Climbing the Great Wall of China: 6 things to know before you go

Prepared to be awed at the sight of China’s Great Wall. It’s not one of those much talked about attractions that actually underwhelms you when you see it. Quite the opposite, this expansive piece of construction – presumably the result of mostly manual labor –   lives up to its impressive reputation and surprises you with even more. More grandeur. More wonder. More jaw-dropping views.

Section of Great Wall of China

If it’s on your bucket list, there are some key things to know before you go. See my list below.

Its history

The Great Wall was built across the northern border of China to protect its people against raids and invasion. At various times, it also was used for border control where duties were imposed on goods being transported by Silk Road merchants. Although it never truly prevented invaders, the wall acted more as a psychological divider between Chinese civilization and the world, creating a mystique around Asian culture, and an albeit grudging respect for their strength and autonomy. Much of that still exists today.

The Asian Culture, history and heritage remains symbolic and powerful yet serene
The Asian Culture, history and heritage remains symbolic and powerful yet serene

Best section to visit

With more than 13,000 miles of historical monument to choose from, there are several sections that can be visited. Where you go depends on how much time you have, the vistas you prefer and your tolerance for crowds. Badaling, the section closest to Beijing, is the most popular. It is the most renovated area and it has facilities like guardrails and cable cars that make it easier to climb. The downside is the hordes of tourists thrown together with the occasional pickpocket and the ever-present souvenir hawkers.

Another section where you see the wall stretching for miles
Another section where you see the wall stretching for miles

Mutianyu is the second most preserved section. It has less foot traffic and it is steeper. Simatai, the most perilous and dense area, appeals to the adventurers and Jinshanling gets a lot of avid hikers as it is completely un-restored. Other options include Jiankou and Gubeikou.

Caution: Wherever you go, please watch your footing! Undeveloped sections are insecure and in some cases damaged, so you could easily hurt yourself if you are not careful.

Best time to go

If you choose to visit Badaling, try to get there early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the bus loads of people. An added bonus to going at those two times is that you also get better light for your photos.

Hello, Hello!
Hello, Hello!

The scenery and temperatures change with the seasons so in terms of weather, the best times of year to visit are spring and autumn. Then, it is sunny but there is no blistering summer heat. Think May, September or early October. During June to August, tourist season is in full swing. I went in March and it was COLD. I only learned later that ‘November to April is always bitterly cold with biting winds’.

The sparse winter scenery at the Great Wall (March)
The sparse winter scenery at the Great Wall (March)

What to wear

To get the true experience of the wonder that is the Great Wall, you should spend between two to three hours exploring this great engineering feat. It will be a strenuous walk as you traverse main staircases and passageways or observe watch towers and garrison stations, so you’ll need comfortable shoes.

That's the stance of someone happily thinking, "I came, I saw and I conquered THE Great Wall".
That’s the stance of someone happily thinking, “I came, I saw and I conquered THE Great Wall”.

Ladies, no open-toed sandals, wedges or heels will do. Guys, I recommend loose trousers rather than denim because denim will cling to you after perspiration sets in. Let’s not dress this up too much, you WILL be sweaty and out of breath after a few steep climbs. And I say sneakers for everybody!

Some months it can get quite windy due to the high altitudes so a scarf or light sweater may prove useful. At other times, an umbrella would be nice too. In the summer, have moisturizer handy to help protect your skin.

What to bring

If you can deal with the weight of a backpack, take your own snacks and water. However, if you’d rather stay light on your feet, food and drink will be available for sale in Badaling. Just know it will be pricey. Plus, western-styled food is hard to come by. As far as I know, there is nothing for sale in any other section.

Member of my tour group. We represented Australia, Canada, USA, UK and Jamaica!
Members of my tour group. We represented Australia, Canada, USA, UK and Jamaica!

Important note: While it’s important to stay hydrated, please temper your water intake if you have to go for regular bathroom breaks when you drink a lot. There are no pit stops along the way. The bathrooms are near to the ticket office and entrance.

Best way down

You can walk down, take a cable car or get into a toboggan. I chose the latter and the meandering downhill slide was a whole lotta fun!

Cable cars that help you to go up or down
Cable cars that help you to go up or down

Don’t buy those designer knockoffs in China!

Have you been weighing the pros and cons of buying designer knockoffs during your next trip to China? It’s a popular tourist thing to do and you can get many label lookalikes there but here’s my humble suggestion – don’t do it.

First, haggling with vendors who don’t speak your language fluently is a highly advanced skill, not an effortless art. Also, when everything is said and done, the effort and time invested to own that fake “7 For All Mankind” jeans, “Louis Vitton” handbag or “Rolex” watch just really isn’t worth it.

The items may look good from afar but are far from good in reality. Besides, nine times out of 10, you aren’t really fooling anybody!

'Bvlgari' and 'Emporio Armani' watches
‘Bvlgari’ and ‘Emporio Armani’ watches

When I visited China, I decided to see what their thriving knockoff industry was all about. But I didn’t do my research at Han City, Qipu Lu, Hongqiao New World Pearl market or any of the numerous other venues you often read or hear about. I made an unscheduled stop in Beijing that you will never see on an official map or tour itinerary.

Some group members and I visited one of those shops that was clandestinely located down several steps, around a few corners and set behind a green tarpaulin entrance tucked far, far away. If you asked me to identify the place 30 minutes after I left it, I wouldn’t have been able to find it on my own.  It was a highly mobile operation run by a well-oiled relay system.

Busy street in China
Busy street in China

This is how it worked.  Our bus driver made a call before approaching the drop-off location. The tour guide then walked us to a point where we were met by a liaison who led us to the designated establishment. Immediately afterwards, said liaison disappeared. I can’t verify this but I got the hair-on-the-back-of-my neck feeling there were ‘lookouts” in the operation network as well.

Someone I kept in touch with had problems with some impromptu watch purchases almost right away. The first sign of trouble was the constant need to replace batteries because the knockoffs stopped working regularly. Eventually, rust and corrosion set in.

I also know someone else who bought handbags for herself and a work colleague and the linings began stripping in no time. So why bother?

Chinese jade earrings bought at a jade factory
Authentic Chinese jade earrings bought at a jade factory

There are several great shopping options in China and truthfully, the indigenous finds are far more unique and memorable. You can look out for:

– silk products like scarfs, pyjamas or ties

– jade jewelry

– great teas and tea pots

– calligraphy and scroll paintings

Traditional Chinese lettering
Traditional Chinese lettering

I recommend getting creative with your shopping list when you travel. Why spend money on items you can get at home?

Genuine designer watches in your local Macy's (retail store chain)
Genuine designer watches in your local Macy’s (retail store chain)

What do you think? Have you come across any truly unique shopping items on any of your trips? Please share!

Tai chi in Jingshan Park, Beijing

According to Mayo Clinic, ‘Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves stretching and a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion”.

Pavilion in Jingshan Park, Beijing
Pavilion in Jingshan Park

I think the Chinese are on to a good thing here. It is widely believed that this ‘meditation in motion’ technique does wonders for alleviating stress and anxiety levels – in the young and old.

Man stretching as part of his morning Tai chi routine,
Man stretching as part of his morning Tai chi routine

If you’re ever in Beijing, you should walk through Jingshan Park early one morning, say between 6 and 7 a.m., to see locals doing this graceful exercise.

Group exercise Jingshan Park
Group exercise

If invited to do so, you can even join in.

Group Tai chi routine in Jingshan Park, Beijing
Joining the group routine. I am sure you can spot the tourist, right? LOL

There are beautiful flowers and trees.

The park
The park

Breathtaking views from Wanchna Pavilion, the highest point in the park.

Highest point in the park
Highest point in the park

And…peace…joyful, serene, no-strings-attached peace.

A moment or two away from the crowds, Jingshan Park , beijing
One local finds peace and serenity with nature and his thoughts, away from the movement and crowds.

8 facts you probably didn’t know about Hong Kong…and should

I spent 48 hours in Hong Kong prior to a mainland China trip a few years ago. The stopover was part of a birthday gift to myself and I maximized every single minute of my time there. I liked it…and oh, how I wish I could have done more! Its pulse and vibrancy reminded me of Manhattan, New York – on more hilly terrain.

Hong Kong Skyline
Hong Kong Skyline

Here are 8 random things that I learnt. Depending on the purpose of your trip, they could impact your business or personal travel plans:

1. Just over 7 million people live on the island named for a “fragrant harbor”.  So when you think population compared to geographic size, think DENSE. That’s about 6,000 people per square mile! Of course, such a big city implies tons of traffic, crowded spaces – the works.

2. Due to its British colonial history, English was the country’s official language from 1883 to 1974 and several of the hospitality staff and persons in the business community speak it well. Outside of that, most people speak Cantonese.  (Mandarin is the main language in China).

Shopping area
Shopping area

3. The number eight is held in very high esteem. It rhymes with the Cantonese word for fortune therefore people associate it with good luck.  And they take it seriously! Everything with eight carries more prestige. What that means is, if you’re in town for a long stay don’t even think about renting space on the 8th and 18th floor of a building unless you’re prepared to pay a premium.

4. Looking to impress someone while there? Choose your wardrobe and gifts carefully. The color white symbolizes death. When in doubt, go with red.  Red means good fortune and joy.

Worker at a jade factory setting a ring.
Worker at a jade factory setting a ring.

5. According to locals, jade brings energy so bear that in mind when picking souvenirs for any of your friends or business partners that need a picker-upper (lol). The country is one of the leading exporters of jewelry; 2nd in the world after Italy. You can get many lovely pieces there.

HK currency
HK currency

 6. Try not to get confused by the currency. Three different banks issue the HK notes; hence the lack of uniformity in appearance.

7. Jackie Chan, possibly one of Hong Kong’s most famous natives, has a beautiful house in Repulse Bay (House #99). Don’t go looking for a Hollywood type tour though, you’ll only get as far as the gate.

8. Feng shui, the art of aesthetics that brings about harmonious balance is extremely important in Hong Kong’s culture. You’ll see it in the décor around you, and businesses who ignore its principles suffer as a result.

View from Victoria Peak on a cloudy day
View from Victoria Peak on a cloudy day

My tour guide told us a story about a restaurant owner whose patrons had access to excellent food in a great location that boasted breathtaking views of the city.  Sounds like a perfect scenario for a full house every night, right? Well, it was not. The owner nearly had to close his doors because of a lack of meal-seeking guests.

When he did some research to find out the source of the problem, he found out that the white color of the building and its candle shape were deterrents. People saw those elements as bad luck and refused to patronize the business for those reasons. He later consulted with a feng shui expert who told him to change the color and build a swimming pool on top of the restaurant. That balanced out perceptions and the place was abuzz with activity after that. GO FIGURE!  [That’s why learning about different customs and traditions is so fascinating to me]

Editor’s Notes:

During my short stay I saw some of the Old Territory. I also went to catch the view from Victoria Peak, and see Aberdeen Fishing Village, Repulse Bay(named after a British battleship) and the Stanley Market. Along the way, I stopped at a jewelry factory and saw a floating restaurant that can seat 2,600 people at capacity.

Floating restaurant
Floating restaurant

I enjoyed my scenic ride through the hills and asked why so much of the hillside was covered in concrete. The answer? It helped to prevent landslides in monsoon season.

My ride on the traditional sampan (water taxi) in Aberdeen and views of Deep Water Bay Beach were the most unique parts of my trip. You should try that.  The sampan took us through a floating village where wooden boats and fishing were, and still are, the order of the day. I read that the area was traditionally home to the Tanka and Hoklo clans who originated from the mainland coastal areas of Guangdong and Fujian.

Traditional sampan (water taxi)
Traditional sampan (water taxi)

Easily recognizable by their large-brimmed hats, these boat-dwellers were once forbidden to live on land or marry land people. They gave birth, married and died aboard their sampans and junks. Since the early 20th century they have had equal rights with land-dwellers and most now choose to live on land in the high-rise apartment blocks for the benefit of their children’s education. But some still remain on houseboats in the harbor. [Source of Aberdeen history: hongkongextras.com]

Chinese Street Food

There’s an old saying that says: “The Chinese eat everything with four legs, except tables, and everything that flies — except airplanes.” I rolled my eyes and chuckled when I heard it. But when I saw dishes like sautéed frog, sweet and sour snake head soup, donkey and braised croaker (lizard) listed on hotel and restaurant menus, the laughter dried up – quickly.

So take it from me. Be prepared to see and experience the gamut of food choices when you set off on a Chinese street food adventure. Some of it may make your stomach yearn for more. But the more exotic delicacies? Think churn…or quiver?

Chinese noodles
Chinese noodle stall

If you opt to buy breakfast on the street as many locals do, don’t expect anything as mundane as scrambled eggs or cereal. Most Chinese eat steamed or fried dumplings with various fillings in the morning, or something sweet like doughnuts or buns – usually accompanied with a drink of soy milk. Egg pancakes, rice porridge and noodle soup also are common. I was hesitant to try any meat varieties, so I sampled the vegetarian dumplings instead. They were scrumptious (and filling).

Xi'an Street Food
Meat skewers in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter

For lunch and dinner, many roadside stalls display rows of skewered meats (kebabs), hand pulled noodles, and Chinese-style hamburgers that are shredded meat served between steamed bread. Other specialties include spare ribs, and simmering lamb or beef broth that you break chunky flat bread into. Several vegetarian meals are also available. You can lick your lips and linger; standing up, or sitting down.

Xi'an street food
Chinese flatbread

Xi’an is a great spot for street food. Once part of the famous ancient trading route of the Silk Road, it is now a modern city with craft/souvenir and retail shops,and interesting historical sites – the Terracotta Warriors being one of them. The Muslim Quarter, specifically the bustling Beiyuanmen Street, is famous for its food stalls.

For the faint-hearted epicureans like me, there’s also a nice Starbucks. I won’t lie to you. Its magnetic force was formidable. My warm ham and cheese panini sandwich, washed down with a steamy cup of hot chocolate, was just what I needed on a cold winter day.

Wangfujing Snack Street

If you’re heading to Beijing, you must visit Wangfujing Snack Street. Be warned; it’s noisy and crowded.  However, I was convinced that ‘the snacks’ were presented more for shock value than sustenance when I saw even some Asian visitors with mouths agape. It is must-see.

Your experience will depend on your spirit of adventure. All types of wriggling insects are displayed, just waiting to be cooked. Does hearing about centipedes, scorpions, spiders, bugs or sea horses get your gastric juices flowing? Well you’re in luck; chances are they’ll have it.

Insect varieties at Beijing Snack Street
Insect Varieties at Beijing Snack Street – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson
Beijing Snack Street
Exotic options at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing – Photo credit @ Stacy Wilkinson)

Are those snacks too tame for you? Don’t worry, you can order exotic meat as well – as in dog, cat, sheep’s balls, or frog on a stick.[ Sidebar: I wish I could see your face right nowAre you salivating (or barfing) yet?]

All my queasy compradres, there’s hope for you too. Some vendors also sell plain foods like dumplings, squids, noodles, and fruits.

Beijing Snack Street
Meat varieties at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing

 I’ll end this post with one little word of wisdom. Whatever items you choose to try, please ensure that it is cooked before your eyes.

Beijing Snack Street
Desserts at Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing (Photo credit@ Stacy Wilkinson)

 Bon Appétit!


Editor’s Notes: For full disclosure, I must let you know that the hotel menus also had regular meal options. Admittedly, my culinary experience was not the best I have ever had but some people in my group had no issues, and  I do know two families that came back from their China trips raving about the food. I guess it depends on where you stay, what you like, and where you eat. I can vouch for the Peking Duck and the dumplings. They were awesome.