Roughly three years ago, I left a decade long career in church ministry to join a team of fun-loving professionals in the travel industry. I was looking for a change and longing for something different in my life — something that I had never done before in an office setting. Close to home and family-run, I jumped in with both feet and before I knew it, fell in love with the world of international luxury travel that is otherwise known as Ker & Downey. So when a trip to China presented itself to me last year, I couldn’t refuse checking the box off of my bucket list. For 10 glorious days, I partnered with my colleague, Michelle, and we learned as much as we could so that our travel clients could experience the absolute best accommodations, touring, and luxury that is offered in the locations that we visited.
DAYS 1-3, BEIJING
My flight to China was direct from Houston to Beijing. The plane departed at 1AM and was 15 hours in the air. Looking back, I should have upgraded to Business — it only took about 45 minutes to figure out that was no place to cut costs! Air China was great with food service, water, etc. and I had wonderful seat partners, but 15 hours is a long time to be swished in an economy seat. My husband had advised that I try to stay awake as long as possible so that my days and nights would get worked out more quickly upon arrival, so heeding that advice, I watched “You’ve Got Mail” via the plane seatback screen and then fell asleep.
I arrived in Beijing at 6am local time and was met with darkness at landing. One of the services with Ker & Downey is VIP airport assistance. Unlike the man holding a sign at baggage claim that we are used to in the US, my Beijing airport assist met me right at the door of the plane. She was a tiny little lady that was quick as a whip! After sitting on the plane for more than half of a day, she got my blood pumping as we walked swiftly through the airport and into the customs area. She had me sign the immigration papers that were necessary and then led me to a seated area. She took care of everything, and when all was done – came back for me. We avoided all lines (which were SO long) and walked straight to an official who stamped my book and sent us on our way to baggage claim. We grabbed my luggage from the carousel and she led me to my guide, Jessie.
Jessie has the most infectious personality. She is joyful, sweet, so smart, and a pure delight. Because it was so early in the morning, we started our day as one should … with a trip to Starbucks! Our driver was on the way and navigating a small bit of commuter traffic. Soon after we finished our coffee (and tea for me), we hopped into our private car and headed to the hotel. When we arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Beijing, my room wasn’t quite ready yet (I was only 6 hours early LOL!) so they held my luggage and Jessie took me out for a walk though Beijing.
On this walk I saw one of the most spectacular sights of the entire trip: sunrise over the Forbidden City. It was absolutely spectacular and no photo does it justice.
Upon our return, my room was ready and I checked in. I was in the lap of luxury, literally. I was in a Deluxe Room with a king bed and floor to ceiling windows. There were electric darkening shades that could be lowered and allowed me to rest even though the sun was shining outside. The bed was just what I needed after a long flight – it was so comfortable. I made good use of the rainfall walk-in shower and the large soaking tub (with mounted television). Room service had a mix of western and Chinese food which was very nice!
In China, all of the traditional social media that we are used to in the United States is outlawed. So, using WeChat (a Chinese texting and facetiming app) and the wi-fi in the room, I was able to facetime home to chat with my family and show them my surroundings. After that, I laid down for a nap (big mistake – woke up 6 hours later).
The following morning, I met with Michelle (who flew in from LA and landed in the evening) for breakfast. Shortly after, we met up with Jessie and headed out for a full day tour of Beijing starting with Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Jessie was so knowledgeable of the history of Beijing and the Ming and Qing Dynasties. I felt like I was walking along with a living history book as she knew the answer to every question that we threw at her. The architecture was gorgeous and it really rattled my brain that ordinary men – centuries ago – were able to build marvels of this magnitude without the help of modern machinery. It’s absolutely mindblowing.After a delicious lunch, we walked to Jingshan Park for a panorama of the Forbidden City. Then we made our way to the Poly Art Museum. In the company of the museum’s Senior Docent, we toured what is considered one of China’s best private museums. They have a great collection of bronze artifacts all original to China, as well as an amazing number of rare Budda’s. Having this private tour with the Senior Docent was incredible and brought the museum to life.
After the museum visit, we returned to our hotel for the evening. We were a bit jet-lagged still, and it was a long day of touring. We had checked out of the Waldorf Astoria when we left for the day and our luggage was transferred to the Peninsula Beijing.
The newly renovated Peninsula Beijing has just over 230 rooms. I was in a deluxe room and it had a dressing room, living room, bedroom, and bathroom. Everything was connected via iPad like devices so that I could control all.the.things from one device. The tech geek that I am LOVED it!
Let me stop to admit that I’m a bathroom lover. A good bathtub will win me over quicker than anything else in the world. This bathtub was fantastic, but my favorite part was the little iPad remote that you can see in the wall. It had a spa setting. When you pressed that, the television turned off, the lights dimmed, and spa music began to play. I could have stayed in the tub for all 10 days. It was magical.
The following morning, we got up early on a clear and beautiful day and headed to tour the Temple of Heaven. The unique aspect of visiting the Temple of Heaven was that it was filled with locals. The age was definitely on the older side, well past retirement. They were exercising as we came in and it was a sight to see – no wonder the Chinese lifespan is so long. They were flexible and really getting in a workout. We passed by exercise machines (out in the open, in a park type setting. We need these in the US.) Also, there were many doing Tai Chi. Some were alone, and others studying the craft with a teacher. We watched for quite a while and couldn’t get enough.
Just inside the official gate area of the Temple of Heaven, there was a flower show that was set up. The colors were magical and absolutely brilliant. I was really pleased at how well the iPhone 8+ captured the colors in the morning light. I couldn’t help but think about my mom, who has the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen, and how much she would have loved all of these flowers!
The Temple of Heaven reminded me a lot of the Forbidden City with the architecture style and reverence. Sitting high upon the hill, the Temple of Heaven was used by the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties to offer sacrifices to heaven and pray for good harvests.
On our way out, the locals that were seen so active on the way in had made their way into small groups to play cards, dominoes, and mahjong. They are a quite competitive bunch. We enjoyed looking in on their games and hearing the laughter. It really was something to experience!
Once we finished, we got back into the van and headed through the countryside to the Great Wall of China – Mutianyu. The traffic was heavy as we headed through the hills and our guide was quick to tell us that it was because it was such a warm and beautiful day. The Chinese families like to go out and enjoy the weather together. So, we rested a bit and chilled until we stopped for lunch and then continued on our way.
To give you a quick few sentences serving as a reminder on the Great Wall, you need to know this: Construction began prior to the birth of Christ (221 BC) and is one of the most extensive construction projects ever completed as it spans over 3,000 miles. The base is anywhere from 15-50 feet high (depending upon the section) and the actual wall is anywhere from 15-30 feet high with guard towers at certain intervals. The Great Wall is the only manmade structure that is visible from space.
To see the Great Wall in person is emotional. I couldn’t help but stare in absolute awe at how human hands – even in massive numbers – could have built such a marvel. We went to one of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall, called Mutianyu — which used to serve as the northern barrier defending the capital and the imperial tombs. Michelle, Jessie and I took a cable car up the mountain to start our great adventure. Let me tell you, that is the way to go! The views are absolutely stunning. (The walk to the cable car though … Shew. I should have been training with the elderly people that we saw earlier that morning. It is a hike right up the side of the mountain – probably 1/4 of a mile!)
Once to our destination, we took our time walking the wall. I wish I had a great estimate of how far we walked, but I’d hate to guess. A few miles perhaps. Word to the wise and in fear of sounding obvious, the wall is not like walking on a track. It is up and down the mountain surface. Some parts of it are absolutely grueling. I was taking off layers of clothing as we walked because I was sweating like crazy.
The Great Wall was built as protection from the enemy and with that, the walking surface is a bit crazy. Some parts are solid, flat stones and other area are stairs. Some of the stairs are tiny (2-3″ high) and other stairs are so big that I had to turn backwards and go down them like a ladder! This is the part they don’t tell you on the History Channel! The photos below can give you an idea of how steep parts are.
But for every odd step, steep hill, and tourist dodge (that actually wasn’t too bad) – there is a spectacular viewing point and a moment that leaves you speechless as you take in the aura of this magnificent structure!
You might think that the fun is over as you’re walking the wall, but if you take the toboggan down the mountain – you’re in for a fun ride! Altogether it takes about 7 minutes to ride down and it is so exciting. You get into the cart – I was by myself – and head off on the metal tubing. You do have a handbrake so you are in control of the speed. I absolutely loved it. I’ll link the video here after the photos, but beware that it’s shaky and a long clip, but it will give you an idea of what it was like!
Looking back upon the entire trip to China, the day spent at the Great Wall is an obvious top highlight. I considered it an honor to take in this piece of history in person, something that most don’t get to do in a lifetime. Doing such a landmark with a Ker & Downey private guide instead of in a large tour group was special, too. I needed the 90 minute drive back to Beijing to get my wits about me again!
Upon arriving back at the Peninsula Beijing, Michelle and I were EXHAUSTED! We ordered room service and hit the sack. Our call time the next morning was early as we had a flight to catch for the next leg of our adventure. I can’t wait to share it with you in an upcoming post!