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Oct
25

Every year, Frommer’s releases their must-do travel list, and it’s always sure to include at least a few eyebrow-raisers. Beirut, Lebanon? You might not know that it’s a sophisticated coastal city bustling with energy. Kansas City, MO? The world-class Kauffmann Center for the Performing Arts just opened, attracting some of the biggest names in dance and music.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Photo credit: Flickr

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Photo credit: Flickr

Check out the full list here for some other surprising – and not so surprising – travel ideas.

Jun
18

China, more formally known as the People’s Republic of China, is an incredible country full of history, tradition and culture. Plum blossoms, one of China’s most beloved flowers, decorate the country in the wintertime. In addition to being known for their beauty, plum blossoms serve a variety of culinary purposes including being used in juices and liquor, being pickled and eaten as a salty treat and serving as the base for plum sauce. Thanks to lentodolce for posting this photo.

Photo: lentodolce

Photo: lentodolce

Plan your trip to China on TravelMuse.

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Feb
12

Also called “Lunar New Year,” Chinese New Year is the most significant holiday in Chinese culture. Although China has been using the Gregorian (or solar) calendar since 1912, the country still follows the lunar calendar for traditional holidays. Traditionally, the festival begins on first day of the month of the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th. From scrumptious food such as jau gok (the main Chinese New Year dumpling) to customary red packets filled with money, this holiday is just a small window into China’s rich and fascinating culture.

If the events of Chinese New Year spark your interest in the customs, traditions and history of China, why not plan a trip to explore the country for yourself.

Sunset at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Photo: Robert Prior

Sunset at the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Photo: Robert Prior

Top 5 Beijing Sights

The Forbidden City
Home to 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the massive Imperial Palace, better known as the Forbidden City, still stands as a shrine to China’s imperial past. Plan two full days if you want to see the entire complex, but the major highlights such as the great halls and the imperial gardens can be seen in one day.

Tiananmen Square
Flanked by the main gate of the Forbidden City (which is emblazoned with an enormous portrait of Mao) at one end and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall (his mausoleum) at the other, Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square, is a monument to communist rule and architecture.

The Summer Palace
Starting as a quiet garden, this expansive palace on the outskirts of Beijing was completely rebuilt by the Empress Dowager Cixi after a ransacking by the Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium Wars. The Summer Palace’s serene, lakeside complex offers innumerable walkways, gardens, and temples for visitors to see. Keep your strength for the trek to the monumental Tower of Buddhist Incense which offers a stunning view of Kunming Lake and the distant Beijing skyline.

The Great Wall
Originally built to keep out the invading Mongol forces, the Great Wall has come to symbolize China itself. There are eight portions of the wall open to the public, ranging from the rugged at Simatai to the tourist friendly at Badaling. Kids will love the roller coaster like system to get up and down the mountainside at Badaling, as well as the opportunity to feed the bears in the bear exhibit at the entrance.

Lama Temple
I’ve seen many temples during my travels but this one blew them all away. Said to be the most important Buddhist temple outside of Tibet, this collection of temples offers shrine after shrine, with each more impressive than the last. The Lama Temple culminates with the towering Maitreya Buddha, which is registered in the Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest Buddha.

* Adapted from Miranda Young’s “Beijing’s Top 10 Sights.”

For more tips and advice, read related articles on TravelMuse:

Plan a trip to China on TravelMuse.

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Nov
12

With 8,000 thousand figures, 10,000 weapons, 670 horses, 130 chariots and three archaeological pits, it’s easy to see why the Museum of Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Qin Shi Huang in Xi’an is one of the most popular tourist attractions in China. I spent a half-day at the site on my recent month-long trip to the country and pulled together the following visitor tips.

First, A Brief History

This life-size clay army was buried near the tomb of Qin Shi Huang in order to guard him into the afterlife, as well as perhaps entertain him since figures of acrobats and musicians were included along with warriors. Qin Shi Huang was a bit of a badass who declared himself the first emperor of China after conquering the warring states surrounding his Qin state, thereby unifying them into the vast Asian country intact today. He ruled from 221 B.C. until his death in 210 B.C. Discovered by local farmers in 1974, the archeological site remains active, with ongoing digs and restorations. Terracotta+Pit+1

Warriors+close+up

(Photos: Donna M. Airoldi)

Sightseeing Tips

  • Decide whether to go by tour or on your own. If you go by tour, when reviewing prices, remember that the actual admission price to the museum is CNY90 (US$13).
  • Getting there by tour. Whether you’re a luxury traveler or backpacker, odds are your hotel or hostel will be selling a day package to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors museum. Often these trips are paired with other nearby attractions, and prices will vary significantly. Make sure you choose a tour that includes admission to all the sites, gives you enough time at each place to actually see and enjoy them, and picks you up and drops you off at your hotel.
  • Getting there independently. Save money and manage your own time by taking public bus No. 306 to the museum, which is the end point on the route. Cost is CNY7 (US$1) each way, with stops at the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang and Huaqing Hot Springs, and takes 30 minutes. Board at the Xi’an train station parking lot in the section to the right of the station as you face it.
  • Bring binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens. Except for a few figures enclosed in glass in Pit 2, you won’t get up close to any of the warriors in the three pits.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. The ticket office is a long way from the parking lot, and the actual entrance even farther. It’s about a half mile in total, so not bad, but be prepared if you have any kind of foot troubles. Mini bus transport was available for some groups from the ticket office to the museum entrance.
  • Audio guide. I enjoyed the self-guided audio tour, which includes about 90 minutes of information. Cost: CNY40 (US$4.85). As is the case in most museums in China, you need to leave a hefty deposit—CNY200 (US$30)—for the device, which you’ll get back when you return it. One drawback: Once you listen to a segment, you cannot go back and listen again.
  • Hiring a guide. If you’re not already on a tour, you’ll be approached near the ticket office by independent guides-for-hire. Prices vary, so be ready to bargain. If you want a private tour, say so, otherwise you might end up as part of a small group your guide has pulled together.
  • Be prepared for crowds. Bus loads of crowds. And these folks will not hesitate to push you out of the way for their perfect photo op. Busiest times are mornings and early afternoon. You can see the entire site in a couple of hours, so even if you don’t get there until 2 p.m., you’ll have plenty of time before the museum closes at 5.
  • Skip the introductory film. Unless you want to chuckle at the 1970s made-for-TV production values of this film, head right to the excavation pits.
  • View Pit 3 first, then Pit 2. The small Pit 3 has the lowest lighting and just 70 warriors and horses, but they were positioned face-to-face, suggesting this was the headquarters of the Terra Cotta Army. Pit 2 is larger, with more than 1,000 figures, including those kneeling while in a shooting position. Excavations are ongoing, and this is also the room where you can see five glass-enclosed warriors of differing ranks up close in order to appreciate the project’s craftsmanship and amazing level of detail.
  • Save Pit 1 for last. This room is the most imposing and the most impressive. There are estimated to be about 6,000 figures buried here, most of which still haven’t been unearthed. You walk the circumference of the large pit, taking in the row upon row of warriors and horses. This room also is the hardest to maneuver through when the crowds are at their peak.
  • Enjoy the surroundings. The area around the pits and other buildings is nicely landscaped with trees, flowers, paved paths, benches, and cafes and souvenir shops, for those needing a break or looking to take home a set of warrior miniatures.

Even if Xi’an isn’t on your travel radar, you can get an even better look at these impressive figures at the Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor exhibit opening Nov. 19 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., with 15 soldiers on view until March 31, 2010. Read TravelMuse’s coverage of the show from when it was in Atlanta earlier this year.

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Aug
16

My Beijing trip has been very different from my usual visits to Asia, or elsewhere for that matter, where I pick a new destination and try to immerse myself in its culture and offerings while having a lot of down time to digest everything around me. Instead, this past week has been all about sports: getting to and from Olympic events, going to sports pubs to watch the Games on TV, getting into Olympic parties, figuring out if we can snag tickets to just one or two more events.

Well, duh, I did come over here to attend the Games.

I’m not sure whether because my focus has been on sports, or because I’ve previously spent a lot of time in large Asian cities, but I’ve noticed fewer major cultural differences that stand out compared to previous travels. Or is this the result of continued globalization and 21st century communications?

Nonetheless, here are a few things that definitely caught my eye the past week.

– Waiters want to serve you … fast. When seated in restaurants, the waiter hands you a menu, then stands and waits for you to order. It’s a little distracting and uncomfortable and makes you rush through the items (or at least it causes me to), which increases the chance of ordering errors—such as when I thought I had selected shredded chicken for lunch one day when I actually had inadvertently ordered chicken feet.

– Lines are kind of useless. I’ve experienced this in Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, but it’s really noticeable in population dense Beijing. Doesn’t matter if you’re standing right behind a person buying a subway card, in front of the door of the train, going through a security check or trying to buy an entrance ticket to a venue, someone, or several people, will inevitably push you aside and get ahead of you. Accept this beforehand, and you’ll keep your cool longer.

– Big brother is watching. Security checks, police and cameras are everywhere, including every subway stop. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put my day-pack through a scanner and had it subjected to hand searches where every zipper and pocket was gone through. Much of this is because of the Olympics being in town, surely, but also saw a statistic in the China Post the other day that New York City plans to add 3,000 security cameras around town while Beijing currently has 30,000 of them keeping an eye on things.

– People don’t let anything go to waste. While this is not specific to China, the people here give utility and recycling a new name—which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. This topic can be broken into subcategories:

Food. As has been well documented over the years, no part of any animal goes to waste (see chicken feet, noted above). Rodents and insects are at risk of being turned into dinner dishes as well. Even cooking oil is reused.

Recyclables. People on the streets collect paper for recycling—you’ll see wheeled carts piled sky high with discarded cardboard and other paper-based products being pulled down the street by individuals; others carry around large bags full of plastic bottles and come up to you on the street while you’re drinking from one, and wait for you until you’ve finished, then ask for it.

Electricity and water conservation. In the apartment building I’m staying in, lights in the lobby and hallways won’t go on unless you whistle or make a loud noise, then they go off automatically after a few minutes. This is common in many of the new high rises going up all around the city, I’m told. Individuals also will repurpose water—if washing dishes, they’ll collect the water in the basin when finished and use it to water plants, or collect water coming out of faucets while waiting for it to warm up and use that for cooking, hand washing or, again, watering plants.

– Children are allowed to relieve themselves in public. While this practice is not encouraged, I was told that it’s common to let kids go whenever and wherever they happen to be. Sure enough, the day after I heard about this I was walking through the Tiananmen Square subway stop during rush hour when I noticed a father balance his young daughter over a grate in the floor of the walkway while her mother lifted up her dress and the little girl squatted to do what she needed to while crowds rushed past. (No, I did not take a photograph.)

– Kite flying. People love it here! Any time I’ve been near a park, I just look up and will see dozens of dots in the sky. People go all out and buy big colorful and multi-tiered kites to soar over the city. When I see them it never fails to put a smile on my face.

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Aug
11

Beijing in Detail

In addition to the vast array of articles on Beijing and China on our homepage the past 10 days, TravelMuse has added a special Guide to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing supplement. You can click on the link on the homepage, or from here. Learn Olympic factoids while you read about where to eat and what to see while in Beijing.

Tweets on Twitter

All the kids are doing it, so why not TravelMuse?

Not only will I be tracking my travels through the Middle Kingdom here at TravelMusings, but I’ll also be posting snippets of commentary on a regular basis over at Twitter, under the name TravelMuse. We’ve just signed on and need to build up our audience of followers. Come on and tweet with us!

The Sports Connection

One of our Beijing writers, Maggie Rauch, is the founding editor of ChinaSportsToday.com, a new Web site dedicated to the sports scene in China for English-speakers. She also participated in an ESPN roundtable last week, and you can read the article about what she and other notable journalists had to say about how the Games will impact Beijing at ESPN.com. Maggie also is included in a piece in the[ Seattle Times|http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/stevekelley/2008097111_kelley07.html] about youth sports in China.

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Aug
10

Upon arrival at the beautiful new terminal at Beijing airport, we were greeted by costumed Fuwa characters (dolls of blessing), the five cartoon figures that are the official mascots for the Beijing Games, one for each ring of the Olympic symbol. They are named for prosperity, happiness, passion, health and good fortune.

Fuwa+airport2.jpg

I’m not prone to appreciating cuteness, but couldn’t help but smile at the figures, especially since so many passengers, particularly the kids on my flight (there were many), ran to get their pictures taken with the characters.

Transport

Express Train

If you’re traveling solo, the easiest way to get to the heart of Beijing is to take the Express Train. For 25 RMB (roughly $3.75), you’re just one or two stops from the city center and transfer to the Beijing subway system. The train is new and the cars are state-of-the-art with electronic signage in Mandarin and English, air conditioning and smooth, smooth rails.

Subway

The subway system is super easy to use, clean and safe. New required bag checks, using x-ray machines similar to those found at airports, began a few weeks ago. And security cameras are everywhere. Three new lines opened just a few weeks ago, one of which is the line I use (Line 10) for the apartment I’m staying in. Each ride costs 2 RMB ($0.30).

China has stationed Olympic helpers on each train, if not every car, and throughout each station, so if you have any questions, someone who knows English is there to help. There also are groups of official Olympic helpers stationed throughout the city on streets. They sit in groups of three or four and wear official t-shirts and arm bands. They’re located not just in the main tourist areas but also throughout the city, even in random residential areas where there doesn’t seem to be much foreign foot traffic.

Taxis

So far all the taxi rides I’ve taken have been with my friend Maggie, who speaks Mandarin, so I haven’t had to try to give directions yet. The rides are cheap: The most we’ve paid for a fare has been about $7 or $8 for a cross town jaunt. Will have to try a solo trip soon and let you know how it goes…

Air Quality

No doubt about it, the air is thick and hazy. Woke with a massive sinus headache day one, but day two am okay. The image here was taken from a rooftop Friday evening, about 30 minutes before sunset.

Hazy+skyline.JPG

This shot is as clear as it’s been since I’ve arrived. From what I’ve read and heard, it’s a vast improvement over conditions four or five years ago. Yikes! The funky shaped building in the picture is the CCTV (China Central Television) headquarters.

Energy of the People

What’s been really terrific is the overall excitement and energy in the city for the Games. The nation as a whole is extremely proud and happy to be the host of the 2008 Olympics, and it shows just about everywhere. Those volunteer info guides I mentioned earlier? About 10 times the number of people (500,000) needed applied for the available positions (50,000). There are several sites with large screens set up for people who couldn’t get tickets to events to watch the Games. The couple I’ve passed have been packed with locals.

Everyone has been extremely friendly as well, which isn’t a surprise since that was my experience several years ago when I traveled through Southeast Asia for eight months. Asian hospitality is hard to beat. Whether I’ve been walking down a street or sitting on a bench in a park, people will walk by and smile and say ni hao. When trying to order food, buy something in a store or, say, drop a jacket off for dry cleaning, they’re very helpful and so far have understood my travelers sign language, just as I’ve begun to understand theirs.

Breakfast.JPG

Will dedicate an entire post to food later in the trip, but for now here’s a shot of me enjoying a breakfast treat from a local street stall in South Chauyong, the section of Beijing I’m staying in: re bing (meat and egg cake), with jian bing (pancake, egg, onion, sesame, sauces) on the counter. Tasty!

Okay, am off for a new day of exploring. Next posts will cover my first tourist scam encounter (I knew it was happening and happily played along), peaceful Ritan Park, the hip lounge Bed, Tiananmen Square and watching the men’s basketball game (U.S.-China) in a crowded Beijing sports bar.

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