summer Olympics. According to our guide, the ‘bird’s nest’ (the Beijing National Stadium which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build) is a point of pride to the Chinese and is rarely used except for very important events. Although it would make a great concert or sports venue, these events aren’t worthy to be held inside, so there it sits, empty nearly all of the time.

The Bird’s Nest

Water Cube

Sitting atop the Great Wall enjoying a gourmet lunch and wine is one experience I wont soon forget. Having had lived in Singapore for more than 8 months and visiting mostly busy tourist hubs in that time, it just felt so… quiet. It was a remarkable experience with a remarkable view, and I loved every second of it. Anyone traveling to Beijing to see the Great Wall should see it on a Beijing Sideways tour. It’s worth every penny!

Floating

*This time my facts were from a much more reliable source: travelchinaguide.com

Days 253 & 255: A Walking Tour of Beijing

Michael and I moved back to the USA on day 266 or our supposed 548-day adventure abroad. We almost made it half way! (For those of you who didn’t major in MATHS, half way would have been day 274). I can’t help but be a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of the world, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love the time we did have overseas. It was amazing and I’m thankful we had the opportunity.

Anyway, we’ve been back two months now and it’s about time I wrapped up ‘Around the World in 548 Days’ since the adventure is officially OVER. This blog post and the next are about our awesome trip to Beijing in February, and then I’ll post an adios Singapore blog. Stay tuned!

Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square

A 9-month stint in Southeast Asia without a trip to China seemed blasphemous to me, so I booked tickets to Beijing as soon as we got our move date and realized we had time to squeeze it in. And squeeze we did. Our tight timetable allowed for just three full days in Beijing, barely enough time to hit the biggest tourist draws of the city.

Day one found us walking from our hotel near the pedestrian street of Wangfujing to Tiananmen Square and then south to a shopping district just outside of the square. From there we walked further south to the Temple of Heaven. If the tourist map hadn’t made these sites appear so close to each other we probably wouldn’t have made the more than 8 km trek across the city! We had intended to check out Tiananmen Square and then the Forbidden City with a quick detour to the Temple of Heaven. Five hours later, the Forbidden City was closing and our legs were ready to call it a day.

South Gate of Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is named after the gate (Tiananmen Gate or Gate of Heavenly Peace) that is located directly north of the square and separates it from the Forbidden City*. The square itself is huge and has imposing gates on the north and south ends, and impressive halls on the east and west sides that house the National Museum and Great Hall of the People, respectively. In the middle of the square sits the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao. Having already been witness to one embalmed communist leader, Michael and I passed on the seeing the Chairman.

Chairman Mao Mausoleum

The shopping district just south of Tiananmen Square was so colorful and bustling despite the cold. On a side street we found small stalls selling snacks. I stopped at the least crowded of the stalls to buy Michael a birthday snack – fried scorpion! We both sampled the crunchy and salty snack and were unanimous in our decision that it was tastier than durian.

Fried Scorpion

The Temple of Heaven Park is a peaceful haven in the middle of a busy, crowded city. The park covers nearly 3 square kilometers, and is home to three separate structures built in the 1400’s that were used for prayer, sacrifices, and ceremonies by several dynasties*. Giant, ancient trees line well-manicured paths that lead to and from the temples in the core of the park. We exited the park on its south end and immediately started looking for a taxi, realizing that we were now more than an hour away from our hotel on foot. 30 minutes later a taxi finally stopped for us (we never did figure out the secret to hailing a taxi in Beijing!).

Temple of Heaven

Writing Characters in Water outside Temple of Heaven Park

Day three (I’m skipping day #2 on purpose, it deserves its own post!) turned out to be another walking day, and this time Michael and I actually made it to the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former imperial palace to 24 emperors throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties*. It’s here where the emperors kept their household, performed ceremonies, and made important political decisions. A wall 8-meters high surrounds the city and contains the 980 buildings situated inside. We walked the 1km from the south gate to the north gate, taking in the traditional Chinese architecture that was originally built more than 600 years ago. Immediately outside the north gate we climbed the hill at Jingshan Park to see the Forbidden City from 45 meters above. It was an impressive sight.

Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City

Throngs of Tourists inside the Forbidden City

Forbidden City from Jingshan Park Hill

We concluded our quick trip with dinner at Quanjude to try the famous Peking Roast Duck. It was delicious! We stopped at the Donghuamen street market on the way back to our hotel to marvel at the array of fried critters on sticks (scorpion, silk worm, frog, spider, sea horse… you name it, they’ll fry it!), and decided to sample something safe – strawberries on a stick dipped in liquid sugar that had hardened. So good! We crashed early that night with our bodies both aching and fatigued, but satisfied that we had the opportunity to visit China before moving back to the USA.

Steaming Dumplings at Donghuamen Market

One of the few “snacks” I was willing to try at Donghuamen

*Thanks Wikipedia for the always reliable, always 100% accurate facts!

My Beijing photos are posted HERE, including those of the Great Wall (next post). Credit to Michael who took most of the Great Wall photos because my fingers were numb!

Day 237: Hey Murugan, I’ll pierce my back if you do me a solid

DISCLAIMER: The photos in this blog may be disturbing to some. If you think your stomach will churn at the sight of 40+ piercings in someone’s chest or back, I’d recommend you just skip this one. If you think you can handle it, read on!

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil Indians both in India and abroad. It’s celebrated on the day of the full moon in the Tamil month of ‘Thai’ (January or February) and is dedicated to Murugan, the god of war and favors. It’s for the favors received that devotees carry ‘kavadi’ (burdens) over a distance of about 3 miles to give thanks. As I understand it, devotees ask for favors throughout the year and vow to carry a kavadi during the Thaipusam festival to fulfill their vow. The bigger the favor granted, the more elaborate the kavadi required to repay the favor.

Elaborate Kavadi + Tongue and Cheek Piercings

I saw a variety of kavadi ranging from slightly burdensome to incredibly painful. The most common was a metal pot of milk carried on the head. Even though it was the least burdensome of them all, I imagine even this would get heavy after a 3-mile walk. More painful kavadi included tongue and cheek piercings, sandals made of nails, elaborate metal hoops decorated with peacock feathers (a symbol of Murugan) laced with long metal skewers piercing the stomach and back, and thick metal hooks placed in the skin of the back to pull carts containing large shrines.

Walking on Nails

Even kids participate!

Shrine on Wheels Kavadi

Hooks in his back to pull the shrine

Since there’s an inherent gore to the festival I was surprised that Thaipusam had a very festive atmosphere. Many men carrying large kavadi had what I would call a personal ‘cheerleader’ walking with them from the beginning (Perumal Temple in Little India) until they made their offering at the very end (Tank Road Temple near Robertson Quay). The cheerleaders sang and did chants and encouraged some fancy spinning for those with a hoop kavadi to show off their feathers. Many devotees had family accompanying them on the walk as well.

Perumal Temple & Confetti

An Elaborate Kavadi

I had read about this festival during our preparations for moving to Singapore and was disappointed that we weren’t expected to be there for it. I’m thankful our departure was delayed and I was able to witness Thaipusam. I’m not sure my description can really capture the essence of the festival: there’s more energy and less gore than you would imagine for a festival of this kind. It was probably one of the most interesting things I’ve witnessed in my life… so far!

Empty Milk Cartons from Offerings made to Murugan

More photos of Thaipusam in all its glory HERE!

Days 215-216: A Bale of Our Own

A Balinese bale (pronounced ball-ay) is a raised, open-air pavilion with a roof. This is where Michael and I spent most of our last two days in Bali. The Conrad hotel on the Tanjong Benoa peninsula in south Bali is situated on one of the nicest stretches of beach in all of Bali. Their beachside bales are lined with royal blue cushions and pillows and are serviced by attentive waiters who bring water, cool hand towels, and a water mister as soon as you sit down. On both days we arrived shortly after breakfast and stayed until early afternoon, ordering lunch off of the poolside menu. It was the definition of relaxation. We lounged, armed with books and music with sunlight filtering in through the thatched roof and crashing waves as background noise.

Relaxing in our Bale

Bales along the Beach

Water Sports and Distant Storms

Since we had a late return flight, Michael and I were able to swing by Uluwatu on our way to the airport to watch the sunset. The sunset was amazing but this tourist site seemed to be more about the monkeys than the view. After my previous encounter with a sneaky monkey we were sure to secure our possessions prior to leaving the car. Others were not as lucky. In a matter of 60 seconds we witnessed three snatchings by three monkeys. First, a woman had her glasses torn from her face. Next, her male companion had his hat swiped off of his head. Finally, another female member of the same tour group had a pearl earring pulled from her ear. Nearby locals used fruit to negotiate with the monkeys and get the belongings back, but not before they had been thoroughly examined and chewed. We snapped some photos and sped back to the car to avoid becoming victims of the sneaky monkeys.

Stand too close to the railing and your stuff will get snatched!

Taking a break from thievery

It was a quick but full 4 days in Bali. The island has quickly become one of my favorite places to visit as it’s so full of culture, beauty, and incredibly kind and interesting people.

Day 214: Enjoying Ubud

For our first two nights in Bali we stayed in Ubud at the Komaneka Rasa Sayang hotel… it was wonderful! The hotel was new, clean, modern, and the customer service was some of the best I’ve ever experienced. They gave us a welcome gift, a surprise birthday cake for me, and taught Michael how to use a motorbike (after getting us a one-day rental for just $7). And the best part was that this property is located right in the middle of Ubud town on Monkey Forest Road, walking distance to both the actual monkey forest and Ubud Palace.

They must have snooped my birthday from my passport at check-in. Surprise cake!

We spent one morning walking around the Sacred Monkey Forest taking photos. This place was chock full of monkeys! It’s home to more than 300 long-tailed macaques that belong to four distinct families. We were there for maybe 5 minutes when I felt 20 cool little monkey fingers climbing my bare leg and reaching into my purse. I shook the would-be thief off before he was able to find anything worth steeling, and got a hiss and a dirty look in exchange for my interrupting his search. This was an uneventful encounter compared to what we would see at Uluwatu two nights later.

Sleepy Momma in the trees

Baby monkey! Wishing he were riding backwards on a pig, no doubt.

The next morning was spent exploring the area around Ubud on our rented motorbike. We visited the rice terraces in Tegallalang and shopped on the street leading back to Ubud where wholesalers make their purchases. This was done mostly in the rain, but it didn’t lessen our enjoyment at all. In fact, it was pretty fun! We were soaked when we returned to the hotel so decided to take advantage of the spa facilities. After glorious couples massage we headed to south Bali for the last part of our trip.

Before our Motorbike Adventure

Bali’s beaches are nice, but its cultural heart resides in Ubud. It’s here where you’ll find the best handmade crafts, the best gamelan troupes, and the best traditional dancers. Ubud in central Bali is a part of the island not to be missed.

Rainy Rice Terraces

Day 213: Traditional Balinese Dance

When I visited Bali with my friend Megan in September we caught a quick performance of a traditional Balinese dance while eating dinner at our resort. I was so intrigued that I sought out another performance on my next trip. Michael went along to humor me (“Sure Cass, of course I’d like to see a dance performance. Sounds almost as cool as Muay Thai boxing.”), but even he was impressed.

There’s something about the gamelan music, elaborate dress, and the dancers’ movements that take you to another place. We went to see the evening performance at Ubud Palace and enjoyed a series of dances, each telling a different story. I had my camera ready this time and was able to capture some photographs that will always help me remember that enchanting night. Here are some of my favorites!

Day 213: Bali Eco Cycling, More Than a Bike Tour

Since Michael and I covered a lot of ground in our quick trip to Bali, I’m going to do a series of posts instead of just one. First up is a bike tour we took with Bali Eco Cycling. Surprisingly, this was just as much a cultural tour as it was a cycling trip and we learned a great deal about local Balinese customs. The tour started with breakfast at the top of Mt. Batur, an active volcano in northeast Bali overlooking a crater lake. We weren’t able to fully appreciate the view due to the fog, but were able to catch a glimpse of the lake and the perch fisheries that dotted its shores.

Mt. Batur: More Fog

Mt. Batur: Less Fog

After breakfast our group of 10 was carted to a Kopi Luwak (civet coffee) plantation, home to one of the most expensive coffees in the world. The coffee is made by feeding ripe coffee beans to the civet cat, collecting the beans from the cat’s excrement, thoroughly washing, drying, and then lightly roasting the beans. The enzymes in the cat’s stomach supposedly do something magical to the beans that make them irresistibly delicious. So delicious, in fact, that people shell out more than $160 for a pound of them. Our guide jokingly offered us a taste of the famed “Cat-Poo-Chino” and we kindly declined.

Civet

Cassie helping roast Kopi Luwak

After several members of our group sampled the cat crap coffee, we were finally off for the cycling part of our tour. We started near the summit of Mt. Batur and made our way down through several small villages and hillside rice terraces. At each village kids would come running from their family compound for high-fives, nearly throwing this clumsy rider off-balance. We stopped at one traditional family compound for a look around. Our guide, Frodo Jo, explained the layout. A short wall surrounds the entire compound, and there’s just one entrance to the main road. About 4 feet directly behind this entrance there is another short wall, just slightly larger than the entrance. Balinese believe that evil spirits cannot turn corners, and this wall requires all who enter to immediately turn a corner, thus keeping evil spirits at bay. Inside the compound there are sleeping quarters for each family and a kitchen for each family. Up to 4 families may live in the large family compound. A temple is located in the northeast corner facing the mountains and the sunrise and is used for religious ceremonies and ancestor worship.

A few kilometers later we rode through a village that was in the midst of celebrations for a royal cremation. There was a 25-foot funeral tower in the center of the village being prepared to transport the deceased’s body throughout the town for the funeral procession. We continued on and just outside the village we rode past a decorated bull sarcophagus. Once both the funeral tower and sarcophagus reach the village temple the body would be placed inside the bull and set alight, completing the cremation. Unlike the average westerner, Balinese believe the cremation is a joyful time when the deceased’s soul is released from the body to go to heaven and eventually to be reincarnated. The celebrations were certainly more festive than any funeral I’ve ever attended.

Funeral Tower

Bull Sarcophagus

We stopped one last time before the conclusion of our tour, this time to trek through the rice terraces to a small clearing where local villagers were harvesting a mature crop of rice. It was a muddy trek along the edges of the elaborately formed terraces and bamboo irrigation tracts, but was well worth it. The women let us take turns thrashing the rice stalks against a bamboo rail to release the grains. It was amazing how much rice came out with that first whack! Similar to Sapa, the rice terraces in Bali were the most vibrant shades of green.

Rice Terraces

Cassie at Work

Michael at Work

The tour ended with a traditional Balinese feast over which our group of Dutch, French Canadian, Australian, and Wisconsinite tourists shared stories of travel in Bali and beyond. The tour may not have been as much exercise as we had anticipated since it was mostly downhill riding, but it was so much more informative than we ever could have imagined. Our guide was incredibly patient with the group’s many questions about local culture and incredibly knowledgeable about all things Bali. It’s definitely a tour we would recommend.

Photos from this trip to Bali, including the bike tour, are HERE!