Wander of Wonders

We start this tour in Beijing, the second largest city in the country.

We first visited China’s capital city in 2017 when my parents visited us in China for the first time. Beijing is known as one of the oldest cities in the world, rich in history with the preserved sights attracting travelers from all around, even now.

Visiting parts of Beijing is like traveling back in time, one of structures that does well to transport you is the Great Wall of China. Stretching more than 21 000 kilometers across parts of northern China, some of the best preserved and strongest parts of the wall can be found around Beijing.

We visited the Mutianyu section, an hour’s drive from downtown and were delighted by the fresh air and blue skies. This section is regarded as a stronghold as there are more than 20 watchtowers. I couldn’t believe the smell of the sand and stones, even now, years later, I recall the cold, fresh sensation from touching and smelling the stones that make up this fortress.

Mutianyu is a great option when choosing which part of the wall to visit, it’s accessible from the city and less crowded than more popular sections. Also, you have lots of options at the wall itself, you can choose to use an open, or closed cable car for the trip up and can use the oh-so-fun toboggan for the journey back down. Glorious!

We would’ve loved to return during Spring or Summer and had a trip planned but the extreme lockdowns in both Shanghai and Beijing and the strict travel restrictions mean we will have to hold on to the memories already made.

Being such an old city rich in culture, heritage and history, Beijing has several other wonders to behold.

Records say The Forbidden City was first built in 1406 and served as a home to 24 emperors – not all at once, obviously. It may be confusing to think about this structure as a city but honestly, it is. The gated complex has nearly 1000 buildings and the outer walls are a mighty 8 meters high. I have to wonder if they were keeping people out, or keeping people in.

The Temple of Heaven was probably my favourite of all the historic buildings we were able to visit. The main temple is in a beautiful garden where people spend time playing, dancing, practicing Tai Chi and just being. The main temple itself has beautiful colours inside and out. It was initially built to serve as a place of worship and sacrifice for the emperors all those years ago and now young and old fill the park for recreational activities year round.

But wait, there’s more, namely The Summer Palace:

This was our last stop during our Beijing visit and we’d probably clocked nearly 100 000 steps by then. One thing all these landmarks have in common: walk, walk, walk and walk some more. Just ask my father – or rather don’t.

The Summer Palace, much like the Forbidden City, is more than just a landmark structure, it is an entire village. Our maps and entry tickets showed that it covered around 3 kilometers. There are parks, lakes, lakes with small islands, gardens, buildings, pavilions and bridges spread throughout the grounds. I don’t know if we fully appreciated it all, we were templed-out by the time we visited what could’ve been a sensational cultural wonder.

The great thing about a place like Beijing is that there’s history and culture down every street and around every corner.

Next stop: Xi’an

Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi province and is best known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors, an international symbol of Chinese culture and history.

As history books and our tour guide told us, China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, felt the need to be protected throughout his life – so much that he also felt the need to be protected in death and desired to be buried with an army of warriors.

Near the emperors tomb some farmers were digging a well when they discovered fragments of terracotta and later had archeologists investigate, and so the first of the warriors were discovered. The dig and discovery is ongoing. Currently, three pits are open to the public to view. Experts work carefully and diligently to patch up fragments and broken pieces of warrior. Walking through the pits I had that same sensation I felt at the Great Wall, the cool sand and the smell of earth and dust.

What I did come to appreciate about the warriors was that each one is unique. Their hair, facial hair, facial expression and build is unique.

Near the exhibition centre our guide had us stop at a little museum and workshop where artists create small replicas. We got our hands on a Kneeling Archer. Exciting stuff!

We chose to have a guide for that part of the trip as we were quite interested in a local perspective and wanted to share in their story and appreciate the experience as part of their culture.

There isn’t much better than finding and creating your own adventure though.

Xi’an has a city wall and it is the best preserved, most intact city wall in the whole country. It encloses the entire Xi’an city center. What’s great is that at each of the 19 gates of the city wall you’re able to rent a bicycle and just go for a ride along this tremendous, formerly defensive structure.

There’s no better way to take in as much of the city, old and new.

Our last stop for today is Harbin. I don’t know if I’ve saved the best for last but this one has to be my favourite. When you do a Google search for Harbin you’ll find terms like ‘The Oriental Moscow’, ‘Russia in China’ and ‘China’s Ice City’.

Harbin is in the north-eastern part of China, a mere 8000 kilometers from the Russian border and it’s obvious. Harbin was in the heart of the Trans-Siberia and Russian engineers, soldiers worked and lived here for years and influenced so much of it. Driving or walking around you notice Russian writing on some road signs and buildings and the architecture is quite spectacular!

And the snow, oh my goodness the snow. Real, soft, fluffy, pure as white snow.

The average temperature in summer is around 18 degrees Celsius but naturally we visited in winter when the average temperature is around -19 and can drop to -27.

But that couldn’t stop us from wandering these beautiful streets, especially the famed Zhōngyāngdàjiē which is lined with festivities, ice sculptures and local treats.

Speaking of ice sculptures; Harbin is home to the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival which runs annually from early January until, well, until the sculptures melt. It is tremendous. It’s not just one park with ice sculptures it’s several parks all around the city showcasing different things; there’s the Ice and Snow World, the Ice Festival, and the Snow Sculpture Art Fair. We wandered, we gasped, we went down slides and tried capturing it all on camera but it just wouldn’t do it justice. Also, Bear’s drone almost froze midflight while trying to do a top down shot.

For me though, the real magic was to be found on the outskirts of the city. Volga Manor is meant to be Russian-themed amusement park but to us it just seemed like a deserted village with frozen lakes, buildings taken from a fairy tale and adorable creatures standing guard.

We’ve enjoyed and appreciated the experiences brought by such vast and rich cultural, natural and historic sights and places. We have been beyond fortunate to get to see China’s many faces and hope these three stops brings you some idea and even inspiration – whether it’s to visit China, visit a famous landmark or discover something unexpected in your backyard.

We’d love to hear about your special moments and wanderings and invite you to leave your comments below or reach out on the contact page.

4 thoughts on “Wander of Wonders”

  1. Esther Blignaudt

    Reading slowly, taking in every word, sentence …….. the images, beautiful pictures, what wonderful memories. Blessed and so thankful to have been part of all this. Enjoyed and appreciate the opportunity to have experienced all of this.
    Don’t ever stop the wandering Elle and sharing it with us. There are still plenty plenty places to explore and make wonderful memories. Hear from you sooner than soon. Great stuff. Mamae

    1. Such encouraging words Mamae Esther, thank you. Will do our best to keep wandering and will use every opportunity to make more wonderful memories.

  2. From the pictures I think the lockdown was a well deserved break from travelling. For the rest of us it was a wakeup call:L+_)(*&^% sorry looking for the exclamation mark on this french key bourd_)(*&^|":L}{P?></.,\’;][=-098+_)(*&^%$#@! found it !!!! Anyway I saw a few places I definetly want to see when I finally make it to Asia. We miss you guys, till next time.

    1. Haha
      We have to start a ‘Comment of the Week’ competition or something. This one definitely wins!

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