Shortly after we returned from Peru, a friend found crazy cheap flights to China over Thanksgiving and suggested a group of us go. We had just spent most of our vacation days for that year in South America, so we were hesitant to join, but then we realized: $500 flights to CHINA! An international flight for that cheap couldn’t be passed up. So about two months after we had landed back in the US, we boarded a plane to Beijing with five other friends for our first trip to Asia.
The first flight was a quick shot up to Toronto - no problem. The flight from Toronto to Beijing, however, was over 13 long hours. We watched movies, played games, chatted with the flight attendants about the best haggling strategies and markets for fake designer bags, and made futile attempts at sleep.
We landed in Beijing around 7 pm, fumbled our way through customs and the subway to our hostel, and collapsed in our giant doom room staring at each other jet-lagged with bleary eyes. Before crashing for the night, we managed to drag ourselves to dinner at a place close by. Although we had been warned, our first experience with Chinese food was nothing to write home about: the food was bland and greasy, and we made jokes the whole time about whether or not the “chicken” we were eating was actually dog. After dinner we went back to the hostel and immediately passed out.
Although our first dinner experience was mediocre, the next morning the hostel owner introduced us to what would be the best food of the trip. She wrote down an order for us in Chinese and told us to walk down the block and hand that piece of paper to a street vendor. We had no idea what we were getting, but it turned out to be amazing. He handed us back a bundle of steamed buns and tea eggs. They were cheap and delicious. From then on, that was our go to choice for breakfast (or really anytime we saw vendors selling it).
We spent most of the time in Beijing exploring the touristy sights including Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, and the Great Wall. The sheer size of all these monuments was incredible and would be difficult to explain, even with a photo. A fun thing we experienced was the uniqueness of being white in China. Lots of the Chinese tourists would sneak pictures of us. The bold ones would quickly shove in for a selfie with us in the background, while others asked to pose with us. We thought it was hilarious.
Although a lot of Chinese food left something to be desired, it was not all bad. Since we were in China over Thanksgiving, we made sure to find a nice place for the big meal. Instead of turkey we had Peking duck at a fancy restaurant. They made a show of bringing out the duck and carving it at our table. Even the bathroom was fancy, with warming toilet seats and fans to dry your bottom, in case you need that sort of thing. It was the best meal of the trip, plus a testament to how cheap our trip was: despite being a higher end restaurant, the whole meal cost less than $100 for seven people.
After Beijing, we took an overnight train to Xi’an to see the terracotta army. The display was HUGE. It was insane how large the building were that encased the army, and it hasn’t even been fully excavated! There were three major structures that were larger than football fields that surrounded the excavation sites, plus several other buildings that held additional special exhibits, including one that showed what the warriors would have looked like fully painted when they were originally created.
After finishing up with the army, we headed back to the city center to grab some food and explore more of Xi’an. When we finally arrived back at the train station, we were tired and ready for another relaxing overnight train to Shanghai. That would have been great, except we did not realize that Xi’an is so large, they have multiple major rail hubs, and we were at the wrong one… oops.
The ticket clerk assured us that there was no way we would make it, but we had tenacity. We were too many for a single cab, so we quickly rounded up two, threw money at the drivers, and set out for the train station across town. One of the cabs made it just in time, but the other cab was unfortunately 5 minutes too late. After an hour of broken English discussions with the ticket office, we realized that there were no open seats on any train for days and our best bet was to fly out in the morning. We swallowed our pride, bought the cheapest flights to Shanghai possible and rented a room in a hotel near the airport.
This hotel was probably the most interesting hotel experience we have ever had. While it had a beautiful lobby and hotel rooms, the niceness stopped there and the dirty/weird things began. Chain smoking must have been encouraged in every room. They provided paper slippers, some type of face mask in case of space shuttle launch, and a plaque in the bathroom reminding us to shower and “have a happy.”
We splurged in Shanghai and stayed on the 30th floor at a Marriott right in the city center. The skyline there is already beautiful, and our view was killer. When we checked into our room, we all just stood by the floor to ceiling windows for 10 minutes looking out over the city.
We spent most of our time in Shanghai wandering around, impressed with the vastness of the city. We wandered into a textile market, explored winding streets, and strolled along the Bund. A highlight of the trip was also our first experience with escape rooms at Mr. X. This was insanely fun and has since sparked a love affair with puzzles rooms.
After Shanghai, we took the bullet train back to Beijing, where we acquired a few knockoff designer bags and souvenirs from the Pearl Market and got ready to head back home.
The journey home
Our journey home involved a 12 hour overnight layover in Toronto. We checked out some sites downtown, tried a few new local beers, stuffed our faces with poutine, and somehow ended up at the after party of an electronic music festival. The next morning was a little rough, but it was the best way we could have wrapped up our trip.
Despite our initial concerns about the language barrier, we were able to put together the trip on our own and (more or less) navigate the cities. The food and beer wasn’t all great, but China was a fantastic destination for our larger group to share experiences and do some amazing sightseeing. We learned a ton about the Chinese culture, tried a bunch of new things, and as the title of this post implies, it definitely won’t be our last trip in Asia!