Beloved for centuries as a peaceful refuge from the stresses of life and a source of artistic and literary inspiration, West Lake is perhaps the most famous lake in China. It is located among the hills just west of downtown Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province, about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. Originally a lagoon connected to the Qiantang River, it was dredged and converted into a lake in the 8th century CE. Over the centuries, various local government projects have added to and improved the lake and its surroundings, creating a vast, picturesque garden-like environment ideal for strolling about, boating, drinking tea, or simply contemplating nature’s beauty.

One side of the lake is bordered by bustling downtown Hangzhou; the other three by verdant hills containing temples and tea fields. Within and around the lake are numerous major attractions, including three major causeways that cross that lake, islands, temples, and hilltop pagodas. Leifeng Pagoda, popularized in legend as the place where the immortal Madame White Snake (or Lady White Snake) was cast into a well as punishment for falling in love with a mortal, is perhaps the most iconic structure. The causeways, renowned as peaceful places for strolling and admiring the view, were built with dredged silt and beautified with flowering plants and trees. Two famous poet-officials were responsible for the construction of the causeways that take their names: Bai Juyi ordered the construction of what is now called the Bai Causeway during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and Su Dongpo (or Su Shi) followed suit about 200 years later when he built a longer causeway extending across the entire lake from north to south.

Sampans float on the surface of West Lake in front of Leifeng Pagoda and Jingci Temple in Hangzhou, China
Leifeng Pagoda and Jingci Temple
(photo by Louisa Salazar)

Even centuries ago, the attractions and scenic spots in and around West Lake were so numerous as to make it impossible to see them all. The most popular and significant sights became codified into an official list called the Ten Scenes of West Lake (西湖十景, Xī Hú Shí Jǐng) when Hangzhou served as the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE), an especially prosperous period for the city. Rather than simply a list of places, the Ten Scenes also incorporate the element of time, as the time of day and the changes of the seasons are important factors in West Lake’s beauty.

That beauty, seen as the perfect blend of the human and the natural, has inspired countless painters and poets to attempt to render its power in art and verse. Marco Polo called Hangzhou “the most beautiful and elegant city in the world” after he visited it, and the famous Chinese saying “Up above there is Heaven, down here there are Suzhou and Hangzhou,” is attributed in large part to the lake’s scenery. For examples of art and poetry about West Lake, see the list of further reading and resources below.

Tips for visitors to West Lake:

  • Hangzhou, like other cities in the Jiangnan region, is quite hot and humid during the summer months.
  • As West Lake is a very popular tourist destination, and most traffic around the lake travels along one small road, traffic can be excruciatingly slow. Weekdays are a better time to visit than weekends or holidays. Be sure to allow plenty of time if you expect to visit different sites around the lake.
  • For independent travelers, bike rentals are a good way to get around the lake and avoid traffic.
  • Recommended activities: drinking local “Dragon Well” green tea as you admire the view, cruising around the lake in one of the many small gondola-like sampans available for hire.

Further reading and resources:

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West Lake Photo Gallery
West Lake-Related Words

Study the words in this section on Quizlet:
Detailed Lists: Characters and English | Pinyin and English
Reversible Lists: Characters and English | Pinyin and English | Characters and Pinyin
Chinese Language Resources page

西湖 (Xī Hú): West Lake, freshwater lake west of downtown Hangzhou surrounded on three sides by hills and on one side by the downtown area; featured in many poems and other works of art, it has a long history of cultural significance in China

Leifeng Pagoda on a hill overlooking West Lake in Hangzhou, China
Leifeng Pagoda and West Lake
(photo by Gustavo Madico)
  • 西湖十景 (Xī Hú Shí Jǐng)

    Ten Scenes of West Lake, an official list of ten poetically named sights and activities around the lake dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋, Nán Sòng, 1127-1279 CE) marked by stelae in the calligraphy of the Qing Dynasty Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝, Qián Lóng Dì), who composed a poem for each scene; there is also an official New Ten Scenes of West Lake (西湖新景, Xī Hú Xīn Jǐng) list chosen in 1984

  • 雷峰塔 (Léifēng Tǎ)

    Leifeng Pagoda (literally, “Thunder Peak Pagoda”), a tower on Sunset Hill (夕照山, Xīzhào Shān) on the southeastern shore of West Lake originally built in 975 CE during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十国, Wǔ Dài Shí Guó) period; Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset (雷峰夕照, Léifēng Xīzhào) is one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake

  • 白蛇传 (Bái Shé Zhuàn)

    Legend of the White Snake, a Chinese legend about Madame White Snake (白娘子, Bái Niángzi), a thousand-year-old white snake who takes on human form and falls in love with a man; because their love is forbidden, she is cast into a deep well at Leifeng Pagoda

  • 净慈寺 (Jìngcí Sì)

    Jingci Temple (literally, “Temple of Pure Compassion”), a temple on Nanping Hill (南屏山, Nánpíng Shān) near Leifeng Pagoda originally built in 954 CE; Evening Bell Ringing at Nanping Hill (南屏晚钟, Nánpíng Wǎnzhōng), the nightly ringing of the temple’s large bronze bell, is one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake

West Lake and downtown Hangzhou at night
West Lake and downtown Hangzhou
(photo by Lu Yu)
  • 三潭印月 (Sāntán Yìnyuè)

    Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, a group of three small towers in the water south of Lesser Yingzhou Island (小瀛洲, Xiǎo Yíngzhōu) that emit candlelight on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节, Zhōngqiū Jié); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located in the south-central part of the lake

  • 花港观鱼 (Huāgǎng Guānyú)

    Red Carp Pond (literally, “Viewing Fish at the Flower Pond”); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located on the southwestern shore

  • 柳浪闻莺 (Liǔlàng Wényīng)

    Liulang Wenying Park or Orioles Singing in the Willows (more literally, “Listening to Orioles in the Waving Willows”); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located on the eastern shore

  • 断桥残雪 (Duànqiáo Cánxuě)

    Broken Bridge (literally, “Lingering Snow on Broken Bridge”); one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake, it is located on the northeastern shore

  • 保俶塔 (Bǎochù Tǎ)

    Baochu Pagoda, a slender pagoda on Baoshi Hill (宝石山, Bǎoshí Shān, “Precious Stone Hill”) on the northern shore of West Lake

Tourists relax in covered rowboats on Hangzhou's West Lake at sunset
Boats on West Lake at sunset
(photo by Ricky Qi)
  • 白堤 (Bái Dī)

    Bai Causeway, a long dyke and walkway in the northern part of West Lake named after the renowned Tang Dynasty (唐朝, Táng Cháo, 618-907 CE) poet and government official Bai Juyi (白居易, Bái Jūyì), who ordered the construction of the original causeway

  • 孤山 (Gū Shān)

    Solitary Hill, a large island in the northwestern part of West Lake; connected to the northern shore by Bai Causeway, it is the location of a number of attractions, including the internationally famous restaurant Lou Wai Lou (楼外楼, Lóuwàilóu)

  • 苏堤 (Sū Dī)

    Su Causeway, a long dyke and walkway in the southwestern part of West Lake named after the renowned Song Dynasty (宋朝, Sòng Cháo, 960-1279 CE) poet and government official Su Dongpo (苏东坡, Sū Dōngpō), or Su Shi (苏轼, Sū Shì), who ordered its construction; Dawn on the Su Causeway in Spring (苏堤春晓, Sūdī Chūnxiǎo) is one of the Ten Scenes of West Lake

  • 杨公堤 (Yánggōng Dī)

    Yanggong Causeway, a long walkway in the western part of West Lake

  • 湖心亭 (Húxīn Tíng)

    Mid-Lake Pavilion, pavilion on an island in the middle of West Lake

  • 印象西湖 (Yìnxiàng Xī Hú)

    Impression West Lake, a popular show produced by director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋, Zhāng Yìmóu) that is performed on the lake

A densely packed cluster of red and white carp in West Lake's Red Carp Pond, also called Viewing Fish at the Flower Pond
Red Carp Pond
(photo by Brian)
  • 龙井问茶 (Lóngjǐng Wèn Chá)

    Dragon Well Tea Village (literally, “Inquiring About Tea at Dragon Well,” its name in the New Ten Scenes of West Lake), the site of the spring from which Dragon Well tea gets its name

For many more Chinese vocabulary lists and information about tools and resources for learning Chinese,
visit our Chinese Language Resources page.

CIT Tour Packages Featuring West Lake

包括西湖的中文特價團更豐富!請觀看特價團網頁的中文版

What is known as the Great Wall of China is in fact not one unbroken wall, but a sprawling series of walls built by various states and dynasties over many centuries. Tremendous efforts were made during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) to link these walls together. Its name in Chinese, 万里长城 (Wànlǐ Chángchéng), more literally means “long wall of ten thousand li” (a li is a traditional Chinese unit of distance equivalent to half a kilometer), which is actually a drastic understatement of the length of the wall. One survey calculated the combined length of all the sections of the wall to be over 13,000 miles.

Beijing - Great Wall - Badaling - Rafael Gomez - 187 x 140
The Great Wall at Badaling
(photo by Rafael Gomez)

The primary purpose of the wall was to protect the Chinese empire from attacks by “barbarians” to the north (though it was not always successful in doing so), but it also facilitated travel and transportation, communication, trade, and taxation. One of humankind’s most impressive achievements, it was made possible only by engineering expertise, an advanced administrative system, sustained political will, vast resources, and the labor (and suffering) of countless individuals—not to mention the imagination and audacity necessary to envision such an undertaking in the first place.

Some of the more popular sections of the wall in the Beijing area are Badaling (八达岭, Bādálǐng), Juyongguan or Juyong Pass (居庸关, Jūyōngguān), and Mutianyu or Mutian Valley (慕田峪, Mùtiányù). Our tour packages that feature Beijing usually include a visit to either Badaling or Juyongguan. They do not include Mutianyu and some other Beijing-area sections of the wall because they are too far away from the city to fit into an itinerary with other popular attractions. However, if you wish to visit one of these other, less crowded sections of the wall, we will gladly make custom arrangements for you.

Other notable sections of the wall include Shanhaiguan (山海关, Shānhǎiguān), the easternmost section where the wall meets the ocean, and Jiayuguan (嘉峪关, Jiāyùguān), the westernmost extant section of the wall in Gansu Province. Silk Road-oriented tour packages, such as our Silk Road 16-Day Tour (CIT007), often include a trip to Jiayuguan.

Facts about the Great Wall:

  • The oft-repeated claim that it can be seen from the moon with the naked eye is not true.
  • The first sections of the wall were built during the Spring and Autumn Period (776-403 BCE).
  • As early as the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BCE), construction involved hundreds of thousands of laborers.
  • The Ming Dynasty construction project continued for more than 100 years, but the wall failed to prevent the Manchus from conquering China and establishing the Qing Dynasty.

Tips for visiting the Great Wall:

  • Be sure to wear good walking shoes, or even hiking boots for more adventurous walks along the wall.
  • The more touristy sections of the wall have the advantage of cable cars. Cable car rides up the wall are included in most of our tour packages, and they allow you to avoid a strenuous climb in what can be very hot conditions.
  • Good planning is essential, as Beijing-area Great Wall trips entail a substantial drive outside the city, and you will want to make sure you have adequate time to fully enjoy your visit.

Further reading and resources:

  • Read more general information about the Great Wall on Wikipedia.
  • Peter Hessler’s fascinating book, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip, recounts (among other experiences) his visits to many sections of the wall, including remote, unrestored, and almost forgotten sections seldom visited by anyone. He also wrote an article called Walking the Wall for the New Yorker (subscribers only).
  • The Great Wall is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Its UNESCO page has information and resources related to the history and preservation of the wall.

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Great Wall of China Photo Gallery

Click on any photo below to see a full-sized version.

The Great Wall of China climbing up the side of a hill at Badaling near Beijing Snow-covered stretch of the Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing
The Great Wall at Badaling
(photo by Rux)
The Great Wall at Badaling in winter
(photo by Inyucho)
Great Wall of China at Badaling Old Dragon's Head, the eastern end of the Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan
A stretch of the wall at Badaling
(photo by Brian Snelson)
Old Dragon’s Head at Shanhaiguan
(photo by Like Yesterday)
Old Dragon's Head, the eastern end of the Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan Chenghai Tower, part of the Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan
Another view of Old Dragon’s Head
(photo by Caitriana Nicholson)
Chenghai Tower at Shanhaiguan
(photo by Daniel Ng)
The Great Wall of China at Shanhaiguan A gate at Jiayuguan, the western end of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall at Shanhaiguan
(photo by Daniel Ng)
Gate at Jiayuguan
(photo by Kevin Hale)
Fortress at Jiayuguan, the western end of the Great Wall of China Tower atop the wall at Jiayuguan, the western end of the Great Wall of China
Fortress at Jiayuguan
(photo by Kevin Hale)
A tower at Jiayuguan
(photo by Tom Thai)
Great Wall-Related Words

Study the words below on Quizlet:
Detailed Lists: Characters and English | Pinyin and English
Reversible Lists: Characters and English | Pinyin and English | Characters and Pinyin
Chinese Language Resources page

万里长城 (Wànlǐ Chángchéng): Great Wall of China (literally, “long wall of ten thousand li”), actually not one wall but a series of fortifications extending across northern China built during various dynasties as a defense against invaders, among other purposes; usually referred to simply as 长城 (Chángchéng)

Trees and plants with multicolored leaves in front of the Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing
The Great Wall at Badaling
(photo by Faqiang Wu)
  • 居庸关 (Jūyōngguān)
    Juyongguan or Juyong Pass, a mountain pass northwest of Beijing through which the Wall passes
  • 云台 (Yúntái)
    Cloud Platform, a gate at Juyongguan constructed of white marble and decorated with Buddhist carvings of figures, symbols, and texts
  • 八达岭 (Bādálǐng)
    Badaling, the most-visited section of the Wall; further northwest of Beijing from Juyongguan
  • 山海关 (Shānhǎiguān)
    Shanhaiguan or Shanhai Pass, the eastern endpoint of the Wall in Hebei Province (河北省, Héběishěng); shanhai means “Mountain and Sea”
  • 嘉峪关 (Jiāyùguān)
    Jiayuguan or Jiayu Pass, location of the westernmost extant section of the Wall in Gansu Province (甘肃省, Gānsùshěng); jiayu means “excellent valley”
  • 春秋时代 (Chūn-Qiū Shídài)
    Spring and Autumn Period (776-471 BCE or 776-403 BCE), the historical period during which the earliest sections of the Wall were built
  • 明朝 (Míngcháo)
    Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), the period during which most of the extant wall was built; a total of 5,500 miles of wall were built during the Ming
  • 丝绸之路 (Sīchóu Zhī Lù)
    Silk Road, ancient trade route protected by some stretches of the Wall in western China
  • 匈奴 (Xiōngnú)
    Xiongnu, nomadic people traditionally identified with the Huns whose military conflicts with China during the Qin Dynasty (秦朝, Qíncháo, 221-207 BCE) led to the building of long stretches of the Wall

For many more Chinese vocabulary lists and information about tools and resources for learning Chinese,
visit our Chinese Language Resources page.

CIT Tour Packages Featuring the Great Wall

包括長城的中文特價團更豐富!請觀看特價團網頁的中文版

After our leisurely stroll through downtown Hong Kong (see Part 2 of our HK trip), we decided to take a ferry to Cheung Chau (長洲), a small island in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. I had fond memories of it from a previous trip there in 1997.

The cliché that the journey is more important than the destination can be quite literally applied to a ferry trip in Hong Kong (though in our case the destination was pretty sweet, too). Although Hong Kong is a terrifically stimulating environment, it can also be stressful, but a leisurely, comfortable ferry ride forces you to relax and smell the figurative roses—roses that in this case happen to be colossal towers of glass and steel, along with the magnificent mountain and ocean scenery that surrounds them. Depending on how hot it is, you might choose to enjoy the view from an indoor seat, where the Asgardian air conditioning system will make you feel like you’re closer to the North Pole than the sweltering South Pacific. Personally, I’d never want to miss the breeze and the sun on the outdoor deck. The only thing that could have possibly made our trip better? A cold six-pack of Tsingtao.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A view of the skyscrapers and wharves of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A distant view of the Kowloon waterfront and a ship from the Cheung Chau ferry

Left: As you pull away from the ferry terminal, you have a great view of some of the tallest buildings in the world, including 2 International Finance Centre and the Center. You’ll also see a great variety of vessels in the harbor (one of the busiest in the world, of course), some of them pleasantly quaint, such as this tugboat.

Right: In this photo you can see Kowloon’s International Commerce Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong and #4 in the world, which was still under construction at the time this photo was taken. The ship in the foreground appears to be some kind of naval vessel.

A view of the buildings of downtown Hong Kong from the Cheung Chau ferry A view of Hong Kong Island from the Cheung Chau ferry

From the ferry, you can enjoy constantly varying views of endlessly varied Hong Kong. And as you cruise farther away from Hong Kong Island, a bigger scene unfurls before you—a picturesque combination of city, mountain, sea, and sky.

Right: This is a view of Hong Kong Island from the west; the area on the left is the downtown area (the Central and Western Districts), and the area on the right is Aberdeen, in the southwest part of the island.

A view of boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor from the ferry Sunlight reflects off the surface of the water in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

As you enter Cheung Chau Harbor, you can see that the local fishing fleet is still quite robust.

Right: Here, you can see the breakwater protecting the harbor from large waves. The late-afternoon sun glints off the furrowed surface of the water.


The chance to enjoy the scenery while we recovered from hours of walking was itself more than worth the cost of the ticket, let alone the opportunity to relax and eat seafood on Cheung Chau. (video by CIT)

Boats near the ferry pier in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbour Pedestrians, bicycles, and stores on the waterfront at Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor

Left: This is the view alongside the ferry pier. Both small ferryboats, such as the one pictured here, and much larger ferry ships, serve the people of Cheung Chau. Some of the ferries we saw appeared to be something like “water taxis,” run for the locals by private operators.

The waterfront near the pier shows the influence of the West and the influence of the tourist trade (a Circle K, a 7-Eleven, and a McDonald’s all in a row; small shops selling knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, tchotchkes, curios, trinkets, and souvenirs), but most of the island is charmingly and convincingly local. In fact, I was delighted to find that it seemed as though nothing had changed since my visit 12 years earlier. In the modern world, that kind of reassuring consistency is hard to come by.

Food and beer at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront of Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor Seafood tanks at a restaurant on Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Island

There are a number of restaurants along Cheung Chau’s waterfront, specializing in seafood, of course. We chose one, more or less at random, and in our eager hunger inhaled a bountiful meal (I was so hungry that I forgot to take a photo until these dishes were all that remained). To my wife’s discriminating Shanghainese palate, it was not the best seafood she had ever had but quite enjoyable nonetheless. Surprisingly, I recall the vegetables as being my favorite dish—simply prepared yet intensely flavorful. And there’s nothing like a cold beer in a shady spot with a view of the ocean, except perhaps a cold beer on a Hong Kong ferry.

Right: I’ve always found seafood tanks like these rather cruel, but I suppose their redeeming quality is that they force you to be more aware of where the pleasantly dead food on your plate came from than do most Western-style restaurants that hide the uglier bits of the preparation process—and they have the added virtue of allowing you to confirm that your food is indeed fresh.

Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Beach A distant view of Hong Kong Island from Cheung Chau Beach

All in all, I would describe Cheung Chau as an oasis of relaxation, a refuge from the bustle of the city. The part of the island that best epitomizes that quality is Cheung Chau Beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand just a few minutes’ walk across the narrow part of the island from the waterfront.

Right: From the beach, which faces Hong Kong Island to the east, you can admire the distant view of downtown HK while you relax, far away in both mind and body. The visible distance somehow makes it easier to let go of the urban insanity of modern life—which, paradoxically, is only a convenient ferry ride away when you need a little craziness. If I ever suddenly retire from human society to live as a nomad, this is one of the places I’ll go. Call me “the convenient recluse.” Tibetan monasteries are just too darn extreme.

Although my little pocket camcorder doesn’t really do justice to the vividness of Hong Kong, I think this clip does capture the serenity of Cheung Chau Beach on the evening we relaxed there for an all-too-brief time. (video by CIT)

Boats in Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Harbor at dusk Large store billboards and crowds of shoppers near a night market in Hong Kong's Kowloon district

Left: As night began to fall, I took this photo of Cheung Chau Harbor.

Right: After two days chock full of endless walking and flagrant gawking, we didn’t have the energy for much partying by the time we got back to the city, but we did stroll around to do some shopping and take in the impressive bustle.

With stores, clubs, bars, night market stalls, street performers, and restaurants galore, there is never a shortage of nighttime activities in Hong Kong—even a simple stroll along the streets can be entertaining. (video by CIT)

Two of my favorite memories of Hong Kong are things that I unfortunately didn’t capture on film.

One of these memories is passing by the basketball courts on Cheung Chau where I had seen locals playing an intense style of pickup basketball—with one of them even dunking in the short time I watched them—on my first trip there in 1997. As a basketball fan since early childhood, I was deeply impressed. Way back then, when Chinese basketball was not yet on anyone’s radar, I began to realize that it was only a matter of time before Chinese players would begin to emerge on the international scene. This time no one happened to be playing when we passed by, but just the sight of the same courts put a smile on my face.

Later, while strolling along the streets of Kowloon, I watched a small crowd gather outside a media store that was showing a Michael Jackson concert DVD at the entrance. Although I haven’t been a big Michael Jackson fan since I was about ten, I’ve always appreciated his magnetism as a performer, and to see it attract Chinese locals to a little TV on a street in Hong Kong several months after his death was somehow touching—the kind of thing that reminds us of our essential unity. As travelers, we seek the exotic and the new, but ultimately what we want to find, in spite of all our differences, is a deep connection with the people and places we visit, something that transcends the superficial, the local, and the temporal. I felt that in Hong Kong, as I’ve felt it everywhere I’ve gone in China, and it has made those travel experiences both exciting and comforting.

—originally published on our old blog on August 6, 2010

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

On our second full day in HK, we struck out on our own and enjoyed some sights and experiences no less beautiful and stimulating than the more touristy experiences we had had the day before. And of course, we only scratched the nanosurface of all that there is to do and see in Hong Kong.

If you’d like to experience Hong Kong yourself with an itinerary that will allow you to do your own independent exploring, sign up for our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

A narrow street walled in by buildings in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong The storefront of the Chinese Noodle Restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District

We started off in Kowloon, whose claustrophobic urban canyons, crammed with billboards, have a bit more character than the more modern, sterile, finance-oriented buildings of the downtown area. Just the sight of it is highly suggestive, rich with the possibilities of so many lives in such a small space.

In the morning we each had a tasty bowl of spicy noodles at a little eatery with the almost hilariously unimaginative name “Chinese Noodle Restaurant.” (Its Chinese name, 四川麻辣米綫, which I would translate as “Spicy Sichuan Rice Noodles,” is a bit more descriptive.) When eating at places like this, be careful not to let them make you pay the “foreigner tax.” Sometimes people who are obviously foreign (especially Westerners) are charged extra; this did in fact happen to us at one restaurant, but it wasn’t here.

Sichuan-style rice noodles at a restaurant in Hong Kong's Kowloon District Crowds of transit passengers in the Hong Kong subway

The food in Hong Kong is world renowned, and although as a semi-vegetarian I’m not as crazy about HK’s Cantonese and seafood-oriented cuisine as I am about some of China’s other regional cuisines, even my persnickety palate was pleased by the food we had there. These noodles were an even better morning stimulant than coffee.

Afterward, we took a subway ride from Kowloon to downtown HK, the Central District of Hong Kong Island. Although the subway ride was convenient and comfortable, I don’t want to imagine what it must be like during a sweltering August afternoon rush hour. I just hope it has a massively powerful ventilation system.

The central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong Another view of the central atrium of the Landmark, an upscale shopping mall in downtown Hong Kong

The Landmark in downtown HK is probably one of the finest shopping malls in the world, with many of the most exclusive brands represented. As someone with rather plebian tastes and an utter lack of sartorial style, I felt about as comfortable as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was beautiful and impressive, but I don’t think anyone with a philosophical bent can help feeling a bit alienated by the hordes of worshippers at downtown Hong Kong’s altar of Mammon.

After we emerged from the Landmark with our bank account fortunately still more or less intact, we witnessed an impressive phenomenon: the lunch rush amidst the office buildings in the Central District. Every day, tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of worker drones descend from their mile-high celestial cubicles simultaneously to swarm the streets and mingle with the crowds of shoppers and tourists. This video clip doesn’t fully capture the intensity of it, but it was quite a sight (and sound).

A human billboard puts a costume on to advertise on the streets of downtown Hong Kong The storefront of the Kosmo Wellness Cafe in downtown Hong Kong's Central District

We also witnessed the amusing sight of this “human billboard” (on the aptly named Theatre Lane) preparing some kind of costume—a sun, a sunflower, a strange mythical creature? I can’t tell. Actually, “costume” doesn’t do it justice. “Promotional siege engine” is a more accurate description.

Soon we took shelter from the crowd in the Kosmo Wellness Cafe, an oasis of calm with tasty (and at least nominallly healthful) beverages and friendly service.

A refreshing fruit smoothie and iced milk tea in downtown Hong Kong's Kosmo Wellness Cafe Skyscrapers (including the Center) rise into a blue sky over a street in downtown Hong Kong

Our beverages: a smoothie and some milk tea. I suppose drinking milk tea in Hong Kong is disappointingly predictable, but it was indeed good.

With all the time I’ve spent in places like San Francisco and Shanghai and New York, you might think I would be fairly gawk-proof at the sight of gleaming skyscrapers, but downtown HK is stimulating even to jaded eyes. As the scads of photos (many more than I’ll inflict on you here) I took there prove, I spent a lot of time gazing upward at the impressive buildings, playing the role of slack-jawed American yokel, to the amusement of the locals around us, no doubt. At one point my wife even offered to buy me a bib. Well, she didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking it.

Hong Kong's 2 International Finance Centre, one of the tallest buildings in the world Glass-sided skyscrapers (the Bank of China Tower and the Cheung Kong Centre) reflect a cloudy sky in downtown Hong Kong

I don’t think you can blame me for gawking, though—by some measures Hong Kong has the best skyline in the world, and it currently boasts five of the the twenty tallest buildings in the world, including Two International Finance Centre (left photo), which comes in at #4.

Right: The Bank of China Tower (left) and the Cheung Kong Center are the 12th and 52nd tallest buildings in the world, respectively.

A busy intersection in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong Trolleys in the Central District of downtown Hong Kong

Despite all of the industrial towers of steel and glass, downtown Hong Kong somehow manages to be rather charming, too, with its many shops, its cultural distinctiveness, and its pedestrian-friendly environment.

The trolleys, in particular, are rather quaint to an American’s eye.

A demonstration against Citibank in downtown Hong Kong An anti-Citibank protester in Hong Kong wearing a t-shirt that reads 'pyscho' and 'God destroys'

One somewhat unexpected sight we came across was this anti-Citibank demonstration. This and some other things we observed on our trip, along with the recent [at the time this post was originally written] news about factory workers in China going on strike and successfully demanding better wages, gives me hope for the “little people” of China who have thus far largely been left behind by China’s remarkable economic success.

Right: This protester is wearing a shirt that reads “psycho” (or “insane”) at the top, and it looks like the bottom part says “God destroys.” At least I’m pretty sure he was a protester, not an actual self-declared psycho. In any case, I didn’t even consider messing with him, and as you can see I waited until his back was turned to take this photo. My experience suggests that it’s best just to take people labeled “psycho” at face value.

Next up: our ferry ride to Cheung Chau and a taste of Kowloon nightlife. I’ll chronicle the rest of our trip next week.

—originally published on our old blog on July 20, 2010

If I had to sum up my perception of Hong Kong in one phrase, it would be “a place of extremes constantly juxtaposed”: the ultramodern and the traditional, the fabulously (or perhaps absurdly) wealthy and the poor, the East and the West, the artificial and the natural. And as fast-paced and intense as it can be, there are even places in HK where you can truly slow down and relax. It is an incredibly dense microcosm of the world, and increasingly of China itself. Obviously, for a tourist or traveler, few places in the world are more fascinating and fun than Hong Kong.

In November 2009 my wife and I had a chance to visit HK; it was her first time and my first time in twelve years. First, we took the half-day tour (it actually ended up being a bit longer, which was fine with us), and then we did some exploring on our own. Here are a few photos and video clips that show the many different sides of Hong Kong that we experienced.

You can see all of these places on our Hong Kong 3-Day Tour or our China Highlights 11-Day Tour. Please visit our Hong Kong Photo Gallery and Information Page for more photos and information.

Click on any photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

The front of Man Mo Temple, a Taoist temple in downtown Hong Kong High-rise apartments looming over Man Mo Temple in downtown Hong Kong with a tiny moon visible in the sky

The first stop on our tour was Man Mo Temple, a charming old Taoist temple in downtown Hong Kong. It lies sheltered amidst tall apartment buildings, almost as if it were worshiping at the feet of modernity. Let’s hope not—modernity could use a little more Taoism, not the other way around. (And by the way, yes, that is the moon up above in the photo on the right, tiny as it looks.)

A row of Taoist idols with offerings of burning incense in Hong Kong's Man Mo Temple Tourists absorbing the Taoist atmosphere of Man Mo Temple in downtown Hong Kong

Literally, there is a thick Taoist atmosphere in the temple, including a tranquil, sunlight-streaked central area with incense coils suspended in midair that my little digital camera couldn’t do justice to. (You can see a somewhat better attempt here.) This little nook is labeled “Hall of Ten Kings.”

From what I saw, there tend to be more tourists at the temple than regular worshipers, but they are usually quiet and respectful and do not spoil the tranquil, meditative atmosphere.

A gold incense vessel in Hong Kong's Man Mo Temple A closeup of the front gate and roof of Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong

Many visitors to the temple do pray and burn incense, however, regardless of where they may be from.

Right: A closeup of the entrance to the temple, which was built in 1847.

The interior of Man Mo Temple

The ride up to Victoria Peak on the Peak Tram

A view of downtown Hong Kong Island, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon from the Peak Tram A view of Victoria Harbour and skyscrapers in downtown Hong Kong from a cafe in the Peak Tower

Afterward, we took the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak, which looms over downtown Hong Kong.

Left: The ride up the peak feels even steeper than it looks in this photo, and it’s a fun trip, especially when the weather is as good as it was on that day. A spectacular view of Hong Kong’s vast cityscape and harbor spreads out beneath you as you climb the mountain.

Right: After you exit the tram, you can sit down at this comfortable cafe and enjoy a drink as you take in the view from the Peak Tower, one of the best city views to be found anywhere in the world.

A view of downtown Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon from outside the Peak Tower A closeup view of the side of Victoria Peak with Victoria Harbour and Kowloon in the background

Left: I’ve seen a million variations of this photo, but it’s nice to have been able to take a pretty decent one myself, even if it’s not very original.

Right: For those who have time to hang out on the mountain, there’s a pleasant path that circles the mountaintop here, starting near the Peak Tower.

The Peak Tower, at the end of the Peak Tram line on Victoria Peak The main entrance of the Peak Galleria on Victoria Peak

The Peak Tower, where the Peak Tram line ends, is (at least to me) an interesting work of modern architecture that augments the natural beauty of the mountain. Not quite Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps, but I like it.

Right: I guess it was inevitable given all the tourists with time and money who visit Victoria Peak, but yes, there is a shopping mall next to the Peak Tower called the Peak Galleria.

The view to the west-southwest from Victoria Peak, including Cheung Chau and part of Lantau Island The twin summits at the top of Victoria Peak

Left: If you walk around the area near the Peak Tower, you can enjoy some beautiful views of the rest of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding area. Facing approximately southwest, you can see Cheung Chau (長洲) and part of Lantau Island (大嶼山) in the distance.

Right: These peaks lie to the west of the Peak Tower.

This is the breathtaking view that greets you right outside the Peak Tower at the end of your tram ride up the mountainside: an army of skyscrapers, millions of people, and a long view out across one of the busiest harbors in the world to Kowloon.

Boats in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour Hong Kong - Aberdeen - boats - CIT - small - 267 x 200

At Aberdeen, you can take a relaxing boat ride around the harbor and check out the sampans and boathouses of the local fishermen, whose traditional way of life continues today.

Although fewer fishermen and families actually live full-time on the boats at Aberdeen these days, it is aptly described as a “floating community.” I imagine life here must be profoundly intimate, both with other people and with the elements. Even a glimpse of it caught during a brief boat tour is fascinating.

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbour

The harbor at Aberdeen also features the internationally famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant, which is exactly what it sounds like: a restaurant on what appears to be a very large boat.

This video clip shows the essence of Hong Kong: that it is a place of extremes. Large yachts and speedboats owned by the fabulously wealthy float beside small junks and sampans owned by poor fishermen.

Hong Kong's Repulse Bay Hong Kong's Repulse Bay

The south side of Hong Kong Island is much less developed than downtown Hong Kong on the north side, and when the weather is good, it is a truly beautiful and relaxing place. These photos show tranquil Repulse Bay.

Some of our favorite moments in Hong Kong came after the tour was over and we had time to explore the area on our own—and on our Hong Kong itineraries we give you time to do the same. I’ll share photos of and thoughts about those experiences in my next blog post!

—originally published on our old blog on June 28, 2010

Applying for a China Visa: Do’s and Don’ts

For a more serious take on applying for a visa and a checklist of the items we need to help you apply, see our China Visa Application Information page.

DON’T try to express your interest in China by doing an impression of Kung Fu Panda while singing “Kung Fu Fighting.”

Kung Fu Panda - small - 180 x 200
What’s cute in a cartoon will get
you creamed in a consulate.

DO allow China International Travel CA to save those of you who live in the San Francisco consulate’s jurisdiction a lot of time and trouble for a modest service fee of $20. We’ve helped many, many clients with their China visas, and we can ensure that everything will go smoothly. We’ll be glad to answer any questions you have about the application, submit and pick up everything for you, and make sure your freshly stamped passport gets back to you safe and sound with its “new visa smell” intact. All of our contact info can be found here.

DON’T talk loudly while waiting in line about how much you like Sharon Stone. She’s not exactly popular over there.

Insulting the victims of a natural disaster:
not Sharon’s best career move.

DO make sure you go to the right consulate, depending on where you live. Chinese consulates will only issue visas to people living in their jurisdiction.

DON’T stage a “laugh mob” in the consulate lobby in a misguided attempt to create good vibes and brighten everyone’s day.

Laughter may be the best medicine, but an overdose
might kill your chances of getting a China visa.

DO check the links on China Visa Application Information page to make sure you have updated information from the consulate website about everything you need to apply.

DON’T try to give yourself “Chinese cred” by rocking a Fu Manchu look. To someone from China, it doesn’t project the coolness you might think it does.

“Yellow peril” stereotypes are NOT the way to make
a good impression at the Chinese consulate.

DO apply for a twelve-month multiple-entry China visa, since it costs the same as a single-entry visa for U.S. citizens anyway. You never know—if you take one of our tours, you might find yourself traveling to China again very soon.

Although you can request same-day service if you’re in a desperate situation (but check with your local consulate to be sure), DON’T wait until the day before your trip to apply for your China visa. You never know when your application might be held up for some unforeseeable reason.

DO make sure your passport has six months of validity remaining and at least one blank visa page when you apply.

DON’T look scary…or try too hard not to look scary. Just play it cool and natural, man. Or if that’s too difficult, just let the professionals at CIT handle it for you.

Who is less likely to be granted a visa: a victim of demonic possession, or Stuart Smalley?
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