Saturday, 31 December 2016

Forbidden City @ Beijing

Being one of the most iconic tourism destination in Beijing, Forbidden City holds a huge impression among the tourists and receives thousands of them visiting every day. Well-preserved relics and fine architecture. These are the reasons why this ancient palace could become the first in everyone's checklist.

Due to its perfect location, which situated right in the center of Beijing City, the palace is accessible by any means of transportation. If you are planning to take the subway, simply stop at either Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West Station. Walk about 500 meters to the front o Tiananmen Sqare and that will be the entrance of Forbidden City.

Both of the square and palace are interconnected. Hence, you will have to walk past the square before you could reach the palace. Ticket counter will be provided at the end of Tiananmen Square. As of November 2016, the ticket price was RMB 40 per person. The pricing would be different if you had student pass.

This massive palace got its name from literal translation of "紫禁城" (Zi Jin Cheng). Zi, means 'purple', was referring to the North Star, which in ancient China was called Ziwei Star, and in traditional Chinese astrology was the heavenly abode of the celestial emperor. Jin, means 'forbidden', as the people inside the palace were forbidden to walk in or out of it without emperor's permission. As for Cheng, it simply means 'city'. Keep in mind, though, that the word "Zi Jin Cheng" is only used in formal context. If you are heading toward it by taxi, tell the driver that you want to go to "Gu Gong", which means 'Former Palace'. The locals use this name more often.

Tourist in Beijing, they tended to seek for one common trait from Beijing - the historical heritage. That is exactly the main tourist magnet of this city. These monuments and relics inside age more than a century, but you wouldn't even notice that once you entered it. This is the result of strict preservation done by the Chinese government in keeping every single piece of item in the palace seemingly untouched. I, personally, would have this same feeling every time I managed to step foot here - it felt as if I was stepping on the same ground that the emperors of China did centuries ago.

Visiting the modern and trendy spots in Beijing could be quite fun too. But you might wish to have a little insight on some of these magnificent inheritances passed by the great ancestors. As said by Philip Stanhope, "The world is a country which nobody ever yet to know by description; one must travel trhough it one's self to be acquainted with it."

The word 'China' or 'Beijing' do not fairly portray what they truly have to offer. Some were misled by the media and news. Fearing of the unknown, creating speculation based on unclear and incomprehensible description. The choice is yours, though. Just my tiny piece of advice, you wouldn't know it if you hadn't been there yourself. So, go and experience it firsthand.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Beijing & Xi'An Itinerary (2)

 If this is your first time visiting my blog, do check out my first part of this post - Beijing & Xi'An Itinerary Part 1.

Here's the summary of my suggested plan for 6-day stay in this two cities:

1st Day - Beijing : Familiarize with surrounding. Street market. Long relaxing time.
2nd Day - Beijing : Forbidden City during day. Nan Luo Gu Xiang during night.
3rd Day - Beijing : Mutianyu Great Wall. Wang Fu Jing during night.
4th Day - Beijing : Nearby park to relax. 14-hour train.
5th Day - Xi'An : Muslim Street. Great Mosque of Xi'An. Drum Tower. Bell Tower. Hot pot for dinner.
6th Day - Xi'An : Terracotta Army Museum. Airport.

4th Day - Beijing

We spent most of our 4th day in the train. The tickets cost us RMB 188 per person for a hard bed. That was inclusive of processing fee and Paypal charges, because I booked them a month before traveling. Take my advice and do not get too stingy with yourself when purchasing ticket for regular train in China. The difference between them was nearly RMB 100, but what made it worth it was the accommodation and space.

Getting a single seat would be fine if you were having 1-2 hours commuting. But if it was overnight, you wouldn't want to cramp up your entire body on that tiny/hard seat. The hard bed came with, of course, an adult size bed with pillow and blanket, two tables and two chairs for each section,  a clean shared toilet and water boiler for the whole cabin. There isn't a need to get too worried about crowd, as one hard bed cabin only accommodates up to 60 passengers. While single seat cabin accommodates twice the amount. And the ticket comes with only a hard seat and shared toilets.

5th Day - Xi'An

By the time we reached Xi'An Train Station, it was already dawn, around 6.00 am. My contact in China selected a hotel/dormitory just next to Bell Tower. It was accessible by metro or public buses.

Due to its good location, which was exactly in the city center, our plan of the day focused only on these few destination - Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Muslim Street and Great Mosque of Xi'An. All these four places were perfectly near to each other and only took us around 15 minutes to walk. Entrance fees for Bell Tower, or Zhonglou (钟楼) and Drum Tower, or Gulou (鼓楼) ranged from RMB 40-50 (I was meeting a friend and did not exactly join the day tour). As for the Great Mosque (西安大清真寺), you could enter for free if you were Muslim and wished to perform prayer in it. But if you weren't, RMB 40 per person would be charged to enter. The mosque was a nice place for photography, but they had to control the number of crowd due to limited space and privacy of pilgrims.

At night, we strolled through Muslim Street, or Huimin Jie (回民街), which was located just outside of the Great Mosque. There were around 10 streets combined and formed the tourist hot spot. An advice from my friend here, was to go deeper in the streets. You would find yourself better selections at cheaper rates. We got ourselves a double hotpot that cost around RMB 40 per person. It was quite cheap, considering the amount of food we ordered. Great meal we had.

6th Day - Xi'An

Our last day was simple and relaxing. We checked out from the hotel around 9.00 am and hired a driver to Terracotta Army Museum, or Bing Ma Yong (兵马俑). It cost RMB 300 for the entire day.

Only 1 hour was required from city center to the museum. Perhaps it was weekday, we faced no difficulty with traffic on our way out. Once arrived, we had to pay RMB 150 each to enter the museum. There were numbers of tour guide stood-by to offer their service. I assumed there were at least Mandarin, English, Russian and Spanish language provided. But our group figured that we'd all made our homework and knew part of this museum, so went in without a tour guide.

The entire visit lasted roughly 4 hours, but not solely in the museum, you will have to walk pass a huge garden on the way up, and rows of shops and restaurants on the way down. The walk alone took us around 45 minutes.

Our flight back to Kuala Lumpur that night was at 12 midnight. But by the time we got into our car, we still had around 3 hours to spare. So, the driver took us to the souvenirs stores nearby and another detour back to Muslim Street for one last shopping.

Once everyone was done, we tipped the driver another RMB 200 for one last trip to Xi'An International Airport. It could have been RMB 50 cheaper with another driver my friend recommended. But we were too exhausted for any transit, so this extra money worth the while.

We managed to arrive at the airport just in time for check in and relax. The driver was welcoming and we had good conversation with him. It was just something nice that all of us need before leaving this country. No delay and no trouble caused on our way home. We arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport around 6.00 am. And finally got ourselves some Nasi Lemak. Lovely time.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

5 Interesting Facts About Beijing

1. Beijing subway is super efficient, but dangerous if not careful.

Subway system in Beijing is indeed incomparable with any city in China. Speed and efficiency, they're actually written in the motto. Chances of getting disrupted during your train ride is so little, that you barely hear any complaint made by the users. And even if you missed a train by few seconds, you don't have to worry getting late, because there is one coming just less than a kilometer away. Keep in mind, though, that good system is a result of constant adherence. Most of the levers, doors and trains are completely computerized. One foot wrong and the door will not hesitate to crush you like a bug, well, not literally, but you get my point. Nothing will stop it unless someone is quick enough to press the emergency button. My best advice are, halt your step when the signal light blinks or when the bell rings; and never cross the yellow line until the train stops, especially during peak hour.

2. The city is divided by 'rings'.

Beijing is one of the few cities that possess road rings. They are designed in strategic ways to ease heavy traffic in the city. There are seven rings in total and all of them size differently. It starts from the city center (Tiananmen Square) as the first ring. And moves toward the outskirt. The further the number goes the larger the ring expands. Hence, you will not find it odd hearing the locals use those rings to refer certain locations. For example, I stayed in a hotel that was located in Chaoyang (semi-outskirt). Sometimes when I hailed a taxi to go somewhere in city area, the drivers would ask me which ring the address was in. Not that they don't know the address, but Beijing is a big city, perhaps that's just how the local memorize locations.

3. Certain cars are restricted to enter 5th ring on weekdays.

This was once taught by my Chinese teacher. Every Monday to Friday, the city only allows certain cars to stay within 5th ring, and all cars are categorized by the last digit if their plat number. On Monday, cars that end with 0 and 5 are not allowed in. Tuesday, 1 and 6. Wednesday, 2 and 7. Thursday, 3 and 8. Friday, 4 and 9. As for weekends, all cars are free to go anywhere. Any car that disobey this rule will definitely receive a ticket. So, it's pretty important to understand this if you wish to travel through the city using a car. Or maybe if you wish to hire a driver. Make sure of the day and plat number.

4. Changes of air quality are extreme.

We heard multiple times in the news that Beijing is notorious for its poor air quality and thick haze. You may believe that, but but it's not entirely true. Because air quality in this city is very conditional. If you travel during arid and windy season, there's no way the haze would stay around. All you will see is a tremendous blue sky with very little cloud. A complete stunning view. In many of my trips, I had experienced two different air qualities within two short days. One day it was smokey, and the next it was bright and clear. Take this advise and dome some research before deciding your travel date. There are websites that provide air quality forecast for cities with constant haze condition.

5. Phone simcard is as important as ID or passport.

Getting a simcard is always on top of my safety list, especially when I'm traveling with a group of newcomers. But lately, the laws are getting even more silly when they require foreigners to register for simcard in mobile center. It used to be easier and it could be done only on the street, or any little mobile store. Although the requirement is simple, only to bring a passport, it's pretty hilarious to see that they perform the exact procedure as if you're registering for an ID. Here is the entire process - they scan the passport, photocopy, snap a photo of you, ask for fingerprint and a signature. Only then the officer will ask you what of simcard you want. The entire process of queuing and waiting took us around 30 to 60 minutes. I'm not trying to ridicule the law here, but as a short-term traveler, I did not have 60 minutes to waste.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beijing & Xi'an Itinerary (1)

Lately I've been really busy. Either personal or work related, I just couldn't draw some free time for blogging. But worry not, I'm here now for more China travel tips.

About a month ago, I visited Beijing  Xi'an with a group of friends. Me visiting Beijing isn't something surprising. I'm super familiar with the place like it's my hometown. But Xi'an? Hmm that's new. New challenge could be real fun, but  how do yo plan something that you've never experience?

Well, here's a suggestion:

1st Day - Beijing : Familiarize with surrounding. Street market. Long relaxing time.
2nd Day - Beijing : Forbidden City during day. Nan Luo Gu Xiang during night.
3rd Day - Beijing : Mutianyu Great Wall. Wang Fu Jin during night.
4th Day - Beijing : Nearby park for relax. Quick shopping. 14-hour train.
5th Day - Xi'an : Muslim street. Drum Tower. Bell Tower. Hot pot at night.
6th Day - Xi'an : Terracotta Army Museum. Airport.

1st Day - Beijing

We arrived at the Beijing International Airport two hours after midnight. All five of us were in tight-budget travel, that means none o us wished to spend money on unnecessary stuff. So what we did was, we waited in the airport till 7.00 am for the express subway to open up. Although the terminal wasn't much of a place to relax, it still provided steel chairs for you to sit around, or maybe sleep if there wasn't much crowd. Also, there were Starbucks and KFC that operated 24 hours non stop.

Fare for express subway to either two final stations cost RMB 20 per person. It was actually cheaper than my previous trip to this city. And once we got off on city subway, we got ourselves a Beijing transportation card, or Yi Tong Ka (一通卡). It could be used for subways and public buses. This would cost you RMB 40, with RMB 20 credit and another refunable RMB 20. This card could be refunded on any subway station in the city.

Our group loved the idea of staying in the university I one attended., Beijing International Studies University (北京第二外国语学院). It was mid November, so we were right about having less students. The school located in fifth ring and next to Chaoyang Road. It also shared a wall with Communication University of China (传媒大学). I'm not going for hotel's details now. It will be mentioned in the next post.

Just like any other trips, first day is the most exhausting day. So our group just stayed around the university and enjoy the crisp all this city had to offer.

In my opinion, getting a local number is always a priority. So I took one of the group members and went to China Mobile center, located on Chaoyang road. It was about 8 minutes of driving for our hotel. Or you could simply get a bus. Beijing lately has introduced a strict rule that requires foreigners to purchase simcard only in the center. That would be to track down every phone user in the city. The cheapest simcard we bought cost RMB 50 and another RMB 20 for processing fee. We bought two cards for the entire group.

The two meals were pretty simple, we had lunch in the Uyghur restaurant called "Alibaba", located on Dingfuzhuang East Road. It was near to CUC station. As for dinner, we dined in the university's Muslim cafeteria. Cheap and tasted lovely. Each meal cost around RMB 20 per person.

Due to major exhaustion, we spent the night strolling around Dingfuzhuang and Chaoyang road. The streets were pretty crowded every night, with students and hawkers on each corner. A great place to look for snacks and cheap winter outfits.

2nd Day - Bejing

Second day was super refreshing. Indeed, getting enough sleep is a key of satisfying travel. We started the morning with breakfast in the same Muslim cafeteria and headed to the Forbidden City (故宫/紫禁城), located in the middle of Beijing City. The palace was accessible by city subway.

The entrance fee cost RMB 40 per person. It would cost differently if you were local Chinese or student. And as always, every corner of this city was filled with crowd, even on weekdays. But it would be really odd if you came to Beijing and not visit Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.

It total, we spent three hours in this palace and got out around 4.00 pm. It was a huge maze in there. Next, I had told the group that I'd made an appointment with an old friend of mine in Peking University. I wanted to interview this friend and get to know more about her student's life in this city. This topic will be shared in different post.

The interview lasted around two hours and we were told with great stories. After Peking University, we headed for Nan Luo Gu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). Beijing is quite famous for its alleys, or Hutong (胡同). Nan Luo Gu Xiang is one of the Hutongs. You could find all sort of cafes, restaurants, hawker stalls and souvenirs all around them. 

In short, we focused mainly on first and second ring of the city. It was much easier to commute, without needing you to travel long and far. And also, we spent very little money. Exactly like how we wanted.

3rd Day - Beijing

Third day pretty much cost us a fortune. We hired a driver and a van for a trip to Mutianyu Great Wall (慕田峪长城). RMB 600 for the entire day. If you were looking for a cheaper way, look for Badaling Great Wall (八达岭长城). It is accessible by subway and public buses. The reason I chose Mutianyu was because of the view. Unlike Badaling, this section of Great Wall has better and taller view.

The trip took us around two hours from Chaoyang district. When we arrived, it cost a total o RMB 150 for each of us to enter. Mutianyu used to be very cheap, less than RMB 100 for everything. But lately, tourist were getting more and more. Hence, the government had upgraded the place and set a new fee.

After completing the visit, we were welcome with rows of souvenirs near downhill. Of course, the price were insanely expensive. But if you had no option but to buy it there, try hard to negotiate for cheaper price. I bought a snow globe for RMB 20, after talked down the price from RMB 80. But I should have tried harder, I could get that for RMB 10 from somewhere else.

On the way back to the city, we asked the driver to drop us near the subway station, as we were planning to go to Wang Fu Jing (王府井). There is a subway named after the place, so you don't need to worry about finding it.

Wang Fu Jing itself is an area name, or a street. It is surrounded by big malls and expensive hotels, a very common view in the city center. But what we were really looking for was Old Beijing Street (老北京风情街). 

Why Old Beijing? Because hawkers here were selling food that people used to eat decades ago. And surprisingly, that included food that are inedible. Yeah! I'm talking about scorpions and scary-looking insects. Honestly, even until today, I still have no idea would there be anyone buying the deep-fried gigantic black tarantula. Or those were just for display purpose. Either way, it was oddly satisfying to witness that kind of weirdness up close.

I guess that it's for today's post. I seriously do not want to drag this up to ten pages long. I'm going to share the rest of our trip in a second post. But or now, I wish you guys a very good luck on any coming trip to China.

Continue Beijing & Xi'An Itinerary Part 2