My family and I travel in a particular manner — what my wife refers to as “immersive traveling.” When we can, we try to dive deep into the places we visit, getting to know and understand the culture as much as possible, and “living” in the places we land. We travel like we do because its fun and enlightening for both Karen and I, as well as the girls. Usually we are successful doing this, feeling when we leave somewhere that we better understand the people, the place, and the culture. Other times, not so much. This manifests itself in such situations as food poisoning because we were trying to eat like locals (Vietnam), or finding ourselves stranded somewhere in a foreign country due to my conviction that I could work with the locals and talk my way into a ride home (Thailand).
One thing we try to avoid when we travel is “checking the box.” That is, visiting places that we feel obligated to visit just to say we were there. We are not the “get off the cruise ship and spend a couple of hours in port” types of travelers (though there is nothing wrong with that). There are some places we feel we must go because we live in Asia Pacific and have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a site like Halong Bay or The Great Barrier Reef. Personally, I find a lot of the checking the box type of travel to be a little depressing and not as much fun. However, that is exactly how we traveled recently when we went to Beijing, and it was by choice.
We took the bullet train to Beijing instead of flying, which was the right thing to do. The train was not only easy, it also was affordable and relaxing (travelchinaguide.com). We drove the 45 minutes from our house to Hongqiao to catch the train, which had stops in Nanjing and Jinan, and would take a total time of 4 hours and 55 minutes to get us to Beijing (and as to be expected in Asia, we arrived on time to the minute). With security, customs and travel time to and from the airports, flying to Beijing would have taken as much time as the train, only without the soothing ride. Well, soothing for most of the trip.
As we got closer to Beijing, we noticed that the air quality outside was getting worse and worse. About an hour from our destination, it really started looking bad, and I kind of panicked, fearing that Beijing might be heading into one of those horrendous air pollution periods where the AQI hits obscene numbers like 800 and above. As so often happens in our lives, Karen talked me down off the ledge, but I came to the realization that all of us would be using the Vogmasks I had packed for much of our tour of Beijing (vogmask.cn).
I originally had looked forward to spending a week in Bejing with my family, and our long-time friend Jennifer Banovetz, who was visiting us from Los Angeles. It is a rich and vibrant city with an incredible cultural scene, and is arguably one of China’s best foodie destinations. However, Beijing has been having really bad air quality for several years, and we have a daughter with asthma. So, in anticipation of the possibility of bad air, I had reduced our time in Beijing to three nights and two full days. That also was when we decided that this was going to be one of our “check the boxes” trip, much to my unhappiness.
So as our train pulled into the Beijing Nan (south) station, and I looked at the ominously smoggy air, I realized that this was the right decision — check the boxes and get out. We would wear our masks and visit “must see” places like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and the Summer Palace. Then we would flee. None of our usual surprise side trips or nighttime ramblings, just get back to the filtered air of our hotel as soon as the days events were done, then get the hell out of Beijing. Fortunately, for a variety of reasons I will describe, we did check all the boxes, but we also had a blast.
Thanks to a recommendation from my friend and fellow Guy Tai Len Pritchett, we had hired a tour guide named Lisa through a company called Tours By Jessie (toursbyjessie.com). Both Lisa and Jessie were wonderful and I told them up front what our strategy was for Beijing. Lisa was a wealth of knowledge about Chinese history and politics, and on our first full day in the city (masks on) we toured Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and the Forbidden City, all of which were awe-inspiring. When you have as little time as we did in Beijing, it was really great to have a well-informed guide with a driver to get you efficiently from place to place. Lisa enchanted the girls right from the start with her earnest demeanor and funny stories, giving us the background to all the places we were going to visit.
Lisa had planned to take us to lunch that first day at an authentic Chinese restaurant, but after a very long morning, the girls made it clear they wanted pizza, and I wasn’t opposed to a beer. So Lisa took us to a traditional Beijing Hutong neighborhood that had some Western-style restaurants. Hutongs are a series of narrow, winding streets and alleys with courtyard houses that form a neighborhood where many Beijing residents live. We ate, then wandered the lively alleys of the Hutong and even got the girls cotton candy from a street vendor. That evening, Lisa took us to an amazing show that, roughly translated, was called the Beijing Chaoyang Theater Acrobatics World (bjcyjc.com/index/index.aspx). It was a mind-blowing Chinese acrobatic show that had progressively scarier feats of strength, daring, and balance, both on the ground and high up above the theater stage. Some of the stunts were jaw-dropping. I admit that at one point I closed my eyes. It was a thrilling way to end our first day in the Chinese capital.
We returned that night to our hotel, the fabulous Grand Hyatt, which is wonderfully Western, comfortable, and very family friendly (beijing.grand.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html). The girls loved the huge, tropically landscaped indoor pool that had waterfalls and grottos, as well as a virtual sky complete with shooting stars. Jenn, Karen, and I really enjoyed the club on the 17th floor that had great cocktails and appetizers. We saw Johnny Depp up there on our first night, although he looked so young that all of us thought he was a “wanna be” until we saw the news reports the next day. It was a great hotel to chill out in after a big day of touring, and we felt safe there from the bad air.
For Day 2 of our tour, Lisa took us to the Great Wall of China, and it was truly epic. We went to the town of Mutianyu, which is about an hour and a half outside of Beijing. Mutianyu is generally less crowded than many other access points to the wall, and has amazing views from high atop it. Instead of making the one-hour climb up to the wall, we took a chairlift up, which saved a lot of time and energy that we then spent on the wall. It is breathtaking to finally stand on the Great Wall of China. It’s not just the spectacular views that make it so, it is about having seen and dreamed of it for most of your life and then finally being there. The Mutianyu portion of the wall is the longest restored section and was originally built during the Northern Qi Dynasty in the 6th century. Like I said, epic.
We walked (really climbed) the wall for a couple of hours, taking pictures as we went and marveling at both the feat of constructing such a wonder and the incredible panorama we saw from the top of it. The air was clearer out there than it was in Beijing, but you could still see a layer of smog off in the distance. When it was time to get down from the wall, we opted for the toboggan run. It is literally a 5,000 foot long metal track that zigzags you in individual sleds down the mountainside to the base where you started. There is a “stick” in the middle of the sled that allows you to control your speed, and it takes about 8 minutes to reach the bottom. It was a hoot!
We had lunch in Mutianyu at an incredibly cool “Eco-lodge” called the Schoolhouse, where Michelle Obama and her girls had dined the week before after their visit to the Great Wall. Founded by an American expat and his Chinese wife, the Schoolhouse is a resort, restaurant, glass-blowing studio, and cultural project that is dedicated to sustainable tourism at the Great Wall (theschoolhouseatmutianyu.com/index.php). We were tired after hiking the wall. It was really nice to sit outside in their beautiful courtyard and enjoy a great meal and some good wine. Yes, it was my first time at the Great Wall, but I can’t imagine a better way to do it.
After lunch, Lisa took us to the Summer Palace, a sprawling green space with houses, palaces, and temples in the middle of Beijing. It is most famous for being the retreat where the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled, and plundered, China in the early 20th century. (My youngest daughter is fascinated by the Empress Dowager “Dragon Lady” stories). There are many cool things to see at the Summer Palace, including the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, the Hall of Benevolent Longevity, and the Long Corridor, which runs along the shore of Kunming Lake for about half a mile. Its rafters and ceiling are full of colorful painted mosaics with thousands of scenes from Chinese legend. We roamed the many amazing sections of the Summer Palace. Then we jumped into a Dragon Boat to cross the huge, man-made lake and headed back to our hotel after an exhausting and exhilarating day.
The next day we left Beijing by train. Of course, the air quality improved significantly and we suddenly could see beautiful Beijing. Two days was far too short a period of time to really get a true feel for the city, but we could not risk the bad pollution returning. What really stunned me about touring Beijing was that we and a few other Westerners were just about the only people wearing air masks outside. The AQI for both days we were there was in the middle to upper 200’s, which is pretty bad, but almost no Chinese, including children, were wearing masks. Maybe they are used to higher numbers and didn’t feel the need for them? If true, that concerns me for the long term health of Beijing’s citizenry.
I wanted to roam Beijing for days, take in its sites, eat its food, visit its night markets, and mingle with its people, but the air quality prevented us from doing all that. So we saw the sites that everyone should see when they go to Beijing, and checked the boxes as we went. It was a lot of fun thanks to our fantastic tour guide Lisa, and being together as a family (Jenn included), and of course, the Grand Hyatt. Beijing is the possessor of a lot of China’s wealth, and you can see that in the developments, cars, shops, hotels, and restaurants of the city. The price of that wealth is unfortunately the toxicity of much of the city’s air, water, and food.
I have to wonder, if we cut our time short in China’s capital city in anticipation of really bad air quality, others must also be doing the same, both Chinese and foreigners. That’s bad economics for an economic superpower, not to mention the long term health cost consequences. In my opinion, China needs to focus a little less on its economic output and more on its citizens’ (and visitors’) quality of life. It is a magnificent city and it is inexcusable that anyone should ever have to check boxes when they visit Beijing.