It has been a long nine months staying in our bubble in Guangzhou. Although we tried several times to plan trips out of the city, we were foiled by small COVID flare-ups that would lock down travel. Now that we are expecting another baby, those trips have become a “now or never.” Although there are many places in China that I would love to visit, we sort of felt like Beijing was our best option. Not only did it seem silly to live in China for two years and never visit the Great Wall, it was also a pretty easy direct flight and tourism within a city isn’t too hard (compared to the nature adventures I had my heart set on).
With barely two weeks to spare, we booked our flights, hotel, planned a basic itinerary and wheels up – we were on our way. Although Beijing and Guangzhou are two massive Chinese cities, they are pretty different.
The biggest difference is that everyone speaks Mandarin. We spent a year learning Mandarin Chinese, only to show up in a city where everyone speaks Cantonese. The two languages are not mutually intelligible, so I spend most of my time in total oblivion to the conversations around me. Beijing is the region where Mandarin originated (and the reason it is the official language of the country), so it was initially jarring to understand so much of what was being said nearby. After the initial shock wore off, I couldn’t believe how cool it was. I actually know this language! I actually learned something these past two years!
The Beijing accent is very, very different from the Mandarin spoken in southern China, so it was still a challenge to understand at times. On one occasion, after a pleasant conversation with a taxi driver turned into a rant, Gray leaned over to me and whispered, “I have no idea what the topic is anymore.”
Another thing I immediately noticed was that it seemed like a lot more history is preserved in Beijing. While many of the sites have been re-constructed, the city has done a pretty good job at preserving many historical elements and places. Tiananmen, of course is very recent history, but we don’t have anything similar in Guangzhou.
Oh and the weather! Guangzhou doesn’t have seasons, and we have been melting from the summer heat since April, so a break from the hot weather was a huge relief. Not only were the temperatures great, but we also had blue skies and great air quality for the entire visit. We couldn’t have planned it better.
In our few days, we managed to visit three major sites: Tiananmen Square, The Summer Palace, and the Great Wall of China. Our first day, we walked around 10 miles, visiting Tiananmen, circling the Forbidden City (I couldn’t get tickets despite my best efforts), and climbing to the top of Jingshan Park to get a view down into it. The Forbidden City is where the Emperor lived. It’s enormous. We ended our day by walking to a nearby pedestrian-only area and eating at The Cheesecake Factory. We don’t have one in Guangzhou, and I can’t even remember going to this restaurant in the US, but it’s been a long nine months of limited western dining and we loved it.
On day two, we took a taxi and drove an hour and a half to the Mutianyu part of the Great Wall. We took a cable car up to one of the watch towers and then hiked to the other end. Our kids (about 3 and 5) did amazing. They loved the adventure, and we barely had to carry them. Primarily they were motivated by knowing that we would be doing a slide down at the end. The other amazing part about this trip was that it was our first time doing anything in nature since arriving in China. We have all really missed nature, green areas, and the hiking that we would regularly do in the US.
On the third day, our visit to one of the temples had to be cut because we had to do last-minute COVID tests in order to return to Guangzhou. We were still able to make it to the Summer Palace, which is where the emperor would escape from Beijing. It was a pretty area built around a large lake. We walked most of the circumference, but opted for a shortcut in a boat on the last part as the snack supply began to run low.
If we’d had more time, I would have loved to explore some of the other parks, the temples, and hutongs. Still, with two little kids in tow, I felt pretty good about what we managed to accomplish in a few days.
We’ve been back a month or so now and our kids still won’t stop asking to go back to Beijing. They had so much fun that I’m even considering another trip with them before we head back to the US next spring. Shanghai? Yangshuo? Yunnan? Too many possibilities, so little time.