Visiting The Three Gorges Dam

If you have a thing for world’s first and engineering marvels then this is one trip that you would want to make this Summer, and have it ticked off the bucket list.

Architectural Model – Photo taken at the Three Gorges Dam Museum showing the 5 ship locks bringing a boat downstream into the main river

The Three Gorges Dam or the Sanxia Da Ba (三峡大坝) is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam created to both produce electricity and increase the Yangtze River’s shipping capacity as well as reduce downstream floods. A project that started construction in 1994, it was fully functioning from 2012 complete with five ship locks and fully completed with a ship lift in December 2015. See TEN interesting facts that you may want to note about the Dam project here before you book those tickets.

As for us, we were curious to see what a project that saw China relocating 1.24 million people in 2008 to achieve, costing them US$27.6 billion or RMB180 billion to construct-looked like in reality.

Getting there was easier than expected, there is a 3 hour train ride option from Shenzhen but we decided to fly domestic. So we took the train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen via Lo Wu. From there, boarded a 2 hour flight from Shenzhen’s Airport into Yichang.

A map of the tribal villages living along the Dam – at least 360 million people live here in the stretch from Yichang to Chongqing

Seeing the entire Dam and the expanse of land that is home to almost 360 million people is no mean feat and the most common way to fully appreciate it is to take a 4 to 6 day cruise and there are many cruise companies that arrange tours with English-speaking agents and guides.

With limited off days from school and work, we opted for the shortest way to see the Dam – via a Day Tour and got it arranged via the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Yichang (where we were staying). They recommended an English speaking tour guide, Christine who turned out to be a real gem. With a good command of English, knowledgeable, friendly and passionate about her job, she arranged a 2 day itinerary which included a day out on a tour boat down the Yangtze river and a second day out to see explore the Ba tribal village, one of the many small ancient villages that snake around the Yangtze.

Day 1

Saw us getting on to a tour boat that would take us on a leisurely cruise down part of the Yangtze to cross the ship lock of the Gezhouba Dam, go inside the Dam area, view the museum, have lunch, and then take a bus back to Yichang.

The Boat Tour – TIP: For better all around views – pay the extra 40RMB per person and sit on the top deck which is shaded with a canopy
Scenic views along the way

Entering a SHIP LOCK – think of it as an elevator of sorts but this SHIP LOCK allows the vessel to sail in and brings you 22 metres down stream in 20 mins (about the rate of 1 metre per minute). The ship is literally “locked” into the contained area that you see ahead to prevent the water from rushing in and then carried down stream.

CLOSE sesame! We are inside and the doors lock shut once the vessel is in. Water tight – our 20 minute journey via the ship lock brings us another 22m further downstream the Dam

You can’t fly over the Dam because of security issues and you need special military permission to do that – so a bird’s eye view of how the Dam operates and comes together is pretty much out of the question. Thus, a visit to the Dam museum to look at the model of it and how it all works and comes together is mandatory.

Day 2

We headed by bus to the catch another boat that would bring us to see the Ba Village, a  tribe of people who have lived in the region for centuries and in a village built by the banks of the Yangtze River. After which we would catch a bus to eat at the famous cliff side Weng Restaurant, one of the only 8 cliff restaurants in the world.

The boat moors at the Ba Village dock. We have travelled up stream to  visit the BA tribe to see how they live, explore local customs and experience the geography in the area.
The BA Tribe – a breathtaking ancient Kingdom built alongside the banks of the Yangtze
A river runs through the village ending in a stream and a waterfall at the heart of the village
The Coffin Caves were where the Ba Tribe buried their dead – Do you see two coffins in this shot?
Inside the village

Leaving the serenity of the Yangtze behind, we hopped on a tour bus back into Yichang city but not before stopping for dinner at the world-famous hanging Fang Weng Restaurant.

This restaurant is built into the side of a cliff – one of only 8 cliff restaurants in the world
The inside is a cavern that has been converted into a spacious dining room

The most famous dish there is a fish dish in milky soup where the fish has a distinct gelatinous texture. Look out for our detailed review later.

Total cost for the 2 day itinerary – 500 RMB per person (inclusive the boat and bus transport and minus a tip for the guide, the meals, an Uber or what China calls a “didi” back to the hotel). Definitely a great way to spend a long weekend.

(This trip was my own personal holiday, paid fully by myself. Recommendations here are not paid for, simply that we want to share the great finds.)

Tips On Visiting Jiuzhaigou in Winter

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China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park is a stunning fairyland of a nature reserve north of Szechuan and about an hour’s plane ride away from Chengdu. A UNESCO Heritage site, this 700 sq km swathe of natural gorgeousness sits high up in the mountain ranges, and is dotted with breathtaking scenery of wild pines, impossibly blue lakes, dramatic waterfalls, leaping cascades and immense vistas.

I visited during winter particularly to see the frozen waterfalls and snowy scenery…and also to avoid the crazy crowds that throng the place in spring and autumn. It was worth it despite the minus 5 degree Celsius weather, as the crowds were thin and we had breathtaking vistas almost to ourselves at times. The scenery was out of this world. With the dark wood of the trees and rocks set in stark contrast against the snow, it felt like we had walked straight into a traditional Chinese painting.

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Toilet facilities at JZG was really good; except for one which was under repair. So they had very resourcefully turned an out of commission bus into a temporary toilet, complete with individual cubicles with doors and flushing toilets. Quite impressed by how innovative they are.

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It’s not difficult to navigate the park. Once you have bought a ticket at the main entrance, there are buses plying two fixed routes that will bring you to all the main sights and lookout points of JZG National Park. You board and disembark at set bus-stops of course. (Another advantage of travelling in low season is that the buses are pretty comfortable, and you are assured of seats most of the time.) If you were gung-ho, you could walk the park too, as the paths and roads are well paved, broad, and decently signposted. But it is a huge expanse, so it would be quite an ambitious undertaking.

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We had been warned that there weren’t much food options there apart from a large no-frills restaurant in a central holding area, and a few pot-noodle stands dotted around. So we brought flasks of hot coffee, and some pastry pilfered from the breakfast buffet, which was enough to keep us going for the day.

We got to see most of the main sights of JZG Nature Park, which took us from around 8am until 5pm.

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15 degrees Celsius i the bedroom even after the heater was on for an hour

Our hotel, the Sheraton Jiuzhaigou was a ten minute stroll from the entrance of the park, which made it quite convenient. But (and here’s where the griping starts) it was possibly the most shocking hotel property from an international brand which I had ever stayed in.

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Slept on the floor of the living room. No kidding.

Despite selling us club suites, they had closed the club lounge due to low season, so no extra amenities. What’s more, heating was turned off in all the public areas. The staff in the lobby checked us in wearing their great winter coats, and the hallways of the hotel were so chilly, dim and dreary it looked like a set from ‘The Shining’. Back in our suites, central heating was minimal; even with an extra standalone heater that we literally begged for, the temperature in the bedroom registered 15C. We ended up sleeping on the floor in the living room, the only place which was of a humane temperature for sleeping. At least the Chinese restaurant there was decent and the food was hot, which just about prevented us from turning into human popsicles.

Banyan Tree Just Opened in JZG
So I was thrilled to hear that Banyan Tree had just opened a property in JZG a few days ago. Although 45 minutes away from the park, I think a warm bed in luxurious surrounds would more than make up for the extra travel time. The rooms start from a spacious 65 sq metres, all with nice views, and five F&B outlets including a hotpot restaurant and another that offers Sichuan and Cantonese cuisine. What’s more, there’s also the Banyan Tree Spa with 12 treatment rooms and indoor and outdoor swimming pools.

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A stay at Banyan Tree JZG also offers other experiences like jam making classes, featuring a visit to Village to pick fruit followed by cooking the jam back at the hotel; a trek to Baihe Nature Reserve to see the Sichuan Golden Monkey and Giant Panda, or go hunting for Chinese herbs and edible mushrooms with a local guide, amongst others.

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Marking its opening, the hotel is offering a special early bird package from now until 30 June 2017. If you make an online booking seven days in advance, you’ll get 45% the Best Available Rate. There’s also the 4D/3N Sense of Exploration package with daily breakfast for two, a day trip to Jiuzhaigou National Park inclusive of park tickets, round trip transportation, and a picnic lunch, as well as a complimentary upgrade to the next room category. (www.banyantree.com)

3 Epic Once-In-A-Lifetime Journeys For The Family

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Fancy a holiday in an icy landscape with stellar displays of the northern lights?  Take the kids out of school and head to the Arctic in February for an experience more inspiring than any classroom can offer. Customise a trip with Off the Map Travel to Swedish Lapland with the Arctic Ice Adventure experience. Adventure guides bring you into the Arctic Wilderness to see fantastic icy landscapes, caves and ice formations; experience dog sledding, and hang out in a cosy pre-built igloo (above) as a base. You’ll get to learn the basics of igloo building, go ice fishing to catch dinner, get to taste local cuisine and experience the life and culture of the indigenous Sami people. And of course, go on a hunt for the northern lights. This is available 11-26 February 2017, tagged on to any customise tour of the region.
www.offthemaptravel.co.uk

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Adventurers with a penchant for mountainous landscapes should try the Songtsam Circuit (above), in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province.  Starting from its capital Shangri-la — a key pass on the ancient Tea-Horse trading route and the main gateway into Tibet — it that takes at least 6-9 days to complete, taking you through Shangri-La, Tacheng (Weixi), Cizhong, Meili (Deqin) and Benzilan. Done in relative luxury, you stay in Songtsam Lodges’ six boutique hotels along the circuit, and explorations are done as guided day trips. Transfers between the hotels take place in your own personal vehicle and dedicated driver and guide. The itinerary is packed full of outdoor hikes and drives, and sounds like something from an epic movie. Hike through valleys, primeval forests, up mountains and pass by Tibetan farms and mountain villages; see wild flowers, native wildlife including the snub nose monkey, and experience the culture of the land. The driving time between each hotel ranges from 1.5 hours to 3.5 hours. The circuit covers all major attractions along the ‘Three Rivers in Parallel’ conservation area in Yunnan Province.
www.songtsam.com
Email: info@songtsam.com

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If you can bear the long long flight to South America, tailor make a bespoke trip to Chile, like this 12D/11N Best of Chile vacation that takes you to the Atacama Desert, Santiago and Patagonia. Stay in luxury digs set within a walled ancient site and get a taste of the life of a local farmer. Visit his home where he tells you about life and traditions, and accompany him as he brings the lamas out to graze. There’ll be days of hiking, biking and driving through amazing landscapes  from salt flats, lakes and ravines; and see ancient cave paintings in the Atacama. Then spend a few days in Santiago for an urban reboot (lots of food, art and culture), then head off to a private reserve in Chilean Patagonia to see guanacos, rheas, foxes, condors and pumas. You’ll stay in luxury at every stop and a private guide will be around to help throughout. Not cheap, but it’s one of those bucket list experiences that you have to do once in a lifetime.
http://www.andbeyond.com/tours/south-america-tours/best-of-chile-1.htm

(Photos courtesy of Songstam Lodges, andbeyond travel and Off The Map travel)

Return to the Ancestral Village in China

I headed back to my ancestral village in June. It is my maternal grandfather’s childhood home, in the district of Kaiping, in Guangdong province, China. My mother and her siblings talked about it occasionally, but the last time anyone in the family went back there was a few years ago. The village always seems to be referred to in half mysterious tones, and no one referred to it by its name. I guess no one knew its name, and it always sounded far away and inaccessible. And the impression most people have of the ancestral village in China is that it is very poor. I guess it is because it was always referred to in those terms: after all, when my grandfather had left it, it was mired in abject poverty and desperation.

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The village is Tao Yuan Chun (which means Peach Garden Village). He left it in 1919, when he was in his late teens, on a wing and a prayer to hopefully find a better life. Having lost his parents when very young and with no siblings, he was relatively lucky to be a carpenter’s apprentice. But riddled with abject poverty and hunger, things were desperate. So one night as I have often been told, he left the village with nothing but the shirt on his back — like countless young men before and after him — and made the journey to the coast. From there, he got on a junk and sailed to Singapore. Fortunately for him, he did not caught in the human trafficking rings and eventually made a success out of himself.

While my grandfather never saw his homeland again, it had always been very much in his mind obviously, as his childhood memories had passed into the collective memory of the family. But I had never met my grandfather. He died a year before I was born.

During the recent June break, with no other grand idea for a holiday destination, we decided quite on the spur of the moment to make this personal pilgrimage back to the ancestral land. Seeing the UNESCO Heritage Kaping diaolou in the same area was an enticing prospect as well — something I had wanted to do for many years.

A little bit of asking around within the family yielded me the name of the village, and surprisingly even the address of the house where his home had once stood over a century ago. With only that information, I contacted a private tour guide in Guangdong whom I found on the ‘sinotrip’ website – Jennifer Choi. She was a gem. She wrote to the Kaiping Municipal Government who had a department, I believe, that helps overseas Chinese track down their roots. Apparently, they verified the information (which was a great help) and gave her the GPS co-ordinates of the village. You see, these villages in rural China can be as small as hamlets — just a cluster of houses — which you may not be able to locate it so easily. Getting clarification from the local government gave us some assurance that we weren’t off on a wild goose chase, for the information we had was sketchy.

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We based ourselves in Macau for the day trip to Kaiping. Early the next morning, we headed across the northern land border to Zhuhai, a modern city a far cry from the village, and met Jennifer and Mr Leong, the driver. In the air conditioned MPV, we travelled two and a half hours on 21st century highways to Kaiping. After which it was another half hour on the main roads before we turned off onto a little country lane and bumped our way three and half kilometres past rice fields, dragon fruit plantations, plywood workshops, ponds and little villages. Round a corner, past another rice field, we saw a medium-sized, algae-green pond and beyond it, an even smaller village. Finally we had arrived at Tao Yuan Chun. If I were being dramatic, I’d say my journey today was 97 years in the making, which started under terribly desperate circumstances.

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Many old houses still stand there, but there are new builds that squeeze their way up in between. The generous car park at the front of the village, while relatively empty, holds a few BMWs, and VW and other vehicles. Hardly desperate and sad now. In the late morning, it looks like most people were away at work. Hardly anyone was around to cast a curious glance at this small group of strangers. Being generous, I’d say there are no more than 60 houses here, arranged in a grid and separated by straight narrow alleys just wide enough for two people to squeeze past.

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We found the address we were looking for. It was a small, grey brick house with peeling couplets and pictures of door gods on it. Looks like the remnants of a wedding left behind. A villager who walked past said the house was now empty. He spoke in Sze Yup – the only dialect I can speak with any degree of fluency. For that moment I felt like I was part of the place. A bond. A connection. I could talk to him like a local. I never get to speak this dialect back home outside of the family. This was liberating. He said the former occupants of this house had built a modern structure to the back of the village and recently moved there. No matter. They weren’t anyone we would know of, anyway.

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It was just amazing to see and stand on the ground where a thin, hungry, desperate teenager once lived, and who was driven by desperation to head off alone on the journey of his life to find a better one. For me, making this trek back was already quite arduous – by plane, ferry (from HKG to Macau), on foot for a little bit, and in a very comfortable car. How did he make that journey all the way to the coast without any of these modern vehicles nor money nor education? It must have been with a lot of resilience, determination and guts to fling your future to the promise of the unknown and hope for the best. With nothing more than the knowledge that you would be willing to work to make it — whatever ‘it’ may be. It was humbling, and a huge eye-opener.

Every overseas Chinese family would have a similar story to tell, but each family’s story is in turn unique. This trip was a very personal experience that drove home the fact that I am part of that huge diaspora that flowed out from the Pearl River Delta so long ago. And with that, I now have a much greater respect for my roots.

Good to know: If you want to look for your roots in that region, as mentioned in my earlier post about The Kaiping Diaolou, Jenny Choi is a really good and reliable guide. You can contact her at http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman

Day Trip to Kaiping Diaolou, in Guangzhou – UNESCO World Heritage

Elaine said I had been ticking off UNESCO Heritage Sites on my travels over the last few years. I never thought of it that way, but I guess it is true. Historic sites are one of the main things we look for in a holiday destination. Sometimes, it is THE thing that brings us travelling there. Recently, we went to Guangdong province, specifically to Kaiping to see another two world heritage sites: the Kaiping diaolou and Chikan Old Town.

 We made our way there from Macau, crossing the land border early in the morning to Zhuhai for the day trip to Kaiping. At the Gongbei border crossing, we met up with our guide Jennifer, who had arranged a car with a driver, Mr Leong. We made the two-plus hour drive to Kaiping, mostly on highways, with a few traffic jams along the way, especially where there were toll booths.

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Dotted throughout Kaiping’s flat landscape are over 1000 diaolou, many built over a century ago by Chinese who made their fortunes working overseas and who had returned home. These odd tower-like buildings are essentially small fortresses designed to protect villagers from marauding bandits that used to roam the countryside. Their straight sheer walls, metal windows and grilled balconies kept intruders out. Some were homes while others were for communal use.

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But the most distinctive thing about these diaolou are the architecture they sport — presenting European and even Middle Eastern designs, from Grecian columns and embellished arches to turrets and minarets. The returning Chinese who had seen them in the countries they travelled to, or saw in postcards, copied them for the diaolou.

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They are scattered across the various villages, but with limited time, we focused on Zili Village, which had a large cluster of them. The village was a tranquil picturesque one, still inhabited but also had the facilities of a tourist site — a boardwalk that brought you across the pond to the village itself, little souvenir stalls, even a couple of restaurants. Being low season, we had the run of the place but it was incredibly hot. Most of the diaolou were empty and locked, but there were two that were open for visitors. They were once private residences; now, the period furniture, old family photos and other bits and bobs have been preserved there to show you how life was like. The diaolou had odd stairs, cubby holes and storage spaces. From the upper windows, you could see across the flat land into the distance, which made them great look outs for approaching undesirables.

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In this rural countryside, lunch was wherever you could find a decently clean restaurant. We went to Fang Guang restaurant (Sheng Ping Village, Tangkou Town) which Jennifer our guide had scouted out earlier. There was no decor or aesthetics, but it was air-conditioned and the food was good. Dishes included Sheng Yu (Toman Fish) rolled with ham and yellow chives and pan fried; braised goose, a local speciality, kangkong stir fried and a soup. With rice and drinks the price came up to just about S$35. The ‘facilities’ here were simple but clean. Use it before moving on ‘cos you never know when you’ll find decent amenities again along the way.

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Then we headed to Chikan Old Town, the other UNESCO site. It is an atmospheric, brooding, gorgeously crumbling town by the river that once was clearly a wealthy community. The rows and rows of shophouses there were huge – about twice the size of Singapore’s typical shophouses — double height on the ground floor, and very broad. The town has become a popular location for filming movies, there’s even a movie studio on one end of the town. Along the river are souvenir stalls selling herbs, the local speciality of dried fish and Cantonese pastries. They are interesting, but sadly block the best view of the town.

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Behind that first row are another three streets of equally dilapidated buildings. Most things are falling apart, warped, flaking off, or completely broken but people still live in them, surprisingly. Overhead you’ll occasionally spot a nicely restored balcony (they can’t renovate it) amid the almost-ruins, some waxed pork belly being air dried, or a huge monstera plant climbing up the front walls.

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Round the corner, the street market is the only busy part of the town — everyone seems to have clustered there, speaking Sze Yup, the dialect of that area. You’ll see live catfish and frogs, vegetables, meat, and sadly, even dogs. We skirted around those stalls as we didn’t want to see.

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At this time, we settled down at the only modern cafe along the river called Miss Guan for a beer. It is also a modern boutique hotel, if you ever want to stay a night. Miss Guan makes a reference to one of the more powerful clans that used to preside over Chikan’s community ages ago. In the vicinity, the Guan Clan Library still stands, and there is a Guan Clan temple somewhere nearby too, but we didn’t get to see them . The other powerful clan there was the Si-Hoe Clan who had a library there too, but I didn’t get to see it. By the time we crossed back into Macau, it was just past 9pm — in time for a late dinner at Dom Galo Restaurant, on Elaine’s recommendation.

This is worth a day trip if you are in Macau, particularly if you are Cantonese as this is where all the Cantonese overseas Chinese came from — the Pearl River Delta.
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Getting There:

This was a long day-trip. We left the hotel at 7.30am so that we could make the border crossing on time to meet our guide at 8.30am. We got back to the border around 9pm.  The private guide and car cost us 2160 RMB, or about S$450. If you do want to make the trip, I highly recommend Jennifer Choi (http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman) who was fun, chirpy and reliable. We had to wire a deposit to her before the trip, after which, most of our communication was done over watsapp, which made things very easy.

City Guide: PingYao, China’s Only Walled City

The Ping Yao city wall at one of the main gate watch towers
The Ping Yao city wall at one of the main gate watch towers

We first laid eyes on Pingyao in a picture book about China late last year. The book listed 100 places in China to see within your lifetime, and a particular photo caught our imagination. It was of Pingyao, a UNESCO Heritage Site, hauntingly evocative with tight clusters of grey courtyard houses sporting elegant curved eaves and seductive with the promise of ancient Chinese history. We decided there and then that this 2,700 year old town was going on our bucket list.

The walkway of Ping Yao's medieval city walls
The walkway of Ping Yao’s medieval city walls

Barely six months later, we were there, having first caught a flight from Singapore to Beijing, then a domestic flight to Taiyuan airport, followed by a 100km drive to our final destination. It was off the beaten track but well worth the trot.

Night time in Ping Yao
Night time in Ping Yao

Pingyao in Shanxi Province is special because it is the only complete walled city remaining in China. Inside the 12m thick city walls are mostly Ming and Ching Dynasty courtyard houses which are still inhabited today by its resident population of 20,000. Apart from the locals, it is crawling with domestic tourists, but you can count on one hand the number of international tourists. It gave us a sense of having ‘discovered’ a hidden gem yet to be found by the bulk of the world’s tourists….I’m sure they will descend soon enough.

It’s all about history here. The first thing you should do is get the three-day pass that gives you access to the museums. (This is sold at a central ticket booth in the middle of the town.) These would be the 19 sites around the city, including houses, ancient offices, and temples which have been turned into museums. The city wall counts as one on the list too. Not everyone of them is worth visiting, as we found out. But here are the things you have to see and experience:

Walk the Wall
Walk the Wall

#1. Walk the Wall

From street level, all the homes may be hidden from sight behind high walls; but up on the city walls, all of old Pingyao is spreads below you. It’s a picturesque sight: undulating roofs, private gardens and 300 year old courtyard houses spread out below, and you understand why it inspired the setting of Dreamworks’ Kungfu Panda II.

The easy 6km walk on the city walls bring you round the city along an impressively clean, broad walkway. But some sections of the wall is unprotected, and you could unwittingly step off the edge to plunge to your death below, so keep to the middle of the path and you’ll be perfectly fine.

Dioramas of ancient life in Pingyao have been installed in the little turrets along the wall, so look out for those. Around the six city gates, look at old artefacts on display, as well as the fascinating architecture planned to repel and defend. There is an ancient dungeon by one of the city gates. We couldn’t find it, though we may have been looking at the wrong places.

Main courtyard of the bank, offices are on the sides
Main courtyard of the bank, offices are on the sides
Bank Manager's Room
Bank Manager’s Room

#2. Rishengchang, China’s first bank

Pingyao was once a centre of commerce and it was home to bunch of insanely wealthy merchants who dealt in trade as banal as tofu, to fine silks and firearms. Being ever practical and sensitive to opportunity, someone set up a bank — China’s first — to support these people. The bank, Rishengchang, is now a museum of…well, the bank. Laid out just like courtyard house, walk through bank offices, the bank manager’s residence, the dining room and even accommodation provided (as a service) for privileged customers visiting town which have been recreated in fascinating detail. Rishengchang issued the world’s first cheque and it is on display there, too.

Principal’s bedroom with money vault below; the secure carriage in which they transport valuables when travelling

#3. The Tongxinggong Armed Escort Agency Museum

No, it’s not about gun-toting prostitutes but a security company which provided armed escorts to clients travelling with valuable goods or cash. One of the most fascinating museums, this evokes all the stereotypical images you’d have from kungfu movies — gentlemen pugilists who practiced their moves in hidden courtyards, and took on bandits with their kungfu moves. You see it all here, complete with their collection of weapons and fascinating photographs of corporate travel.

Diorama of corporate travel; old photo of the agency staff in full pugilistic glory!
Diorama of corporate travel; old photo of the agency staff in full pugilistic glory!

The dioramas that depict their lives are impressive. Don’t miss the re-created bedroom of the ‘Principal’ who slept over an underground vault containing clients’ money and goods, and the practice yard which kungfu paraphernalia. They must have been very successful as all the principals — the sifus of the agency — lived to a ripe of age, even for our standards.

#4. The ancient government buildings

This sprawling complex is essentially the tax man’s office and courthouse rolled into one. It also shows you the priorities, obligations and consequences of the state and ordinary peasant back then. After seeing this, you’ll be glad you weren’t living in those days.

Beyond the main entrance and in an expansive courtyard designed to awe the hapless peasant, you arrive first at the tax office (priority Number 1) followed by the bailiff’s (priority Number 2) and torturer’s office (Consequence Number 1) nearby. Right next door over a garden wall, and cynically next to a pretty rose garden is the dank, dark prison complete with wooden cage and stocks. Used until the 1960s, it has no doubt been cleaned up, but you get the idea of how miserable life was there. Across the rose garden lies the exhibition hall of torture instruments which I happily skipped (there were instruments for interrogation, punishment and execution) and wandered instead to the magistrate’s quarters nearby, ensconced in lush gardens a distance away enough not to hear the goings-on in the rose garden. It’s well preserved, and interesting architecture and the story it tells is definitely worth a visit.

One of the main streets of Pingyao, pedestrianized and ready for tourists. But the buildings are authentically old.
One of the main streets of Pingyao, pedestrianized and ready for tourists. But the buildings are authentically old.

#5. Pingyao’s main streets

Pingyao is a little town and completely walkable. Explore leisurely and take time to look at the architecture, peep into half hidden courtyards and stroll down the side lanes off the main thoroughfares to soak in the real Pingyao.

The main streets are equally fun, though all the shops are targetted at tourists now. Then again, they are nice shops of local brands selling modern, design forward bags, retro-inspired skincare, stationery and artisanal teas all stylishly packaged. There are some ‘antique’ shops too piled with bric-a-brac like old Chinese door knobs, figurines and weighing scales.

The streets are abuzz until pretty late at night. During this time, Pingyao looks very different too, as every main door is alight with red lanterns, which seem a cultural practice here. Bring your camera and tripod.

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Travel Notebook:

1. Book a flight to Beijing. The domestic flight from Beijing to Taiyuan can be bought online on ctrip.com. They don’t issue e-tickets though: your receipt would serve as the ticket to board. Buy first class — it’s inexpensive and it gives you some relative peace and quiet.

2. Book your return hotel transfer from Taiyuan Airport in advance. It is a long drive and you won’t want to call the hotel to send a car only you arrive to find yourself kinda stuck.

3. Bring walking shoes. Leave your heels at home. There’s no ‘fine dining’ in Pingyao. Just go casual.

4. Three days is all you really need.

5. It’s a family friendly place. Public toilets at the tourist sites are generally clean, and if you’re tired of walking, there are loads of electric shuttle ‘taxis’ that ply the streets. Hop on one and agree on a fee, or book one to bring you around for the day. Only if you don’t want to walk.

City Guide: 3 Days In Qing Dao With Kids

What in heavens name would bring you to Qing Dao you ask? Honestly, I would have never in my Simply Fabulicious years have ever visited this slightly remote sea-side satellite city in China except for the fact that my dear husband had a work trip there during my daughter’s school holidays so we decided to tag along and visit a city where (about 30 years ago) only farmland existed.

Indeed Tsing Tao (does the name ring a bell now?) or Qing Dao (as they call it in Hanyu pinyin) has evolved into one of China’s many modern cosmopolitan cities, a home to shiny new malls and swanky branded hotels and eateries that stand as testimony of the power of the Chinese dollar and its unrelenting spirit of progress. So if you ever find yourself headed this way to Qing Dao, you can say that you read it here first … 3 leisurely and lovely things to do with kids in tow whilst in this Chinese city where you guessed it – the famous bottle of Tsing Tao beer (another way to pronounce Qing Dao) was born, brewed and bottled.

And so what do you do and eat if you have 3 DAYS IN QING DAO:

#1 BRING YOUR BELLY DOWN TO BEER STREET!

Get ready to guzzle I say … and bring hubby, kids and all who are game down to Qing Dao’s world-famous Beer Street, the most famous beer street in all of China and also where the Qing Dao’s backstreet ‘boy-bands’ are a dime a dozen on the street and you can rent a rousing song for a couple of yuan whilst the Beer ‘Aunties’ will ply you with their bottles of green gold.

How did Qing Dao get its name? Well, one of its early immigrants were the Germans who lent the locals their brewery skills. This has in the last 20 to 30 years resulted in the city’s selling product, the world famous Qing Dao (spelt Tsingtao) beer which tastes pretty good actually as its slightly sweet, a little bit like Singapore’s Tiger!

Restaurant tout standing in middle of street getting patrons into his restaurant
Restaurant tout standing in middle of street getting patrons into his restaurant

This restaurant had no sexy or sleezy beer aunties but it claims to be the “birthplace of beer couture”

What you can enjoy if you want to try some ala carte and cooked to your preferred style

We tried a couple of things.

A very tasty local salad with Shredded Chicken, Red and White Cabbage with Jelly Fish garnished with Coriander
A very tasty local salad with Shredded Chicken, Red and White Cabbage with Jelly Fish garnished with Coriander
Steamed Clams in a light and tasty Broth
Steamed Clams in a light and tasty Broth
Barbecued Prawns
Barbecued Prawns

If Starfish and BBQ is not your thing then how about some Donkey Meat?

Yes you read correctly! If you are into local ‘delicacies’, this is a very popular dish in Qing Dao. Look out for this local specialty with restaurants like this with the neon sigh all around town. Apologies, I did not have the stomach to try this!

#2 THE KIDS WILL LOVE POLAR OCEAN WORLD

If you are staying in the heart of Qing Dao then a 20 minute cab ride takes you out to Polar Ocean World, Qing Dao’s version of Ocean Park. This place is pretty big with two large zones – an outdoor arena where there are several shows happening at different times of the day and an indoor main area where you see all the exhibits, aquariums and also has a separate arena for shows. The people at the Ticket Booth will advise you which arena to head to first, depending on what time you arrive at the park. I headed with my 7 year old to a 45 minute outdoor performance (completely in Mandarin, of course) with clowns and a walrus doing sit ups and several performing seals diving in and out of the water.

The Crowd!
The Crowd!
A walrus doing sit ups!
A walrus doing sit ups!

After the show wander inside to the amazing indoor floor to ceiling aquariums and also petting and feeding zones.

The highlight of my visit, my 7 year old daughter got the chance to pet and feed a very tame and friendly white dolphin for only 50 RMB which is about S$10. Only in China!!!

There are also seal feeding enclosures, a chance to see artic wolves, a polar bear along with many other amazing varieties of fish with another show to watch just before you leave the arena!

Truly a great aquarium to visit and probably 4 to 5 hours is about all you need to see and do everything. The tricky part is getting a cab to take you back to town. I learnt and experienced something in China that would be unheard of in other parts of the world – the concept of cab sharing! This seems absolutely normal and part and parcel of daily life in China’s satellite cities. I have not seen this happen in Shenzhen or Shanghai but here it seems to be an everyday occurance here. Expect the driver to stop and pick another passenger along the way as long as your cab is not full. We had to share a cab back to the hotel area with another mother and her son who were unfazed by having total strangers (us) in the cab with us.

#3 PARASAIL OR CHILL AT THE LOCAL WAIKIKI – BEACH #1 OR BEACH #2

I know what you are thinking – does this Beach have a name? Well the answer is NO! Its known by the number and Beach Number One is the better of the two.

In Summer, the sea is littered with people, standing room only! Sharing some shots of the beach babes and costumes that I have not seen since the passing of the 80s.

Para sail, a wonderful experience if you have a child about 6 years and up. Prices are reasonable and you can bargain with the boatman to come along to take photos. I paid another RMB20 to go on the boat with my daughter to take some snaps of her virgin ride.

My fearless 7 year old!
My fearless 7 year old!

Other beach activities (below)!

#4 CLIMB LAO SHAN AND HAVE A SCORPION LUNCH

One of Qing Dao’s famous tourist attractions is Lao Shan, its ‘old mountain’ (direct translation) and this is accessible by the many tour buses that you can book a day trip to via your Hotel Concierge or better still if you get the chance to rent a car and driver up, make sure that its to the top most summit.

There are several stops along the way (much like what you see in the picture below) but you want to be as close to the top as possible or else its a long walk up from the other points along the mountainous terrain.

We were lucky to have a friend who used to live in Qing Dao and was familiar with the place. He drove us to the very last stop on the highest part of the mountain and together we took a 2 hour hike by foot to the summit and source of the spring that runs through the Lao Shan mountain.

From here it is long walk up but the scenery is wonderful and the weather is cool especially on a morning hike.

Two plus hours later – we are at to the top of the mountain where the spring water is at its purest and straight from the source

The descent is more pleasant and we head for lunch at this restaurant in the picture below.

And on the menu was this local delicacy – an entree of KFC style Scorpions and Bugs along with some cold delicious beer and other local dishes.

What do bugs taste like? Pretty ok actually! And a bit like prawn if I had to find an appropriate description. GO TRY!!!