Summer Vacation Part 1: Beijing

Earlier this year I had decided that my trip this summer would be to Mongolia.  The majority of the flights (that is, the cheapest) had me connecting to a flight to Ulaan Baatar (UB) in Beijing; this of course led to one my famous “Let’s make this bigger!  Turn it up to 11!” moments.  I decided to do a multi-city flight – Ottawa to Beijing, and then UB to Ottawa for the return flight.  I would arrive in Beijing in the afternoon of July 31, and leave in the morning of August 5, taking the Trans-Mongolian Train to UB from Beijing.  This would give me a few days to take in the sites in and around Beijing, and give me time to get over any jet-lag I might have.  (For future reference:  So far, I have not experience jet lag.  Even with the 12-hour time difference between Ottawa and Beijing.)  This time, I was travelling with a friend from university.

Our flight to Beijing was uneventful.  We flew from Ottawa to Detroit, where we had a short layover, and then onto Beijing – a 13-hour flight that passed quickly.  Upon arrival in Beijing, we found a taxi (that we probably overpaid for.  So, note for next vacation:  contact hostel/hotel/B&B and ask how much a taxi from the airport to their front door should cost).

A hutong street scene
We were staying at a hostel located in the Dongcheng district, down a very narrow hutong street.  There were times where we thought the taxi would get stuck, but no – he made it all the way to the hostel.  (Our tour guide would have us meet him outside the hutong, as the roads are actually that narrow).  Our hostel was clean and comfortable, and the staff were friendly, but we were mislead on one feature – the reason that we booked the hostel we did, was because they advertised that breakfast was included in the price.  Upon arrival, we found out that breakfast was NOT included.  (We were not the only travellers who noticed this, so it wasn’t a problem of simply reading the advert wrong).  Breakfast wasn’t that much – 15 to 25 yuan, but I did end up wondering if there would be any more surprises in store.
My travelling companion had wanted to book a tour guide for two of the days we would be in Beijing, so upon recommendation from a coworker of his, we had booked the services of Beijing Mike – he would pick us up in the mornings, and drive us to various sites, as well as act as guide and interpreter.  After a few emails back and forth, we settled on
                Day 1 –  Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, tea house, rickshaw tour of hutong
                Day 2 – Great Wall (Mutianyu Section), and the  Summer Palace, driving by the Olympic buildings. 
Both days included lunch, and water, as well as all entry fees.

From Tiananmen Square looking towards Forbidden City
Our first full day, Mike met us at the front door of the hostel, and led us out of the hutong to his car.  (The next day we met him outside the hutong, in order to leave early for the Great Wall).  We headed the short distance to Tiananmen Square, where Mike walked us through and explained the buildings, and the architecture (there’s a lot of Feng Shui involved).  

For those planning to see Mao (having previously seen Lenin and Stalin in Moscow, I wasn’t too interested in seeing Mao), Mike advised us to arrive early.    Jason had planned on going one morning, but early is….well, early, and we were busy enough (and the one day we had nothing planned, it rained) that he ended up skipping the visit.

We walked through the Square, and were promptly pulled over for pictures with a few Chinese tourists.  This would be a feature of our stay in Beijing – children asking for our autographs, parents wanting pictures, teens wanting to practise their English. (And one time where a young boy screamed ‘HELLO’ in Mandarin in Jason’s face)

Statues in the Forbidden City
From there we walked into the Forbidden City.  It was interesting listening to the history that Mike was telling us, as he led us through the maze of buildings.  At first it’s really impressive, then it begins to lessen – all the buildings are the same style/colours/architecture….you become immune to the grandiosity of it.  Still, it was interesting seeing items that residents had used in times past.  Everything is well preserved and well presented, if a little crowded.  (To be fair, all of Beijing is crowded.)

Park surround the Temple of Heaven
We exited the Forbidden City and walked back to the car, and went to the Temple of Heaven.  If I have one piece of advice, it’s to break up the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City.  By the time we got to the Temple of Heaven I was in architecture overload.  The only way I can tell the pictures apart in my gallery is the colour of the roofs – the Forbidden City has yellow roofs, the Temple of Heaven blue. 

Still, it was nice at the Temple of Heaven – the park surrounding the buildings has far fewer people (it’s still noisy – the cicadas were near deafening) and it was cool in the shade.  The park portion is open (and free) to everyone – residents of the city gather here and visit, or exercise.  The portion with buildings is the tourist part, with an entry fee.  Every time tickets needed to be bought, Mike would point out an area where we were to meet him, and he would go and buy the tickets.  It was nice, especially on the first full day in Beijing, to not have to deal with language barriers, or trying to understand where to line up,  which wicket for was what, and if there was a tourist/national price difference.

Temple of Heaven
Mike lead us through the park to the gate, and took us through the different areas telling us about the ceremonies and rituals.  We wandered through various arches, along several buildings, and up a giant, circular dais that has nine levels of nine steps, and each dais has a multiple of nine tiles around.  When we came to the actual Temple of Heaven (which includes not a single metal nail) we even came across a bride having her photos taken.  The pace here felt less hectic than it had at the Forbidden City, but the smog and heat had gotten worse, so we didn’t last too long.

After the Temple of Heaven, we stopped by a tea house, where we were taught how to hold the cups, how to sip (no more or less than three sips to finish the cup) and which teas require which type of pot.  We got to taste five different teas, and most importantly – sit inside, where the a/c cooled us down considerably.

Rickshaw ride through a hutong
We quickly pressed on to the bicycle tour of the hutong.  This area wasn’t too far from where we were staying (we would walk back on one of our solo days in Beijing), but it was interesting to see how this hutong was different from the one we were staying in.  We had a guide (who disappeared more often than we saw him) and a “driver” – a man who did all the real work – pedalling us around the streets in the humid temperature.  I was impressed that he could manage to get us up some of the inclines – it was really hot, and I’m sure two adult passengers weigh enough to give anyone pause!

We visited one of the original homes in this particular hutong, getting a brief history lesson on who (grandparents, sons, daughters, etc.) lives in which building and why (hint: feng shui), and got to tour the family’s house – which are still in use.  We didn’t see their private homes, but rather open public areas – an artist’s studio, and a formal living room.  It was interesting to imagine how it would have been even a hundred years ago.  Members of the family were the ones to give us tours of their buildings, which gave us a greater appreciation of the history that we were walking through.

So smoggy!
But it sort of cleared
The next day we drove to the Great Wall.  There are several sections you can visit, the Badaling section is probably the most visited.  We went to the Mutianyu section, and we arrived early.  This is key – the earlier you arrive the quieter it is.  We were sharing this section with about 10 other people, for the first hour or so.  We took a chair lift up which was terrifying for me because I hate heights.  However, for those of you that aren’t – you get some great views of the mountains!  Even if you are, it’s a (relatively) quick way to get to the wall.  Mike came up with us, and explained a few historical points to us up at the top.  Then he left, back down to the parking lot, giving us a few hours to walk along the wall. 

 We wandered down to Watchtower 1, which is at the end of the tended (maintained) section of the wall.  From there, we sneaked out a window (no glass, so nothing to prevent you from doing this) to an “untended” section of the wall.  These sections are overgrown and the rocks are tumbling down.  It’s wonderful.  We walked along a path that had been worn into the dirt/stone, being careful – there are parts where the wall has eroded so much, you swing out over nothing to step on the next section of wall.    We had seen one other person sneak out ahead of us, but he was long gone by the time we came strolling through.

Untended section of the wall

Tended section of the wall
We saw  a lot of lizards, butterflies and (ugh) centipedes on this part of the wall, but didn’t manage to get many photos -they were quick to scamper/fly away….except for the centipedes but there was no way I was getting a picture of one of those.  We followed the path quite a way, wondering what else we might see, before deciding to head back to the tended section and exploring in the opposite direction.  We sneaked back through the window (which was harder, because more people had arrived by this point) and headed back down the steep stairs.  Definitely make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes – you don’t need hiking boots or trail shoes, but something with a good grip, and is comfortable is definitely key.  

We walked on, dodging the groups that had arrived while we were off exploring.  The heat was starting to get to us – we ended up stopping several times in the watchtowers to cool off in the shade.  We walked on, but decided to head back down to the parking lot (and Mike) after two and a half hours of exploring.  The crowds, the heat and the smog were really starting to annoy us.  So we headed to the “toboggan” ride.  It’s really a sled on wheels, with a break.  You slide down the mountain, a ride that lasts a few minutes.  It’s a lot of fun, and the brake allows you to slow your speed if you feel nervous.  (In fact, the brake is in a constant ‘on’ position, by pushing forward on it, you release the break.  Anytime you let go, the brake comes back on.)

Taking a break

Summer Palace
After lunch, we headed to the Summer Palace.  You should definitely arrive early in the day.  By the time we arrived, it was incredibly crowded.  We bought tickets for a boat ride across the water, and walked back to the beginning.  We walked through a covered walkway, that caught a nice breeze of the water, and watched a portion of a Chinese Opera.  Mike continued to explain the significance of various statues, trees and buildings.  But we were definitely running out of steam by this point.  In retrospect, we could have visited the Summer Palace on our own.  While it was nice to have a guide – we didn’t have to figure out where to buy tickets, where to line up, what were the most important parts to visit – it was also the kind of place perfect for wandering around and discovering.

Lama Temple
The next day we had to ourselves, so we walked the few blocks between our hostel and the Lama Temple after breakfast.  We got there early, and quickly got tickets and entered.  We were handled bundles of incense, for the smudging ceremony that was going on near the first temple.  We burned our incense and watched the people – it was clear that this was a mix between devout Buddhists, and tourists.  From there we walked through the different temples and courtyards, slowly as each building was packed with people.  If you plan to go to the Lama Temple go early, and don’t go on a weekend – not only will it be packed with tourists, but also with devout Buddhists.  I felt a little intrusive as I walked around, watching people trying to prey, having to push through throngs of tourists to do so.
Jason had rented an audio guide, which he found somewhat useful.  I preferred to just wander around on my own.  If you’re interested in the history of the Temple and in Buddhism, then the audio guide is a good investment.  If you’re like me, and just want to wander and soak it in, then it’s not as worthwhile.  He’s also much more interested in learning about the religion, and the history of the buildings, I just wanted to soak in the atmosphere!
Smudging Ceremony
 With a final visit of a museum inside one of the buildings, we headed back out to the street and started walking towards the hutong we had visited the day before.  To the north of the hutong is the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, to the south Beihai Park.  The hutong itself is situation around Shichahai Lake.  That area had plenty of restaurant and bars, many with roof top patios overlooking the Lake.  Along the way, we came across a small street market, so wandered down through there as well.   

People watching from a rooftop

We had no plan as to where to go (but we did have a map!) so we just wandered, turning right or left depending on what we saw.  We eventually ended up at a major road, and managed to find it on our map.  We were not to far from the hutong we wanted to visit – we walked one block south, cross the road (quickly!  The cars don’t stop) and walked along the water until we came to the area with shops, bars, and restaurants.

Most things seemed closed, so we continued to wander around, finally stopping off at one restaurant for lunch, before heading back towards the water.  By this time some of the bars and cafes had opened, so we sat on the roof top patio to people watch.  It was a crazy mix of people, cars, rickshaws, and bicycles.  But somehow they made it all work – it was incredibly impressive!

Confucian Temple

The next day was overcast and raining, so we started out late.  We went to the Confucian Temple, close to the Lama Temple that we had visited the day before.  Instead of being on the right of Dongsi Beidajie, you continue to head north until a small street called Guozijian Jie, and follow it for a few minutes.  The Temple is on your right.  As with the Lama Temple, we had no trouble buying tickets, and we filed in the gates in the walls.  You enter into a square, surrounded on all sides by long one-storey buildings, with a few taller, thinner buildings in the square, as well as a few trees.  We wandered around the square a bit, before the rain started again in earnest, so we headed into the buildings, which were museums, detailing the life of Confucius in one building, and the history of the religion in another.

The museums are interesting, if only for some of the comments about how popular Confucianism is in other parts of the world.  I personally found the history of Confucius himself to be the most interesting part of the Temple.

The next day we packed up our gear, checked out of the hostel, and walked to the road to catch a taxi.  Make sure you give yourself enough time!  It took a while before we managed to flag one down.  It was a quick ride to the train station, and then a bit of a hassle trying to figure out where to go – it’s the mass of people in the middle who are going through turnstiles.  You show your ticket, go through the turnstile, then through a metal detector (and send your bags through an xray machine) before going to a lobby to wait.  We were a bit “late” (we were told to be there an hour before our train left, we arrived 40 minutes before it left), so we hustled off to where the train was waiting.  It was a bit of a mad dash, but we finally got there, got on, and got ready to start the next part of our vacation – Mongolia!

TL;DR version:
– always ask your hotel/hostel how much a taxi should cost from the airport to the hotel/hostel
– don’t do Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven in one day
– The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is great, if you arrive early
– chair lifts are terrifying
– but toboggans are fun
– Lama Temple and Confucian Temple can be done in one day
– give yourself lots of time to flag down a taxi if heading to the train station
– the entrance to the train station is in the middle, where the crush of people is
– you’re told to be there an hour before, there is wiggle room with that.

Sawteeth, Short and Sweet

Order in Ranking:  35

A few weekends back (I’m late getting this up), Steph and I set out to climb Allen, with the Santanoni Range as our Plan B.  We parked at the trailhead, and slept in the car, as is our custom when hiking some of the outer-lying High Peaks.

5:00 rolled up way too early, and we hit snooze a couple of times.  When we finally did get up, it was blacker than black outside.  The forecast had been calling for rain, and it looked like it was going to be right – thick, dark clouds obscured the sky.  We debated the wisdom of starting out on Allen, or even the Santas, in what was promising to not be a very good day.  Plus, we really didn’t feel like getting out of the car to eat, change and get our gear together.


We eventually decided to drive to the Sawteeth trailhead at the St. Huberts parking area, near the Ausable Club.  We still had Sawteeth to climb, and though if nothing else that would make a good Plan C.  We had no idea how long it would take us, or how far the hike was, but we had a map, and we’ve been down the trails by the Ausable Club often enough that we felt confident we’d figure out where we were going.


We drove along the I-87, and the clouds cleared enough to give us a glimpse of….red sky.  I don’t know if you know that saying, but Steph and I both do – “Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.  Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”  We figured the red sky was not a promising sign, and were glad that we had decided not to attempt our Plan A or Plan B.


We parked at the parking lot up the road from the golf club, and got our gear together, greeting one duo of hikers headed out, and chatting with another duo who pulled in around the same.  The four of us set out, as the clouds dissipated and the sun came out.
Hiking off down the Lake Road
We reached the trail register, and manager to confuse the ranger at the station by replying “Sawteeth” and “Dial” when he asked where we were going.  We quickly explained that we were two groups going in two directions – we had no plans to climb both Sawteeth and Dial.
We set off down the Lake Road together, the other two breaking off when they reached the trail to Dial.  They mentioned that if the weather held and they were making good time, they would try for Nippletop as well.  Steph and I continued along until near the end of the Lake Road, to the cut off for Sawteeth.  We did have a few moments of “which trail marker colour again?”  and “let’s just pull out the map” but we knew the trail we wanted was close to the end of the Road, so we kept going, eventually find the path that leads down to the dam – it’s the last trail on the right, about 20 steps past a trail leading off to the left.
Morning view from the dam
 At around 8:40, we took a quick break on the far side of the dam, enjoying the sun and the warm temps – taking off a layer, and lamenting that we had given up too quickly on our plan to hike Allen.  It was shaping up to be a good day.  We quickly headed back off, and took the quick route (not the scenic route) up Sawteeh – if it did start to rain later in the day, we wanted to be well off the summit and on our way back to the car.  We had another moment of “Um..which way do we go?” When we saw that sign post just after the dam – to the left the sign said “Sawteeth via Scenic Trail” and to the right “Rainbow falls” and a third sign pointing straight on that just said “Gothics and Sawteeth.”  We took a chance and went straight on – turns out we were right.
The trail was easy to follow, and we walked in silence for a while, just enjoying being outside.   My last hike had been with Steph and a group of 4 others up Gothics, Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw, and Steph had done Marshall with 3 others not too long before, so we were both eager to have some quiet time out on the mountain.  We rock-hopped across a couple of streams – the water level was low and they were easy to ford.  The trail itself started off at a moderate grade – typical Adirondack steepness, with various parts that were slightly steeper, and various parts that were a little flater. 

Just after we hit the lookout for Rainbow Falls,  clouds began to roll in again, making it somewhat dim under the trees.  We commented on how if the clouds held, it would seem dark a lot quicker on the trail, and it was a good thing we weren’t out doing a long hike, like Allen or the Santas.  This trail was just as quiet as we’ve heard both Allen and the Santas are – we only met a few other people – perhaps two or three groups – in total on the trail.  It was a very quiet day out in the Adirondacks.  Given that this Saturday was forecast for rain, and the next day was supposed to beautiful, I’m not surprised other people held off on their hikes.



Not using the tree to climb, just to pose
 We hit the col around 10:10, and we stopped for another quick break and snack.   We were happy to see that it was only another .6 miles to Sawteeth, and were a little disappointed that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate for a quick jaunt over to Pyramid, but figured that could always be left for another hike.  Our snacks helped kick us back into gear, and we headed off to hit the summit.  The temperature was cooling off, and the cloud cover was a bit thicker than it had been.   We continued our climb, up and over a few open patches of rock that were very easy to rock scramble up, before coming to what we assumed was the summit.  I went a little further down the trail, but saw nothing else that came close – there was a sign that said “…” one way and “Lake Road” the other, and the distances matched up with those in the guide book, so we decided that that had to be the summit.  We sat down to eat some lunch, and watched the clouds blow in and over the summits of Pyramid, Gothics and the other high peaks.



There are peaks in there….somewhere
The wind also picked up around this time, so we hurried through our lunches and photos (making sure to snap a few of the clouds obscuring the other peaks) and back onto the trail.  We had to put our long sleeve shirts back on, to ward against the chill.  We hurried down, meeting only one group on their way up (doing a loop with Pyramid, Gothics and Armstrong).  As always, I managed to slip and slide my way down the rocks, although only ended up with one small scratch along my knee.
What a difference a few hours make!
We hit the dam and stopped for another quick break – pulling out the rest of our sandwiches.  As we sat, a large group of people (about 10) walked by, and into the forest.  At that was when the rain started.
We quickly packed up, headed over the dam and up to the Lake Road, as the rain began to pound down.  We were glad to be at the Road portion – there was no way, no matter how bad it got, that we could lose the trail.  Plus the trees along the road provided a bit of shelter (if not as much as we would have gotten on the trail.)  We marched along in our own worlds, just making for the car and getting as wet as a person can get.
We signed out, noticing that our hiking partners from earlier hadn’t signed out (we assume they headed towards Nippletop), and hoped that they would be back soon – the rain had let up somewhat, but it was still cool and wet.  We slogged our way to the car, and managed to get changed in the front and back seats, staying dry.  We threw out wet clothes into garbage bags, glad to have though ahead.
In all, it wasn’t a good day to hike Allen or the Santas, but we still have them hanging over our heads.  As for the “non-scenic route” – it was incredibly pretty and fun to hike.  It wasn’t a slog (as most of the hikes that we have left are) and it quiet.  There were no “ladders” to scramble up, but a few short rock scrambles that were fun.  It was a great short hike that I enjoyed, and would probably do again just to see what the view really looks like, when it’s not obscured by low-lying clouds!

These boots were made for hiking…
Total climbing time: 6 hours 14 minutes


Left parking lot at: 7:15,
Signed in at register 7:30, signed out at 1:44 returned at 4:42


Summitted Sawteeth at 10:40