After an incredibly long journey from Nairobi, I finally landed in the Far East. And despite feeling very fatigued, I was also filled with a rush of excitement of getting to explore the Asian continent for the first time.
During the taxi ride from the Pudong airport to my hotel, I could see parts of the central district and was in awe of the magnificent skyscrapers around, bustling city life and huge shopping malls with the world’s most sought after brands.
After checking into the Shangri-La hotel, my first agenda was to freshen up before meeting my local host for dinner. Although, several Chinese people do not speak English, the hotel staff spoke it well, thus making communication much easier.
An hour later, I met my contact in the hotel lobby and we set out on a pleasant walk towards a local restaurant. The atmosphere was felt a little humid but not unbearable. The streets were still quite busy with lots of traffic and cyclists heading home.
At the entrance of the diner, was a glass display, where one could see the roasting of duck meat, which just made me terribly hungry. My host recommended we have the Pecking duck with salad.
I had never tried Pecking duck before but loved it instantly. Both the presentation of the feast before us and the taste of crispy duck made it an unforgettable dish.After dinner, I retired to my hotel room, as the jet lag was starting to check into my system. The next day, after some much-needed rest, I started my tour with a visit to the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Oriental Pearl Tower
Standing at 468 Metres, it was once considered the tallest building in China. In 2007, that title was taken up by the Shanghai World Financial Centre. There were hundreds of other visitors there and it took a while before we got to the front of the line. It is highly recommended to book your ticket in advance, to avoid a long wait.
There are elevators that take one up the tower to a spacious observation deck from where visitors can see parts of Shanghai. There is also a glass-bottom sky walk, offering amazing views of the city.The tower is directly facing the Bund, a picturesque waterfront, found across the Hunagpu River.
It is impossible to ignore the majestic architecture of the historic buildings and modern skyscrapers lining the waterfront. Thus the term, ‘museum of buildings’ is commonly used in reference to the Bund.
The Bund houses about 52 buildings of various architectural styles, ranging from Gothic Revival to Neo-Classical styles. It is a wonderful spot to take pictures, especially towards sunset.
Our next stop was the Yuyuan Garden, also known as the Yu Garden. This is a gorgeous park, located in Shanghai’s Old City. The garden is thought to have been built during the Ming Dynasty, more than 400 years ago.
The word ‘Yu’ means pleasing and peaceful, in Chinese. For a day out in the sun, this is a great spot to check out, with lots of scenic spots to explore. However, it can get quite crowded, so it is best to visit during a weekday.
My host then led me to the most popular shopping area in Shanghai. Nanjing Road. It is a pedestrian street, with an impressive array of shops and stalls. The road has a history of over 100 years and was turned into a pedestrian road in 1999.
You can find almost anything here; from high quality goods in the shopping malls to discounted fake brands being sold in the alleyways (mostly in the evenings).
For those looking to find local souvenirs, you can find traditional Chinese shops in East Nanjing Road, where one can obtain genuine silk material, paintings, traditional Chinese medicine and handicrafts.
As you can imagine, I had a ball shopping for trendy clothes and shoes, and haggling with the traders to get the best price possible. Within a few hours, I was walking away with several plastic bags filled with my ‘spoils of the day.’ The best time to shop or take a stroll down Nanjing Road is at night, when it is a little less crowded. You would also get to admire the pretty lights that come on, adding to the vibrant atmosphere of the area.
Shanghai World Financial Centre
This is the fourth tallest building in Mainland China, so it was on my list of ‘must-see’ places in Shanghai. It attracts both tourists interested in sight-seeing and business-people attending various exhibitions and conferences held there.
The building houses several modern offices, a 5-star hotel (the Park Hyatt), and state of the art meeting facilities. It also contains a sight-seeing sky-walker platform, observatory points.
The architecture and design of the building itself is absolutely impressive. The SWFC was built to withstand earthquakes of up to 8 magnitudes, contains fireproofed walls and glazed glass along the building, to protect against lightning.
Shanghai Ocean Aquarium
The following day, we paid a visit to one of the largest ocean aquariums in the world. As expected, it had a massive submarine viewing tunnel, exhibiting thousands of aquatic creatures like jelly fish and rare fish such as the moonfish and emperor penguins.
There were 8 different exhibition zones, showcasing marine creatures from different parts of the world. You can take a fun, interactive tour around the aquarium, which is especially great for families.
After a brief tour of Shanghai, I bid my contact farewell and took a flight to the next city on my list; Beijing. Unlike Shanghai, I found it be more traditional and conservative. The city is full of centuries of history and culture; and I could not wait to explore some of its famed sites such as the Great Wall.
The Great Wall of China
This is the world’s longest wall and an amazing man-made creation. It stretches through nine provinces and municipalities including Beijing. It’s no wonder it was added to the World Heritage list by UNESCO in 1987.
There are hundreds of visitors who flock to Beijing to climb the wall, hence it gets very crowded. As I joined the throngs of people hiking up and down the wall, I found it rather challenging to get right to the top but I made it most of the way. One gets a spectacular view as you climb up then lumber down to the bottom of the wall.
Some parts of the entire wall have been knocked down or disappeared over the years, but that does not take away from the awe it inspires from anyone who gets the opportunity to admire and climb it.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was once the imperial palace for 24 Emperors, who ruled during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It was literally forbidden to enter the palace without the Emperor’s express permission. The price for trespassing was instant execution.
As you walk into the ‘Kingdom’, through the Meridian gate,one can’t help but be pleasantly surprised at the scenic beauty of the surrounding courtyard. There are stretches of gardens and courtyards to explore as well as several small palaces filled with rich history from the different dynasties. There is a lot of walking to be done, so do remember to wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
The Summer Palace
On my second day in the city, I traveled to the Summer Palace found in the Haidan District; north-west of Beijing. It is one of the most well conserved and enchanting royal parks around. It was initially built in 1750 as a garden for Royal families and was listed on the World Heritage list by UNESCO in 1998.
There is plenty to see here as you stroll around the paths, gardens and waterways. My favorite spot was a lovely courtyard overlooking the magnificent lake Kunming.
I was expecting something grander than a literal city square, in the centre of Beijing. However, the history and symbolism that comes with the square is worth a visit. Tiananmen literally means, ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace.’
It holds the Monument of the National Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong and the National Museum of China. Additionally, it was the largest square in the world for 17 years, right until 1996.
The Square is infamous for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989; which led to the death of several pro-democracy protesters. Today, the Great Hall of the People hosts the annual National People’s Congress among other important meetings. While there, it was common to see people flying kites or buying food from the local vendors, as police officers seemingly there to keep the peace, looked on.
My next destination was to a city that I had never heard of before planning my China trip. Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province, in the north-eastern region. It has architecture from the early 20thCentury, as the city grew, with an influx of Russian engineers.
They descended on the town in the 1920’s to construct part of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The city also boasts of enchanting nature and scenery. It’s biggest attraction however is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival that is held annually, for more than a month.
Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival
Harbin is also known as the Ice City, for obvious reasons. And its festival, that begun in 1985 attracts millions of visitors the world over. It is the world’s biggest winter and ice sculpture festival.
Despite the freezing temperatures in the Ice City, getting a chance to marvel at the great sculptures and lighting effects is worth freezing for.
The 30thIce and Snow Festival was divided into three sections:
vThe Sun Island Scenic Area, which only displayed snow sculptures, during the day.
vThe Ice and Snow World, which exhibited massive ice sculptures and gave the best display at night, when colourfully lit.
vThe Zhaolin Park, which displayed more than 1,000 ice sculptures such as ice lanterns. There were also fun ice slides for both children and adults to enjoy sliding down.
Freezing but happy
The flight from Beijing to Harbin took about 2 hours, though one can also take a comfortable bullet train for about 8 hours at a fraction of a plane ticket there. The city’s location has a natural arctic climate, which provides natural ice and snow
Every year, artists from the U.S, Japan, Russia etc. flock to participate in the ice sculpting competitions held in this winter wonderland. It is definitely worth a visit. And to help deal with the sub-zero temperatures at the festival, one could choose to enter the strategically placed hot beverage stations to warm up.
Siberian Tiger Park
This is one of the largest natural parks for wild Siberian tigers in the world. There are over 600 pure bred Siberian tigers here, among other mammals such as lions, leopards and Bengali tigers. It was nice to walk around the viewing area, where I could see the animals walking around, playing and resting.
The park also organizes for visitors to take a bus tour of the open fields where more Siberian tigers could be observed. There was also a tiger museum and a breeding area for the large cats.
An interesting activity here is the act of buying live poultry or meat for the tigers to devour. The park staff set the bought animal, for example a chicken free among the tigers who then proceed to hunt and kill their prey. Talk about an animal version of the hunger games.
There is also an interesting museum and zoo to explore.
Penguins enjoying a dip
Sleepy white fox
The Ice Palace Restaurant and Bar
The Shangri-La Hotel organized and constructed a restaurant and bar made entirely from ice, for use during the festival period.
The Ice Palace
I enjoyed several hot dishes, including traditional Chinese soup, in the -18 degrees’ Celsius restaurant. And whenever it got too cold, it helped to take a shot or two of Russian vodka to warm up during dinner.