Chasing the Wonders of the World
“Lekin woh zindgi hi kya jis mein koi namumkeen sapna na ho” (but what is life without an impossible dream), the dialogue from Sanjay Leela Bhansali classic Khamoshi : The Musical is what am living by. A dream not impossible really but difficult enough to visit all the New Seven Wonders of the World in this life time. As I write this blog entry I am mid-way down the list 1. Taj Mahal, Agra, India (2005), 2. Colosseum, Rome, Italy (2009), 3. Giza Pyramid Complex, Giza, Egypt (2010) (honorary inclusion apart from the seven wonders) and 4. Great Wall of China, China (2011). My China trip had the single most sole purpose to visit the Great Wall but I got much more than what I had hoped for. When and how would I get to the remaining four wonders 1. Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico; 2. Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; 3. Machu Picchu, Cuzco Region, Peru and 4.Petra, Ma’an Governorate, Jordan gives sleepless nights to the traveler in me.
Itinerary – Can I do it without a guided tour?
Yes, you absolutely can. I was bit skeptical before leaving for China if I will be able to do all the sightseeing and travel bookings between Shanghai and Beijing on my own with language being a barrier. But it wasn’t difficult at all with both the cities so well connected by public transport system at major tourist attractions. Most metro/subway stations have clearly marked exits in English and there are help desks set up with an English speaking person to happily assist you. Even at major train stations there will be one “Foreign Language Counter” where you can inquire for train timings, availability of tickets and bookings on your own. For otherwise directionally challenged me who can hardly read maps right it was “No Problem” being on my own.
Day 01: Are We There Yet?
I took an early morning Air India flight to Shanghai via Delhi from Mumbai that costing INR23K for a round trip. The flying time was around five and half hours from Delhi meaning I can watch at-least two movies from rich on board entertainment library of Air India. I narrowed down on a Hindi movie Dasvidaniya, where a middle aged man wants to live his ten wishes before he dies of a terminal illness, a story lot like my “bucket list” of visiting all the modern wonders of the world, and Ramona and Beezus, a fascinating tale of highly imaginative young girl living in today’s troubled household of America. By the time I landed in Shanghai it was 8:30 PM. I saw three affordable options to get to heart of the city from airport, the Metro, Maglev and Airport Bus. Being crazy about speed I chose Maglev which can run up to speed of 500 km/hour and would ship you to city in no time. If you show your air ticket you get the one-way ticket for ¥40 (Chinese Yuan) on Maglev that took little over five minutes to get to the city from airport that is 40 kms away. Here was the first example of the big dragon rising story what technological advancement China has achieved! Getting to nearest metro station to my hostel was piece of cake to get to my hostel from there wasn’t! I was told over and again always carry addressees in local language in China if you expect people to give you right direction and I forgot to do so. Now the real task began of finding my hostel in narrow lanes at late night with no one really able to help you. Finally, I asked for directions to a cab driver and guess what he gave me a free ride close to my destination!!!!!!
Day 02: Inner Peace
I like the idea of hop-on hop-off buses to take a quick trip across any new city especially mega cities as Shanghai. I spent the first morning on the upper deck of the bus gazing through the city while listening to history and trivial facts on a pre-recorded audio system. By end of hour and half on first route I had fair idea of what are the places I would like to visit and how to get around in the city. Seeing the slow moving traffic being on metro as far as possible seemed the best option. It was lunch time and what better way to have my first meal in China as authentic Shanghainese food. To eat I can walk miles, swim seas, cross deserts but this was just queuing up for forty minutes outside Nanxiang Restaurant close to Yuyuan Garden to get a bite of that world famous steamed dumplings. The menu had good variety of dumplings with different stuffing. Unable to decide what to order I narrowed down to their set menu that had assorted offerings starting with hot Chinese tea. The juicy dumplings just melted in my mouth and the best I ever had, definitely worth all the hype and wait, and what an inner peace I experienced. Post lunch I visited Yuyuan Garden, a typical Chinese garden located in old city of Shanghai. The gardens recreate the gone by era of emperor and empress sipping hot teas or being entertained in those intricately decorated halls enclosed in water bodies were gold fish swam. The globular doors at end of narrow alley ways and curvaceous dragon walls were testimony to architectural genius the Chinese had developed in ancient times. Later in the day it rained with thunder and lightening and it was as good as being in my home city of Mumbai. Towards evening I took second route on my hope on hop off bus that goes to Pudong district of Shanghai. Pudong is home to three tallest buildings in China of Shanghai World Financial Center, Oriental Pearl Tower and Jin Mao Tower. If you love urban architecture this area would be real treat to your eyes. Had dinner at a 100% vegetarian place, truly amused to find such restaurant, with all the creepy stories I had read about what Chinese eat. Ended my day with spending sometime at pub in my hostel.
Day 03: On Cloud 9, literally!
First stop for the day was Jade Buddha Temple that houses two jade Buddha statues of a 1.95 meters tall sitting Buddha weighing 3 tons and a smaller reclining Buddha. I took metro line 7 to reach to the temple and got down at Changshu Road instead of Changshou Road, a difference of an O and I get down three stops ahead. Lesson learnt read the name of the stations till last alphabet and don’t let your bird brain get confused between similar sounding names. After the temple I took a walk on most famous shopping street in Shanghai of Nanjing where you can find zillions of shoppers combating to snatch the best deals. With presence of most of familiar worldly consumer brands I was teleported to Oxoford Street of London. The global mega brands can give you uncanny sense of acquaintance in even the most outlandish location on the earth. Walking along busyness of Nanjing Street I reached “The Bund”. The Bund showcases recently restored historical buildings with variety of architectural styles from renaissance, gothic to art deco stretched in a mile-long street along Huangpu river. Just across the street you are welcomed by that iconic skyline of Shanghai. A young Chinese lad carrying bunch of papers with his friends came to me while I was taking a leisurely stroll on a boulevard overlooking magnificent skyline. He requested me to hold a paper in my hands on which it was written “I Love You” in Chinese. Very passionately he explained that he was creating collage of photos with people from world over holding the signage to propose to love of his life. I wondered around the area till all the buildings were illumined in their full glory in the darkness of night. I took a ferry to cross the Huangpu river to get to Pudong area where my next destination was waiting tall for me. It was time to be on cloud nine. With fast pacing heartbeat and swiftly moving elevator I was taken to 87th floor of Jin Mao Tower, the home to Cloud 9 run by Shanghai Grand Hyatt. It’s the lounge to visit in a city crowded with skyscrapers with breathtaking views of glitzy surroundings. The jazz, the long island tea and Montecristo was the Shanghai luxurious experience at highest man-made levels.
Day 04: Who Snatched Floor Beneath My Feet?
If you wondered how the mega city of Shanghai was built in last two decades you should straight head to Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center located close to People’s Square. The exhibition has an urban planning collection on Shanghai right from the historic times to future projects in the forms of models, maps and mini-shows. The most intriguing part of the exhibition is huge scale very detailed model of the city of Shanghai, showing all existing and approved buildings. The model is so minutely designed that each and every building can be lit as it is in real world. Alongside the model is a theater with a 360 view screen that plays a video giving bird’s eye view of most notable places in the city! From the top floor gallery of the exhibition center you get to see a very good view of People’s Square. One of the most thrilling experiences of the China trip was to walk on “The Sightseeing Floor” with glass bottom at The Oriental Pearl Tower. The elevator running at speed of seven meters per second takes you to height of 263 meters to breathtaking views of the Shanghai skyline. Just step down a floor to trick your mind standing at heights of 259 meters on a glass floor. It gave shivers through whole body and dizzy head when I took that first step on the glass panels that hold you above the ground at freaking heights! Later I took a quick trip Shanghai Ocean Aquarium that has longest underwater tunnel in the world. What paradox just an hour ago I was on the heights of the world and now felt in the deepest of the seas when a shark just swam above me head as this thought ran across! It was time to bid bye bye to Shanghai and make my way to Beijing. I chose to take an overnight train to Beijing from Shanghai. The train journeys I believe are the best way to get to know the people from the land and take a quick peep in their local lives. As I did last minute train tickets only option I had was to travel on “hard seats” in a second class comportment. The air-conditioned journey turned out to be comfortably interesting with bunch of young Chinese wagering on card games and the usual hustle and bustle of a train. As I was catching up on few episodes of Modern Family to pass time on my fifteen hour long ride the guy sitting across me jumped on his seat seeing his familiar characters of Mitch and Cam in their never ending sweet fights. And I was zapped to know the series was so popular in China too! I wonder if global media companies have really found out mantra to catch fancies of millions of TV viewers spread across globe?
Day 05: Trailing Duck Tongue
As I continued reading Liar’s Poker where Solomon Brothers was building mortgage trading empire in 1980s knowing little that it would drag the whole world in perennial debt crisis later in 2000s the train reached Beijing in late morning. Knowing train tickets get sold out very fast (shame it still can’t be booked online) I straight headed to tickets bookings office to get my return ticket to Shanghai from Beijing. Carry ample cash with you as no plastic money is accepted at these booking offices. Had my lunch at KFC near Shanghai station and was surprised to see how localized the menu can be. For seafood lovers imagine a burger with shrimp patty! Again my favorite part of getting-lost-while-looking for my hostel from the subway station. Didn’t expect it’s going to be so difficult in broad day’s sunlight. Here was the best example of helping nature of Chinese, a gentlemen eating at a hotel who spoke little English came to my rescue. He was kind enough to take the number of hotel from me, call up the reception desk, get the exact location and direct me there. I was bit tired of the long train journey and had to save energy to climb the wall next day so decided to stay at hotel for rest of the day. The hostel arranged daily excursions to the tourist attractions in and around Beijing including Great Wall. Most people visit to Badaling section of the wall near Beijing so it can get crowded. I was advised to do Mutianyu section which is further ahead of Badaling. I booked the tour with the hostel which was offered at reasonable rate of ¥260 including entrance fees, breakfast and lunch covering almost full day. As I was surfing on WiFi at the hostel got to know about this restaurant close by that served duck tongues. I always wanted to try out this bizarre preparation ever since I read about it first on the net. Decided in the evening to hit the restaurant for the dinner. As I was ordering the delicacy, the waiter actually pulled out his tongue and confirmed are you sure this is what you want to eat? After the dish was on my table seeing me bit struggled and hesitant to eat it the waiter offered to get some drink that would wash it down my throat and showed me how to suck the flash of bone of the tongue. Now that’s being attentive :). Anyways the food adventure was great but the taste of tongue of the duck was yuck (oouch it rhymes too)!
Day 06: “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.”
A coach picked us next morning from the hostel at 8:30 AM lead by a lovely guide dressed in shocking pink, Monica. Mutianyu is about 90-minute drive from Beijing city and on the way we were briefed on various historical facts about the wall. At some point of time in history every fifth person in China was involved in building the wall to safeguard the Chinese empire from Manchurian and Mongolians. As someone has very rightly put it in the past what was built to keep people away is now a medium to bring people from all over the world together as they want to visit something so magnificent. Mutianyu section is about 2.5 km long and has 22 towers. You could reach on the top by cable cars or if feeling athletic can take a 20-minute hike and save ¥40 for one-way cable car trip. I decided to skip the cable car and started my journey to the great wall on foot with two fellow Belgian boys. After sweating in temperature of 36 degrees with high humidity I reached the top (don’t ask me when was the last time I was in gym). From here you can either turn right of the wall which is in more in its original form with some six towers on steep curves of the hills or turn left which is largely restored and evenly slopped. I headed right, easier side first ;), walked up to fourteenth tower and turned back to get to more historic sections. The climb here was really stiff with knee high steps. Miley Cyrus blaring loudly in my ears “I wanna fly, I wanna drive, I wanna go… I wanna be a part of something I don’t know… And if you try to hold me back I might explode” with Can’t Be Tamed kept pushing me. What Chairman Mao has quoted time and again is debatable but when he said “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” there are absolutely no two ways. Every time that whiff of air hit you in the dense forests surroundings the wall it reminded how soothing it would have been for guards protecting their dynasties in most extreme living conditions. Slopping down the mountains on wheeled toboggan ride down from the wall was awesome. It’s like being on a roller coaster with absolutely no external controls, you decide the speed and you be your own complete master. After all that exercise I was damn hungry and Monica had arranged for a very authentic Chinese meal experience. It was group of ten eclectic people being served ten different Chinese dishes to be shared. I found sharing food Chinese tradition more intimate experience than cold distant Western culture of sticking with what you ordered and your plate! We were back at hostel by early evening. After resting for a while stepped out for dinner and had the most delicious tofu dish at a local restaurant.
Day 07: When Floaters Meets Stiletto
First site on today’s agenda was Summer Palace that was easy to get to by Line 4 on subway at Beigongmen Station. Listed by UNESCO as World Heritage site its described as “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.” There are some twenty different attractions spread across three square km area of the palace. In one of the halls I was lucky to catch live performances of marshal-arts, dances and Chinese music as done in ancient times to entertain royalty and their guests. It took about four-five hours to wonder around this mammoth complex including climbing Longevity Hill. The Tower of Buddhist Incense and Clouds Gathering Temple on top of the hill were most beautiful relics of Chinese heritage. Next stop for the day was busiest shopping street of Wangfujing. There is a snack street that has food stalls selling exotic stuff as alive spiders, silk warms, seahorses that would be served deep fried on a stick and seasoned to taste for the brave-hearts! For more mundane affair lamb kebabs, dumplings and wraps would tickle your taste buds. If you are an avid reader than visit to Beijing Foreign Language Book Store would be a great stop. I spent couple of hours browsing through work of contemporary Chinese authors writing in English. Picked up a book by Mark Salazman titled The Laughing Sutra with story written in the most hilarious fashion of a Chinese monk’s travel to America in search of a manuscript for his master that can lead to immortality. Salsa in Beijing? The club Salsa Caribe was perfect destination for a night out. Seeing Chinese grooving on salsa beats of a Cambodian live band was most amazing experience. What I loved about the club was no one to scan at entrance what are you dressed up in, if its floaters or stiletto you are at your will to dance the night away. No pretense, sheer fun. I joined the group dancing and learning the salsa moves!
Day 08: Bonding Over Hookah and Goa
In early part of the day I visited two of the must do attractions in Beijing of the Temple of Heaven and Yonghegong (Lama Temple). Temple of Heaven is located close to Tiantandongmen Station on Line 5 of the subway. The temple is surrounded by a huge recreational park and has the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests as the center piece attraction. The park is a good breather from busy city where you can see lot of local performers, opera recitals and picnicking. Lama Temple can be reached by Line 2 (the loop line) from the station named after the temple. The temple houses a 26 meters tall Maitreya Buddha statute carved from a single piece of White Sandalwood included in the Guinness Book of Records. My last sightseeing stop in Beijing had to be the 2008 Olympics venue that put the city back on world map. That iconic arena shaped as bird’s nest and a giant water cube are sheer architectural wonders. Line 8 on the subway network connects to the venues. You have to stay till night when both the venues are lit to witness them in their full glory. The day I visited the stadium it hosted a football match between AC Milan and Inter Milan, seeing the supporters gathered to cheer their respective team buzzed the place with phenomenal live energy. No wonder ManU is evaluating options to get listed on Singapore stock exchange seeing growing fan base in the Asian subcontinent. After all the walking around my feet were aching like anything. What better reason to get a Chinese foot massage? They use a special cupping technique which is soothing in a funny way. I had to leave next morning early by train to Shanghai and didn’t want to spend my last night sleeping in the hostel room. When in Beijing you can party, party hard and party all night long just head to bar street in Sanlitun area. I was on my own and randomly entered this place that was playing international pop music. Set on a table that was shared by many people. A young guy sitting next to me ordered a Hookah (water pipe) and it came with two pipes. He offered the other pipe to me and there we go. Later he told me he was from North of Italy studying in Beijing and has traveled to India couple of times! Goa was his favorite holiday destination and he had a tattoo with India on it. He and the bar owner dragged me to elevated dance platform when the DJ played “I Just Came To Say Hello” by Martin Solveig. Time to hop. Next stop an English sort of pub serving Guiness! Am I really in Beijing? What next, Chinese hip-hop at an underground sort of place with a huge dance floor with dancing poles in the middle. And the clubbers having great time swinging around it, who really need the specialists ;)? Change of mood again and I stop at next place playing retro music at 3.00 AM. When I walked into the place seemed like party had just started. Next time I look at the watch and its already 4:30 AM and I was hungry. You just step out of the club and street food is waiting for you.
Day 09: Fast Train Home
I had a train back to Shanghai at 7:20 AM. The journey that took about fifteen hours while coming to Beijing was to be covered in five hours. Running at speed of 300 kms/ hour I was back in Shanghai in no time. Took the flight in the evening back to Mumbai.
Visa: Do It Yourself!
I obtained a single entry visa (Tourist and family visit visa (L-visa)) with three-month validity at cost of INR 3,675 through VFS office acting on behalf of Chinese Embassy in Mumbai. It just took about a day to process the visa as I had applied under express scheme. The Chinese are very particular about minimum bank balance (INR 150K) in your account to be submitted as supporting documents for visa application.
Very conveniently located close to heart of Shanghai near People’s Square and metro network (Xinzha Road Station on Shanghai Metro Line 2). Guests were largely local crowd. Has a very good pub attached to the hostel, a good place to hangout in the nights.
I stayed in Sanlitun area of Beijing which has great options for thriving night life of the city.
Would you like to connect with Mastmusaphir?
Don’t want to miss out on the latest Mastmusaphir blog posts?
Drop your email below to receive future posts direct to your inbox – it’s easy and I won’t send you any junk.