Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beijing activities

The Great Wall of ChinaIMG_2813

A must-see! There are multiple sections that are relatively close to Beijing. The best-known is Badaling, but most Great Wall reviews says that Mutianyu is much better, mostly due to the insane crowds at Badaling.

Unfortunately, Mutianyu is harder to get to, requiring either a somewhat lengthy bus-then-transfer-to-minibus ride (which did not sound like fun with small children) or a taxi/private car rental (which would have required us lugging the car seats all the way from Shanghai). In contrast, Badaling is accessible via train -- much more manageable, and no car seats required. And we figured that the cold weather would likely keep the crowds down.

The S2 train goes from Beijing North Railway Station to Badaling. Finding schedules online was a little bit of a challenge. This page currently has schedules, but that might change in the future!

Beijing North Railway Station is accessible via the Xizhimen subway station (line 2). There is plenty of signage in Chinese and English to direct you from the subway exit to the train station. Allow a few extra minutes to buy tickets at the station (it was 12 yuan/about $2 per adult; the kids were free) and get to your train. We didn't... and ended up missing our train! If you find yourself in the same boat and need to kill some time till the next train, there is a nice mall attached to the subway/train station. Plenty of restaurants and shops, and a fantastic fish tank on the lower level. And regular toilets, unlike the train station :)

The train ride takes about an hour, but the nice thing about trains is that the kids can get up and walk around, go to the bathroom, etc. Way better than a bus ride of the same length.

We were a little worried about missing the Badaling station stop, but it was very clear. It was the only station stop where the announcements were made in both Chinese and English :) Plus, pretty much the entire train got up.

Once we arrived, it was a short walk (a little under a kilometer) to the base of the Great Wall. There were signs, but we mostly just followed our fellow train travelers.

Turns out we were right about the cold keeping the hordes of visitors away. This is the main parking lot. Apparently, it is packed in summer, but on our visit, it was a ghost town:


This worked out really well for us, but I do think I'd opt for Mutianyu in summer, despite the hassle of getting there.

There are a variety of restaurants at the base of the Great Wall, but none up at the top, so bring food/water if you think you'll need it during your stay. Also, you might want to use the bathrooms at the bottom. The bathrooms at the top were probably the foulest bathrooms I've ever used in my life. Chinese toilets (which are stinky under the best of circumstances), port-a-potty style... ::shudder::

You can either walk up to the top, or you can take a cable car. Since we were getting a late start on the day (due to missing our intended train) and since it probably wasn't a good idea for me to hike at altitude while pregnant, we opted to take the cable car. It was 60 yuan (about $10) roundtrip for my husband and me. The kids were free.

Once you get to the top of the wall, you just walk... and walk... and walk. There are lots of steps, uneven terrain, and steep inclines, so it's a bit of a challenging walk for kids, especially little ones like Noob. And I can't see any way that you could bring a stroller up there. Needless to say, the Ergo was an absolute lifesaver. In fact, Littles got tired midway through, and Noob wanted to walk anyway -- so it was into the Ergo for Littles!


(This carrier isn't a great fit for her anymore; you can see how it hits her very low on her back, and doesn't support her bottom from knee-to-knee. But it's perfectly safe, just not quite as comfortable as it once was, for child and wearer. Still, better than having to either force her to walk or carry her in our arms!)

Despite the challenging walk, the views were absolutely worth it. Truly spectacular, and a highlight of our entire China trip.

Forbidden City/Imperial PalaceIMG_2962

This is easily accessible from the Tian'anmen East or Tian'anmen West subway stations (both on line 1).

Unfortunately, our visit was a bust. It was freezing cold and so just a few minutes into it, the kids were literally screaming because they were so cold. So we ended up seeing just a handful of things before turning around and heading back to the hotel for some hot chocolate :)

If you plan to go during times of extreme temperatures/weather (hot, cold, rain, etc.), know that it's a pretty long walk from the entrance to the entire Forbidden City area (right near the subway exits) to the entrance of the actual Imperial Palace, where you pay your admission fee and all that. Both kids were already pretty cold by the time we got to the entrance, and it didn't get any better once we got inside. There are many "buildings" inside the Imperial Palace, but they are all open-air pavilions that provide virtually no shelter from the elements.

We really should have saved ourselves the admission fee and turned around at the entrance. It wasn't worth what we paid (40 yuan/about $7 per adult, plus a little more for audio guides that we barely used) for the little that we saw. The walk to the entrance would've given us enough of a taste of what it's all about without tormenting the kids any more than necessary.

Tiananmen SquareIMG_3270

This is directly across from the entrance to the Forbidden City, easily accessible from the Tian'anmen East or Tian'anmen West subway stations (both on line 1).

It's just a big square with a lot of monuments :) Plenty of room for the kids to roam, and gawk at Communist-era architecture and statuesque soldiers. There are a bunch of museums in the buildings surrounding the square, too.

There is a lot more to see in Beijing, but that was all we had time for! Still well worth the trip!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Shanghai activities

We did a lot while we were in China, and some activities require a more lengthy explanation than our typical activities while traveling. So I'll do separate posts on what we did in Shanghai and Beijing, and link to them from the overall trip log. (Which I will write up, one of these days...)

Shanghai Ocean AquariumIMG_2004

A pretty decent aquarium, not on par with a place like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but still a very nice place to pass a morning. Easy to find from the Lujiazui metro stop (line 2).

City parks

There were lots of little city parks scattered around Shanghai. This one was right across the street from our hotel, and was a nice place for the kids to burn off a little energy and explore. (Even in the cold and rain of Shanghai in January!) There were people practicing tai chi there every Sunday.

The Bund

This is always rated as one of the top Shanghai attractions, but I wasn't really sure what it was until we went :) It's basically a walkway along the Huangpo River. On the same side of the river, there are a bunch of historical buildings from the British colonial era. Across the river, you can see the newer buildings of the Lujiazui area (visible in the picture above). It would probably be a lovely walk in nice weather, but you can see that the weather wasn't really cooperating during our trip :)

The closest metro station is East Nanjing Road (line 2), but it's a pretty good walk, so definitely bring your walking shoes and a stroller/baby carrier for the kids. We were somewhat surprised to find that there were no signs in the vicinity of the metro station pointing to the Bund, but it's not too hard to find once you know where you're going: Just walk east down East Nanjing Road and stop when you hit the water :)

Huangpo River CruiseIMG_3353

This is perhaps an even better way to see the Bund: Less walking, and protection from the elements! We chose a nighttime cruise, which leaves from near the Oriental Pearl tower -- that's the distinctive tower with the ball on top. It leaves at 7 PM and you can buy tickets starting at 6 PM. To get to the dock, from the Lujiazui metro station (line 2), walk towards the Oriental Pearl and then go down the little side street until you hit the water.

The cruise lasted about 45 minutes. It went up and down the river, turning so that both sides of the boat got good views of both sides of the river. The kids loved riding the boat, and I loved that we weren't out in the rain and cold :)

There is also a ferry that leaves from the ferry terminal, which is maybe half a mile south of East Nanjing Road on the Bund. It has very regular departures going up until 10 or 11 PM, I think. We decided against it, because 1) we couldn't find any information on where the ferry would take us :), and 2) it is a really long walk from the metro station to the ferry terminal. But it's very, very cheap (just a couple of yuan, which is less than a dollar, if I recall correctly), so if you're feeling adventurous, check it out!

Evening in Lujiazui

We went out to dinner in Lujiazui one night (there are lots of great restaurant options in the Super Brand Mall) and wandered down to the waterfront for a good view of the Bund from across the river.

Yu Yuan Gardens

We really enjoyed this place! It dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1500's). There are tons of ponds, bridges, buildings, waterfalls, and other spots for kids to explore. Beautiful! We spent the better part of a morning here and could have easily stayed longer. On a chilly January day, there weren't a ton of other visitors, but I've heard this place gets quite busy in the summer.

The gardens are surrounded by Yu Yuan Tourist Mart, which features tons of stalls selling various souvenirs and other items. Very touristy, but... well, we were tourists, after all! Definitely put your bargaining hat on if you want to buy anything.

You can get here from the Yu Yuan Garden metro stop (line 10). Pay attention to the signs. We went out the wrong exit and ended up taking a very long walk to get to the gardens. I believe the correct exit was exit 3, but double check when you get there.

Qibao (Water Town)


There are lots of "water towns" in the Shanghai vicinity, offering shopping, boat rides, museums, etc. Probably the best-known (due to being closest) is Zhujiajiao. Xitang and Tongli also get rave reviews.

Unfortunately, getting to those water towns presented something of a challenge, especially with young kids. They require hiring a car, taking a lengthy bus ride, taking a complex combination of trains/buses, etc.

So we decided to go to Qibao, which is nowhere near as beautiful and "authentic," but has the distinct advantage of being accessible via metro (Qibao stop, line 9). That allowed us to get in a nice visit and still make it back to our hotel in time for lunch and naps.

What is there to do?

  • The highlight for the kids was definitely the canal ride (pictured above). It was short, maybe 10-15 minutes, but that was plenty long enough for the kids. And at 30 yuan (about $5) for all of us, it didn't break the bank, either.
  • Tons of shopping! Warning: There are lots of toy shops, and it can be hard to drag young kids away when they get their heart set on something! The good news is, everything is pretty cheap :) We picked up a $3 doll set for Littles and a $3 train set for Noob that they both played with a ton during the rest of the trip.
  • One street was full of stalls selling all kinds of food, mostly unidentifiable to me. The sights and smells of that street were quite a cultural experience!
  • There are a few small museums. We didn't go in any of them, though.

If I were going with older kids, I'd definitely want to check out some of the water towns that are further afield, but with younger kids, Qibao is just perfect.

Shanghai MuseumIMG_1683

A lovely art museum. If you and your kids are into art, you'll probably enjoy it. My kids were more interested in running around like crazy people, so we didn't stay long :) Which was OK, because it's free! Fairly easy to find from the People's Square metro station (line 2), but it is a little bit of a walk.

Shanghai Science & Technology Museum

Truly awesome! We planned to stay for a few hours in the morning, but ended up spending nearly all day there. It was fascinating to see science from a Chinese perspective -- a little different from what we're used to in the USA :) The highlight for the kids was definitely the Children's Rainbow Land area. Tons of neat activities that were right at their level, super fun but also educational.

It's impossible to miss from the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum metro stop (line 2). There are a bunch of little stalls/shops attached to the metro station, where we found some awesome deals, like North Face gloves made of Goretex for 10 yuan (a little under $2) -- they retail for close to $100!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Navigating the Shanghai and Beijing subway systems

Noob and me on the Shanghai metro

As I mentioned in my last post, we navigated both Shanghai and Beijing by subway, almost exclusively. Much cheaper than taking taxis everywhere, and much more convenient and safe, too, when you're traveling with small children who still require car seats.

Finding your way around
If you've used subway systems just about anywhere else in the world, the Shanghai and Beijing systems are pretty easy to figure out. Ticket machines, station signs, and train announcements are in English as well as Chinese, so you don't have to worry about deciphering Chinese characters to find your destination.

Fares are pretty cheap by American standards. Most of our rides on the Shanghai metro were either 3 or 4 yuan (about 50 or 66 cents) one-way. The Beijing subway is even cheaper, with a flat fare of 2 yuan (about 33 cents) one-way. In both systems, kids under 1.2 meters ride free.

Many stations have security checkpoints, where you must x-ray any large bags. There are no metal detectors or other security checks if you don't have bags.

Most stations have multiple exits. It's a really good idea to figure out the numbered exit for the place you're trying to get to, if at all possible. We took the wrong exit out of the metro when going to Yu Yuan Gardens, and ended up taking a roundabout walk of about 15 or 20 minutes to get there. On the way back, we followed signs to the metro, and discovered that there was a different metro entrance that was maybe 5 minutes away :)

Crowded trains
The trains can be quite crowded, especially on weekends and during rush hour. Noob was almost always in the Ergo, which helped tremendously: We didn't have to worry about cramming a stroller onto a packed train, or about him getting lost in the shuffle. We had to pay closer attention to Littles, to make sure she made it onto the train with us and didn't get crushed by passengers who didn't notice her!

Interestingly, we found that in Beijing, people were very accommodating and almost always went out of their way to give up their seats immediately for my mother-in-law (who is in her late 60s) and the kids, and for me if I was carrying Noob, even on the very busiest trains. In Shanghai, this happened probably less than 50% of the time.

Technically, soliciting isn't allowed on the subways, but we ran into a couple of beggars on the Shanghai metro. You can usually tell when they're coming because for whatever reason, they all have these karaoke-type machines that they sing into. So when you hear random music on the subway, it's probably a beggar coming through.

One incident that still haunts me is when a woman came through with a boy who was maybe 10 years old. There was something wrong with his eyes. We had read that people do sometimes intentionally disfigure/disable kids so that they'll be able to get more money begging, and both my husband and I got the strong sense that that was the case here. If you've ever seen Slumdog Millionaire, it was like coming face-to-face with that. It makes me sick that someone could do something like that to an innocent child. We didn't give any money, so as not to encourage that kind of behavior to continue.

Littles did notice the beggars and so we explained to her in very simple terms what they were doing and why. With older kids, you may need to be prepared for even more of an explanation.

Where to stay
In Shanghai, we stayed near the Xujiahui metro station, which is on the 1 and 9 lines. We rode the 1 and 2 lines the most by far, so staying on or near one of those two lines is a good idea.

In Beijing, we stayed near the Jianguomen subway station, which is on the 1 and 2 lines. Again, these were the two lines that we rode the most by far. The 2 line basically goes in a big loop around the center of the city, and the 1 and 5 lines cut through the loop. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are both on the 1 line, and the trains to the Great Wall leave from Beijing North Railway Station, which is on the 2 line (Xizhimen station). So if those are your primary destinations, staying anywhere on the 2 line or on the 1 or 5 lines within the loop will put you in a good spot for sightseeing.

To/from the train stations
The subway systems in both cities connect to most of the train stations. Note that there are multiple train stations in each city, and they are often quite far away from each other, so you want to make sure you go to the right station!

The high-speed rail train between Shanghai and Beijing generally arrives at/departs from the Hongqiao Railway Station in Shanghai. This is almost at the western end of the 2 line, so it's a good distance from the downtown area. I think we allotted about 60-90 minutes to get there from Xujiahui.

On the Beijing end, the high-speed rail trains arrive at/depart from Beijing South Railway Station, on the 4 line. It took about 20-30 minutes to get from there to Jianguomen.

To/from the airport
We took a taxi from the Shanghai airport to our hotel, but on our way home, my husband took a taxi with all the luggage, while my mother-in-law, the kids, and I took the metro.

Pudong International Airport is the eastern end of the 2 line. Again, this means that it's a good distance from the downtown area. In addition, the trains serving the eastern stations are shorter than the trains serving the rest of the 2 line, and run less frequently. This means that at Guanglan Road, you have to get off your train to transfer to another train. This might not be so bad when you're coming from the airport, but going to the airport, we ended up being on one of 2 or 3 six-car trains that then had to jam onto a single three-car train. As you can imagine, it was absolutely packed! Honestly, if I had to do that journey again, I don't think I'd take the metro, at least not with small kids. And if you have large amounts of luggage, definitely forget about it.

It might be better coming from the airport, since you'd probably be able to get a seat or at least stake out some personal space right away, which would help if the train did fill up at subsequent station stops. Then at Guanglan Road, you'd be transferring from a small train to a bigger train, which shouldn't be a problem. But still, be prepared for a long trip. It took us about two hours total.

Another option is to take the high-speed rail train, which runs between the Longyang Road station (also on the 2 line) and the airport. This is a little pricier (50 yuan/a little over $8 one-way, or 40 yuan/just under $7 if you have an airline ticket receipt or other proof of purchase), but still way cheaper than a cab.