Exploring Guilin and the surrounding area was some of our favorite time spent in China. Very different from the hectic cities we visited, Guilin was much more relaxed. We toured around Xingping and Yangshuo while we were there, which is the home to some beautiful scenery. We cruised down the Li River, bicycled down backroads of Yangshuo, hiked up Laozhai mountain to get some epic views, and even learned the traditional way to make paper fans! Guilin was our last major stop in China and it was a nice way to end our stay there, taking in the countryside and getting a chance to breathe some fresh, non-polluted air. Guilin and the surrounding areas were absolutely a highlight of China.

Overall, China was a very interesting country to travel through. It was one of the harder countries to get past the language barrier, but that made it interesting. It was fun (and sometimes frustrating) trying to figure out simple things like order food or get a taxi. With the food, it definitely led us to ordering things we wouldn’t normally have. Just reading the menus was an adventure at times. Google Translate helped us a lot but wasn’t always accurate, giving us things such as ‘three wire salad’, ‘mixed ear cabbage,’ and my favorite, ‘cold fungus.’ Besides the language, the culture was quite different, and we felt out of our element a few times (not nearly as crazy as India though). Besides the challenges, we still had a great time there and would go back and explore more of the country some day.




The highlight of Xi’an, the ancient capital of China, was seeing the Terracotta Warriors. A collection of terracotta sculptures dating back to 246 BC, these figures were built to protect Emperor Qin Shi Huang when he passed into the afterlife. There are three pits that have been dug up and open to the public and they contain thousands of soldiers, chariots, and horses; all unique. There are tons more that haven’t yet been unearthed. More than 700,000 people worked on constructing the terracotta army, and the process took over 40 years. The warriors weren’t discovered until 1974, when farmers were digging a well and came across one of them.

Walking into a building the size of an aircraft hangar, we were greeted with thousands of warriors looking right at us. It was incredible seeing them in person and witnessing the detail that went into each one. Every soldier was different and unique, and you could tell the rank of each one based on details such as hair, shoes, and weapons. It’s really crazy to think how old these are.

Our guide was excited to tell us that Bill Clinton visited here during his tour of China in 1998.

After seeing the Terracotta warriors, we climbed to the top of the old city wall. 6786 ft up and 8768 long, it is the largest and the most well-preserved city walls in China. We rented bikes and rode along the top for a while which was really fun. However, it was 100 degrees out, so we didn’t stay up there for too long.


The Great Wall of China


One of the biggest things we knew we had to do while in Beijing was visit the Great Wall. There are a few sections of wall that you can visit, with some being more popular than others. Badaling is the most popular for Chinese tourists, as public transportation there is very easy and that’s where almost all the large bus tours go. Mutianyu is the best-preserved section of wall and most popular with foreign tourists. We opted to go with neither and instead take a tour to Jinshanling and Gubeikou, where there would be far less people. Jinshanling is another preserved section that doesn’t see as many visitors as the area around it is just starting to be built up to accommodate more people. It was nice to go to a section where we weren’t swarmed and have hundreds of other people in all our pictures. The next section, Gubeikou, is a ‘wild’ section of the wall. Completely unrestored, nature has taken over here, and it was really cool to see a more rundown section.

Snaking its way through mountains and valleys, the Great Wall runs for over 10,000 miles in northern China. The first sections of wall were built as far back as the 7th century BC. The wall has been rebuilt, maintained, and improved by many different dynasties, and the majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The main purpose of the wall was to protect China from Mongolian invaders. Overall, it was effective in stopping semi-nomadic invaders but could not stop larger scale invasions.

Seeing the Great Wall in person was incredible and even more amazing than we had expected. After the 2-hour drive from Beijing, our group (us, a lovely couple from Arizona, and another from Portugal) hiked a circle route through the Jinshanling section of wall. At roughly 50 (sometimes 100) yard intervals there were watchtowers we could climb up to get an even better view of the landscape surrounding the wall.

For lunch we stopped in a small town in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of northern China. The population here is more of a mix of Russian and Mongolian, while the landscape starts to become more defined by green steppe and arid desert the further north you go. We ended up at a tiny restaurant, and our guide ordered over a half-dozen dishes for us all to try. Everything we tried was delicious, and this was hands down our favorite meal in all of China. Our small stop here made me want to visit Mongolia, but we’ll save that for another time! After lunch we headed back to the wall but along they way we made a quick pitstop to shake down some pear trees! At least our guide told us they were pears, though we thought they were more like peaches. Either way, they were good.

We then continued on to the second portion of wall that we were stopping at; Gubeikou. We hiked up to the wall and found a nice stop to watch sunset at. This section was much different than the nicely restored section we visited, and it was cool to see two diverse segments of the wall. Visiting the Great Wall was definitely one of our highlights of China, and the beauty of it will stick with us.




After saying goodbye to Japan and my family, we flew to Hong Kong to start our China adventure. The main reason we went to Hong Kong was to get our visa to be able to enter China, so we stayed there for a week to make sure we had enough time for any processing that had to occur. We were able to find an agency easily enough and handed over our passports. I figured out we would be able to get a ‘group visa’ since there was 2 of us, and this would be both faster and cheaper than getting a regular tourist visa. We were nervous because a few people in front of us got their visa applications rejected, but within the same day we got our passports back and a piece of paper saying we could stay in China! We didn’t expect too much from Hong Kong, but it turned into one of our favorite stops. We explored both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, taking in its fascinating mixture of East meets West. Having been an English colony, English is one of the main languages and the Western influence is obvious. We even took a daytrip over to the gambling mecca of Macau. We wandered through the casinos (it was too rainy to do much else either) and thought of how it compared to Vegas. It seemed like it was way more geared to just gambling and not so much other activities and didn’t seem like as much of a party place as Vegas (no alcohol on the casino floors). Overall, Hong Kong was a really cool city that we’re glad we ended up in.

Our first destination in Mainland China was Shanghai for a stopover before Beijing. Here, we made a quick trip to Shanghai Disneyland for a fun day. It was only opened a couple years ago so it’s still pretty new. It was interesting with all the rides and shows being in Chinese, but it was a cool experience, and the rides were exciting too (Tron and Pirates of the Caribbean were awesome)! Otherwise, we just chilled out a little in the city before diving off the deep end into Chinese culture. The modernity of where we stayed in Shanghai would soon be in stark contrast to the old school vibes of Beijing.

In Beijing, we stayed in a hutong (courtyard), which are traditional courtyard residences joined together by narrow streets or alleyways. The hutongs represent the culture of ordinary Beijingers, in contrast to the elite culture represented by the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, etc. We mostly stayed in the old section of the city and didn’t venture too far into the modern side of the city.

For our first day of exploring, we headed out to Tiananmen Square. Right away we were greeted with reminders of Mao Zedong. From the giant image of him over the gates to the Forbidden City, to the hundreds of paintings, mini sculptures, and other memorabilia for sale (not to mention his visage on every piece of currency), to the imposing mausoleum containing his body in the middle of Tiananmen Square, the man is everywhere. Mao founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and ran it until his death in 1976. To many Chinese, he is still revered for his many accomplishments. These include unifying China and driving out foreign occupants, reducing drug addiction across the country, giving more rights to women, and promoting literacy and education. When walking through the National Museum of Beijing, this is the story we were told. While parts of it are true, the other side of Mao (the ruinous dictator) were glossed over. In the late 1950’s, Mao pushed for rapid industrialization (based on people instead of machines) in what’s known as the Great Leap Forward. This led to the Great Famine in China and led to tens of millions of deaths. Some scholars have said up to 55 million. Mao also started the Cultural Revolution, a decade long fight to preserve communist ideology and purge any remnants of capitalism and traditionalism in Chinese society. This movement paralyzed China both politically and economically and led to several million more deaths. Yet the line to pay respects to Chairman Mao winds through Tiananmen Square every day, and many come from far away to visit. However, not everyone believes he is China’s hero, and have a much more negative attitude towards the man. He is also viewed as the worst ruler in Chinese history, bringing disaster to the country, causing the deaths of millions and murdering masses. It was fascinating to hear about such a man of contradictions in the country he came from, as opposed to read about him in textbooks. The propaganda is alive and well, but the debate is still ongoing as to what Mao’s legacy is. [1,2,3]

One of the most interesting exhibits in the National Museum was a collection of gifts that China has received over the years from other countries. Dating back to the formation of the People’s Republic of China, it was interesting to see the historical significance and artistic merit of each gift.

We also took a food tour while we were here and ended up trying lots of neat new foods. We toured though several different hutongs, stopping at tiny local restaurants to try their specialties. Some of the highlights were Mongolian BBQ, and Beijing pancakes filled with Kung Pao chicken, stir fried beef, sliced potatoes and all sorts of veggies. We also tried something known as ‘door nail meat buns’. The story goes that a Qing Dynasty Empress was served this rolled up pastry ball with beef inside by a chef who hurriedly had to throw something together. The Empress unexpectedly loved it and asked him what the name of the dish was. Not having a name, the chef looked over at a door nail and the rest is history. We ended the tour at a local craft beer brewery and had some of the best cider and wheat beer on the trip so far.

The Forbidden City is a massive palace complex in the center of Beijing. Built in the 15th century, it consists of over 980 buildings. It was really cool walking through the complex and seeing the displays inside each building. We spent most of the day there (the place is HUGE) just wandering around. During our week there we also went to the Temple of Heaven and hung around the park there and went over to the Summer Palace to walk the grounds. We enjoyed seeing the architecture from the many different dynasties throughout the years.

Once we got to Beijing we really felt like we were in China. We really liked Beijing and had a good time exploring the city and getting a feel for it. The city is enormous and still with a week there it felt like we only scratched the surface. We also took a daytrip out of there into the countryside, but that’s coming in the next post.