Hong Kong – Holiday Decorations and Light Shows

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No city puts on a show quite like Hong Kong

Where: Victoria Harbour, Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai neighborhoods

When: November 2010

Certain river cities and port towns in China, like Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Guilin are well-known for their evening waterfront light shows. They’re a great attraction for local nightlife and dining – some cities even have riverboat cruises with dinner buffets timed to see the action up close!

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It’s a primal human need to gather in large groups to witness inspiring events, and Hong Kong might just be the best city at it. Hong Kong’s nightly kilometers-wide harbourfront show, “A Symphony of Lights,” is justifiably famous and draws huge crowds, especially on the Kowloon side and at Wan Chai on the north side of HK Island. Dozens of skyscrapers are covered in computer-controlled LED lighting, high-powered lasers are mounted at key points along the skyline, and loudspeakers along the shore are synchronized to a musical score. The tourism board changes the program periodically, and for the Christmas holiday season they prepare an extra-special show.

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With a century of British influence, Hong Kong’s adoption of Christmas traditions and icons feels completely familiar and genuine to North American visitors (in contrast to its awkward embrace north of the border in the People’s Republic), so it should be no surprise to see mighty pine trees and balsam swags in shopping centers and along the street from mid-November onward.

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The city’s reputation for visual excess in signage and retail display may lead you to think they take holiday decorations to an extreme – and you’d be right! From the top of the Peak to the most remote outlet mall in the New Territories, the Christmastime spirit is on full blast to delight kids and kids at heart alike.

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How to get there

The Tsim Sha Tsui station in Kowloon, and the Wan Chai station on Hong Kong Island, are the best-sited MTR stops as each is an easy walk from the harbour to catch the evening light show. The extra-special transportation method, however, would be to take the Star Ferry on any cross-harbour run around 8 pm!

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Nearby accommodation and activities

Some hotels on Hong Kong Island that are close to MTR stops that link to Wan Chai would include:

  • Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay – near Tin Hau station and Victoria Park
  • OZO Wesley Hong Kong – near Admiralty station
  • Best Western Hotel Harbour View – near Sai Ying Pun station
  • Courtyard by Marriott Hong Kong (Des Voeux Road) and Best Western Plus Hotel Hong Kong (also Des Voeux Road) – both of these are on the tram line about halfway between Kennedy Town and Sheung Wan
  • Hotel Ibis Hong Kong Central and Sheung Wan – also on the tram line
  • Holiday Inn Express Hong Kong Soho – about 2 blocks uphill from the Sheung Wan station

On the Kowloon side, hotels in Tsim Sha Tsui with a short walk to the waterfront tend to be either extravagantly lavish and expensive (like the Peninsula, Sheraton, or Hyatt Regency) or else family-unfriendly hostels and bare-bones motels for the cross-border trade. You’ll want to look a little further north:

  • Park Hotel on Chatham Road (still a reasonable walk)
  • Novotel Hong Kong Nathan Road (Nathan Road station)
  • Cordis Hong Kong (Mong Kok station)
  • The Hilton Garden Inn Mong Kok and the Holiday Inn Express Mong Kok are a bit of a walk but about equally close to the Mong Kok and the Yau Ma Tei stations.
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The Tsim Sha Tsui harbourfront is chock-full of family fun, starting with the Star Ferry, the Avenue of Stars, the Hong Kong Cultural Museum, and the Hong Kong Space Museum, and only steps away from Ocean Terminal and its shopping and food arcade.

The Wan Chai side is dominated by the Hong Kong Exposition Centre so it’s a longer walk to get to the water from the train, but there is a nice park area once you get there.

Other links

Our Pinterest folder for Hong Kong

Our Pinterest folder for Cathay Pacific Airways

Our Airport Guide for Hong Kong

Beijing - Hutong School

Where: Beijing Liuyinjie Elementary School, just southwest of Houhai Lake in the Changqiao Residential District, about 2 kilometers northwest of the Forbidden City in central Beijing.

When: June 2007

During our adoption trip, we first stopped in Beijing for several days to get used to the time zone and meet up with the other families in our cohort. We had the opportunity to take a pedicab tour of the hutongs on the north side of downtown. The neighborhood is a living museum of the city – not just families live and work there but also offices, shops, restaurants, parks, and government functions are interspersed.

Our tour guides were able to take us to the Liuyinjie Elementary School to walk around the grounds and observe classes in session – this school has cultivated relationships with American teaching institutions and regularly participates in cross-cultural exchanges, so no one, least of all the children, was surprised to see Westerners on site.

Our visit also coincided with the pre-2008 Olympics preparations, so the school had recently had a facelift with fresh paint and signage ready to be shown to outsiders.

My wife is a middle-school teacher, and I’ve worked in the education market from the publishing side for decades, so this stop was of particular interest to us. We knew this was a “model school” and intentionally staged in the best light to present to foreigners, so during class time we hung back and kept a low profile (unlike most of our fellow travelers) so that we could be unobtrusive and watch the students’ and teachers’ behavior as discreetly as we could, given the circumstances and our menial understanding of Mandarin.

And what did we notice?

Kids being kids: some were engaged with the lesson, and others goofing off or lost in their own thoughts. The students in red scarves, being marked as future Party elites.  Teachers making do with the materials they had: expensive projection systems hanging unused from the ceiling and the latest version of Windows on their computer, but still delivering lessons with chalkboards, worksheets, and lectures. Peeling paint and uninsulated concrete walls inside the classroom, but adorned with bulletin board set cutouts and cheerful messages.

Halfway around the world, not being able to speak the language or even find our way back to the hotel, and knowing that in just a few days we would become parents, our minds were on the brink of panic. Yet standing in this remarkably familiar place and experiencing our common humanity helped us tremendously.

Click above to open in Google Maps

Click above to open in Google Maps

How to get there

The Shichahai station off Subway Line 8 serves the heart of the Drum and Bell Tower / Qianhai Lake / Houhai Lake area. It’s one stop south of the Gulou Street station off Line 2, and one stop north of the South Luogu Alley station on Line 6. Line 8 also connects farther north with Line 10 at Beitucheng, and Line 15 at Olympic Park.

Nearby accommodation and activities

Of course, the school itself isn’t open for casual tourism, but the parkland around the lakes is quite pleasant for a family outing, with playgrounds and exercise equipment sprinkled throughout, pedal boats to rent, and numerous shops and cafes to visit during the day. The Drum and Bell Tower is also open to climb, and gives a good view of the northern side of the inner-ring of the city. At night, this is Beijing’s nightlife capital… and maybe not so much a place to take the kids…

Image by sama093 via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by sama093 via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Just south of the Hutong district, and walkable on a clear warm day, is the dramatic hilltop Jinghsan Park, overlooking the Forbidden City.

Just west of the Second Ring Road are the Beijing Zoo and Beijing Aquarium.

Image by Edward and Caroline via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by Edward and Caroline via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Subway Line 8 was built to connect downtown to the 2008 Olympics campus, and today the former Olympic Village encompasses extensive parkland and the China Science and Technology Museum, and the Olympic Park subway station is next to the InterContinental Beijing Beichen.

Line 2 follows the Second Ring Road, and international-standard hotels ready for family travelers along that line would include:

Crowne Plaza Beijing Chaoyang U-Town, by the Chaoyangmen station (this station also serves Line 6)

Swissotel Beijing Hong Kong Macau Center, next to the Dongsishitiao station

New Otani Chang Fu Gong, and Beijing Marriott City Wall Hotel, next to the Jianguomen station

Other links

Our Beijing folder on Pinterest

 

Tokyo - Meiji Jingu

Where:  West side of Tokyo, in between the Shibuya and Shinjuku districts

When: July 2009

In America, you say “Tokyo” and people think shiny towers and clean, fast trains and floating LED screens with the occasional robot walking around in a crowd of office workers wearing expensive suits and watching their iPhones. All preprogrammed and optimized and efficient. “The City of the Future.” And sure, there are parts of the city that are almost like that. The vending machines are almost there.

So a visitor to Tokyo probably isn’t going to expect some things. How most of the buildings are actually from the 1950s-1970s. How far out the city actually stretches. How most people actually live in modest houses or townhomes and not in soaring, soulless apartment blocks. And considering how many people live there, just how much green space can actually be found.

Now I wish I could say something wonderful like “Tokyo is a city of trees,” but that just isn’t true. The city had to rebuild with what it had after World War II, and in fact most of the reconstruction didn’t really get going until the late 1950s.

Walking into the grounds of the Meiji Jingu shrine, the forest and the buildings feel ancient; a preserved outpost of history from the feudal era. But that isn’t true, either. The original shrine didn’t start construction until 1915 and the grounds weren’t finished until 1926. The place isn’t even one hundred years old.

Oh, and it was burned along with the rest of western Tokyo in April and May 1945 by U.S. bombing raids. These buildings were reconstructed in 1958; they’re Mid-Century architecture like so much of the rest of the city. My own house in Minnesota is only three years younger!

So to wander the grounds of this place is not to travel into the distant past – it is to appreciate the choices of people my grandparents’ age: to deliberately set aside a large tract of charred land that they knew would have great commercial value during a time of building a city from the ground up. To replant trees which weren’t that old to begin with. To rededicate a shrine to a former emperor who had brought a divided Japan out of feudalism, when their entire shattered country was coming out of fascism.

It took courage to choose not to take a bite out here for an office building, and a bite out there for apartments, and a bite out on the side for more railroad tracks.

You wouldn’t know that, standing on the gravel pathway in silence, watching monks up ahead sweep leaves out of the way.

You wouldn’t know it was a deliberate choice to make the main yard as big as it is – but the size allows a million people to visit for New Year’s Day. And they all walk along those same quiet extra-wide gravel paths. The reverence for nature and tradition, and the logistics of crowd management and even commerce were designed to be that way. Deliberate choices. You might say, preprogrammed and efficient – at least for this place and this purpose.

During reconstruction, the city fathers could easily have made Tokyo into a grid like Houston or Chicago. And some neighborhoods actually are grids; others follow the original roads or long-lost geographic features. It doesn’t make the city as a whole particularly pretty, or make it really look like it came from the future. But it does make the citizens appreciate each park, each tree, as each one was deliberately put there.

And it does make Tokyo the City of Choices.

 

How to get there

Harajuku’s iconic station on the Japan Railways “Yamanote” ring line around Tokyo, as shown in the photo above, is the simplest way to reach the park, with easy access from Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and other suburban hotel hubs.

On the Tokyo Metro, the Meiji-Jingumae station is only a few blocks from the southern entrance to the park, and is served by the (green) Chiyoda Line and the (brown) Fukutoshin Line. Those lines don’t link up to major hotel centers so you’d need to connect at an upstream station.

You could also get off at the Omotesando station about 10 minutes’ walk away, as that is served by the (orange) Ginza Line and (purple) Hanzomon Line – both of which link to hotel centers like Akasaka-mitsuke, Shimbashi, and of course Ginza.

The northern entrance to the park is about a 5-minute walk south of the Yoyogi station on the JR Yamanote line, which is also a stop on the Toei Subway’s (pink) Oedo Line. By either train, it’s one stop south of the mega-hub of Shinjuku. The Oedo Line does link to the hotel center at Roppongi.

The Shinjuku station is only about 1 mile north of the north entrance, and nearly all the metro and JR lines in western Tokyo converge there; plus Shinjuku itself has a heavy concentration of high-end hotels.

Nearby accommodation and activities

The grounds don’t just contain the shrine; the western third is Yoyogi Park, a classic city park with fountains and open grassy lawns – in the springtime this is a popular spot for watching the cherry blossoms!

To the south, across Highway 413, there are several indoor and outdoor sports stadiums, outdoor stages and market stalls, a performing arts theater, a concert hall, and the main buildings for national TV broadcaster NHK.  And if you’ve walked that far, you’re only a quarter-mile from the shopping, dining, and people-watching hub of Shibuya.

As mentioned above, immediately east across the Yamanote Line tracks are the youth-fashion oriented Harajuku district and the high-end shopping street of Omotesando, with fancy shopping malls and boutiques (and also the very kid-friendly Kiddy Land toy store!)

Virtually any neighborhood in central, northern, southern, or western Tokyo is going to have excellent Metro and rail links – so with a stored-value Suica Card, the city is yours to explore from a vast selection of hotels.

The big Western hotel chains have had a difficult time expanding in Tokyo because the railroad lines that essentially rebuilt the city after WWII owned much of the land around their stations, and to make those stations productive, they also built the department stores and hotel chains in prime locations. In western Tokyo, that would be the Tokyu company…  Japanese hotels are mainly set up for Japanese business travelers, but with that heads-up, here are some west-side suggestions:

Hotel Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku

Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu

Tokyu Stay Shibuya

There’s also a pair of Courtyard by Marriott worth considering, as that brand does well by family-travelers:

Courtyard Tokyo Ginza

Courtyard Tokyo Station

 

Other links

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_Shrine

http://www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/shibuya/spot/1956.html

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3002.html

http://japantraveladvice.com/meiji-jingu-shrine/

 

Our Pinterest folder for Tokyo

Our airport guide for Tokyo Narita

 

Hong Kong - Stanley

Where: Hong Kong Island

When: November 2010

This trip was our daughter’s first time back to China after we’d adopted her, so it was especially emotional for us. We wanted to take in as many experiences as we could in the limited time we had – the city is so family-friendly, easy to get around, and full of fun activities and bright lights that we wanted to run all day and night.

Well, between jet lag and the necessary sleep schedule for a four-year-old, that impulse was quashed rather quickly. We found we could do one big adventure between breakfast and lunch, a siesta back at our hotel, and then a mini-outing at dinnertime.

Part of the genius of Hong Kong is for all the skyscrapers and neon signs and crowds, most of the territory is actually parkland and open space. After a few days of walking around Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok, and Central, we’d reached city sensory overload. What we needed at that point was exactly what we got when our city bus emerged from the Aberdeen Tunnel: smog-free blue sky, deep jungle, boats bobbing in bays.

Getting off the bus and walking down the block into Stanley Market brought such decompressing relief. The buildings weren’t taller than the trees or hills. No expressways or stream of trucks hauling cargo. The signs were modest, and the crowd as well. A human-scaled place with a relaxed and open attitude.

We had a late breakfast and stayed well past lunch, wandering the side streets, clambering over the rocks, finding a little beach and picking up sea glass, spotting containerships on the ocean horizon from Blake Pier, people-watching on the promenade, and doing a little shopping among the stalls in the marketplace. We didn’t worry about timetables or the four other things we’d also like to be doing that day.

We certainly saw enough high-priced sports cars and jewelry to know that working-class people could never afford to live here; the low-key lifestyle so unlike that on the north side of the island carries a high property price. But as tourists, the pizza we enjoyed while watching the waves didn’t cost any more than it would have in Kowloon.

Our bodies refreshed, our brains re-set, and with a valuable lesson learned about living in the moment, we were ready to enjoy the rest of our trip regardless of how many attractions we could check off.

How to get there

The number-one piece of advice for any traveler to Hong Kong, especially for families, is to obtain and charge up the stored-value Octopus cards. For MTR trains, the various bus companies, and trams, it’s your one-swipe discount ticket.

The number-one piece of advice for any traveler to Hong Kong, especially for families, is to obtain and charge up the stored-value Octopus cards. For MTR trains, the various bus companies, and trams, it’s your one-swipe discount ticket.

Click for the current MTR rail map

Click for the current MTR rail map

The MTR has only recently punched through the mountains to reach the south side of Hong Kong Island, running past the Ocean Park amusement park, but that’s still many miles away from Stanley. The easiest connection is to take one of the frequent buses from the MTR hub in Central (routes 6, 6A, 6X, or 260) – if you take one of the double-decker buses, be sure to sit up top for the best view! The 6 and 6A are “local” and take streets up and over the mid-island mountains, while the 6X and 260 are “express” which use the Aberdeen Tunnel. Travel time from Central is about a half-hour on the express buses; 45-50 minutes on the local buses.

There are several bus stops serving the Stanley area; you want the Stanley Market stop (this will be where most people are getting on and off.) English-language signage and announcements are standard on all Hong Kong mass transport, so enjoy the ride and pay attention to your map.

Nearby accommodation and activities

Affordable lodging for families right in Stanley is simply not available – the property values are far too high, and it’s too long a transit from the airport for casual tourism stays. However, since the bus links from Central are so convenient, and MTR trains are so affordable, you can stay in a wide range of neighborhoods and still have a pleasant day trip to Stanley. Some hotels on Hong Kong Island that are close to MTR stops that link to Central would include:

Metropark Hotel Causeway Bay – near Tin Hau station and Victoria Park

OZO Wesley Hong Kong – near Admiralty station

Best Western Hotel Harbour View – near Sai Ying Pun station

Courtyard by Marriott Hong Kong (Des Voeux Road) and Best Western Plus Hotel Hong Kong (also Des Voeux Road) – both of these are on the tram line about halfway between Kennedy Town and Sheung Wan

Hotel Ibis Hong Kong Central and Sheung Wan – also on the tram line

Holiday Inn Express Hong Kong Soho – about 2 blocks uphill from the Sheung Wan station

 

Of course, given how fast and frequent the MTR is, there are many hotels on the Kowloon side of the harbour you might consider as well.

Since Stanley is essentially “the end of the road” for this part of the island (the actual end of the island is the fishing village of Shek O, one more peninsula over, but there’s no bus line to connect it to Stanley), other family activities have to be found closer in to the center of the island.

The 6A and 6X buses also stop at Hong Kong’s homegrown amusement park and aquarium, Ocean Park.  This complex is as big as a Disney park, however, and given its (roughly) US$60 adult ticket price / US$30 for kids 11 and under, you’d want to spend a full day there instead of only a few hours.

Image by katsuhiro7110 via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

Image by katsuhiro7110 via Flickr; CC 2.0 license

For a cheaper (free) activity that takes less time on the way back to Central, stop off at the Repulse Bay Beach bus stop for a stroll along the water, exercise at the children’s playground, and contemplation at the Tin Hau Temple and its statues facing the waterfront. There are also cafes and shopping along the beach.

Other links

http://www.nextstophongkong.com/repulse-bay-stanley-market/

http://wikitravel.org/en/Hong_Kong/Southern_Hong_Kong_Island

http://gohongkong.about.com/od/whattoseeinhk/a/whattoseeStanle.htm

http://www.hong-kong-traveller.com/stanley-market-hong-kong.html#.WKiy2xiZPKY

http://www.hk-stanley-market.com/things-to-do.htm#.WKJ-xxiZPKY

http://www.hk-stanley-market.com/how-to-get-to-stanley-market-from-central.html#.WKJ-JxiZPKY

 

Our Pinterest folder for Hong Kong

Our Pinterest folder for Cathay Pacific Airways

 

Our Airport Guide for Hong Kong

Our article on the Dragon Boat Festival – Stanley hosts big race events in May each year

Guangzhou – Pearl River

Where: Shamian Island, Guangzhou, China

When: June 2007

There’s a lot of waiting and staring out of windows involved in the process of adopting a child overseas. It might be when you’re at your local police station to get fingerprinted for background checks. It might be when you’re waiting to hear (for months) from the adoption agency, or a foreign bureaucracy. It might be in an airport between flights. And in this case, in a hotel room, with a sleeping child, before your appointment with the consulate.

We were in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, “the Chicago / New Orleans / San Francisco of China”, because that city has the Western foreign consulates that specialize in adoption cases. And we were staying on tiny Shamian Island, because in colonial days that was the foreign enclave. The diplomats had left years earlier for the shiny new skyscrapers downtown, but the island was still a quiet refuge that gave new families space and support to start the process of bonding.

There are two famous hotels on Shamian: the Victory Hotel, on the mainland side, and the White Swan, facing the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang). We were in the Swan with a river-view room – meaning a window about 18 inches wide. But it was still a front-row seat for an old logistician like me to watch all the shipping going on.

The main channel of the Pearl River flowed right past us, with just another hundred miles to go until the open water of the Pacific, and at all hours of day and night there was a constant show.

Watching the boats was on the one hand, a great game of figuring out what was going on, what was being carried, how the craft worked. On the other hand, it was also a meditative activity: we had all been through a lot in the previous week and now we had nothing to do except watch a boat bob along the river.

Ten years later, it’s fun to look back through the photos. The city is vastly larger today, but the action along the river hasn’t changed much:

Ocean-going vessels such as oil tankers and containerships can travel in deep water as far inland as Guangzhou. There is a container port just downstream from Shamian past the Hedong Bridge, looking very much like a 20-story tall spider that has just landed from space.

The many branches and tributaries of the Pearl make it easy to move cargo by water throughout Guangdong and its neighboring provinces, all the way down to Hong Kong and then along the coast. It is no surprise that the cities along the Pearl River Delta (abbreviated as ‘the PRD’) are such a manufacturing powerhouse: nature has provided its own freeway network. There are literally hundreds of islands and thousands of miles of densely-interconnected waterways that midsize craft can navigate in this region.

Unlike the US or Europe, where river traffic uses barges to haul bulk commodities like grain, coal, or chemicals, in China, the boats are all purpose-built and are much smaller. You can hook dozens of barges together with one small drive unit for a low labor and energy cost, but here the model is different. The rivers do have more bends and inconsistent shallows, which would make steering a consist of ten or twenty barges very difficult. But the other consideration is that all these people need jobs, and crewing on a ship is honest, hard work.

Here are some purpose-built craft:

A miniature containership

A small tanker - there are connections along the sides for pumping, and big valves at the prow.

A trio of open-top bulk carriers passing docked passenger ferries. The long snout of the biggest boat is a conveyor belt for loading and unloading - crushed stone in this instance.

Similar to the tanker, but the cover on top suggests this is a dry bulk carrier - could handle grain, plastic pellets, fertilizer, dry concrete mix, etc. She’s empty, judging from how high she sits above the waterline. The close-up shows her bridge, quarters, and even a spare propeller.

Here is one of the ferries connecting the terminal at the Bai’etan Bar Street on the south shore with the Huangsha terminal just upriver from Shamian. Did you know there are tunnels for an expressway and rail transit just under the river channel here?

At night, the river cruises parade in their neon glory. We would get to take one of these, and were gifted with an unforgettable night of laser shows, dancing grannies, and a mass stampede at the onboard buffet. I highly recommend the experience.

And far too early, I was up to witness fishermen venturing out in their tiny skiffs to gather the morning’s catch.

How to get there

Guangzhou is the transportation hub for all of southern China. High-speed rail comes in from as far north as Beijing and stretches out into Guangxi, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces. (Maybe someday it will get to Hong Kong!)

Baiyun Airport is the headquarters and largest hub for China Southern Airlines, and has Metro Line 3 (Orange) running all the way into the center city.

To get to Shamian Island, the Huangsha station shared by Line 1 (Yellow) and Line 6 (Purple) has an entrance just west of the island, and there is a footbridge to cross over the narrow channel. Line 1 ends at the East Railway Station, where it connects to Line 3 for the airport; Line 6 is useful to access key attractions further along the riverbank, as well as the Guangzhou Zoo.

Nearby accommodation and activities

The promenade along the Pearl stretches downstream from Shamian for several kilometers and holds some of the city's most historic architecture and restaurants. Just inland from Shamian is the Qingping Market, where most anything which can be cooked - whether an ingredient or a living animal - can be found. There are also several shopping streets just past the market for clothing and jewelry. The Canton Tower is a newer landmark and is said to have a good observation deck.

Guangzhou is also home to several major temples, and Baiyun Mountain for hiking if the pollution and humidity are acceptable. The city fills up to overflowing during tradeshow season, and it's not recommended to vacation then - but in the off-season good value can be had.

Outside of the White Swan and the Victory on the island itself, other family-friendly hotels with easy access to Shamian via subway include:

Sheraton Guangzhou Hotel

Guangzhou Marriott Hotel Tianhe

Oakwood Premier Guangzhou (serviced apartments)

 

Other links

Our Airport Guide for Guangzhou

Our Pinterest folder for Guangzhou and Shenzhen

Our Pinterest folder for High Speed Rail

Our Pinterest folder for China Southern Airlines

Beijing - Forbidden City

Where: according to the Emperors, the center of the world and the gateway to heaven.  By GPS, the middle of Beijing.

When: June 2007

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As an American, the thing about visiting historic sites in China is the split sense of historic time you perceive.

The building sites are literally older than our country; we have no family lineage or cultural institutions of our own that can compare. There was urban sophistication, advanced manufacturing, and military strategy underway here a thousand years before the Europeans could figure out how to make a useful roadway.

But at the same moment, you also realize the Chinese state (until the last two generations) has not cared much about historic preservation; not until tourism actually became big business. So many places you’ll visit are elaborate reproductions or re-builds of things that had faded away or become foundation bricks for something else. (At Badaling, you aren’t actually standing on stones hundreds of years old… maybe 40 years, tops?)

Walking through the Forbidden City magnifies this dual perception. Yes this is where the emperors lived; yes these are real palace treasures. No they didn’t have a café in the middle of the complex, nor did they have a gift shop strategically placed before the northern exit.

You may see construction crews at work during your visit. How old are those roof tiles, dragons, and pavers, anyway? Are the painted ceilings careful restorations like in Rome, or is that a fresh coat of Sherwin-Williams?

Battles have been fought inside these walls after all, and the Red Guards undoubtedly did massive damage in the 1960s-70s. So what is *real* and what is invented?

I don’t know. They’re not going to tell you. Does it really matter?

This is where the history happened. Things changed and continue to change. Your appreciation of the place, in the end, depends on acknowledging the duality of time and taking the scene as it comes. Appreciate the story being presented, even if all the props on stage aren’t 100% authentic.

How to get there

Frankly, you can’t miss the place. All roads lead here, or something like that. And if you’re part of an organized tour, you will be coming through.

If you’re traveling on your own, the Beijing Subway is your best bet: Line 1, Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West stations.

Nearby accommodation and activities

There’s no shortage of things to do in the nation’s capital: the Temple of Heaven and Qianmen neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square;  Jingshan Park and Houhai Lake and the hutong district to the northwest; the Summer Palace and Olympic Park further out; and of course the Great Wall at several locations to the north.

The Wangfujing district just east of the Forbidden City is a family-friendly hub for hotels, shopping, dining, and nighttime entertainment. Respected hotel chains are represented there with:

Crowne Plaza Beijing Wangfujing

Novotel Peace Beijing Hotel

Park Plaza Wangfujing Hotel

The Peninsula Beijing (a chain usually priced out-of-reach for families, but rather reasonable rates at this location)

Lee Garden Service Apartment

NUO Hotel Beijing

Novotel Beijing Xinqiao

Tokyo - Harajuku

The entry arch to Takeshita Dori, Harajuku's main shopping arcade. For holidays and festivals this gate is often extravagantly decorated.

The entry arch to Takeshita Dori, Harajuku's main shopping arcade. For holidays and festivals this gate is often extravagantly decorated.

Where: Tokyo’s central-western neighborhood of Harajuku

When: July 2009

If you want to look at what your kids will be wearing in five years, this is the place to go. Harajuku is a district known worldwide for being at the knife’s edge of youth fashion, and its ever-changing ecosystem of small boutiques, used-clothing stores, design studios, micro-factories, and nearby arts universities make it an always-running experiment / reality show / competition.

The streets and shops are meant not just for shopping but also for showing off and socializing – photography websites such as TokyoFashion.com, HARAJUKU STYLE, and Japanese Streets keep record of who is wearing what, making stars of designers and models in a democratic, crowd-sourced way – anyone can start a trend with a fresh or recycled look, and they often do!

Didn't realize I'd taken a picture of the "no pictures" signs until much later...

Didn't realize I'd taken a picture of the "no pictures" signs until much later...

We arrived at lunchtime on a weekday – but for the most intense experience, come after school on a weekday, or on Saturday afternoons, when high schoolers and college students have free time.

How to get there

Harajuku’s iconic station on the Japan Railways “Yamanote” ring line around Tokyo, as shown in the photos above, is the front door to the neighborhood, with easy access from Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and other suburban hotel hubs.

On the Tokyo Metro, the Meiji-Jingumae station is served by the (green) Chiyoda Line and the (brown) Fukutoshin Line. Those lines don’t link up to major hotel centers so you’d need to connect at an upstream station – or you could get off at the Omotesando station about 10 minutes’ walk away, as that is served by the (orange) Ginza Line and (purple) Hanzomon Line – both of which link to hotel centers like Akasaka-mitsuke, Shimbashi, and of course Ginza.

If you’re in Shibuya, and the weather’s nice, you might as well walk north half a mile on Meiji Dori: that’s how close these districts are.

Nearby accommodation and activities

Immediately south of Harajuku is the high-end shopping street of Omotesando, with fancy shopping malls and boutiques (and also the very kid-friendly Kiddy Land toy store!)

Just across the Yamanote Line train tracks is the vast forest shrine of Meiji Jingu, perfect for several hours’ stroll and perhaps a picnic lunch.

Virtually any neighborhood in central, northern, southern, or western Tokyo is going to have excellent Metro and rail links – so with a stored-value Suica Card, the city is yours to explore from a vast selection of hotels.

The big Western hotel chains have had a difficult time expanding in Tokyo because the railroad lines that essentially rebuilt the city after WWII owned much of the land around their stations, and to make those stations productive, they also built the department stores and hotel chains in prime locations. In western Tokyo, that would be the Tokyu company…  Japanese hotels are mainly set up for Japanese business travelers, but with that heads-up, here are some west-side suggestions:

Hotel Century Southern Tower in Shinjuku

Shibuya Excel Hotel Tokyu

Tokyu Stay Shibuya

There’s also a pair of Courtyard by Marriott worth considering, as that brand does well by family-travelers:

Courtyard Tokyo Ginza

Courtyard Tokyo Station

 

Other links

Our Pinterest folder for Tokyo

Our airport guide for Tokyo Narita

Guangxi – Yiling Village

Where: rural Wuming Township, north of Nanning, Guangxi, China

When: June 2007

Standing in the middle of this tiny farm village, with our newly-adopted daughter in my arms, I smell and hear and feel the connection with my great-grandparents’ farmstead in central Illinois from 100 years ago.

The heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer afternoon *begins* to approach what presses down on us this June day in the deep south of China. The highway is far behind us and all we hear are insects, a cowbell, and the whispered suggestion of a breeze. I haven’t heard any jets overhead since we got here, and no one’s cellphone has rung.

My grandfather as a boy would have been immediately familiar with the tools and animals around us. My mother told me stories about visiting that farm when she was a girl: collecting eggs from hens, taking care of horses, avoiding the pigs while climbing persimmon trees.

Persimmon trees are native to China, too. They line the roadway to where I’m standing.

The fields grow rice instead of wheat and corn, and the houses are built differently, but I can trace the loose bundle of power lines snaking their way into the cluster of houses and speculate when electricity finally came to the old Anderson property.

The genetics are different. The geography is different. I never met my grandpa’s parents. Yet I think they would feel at home here, and they’d instantly accept our daughter as family.

How to get there

This village is just around the hillside from the Yilingyan Park grottoes, about 30 km north of Nanning City off the G210 highway, but since it’s unlikely that a casual traveler would be renting a car out this far, your best bet is to find an organized bus tour to Yilingyan and see if your tour guide would walk you around the farmland. No one speaks English in the village and no one there is expecting to see tourists…

Nearby accommodation and activities

The charming city of Nanning is quite friendly to foreigners, as it holds an annual conference of the ASEAN trading bloc. Their Natural Museum, Yangmai Ancient Town, Museum of Nationalities, and Science & Technology Museum are all recommended, and there are a number of large parks nestled in the heart of the city offering pleasant walks and outdoor playtime for kids. The street-food scene at night in the downtown core is famous across Southeast Asia.

Recent years have seen a bloom of western-class hotel properties, such as:

Nanning Marriott (near the International Expo Center, on the eastern side of the city)

Yongjiang Hotel (central city, easy walking to shopping, restaurants, riverside attractions)

Wanda Vista Hotel(eastern side of city)

Wharton International Hotel (on Nanhu Park)

 

Other links

Our Pinterest folder for Guangxi Province