Days In the East - Beijing & Shanghai
I went to Beijing and Shanghai for a couple of weeks in March and honestly, in terms of preparation I was bloody useless. Dave: "What do you wanna do while we're in China?" Me: "Go to the Great Wall and eat yum food!" Those two ground-breaking suggestions were literally my entire contribution. Dave did all the extensive planning and research while I played Candy Crush, so this post has been basically brought to you by him.
Before you leave:
Get a visa: Obviously this depends on what passport you have, but if you're travelling on a New Zealand passport, you need a visa. A single entry visa cost us $140 each, so even if you get crazy cheap fares like we did, remember to also factor this cost in. We didn't both have to be there to drop in our visa applications or pick them up, but the drop off and pick up times are different and if you don't get there right as the doors open, you should factor in a couple of hours waiting time.
Train tickets: We used China DIY Travel to secure our train tickets between Shanghai and Beijing before we left. You can only buy train tickets at the station, but they sell out pretty quick so if you want to not have the stress of missing out then get these guys to buy them for you. All the info is on the site. They actually have so much useful info you should probably just get all your advice from them. Why am I even doing this?
Get a VPN: If you want to access all the apps you're used to, like gmail, facebook, twitter, google, google maps, etc. then you need a VPN. You also need to have downloaded it on your devices & signed up before you leave. I could have done without the social media apps, but it was simple things you take for granted like googling how to walk to the subway station, or the best restaurants nearby, etc. that this comes in handy. We used Express VPN. Basically, there's heaps of shit you use daily on your phone that might not work once you're over there, so get this just incase, cos it will make life heaps easier while you're there.
Download a good offline map: We used MAPS.ME and it was SO useful. We didn't bother getting local sim cards while we were there, we just used the hotel wifi to do our daily planning before we left each day, but once we were out we relied heavily on the offline map. Your GPS still works even without data so you'll still be able to see where you are on the map. It doesn't matter how well you plan, trust me, you're gonna need this at some point.
When you're there:
Go on this Old Beijing Dinner food tour:
Oh shit! This is actually the one thing I organised for the trip! I booked a food tour. The thing I get most excited about when visiting another country is all the different food I'm going to try, it's one of the best ways to experience a different culture, amirite? We've been lucky in the past to have friends in a bunch of the places we've travelled to, to give us that local food knowledge. But when you don't have mates - a food tour is the next best thing.
We did it first in Istanbul a couple years ago with Culinary Walks and it took us to neighbourhoods we would have never gone to, and little eateries we'd have never discovered on our own. In Beijing we booked the Old Beijing Dinner Tour with UnTour Food Tours and it was so great. We tried a bunch of the things we wanted to try but hadn't been able to find on our own or the language barrier would have made too difficult.
The tour guide gave us a history of the neighbourhood and answered any of our general questions about life in China, and more specific things like where the best night spots are.
If you are a vegetarian there's plenty to choose from, but I think vegan options are more limited & I'm not sure how you'd get on gluten free. Best to email them with dietary restrictions before booking.
Do this self guided walking tour in Shanghai's Former
French Concession area.
We only did half of the tour which included Xintiandi the v. trendy, upmarket shopping/dining area where all the street-style photographers scope out, the fascinating Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China - highly recommend paying a visit to this museum, the beautiful Fuxing Park which makes you feel like you're in Paris, where you can watch old people play badminton or ballroom dance together or huddle together in groups to gamble, and the famous Tianzifang which is like your typical arts/crafts/food markets only way cooler cos it's set out in lots of tiny alleyways. But the BEST part of this walking tour was that it directed us where to go for "a steaming bowl of Langzhou lamian noodles." These noodles were the best, I mean, the BEST noodles I've ever had. So if you're in Shanghai I highly recommend taking the time to do this walk, you could break it up over a couple days perhaps, cos it will cover off a lot of what you want to see in Shanghai. Oh, and this is where having an offline map becomes really important, we couldn't have done this without one.
OK, so you're not gonna find anything groundbreaking here, we just tried to tick off as many of the main/obvious attractions as possible. In Beijing - The Great Wall of China. Because, duh. Probably the most spectacular site I've been to. I could have done nothing else the entire trip after that and still felt it was worth every cent. We got the hotel to organise our trip there so they hired a driver to take us there and back for ¥800 ($160ish NZD) which is crazy cheap considering it was a 1.5 hour drive, plus the hours he waited for us while we explored the wall. Tickets which included a shuttle bus, cable car and entry I thiiink were about ¥300 for both of us.
My next favourite sight after that was the Temple of Heaven. I just thought the main building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, was real cool. Followed by Jingshan Park where you can see The Forbidden City from above. I personally thought the park and walking up to see the view was a better experience than actually being inside the Forbidden City, though I'm still glad I went. But if you're reallllly limited on time, then I'd go for the view from Jingshan Park. Tiananmen Square is right next to The Forbidden City. We also checked out the Beijing Olympic Park which was pretty chill and spent hours wandering around the 798 Art District.
In Shanghai - apart from the walking tour which actually covers a lot of the big tourist attractions, we went to The Bund at night, passing through Nanjing Road on the way there. We were sick for a couple of days in Shanghai which may also explain why this list is considerably lighter than Beijing.
We looked into staying at an Air B'n'B and were pretty tempted because it looked like you could stay in really nice places for really cheap but in the end we decided to ball out a lil and booked into these boutique hotels. I was really glad we did because we relied heavily on the staff to help us out with daily advice.
The Orchid in Beijing: I loved staying here. We were in one of the Area 66 private residences, which are self-contained units in amongst the rest of the neighbourhood, just a 2 min walk from the actual hotel which is hidden away in a tiny alleyway. We hadn't booked any sight-seeing tours (except a food tour) or hired any guides, so every day we'd have a chat with the staff about what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go, and they'd help us out with how to walk there, or the best trains or buses to catch, or they'd call us a taxi, or give us good nightlife recommendations. They were all really knowledgable and super helpful. Their breakfasts were also really good, but mostly I just loved the neighbourhood we stayed in. It was unlike anywhere I'd stayed before, away from tourist traps and high-rises, and a five minute walk from the subway station.
The URBN in Shanghai: The room at URBN hotel was so dope. The neighbourhood here was def more flash than the area we stayed in Beijing, but still real cool vibes. Just a few mins walk from the train station and Jing'an Temple, plenty of food options and huge fancy malls and great shopping nearby.
- A lot of the public bathrooms have no toilet paper, so always carry toilet paper or tissues with you, and some hand sanitiser or wipes. You will probably at some point have to use a squat toilet, but you know what? It's all g, we usually squat over public toilets anyway, right? If you need to take a shit, just wait til you're back at the hotel. lol.
- If you're unlucky and get sick when you're in China like we did, I'm happy to report they still sell cold & flu tablets with pseudoephedrine over the counter (as long as you have your passport on you). Thanks to those pills I went from a "omg I'm dying, I can't get out of bed" situation to "okeh, let's go to The Bund now" in a matter of hours.
- We travelled in March, and though it got pretty chilly at times, it seemed to be a good time to travel in terms of avoiding huge crowds in the tourist attraction areas. We never had to wait very long anywhere.
- If all else fails, just go to Din Tai Fung to eat. It's great to go on lil missions to find cool eating spots and get out of your comfort zone and take a wild a guess at what you're ordering, but sometimes you're just tired and you want shit to be easy. If you want to eat the best, most delicious dumplings ever + more, go to Din Tai Fung. Basically everyone recommends the place, there are heaps around, they're usually found inside a fancy mall (don't let the mall thing put you off), and English menus are available.
- Have Beijing Duck in Beijing. So, I guess this is where I confess that even though I've been a vegetarian for about a year, I decided to eat meat on my China trip. I'm back to being a vegetarian now, and sorry to my vege mates, but holy shit the Beijing duck was soooo goooood. We went to Duck De Chine, which was recommended to us by basically everyone we asked. Fine-dining, hella fancy, loved it.
- We didn't go out heaps but in Beijing, we played some NBA Jam over a couple beers at 8-bit an old school video gaming bar, which was a fun time. I also really enjoyed going to Fang, a stylish, tiny cocktail bar recommended to us by our UnTour Food guide.
*The title of this post is taken from: Drake ~ Days in the East