For two weeks in November, my sister and I explored China; from Shanghai to Xi’an, Pingyao, Beijing, and back to Shanghai.

We met in San Francisco and flew to Shanghai to start our adventure. The first couple of days in China were filled with great food in Shanghai, shopping on Nanjing Street, and long jet lagged naps. We didn’t do a great job of adjusting to the time change at first, and would usually take about a five hour, coma-like rest in the afternoon.

Dumpling lunch in Shanghai.
View from the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Center.

We’d tentatively planned our two weeks in China, but ended up taking a little different path than we expected. I usually don’t pre-plan or pre-book too  many things in case I end up wanting to do something a little different, you never know which direction your adventure will take you. In the end, this is the gist of our itineraryy in China.

  • 28 – Oct. 29: Flight to Shanghai
  • 29 – Oct. 31: Shanghai
  • 1 – Nov. 3: Xi’an
  • 3 – Nov. 5: Pingyao
  • 5 – Nov. 8: Beijing
  • 8 – Nov. 11: Shanghai

From Shanghai we took an overnight train to Xi’an, which is where the Terracotta Soldiers are located. I love trains, and I’m always up for a great adventure on a midnight train going anywhere. We bought hard sleeper tickets for our 14 hour ride to Xi’an through the night. The sleepers are arranged in bunks that are three high, I had the bottom bunk, and Alisha had the middle bunk. Even though they are called hard sleepers, they are actually soft, and pretty clean. You get a pillow, mattress, and quilt. For about $45 it isn’t a bad way to cross the country in China, its transportation and a hotel. I’ve taken a few other overnight trains in China, and knew what to prepare for our journey. It is kind of like camping, with strangers, in a moving box. For meals, you pack cup of noodles and use the hot water on the train to fill them and heat them. I also packed tea, and other hot drinks to make with the hot water that is available. The Chinese who ride the train are pros at bringing snacks. They bring cookies, nuts, fruit, noodles, boiled eggs, rice, and drink bottle after bottle of just plain hot water. We ended up tucking in pretty early as we made our way down the tracks, but were kept up most of the night by so many people noises. First, we had kids running up and down the train car until they shut the lights off and put them to sleep. Remember those snacks, the nuts are usually in the shell, and when you are in that state of trying to sleep without any success, every little noise is amplified, including the crunching and cracking of multiple people opening and shelling their nuts. Then came the snoring, terrible, growling, snoring from the guy on the bunk across from me. I thought he was going to aspirate, or maybe I wanted him to, that is a blurred memory. I ended up poking him in the arm with my water bottle until he would wake up enough to stop snoring, then I’d hurry and try to fall back to sleep before he fell back to sleep and started roaring again. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of this train ride, this is what travel is about.

Our bunk beds on the train from Shanghai to Xi’an, a 14 hour train ride.

We also noticed that a song was starting to haunt us, on some of the trains, restaurants, and metro cars the saxophone portion of “Careless Whisper” by George Michaels would play. Every time a train would stop, it would play, and then we noticed it in restaurants, and in subway stations.

If you do visit China, make sure you pay a visit to Xi’an, the soldiers are great, but just the city itself is worth visiting. We spent every night wandering around the Muslim Quarter trying so many different snacks from street vendors.

Drum Tower in Xi’an
Alisha at noodle restaurant in Xi’an
Terracota soldiers near Xi’an.
Fresh meat for kebabs in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an. To the Chinese, the fresher the meat the better, and the best way to prove that is to see it come off the bone.

We had some time to burn on our two-week schedule, and decided to spend a couple of nights in Pingyao after we explored Xi’an on our way to Beijing. Pingyao is a completely intact ancient Chinese walled city. You can visit numerous ancient buildings and complexes within the wall, and take a walk around the city on the wall itself. We stayed in an old school Chinese style hotel, which was still heated by hot water radiators from the coal furnace. A family ran the hotel, and they’d made us breakfast each morning and try as hard as they could to communicate with us in English. By the way, English is very rare in China. Of all the places I’ve traveled, this is the most non-English speaking place. We got through our days by taking pictures of the Chinese characters of the things we wanted to see and do and eat, then showing them to people.

While traveling through China, we religiously watched how many steps we were taking throughout each day. Most days were over 20,000 steps, and our most ambitious day we almost hit 29,000. Another thing we watched was “keeping our face.” In most Asian cultures, they never lose their face (show frustration, anger, or strong emotion) especially in public. We did pretty well, and only had a few moments where we almost lost our faces. For a night in Shanghai, we’d booked an Airbnb, and I’d accidently booked a place that was on the last stop on a metro line, about a half hour from the center of town where we wanted to be. This started my frustration, but I kept my cool. Our hosts knew we were arriving, as we’d been texting them about the directions and location and the fact that we didnt’ speak Chinese, and they knew we were Americans. They instructed us to meet them at the subway station, at the McDonald’s right at the exit to the station. We exited the station, bags and all, clearly the only non-Chinese people in the area, and the entered the McDonald’s. I’d assumed they’d spot us right away, it was a small McDonald’s and I was pretty sure it obvious we were the only non-Chinese people in the restaurant. They couldn’t find us and kept texting me saying they were looking. We were texting trying to rendezvous and they’d ask, “what color are you wearing so I can see you?” “What color are your pants?” …seriously? I almost lost my face. I’m the giant white guy! How can you not see me?? I took a breath, and calmly replied to their texts, and eventually, they ended up finding us.

We also had a foot massage in Pingyao, on account of all the walking we were doing, we needed it. Pingyao was fairly touristy, but it also seemed like we were there out of season since nowhere seemed to be very busy. This was true for our foot massage parlor, we paid about $5 US Dollars for an hour foot massage, and they called in two ladies to rub our feet that gossiped with each other in loud Chinese during the massage. Then, all of a sudden they started whispering in Chinese to each other for ten minutes in the middle of the foot massage. We couldn’t tell if they suspected we might know Chinese, or if someone else in the back room might have been listening and so they hushed their voices. We’ll never know what they were saying, but I think gossip might be a universal language so it’d be pretty easy to guess. “My husband, this lady I know, did you hear about, you’ll never guess what I heard.”

Men playing a card game in Pingyao

After our short stay in the ancient walled city of Pingyao, we took another high-speed train to Beijing where we explored the Forbidden City, night markets, and took a trip to the Great Wall. The high-speed train was very different from our sleeper train. China has over 10,000 miles of high-speed rail (and growing) most of it elevated or underground. The trains travel at about 200 mph between major cities in China and are more like riding in a jet than on a train.


The dragon wall in the Forbidden City.


The Forbidden City is massive, if you go, mentally prepare for how big this complex is, and how much time it’ll take. I’ve seen it twice, and usually by the end you just start skipping things. We were able to see the clock room, and the treasure room, which I’d highly recommend. We also spotted some neighbors while touring the city. Alisha spotted them first, and I quickly felt a relation. They had the clothes, the hair, and the accent, they were from Utah. We approached them and asked them where they were from “America!”… yes, but where in the US? Oh, we are from Utah. They weren’t just from Utah, but from a small town next to the small town, Milford, where we were born and raised. They were from Parowan, and touring with Southern Utah University, where Alisha and I both went for school. While in Utah, I don’t realize the specifics that make us different from other areas on the United States, but after being out of the US for so long, it becomes very apparent when you notice someone from Utah.


Night market in Beijing, we didn’t try the spiders or crickets.


When we visited the Great Wall, just north of Beijing, we chose the easiest section of the wall to visit because we didn’t want to spend a lot of time on trains, buses, and walking to the wall. Little did we know we had exactly that experience. We followed Lonely Planet’s instructions to meet a train that would take us to the Badaling section of the Great Wall. We arrived at that train station only to find that the train to Badaling didn’t run from that station anymore, and we needed to take the metro for about a half hour to get to the new station where the train now departed. Along the way we met a guy from Uruguay and his Dad who were also following what seemed to be the same how to guide to reach the wall. We rode the metro with them, got to the train station and found out we had a two hour wait for the train, we’d just missed the departure. This extra time called for beer and Chinese food. We hung out at a local restaurant drinking, chatting, and eating dumplings while we waited for the train. After leaving our hotel at 9:00 a.m. we’d finally arrived at the wall at 3:30 p.m. and by the way, the cable car to the viewing point was also closed. In the end the day was fantastic; we met friends, had local food, and experienced the wall with very few other people. And! We had a blue sky day in Beijing; they only have 25 days a year when you can actually see the blue sky because of their pollution levels. To put it in perspective, a bad day in Los Angeles rates a 50 on the pollution scale, Beijing is usually a 500, and 900 days aren’t uncommon.


Visiting the Great Wall.


One of our last days in Shanghai happened to be Election Day back home. We’d left home, both submitting our mailed ballots before we left. A friend in Shanghai had told us that the US Consulate General was having at election party at 8:00 a.m. local time to start to watch as the results come in from each state. We crashed the party that happened to be at the Ritz Carlton, and they were to have cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, and we heard all you needed was a US passport to get in to the party. That was kind of true, and they let us in, but I don’t think it was really a party for random American travelers. We pretended to network with the mostly government officials and business leaders within the group, and met a lot of really great people, and learned a lot about the US Foreign Service. I didn’t know, but a Consulate is a like a satellite branch of the US Embassy. Since China is so big, they need extra offices in addition to the Embassy that is in Beijing. The Consulate General is head of the Consulate, and reports to the US Ambassador to China. We were at the Shanghai branch, and there are four other US Consulates in China.


The election party we crashed in Shanghai, listening to the Consulate General explain to the Chinese how an election works.


Luckily we found the party to attend to keep up to date on the results. China blocks many things online, preventing you from accessing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and anything Google, including YouTube. You can figure out a workaround if you buy a VPN connection someone outside of China, and then bounce your internet off of that, but we didn’t set one up. It was amazing how much I use Google and Facebook products in my life. Google that…oh wait, look it up on Google Maps, nope, Gmail, Google Drive, YouTube, message them on Facebook, on and on.


View of Shanghai from the VUE Bar.


After elections, we had a night out in Shanghai with some friends that I’d met from a trip to Beijing four years earlier. My friend Hayley and I had met them in Beijing using Airbnb, they were our hosts for four nights, and we’ve followed them on Facebook and Instagram ever since. He was from Canada, and his wife was from Siberia. We went out for hot pot, at a restaurant that went above and beyond in service for its patrons. This place had free manicures, shoe shines, outlets at the tables, aprons so you don’t ruin your shirt, and coat covers so your coat doesn’t smell like hot pot at the end of dinner. I always love to hear stories from locals about the destination I’m exploring. They were full of interesting facts about China, and stories about their wedding in Russia. They explained to us that there are 35 million men who won’t have spouses in China because of the differences in gender numbers. Chinese families do everything they can to have a male child, and this has skewed the balance. Now, if everyone in China was to try and find a spouse, there would be 35 million men who would be left alone. This has created some interesting aspects in society. Men are looking outside of China for spouses, and women are now extremely picky about their spouse choice. They said a common saying among Chinese girls is “I’d rather be crying in the front seat of a BMW than laughing on the back seat of a scooter.” They now demand successful husbands with looks, money, houses, and nice cars. We also learned about the factory where iPhones are made, and the company Foxconn who owns and runs the operation. The factory employs around 30,000 employees, and there is a line at the gate for prospective applicants. It is a great job, and working conditions are decent, besides the fact that it literally bores workers to death. There have been numerous cases of employees jumping from the factory walls, into machinery, not because they are being treated bad, but because they are doing such mundane work all day, every day.  We After dinner we had wine at a local bar, it was wine Wednesday! Also, I was able to have a “real” beer. No more light lagers, an actual hoppy IPA.

Our last day in China we spent at Shanghai Disneyland, and it was fantastic. It is the newest of the Disney parks, and just opened in June. We had a blast riding rides, and watching shows in the park. Tickets were also only $55.

The largest Disney castle, it is over ten stories high, and you can actually explore the inside.

We departed Shanghai the next day to meet our parents for a week in Tokyo. The day we departed also happened to be 11/11. Single single single day in China, 1111. This day is the largest shopping day on the planet. The marketing scheme is that this is the day you buy things for yourself since it is “single” day. A Black Friday in the US usually does a billion or two in sales, this day in China was expected to be over 12 billion in sales.


With Captain Hook at Disneyland.


One of my goals for this year was to travel with someone close for an extended period of time, I’m grateful I was able to spend this two weeks with my Sister in China.

My sister Alisha and I in Beijing