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  • Alison Merrill

China – Going Without a Visa


View from the Great Wall of China. Photo: Alison.

I stood on top of the Great Wall of China, looking out over the green and brown mountains and witnessing the huge wall of brick and stone stretching, winding, and towering, as far as my eyes could see. The sight transported me to another time and place. A place where Han soldiers would look out over the wall and see sparse hills while feeling crisp cool air nip at their skin. Or maybe, a large, dark, all-consuming sky, covered with stars as small gusts of wind accompanied by long stretches of silence, created an atmosphere of serenity. I could even picture, the thunder of horse’s hooves just before a flood of enemy troops came quickly approaching. For when this happened, the Chinese soldiers would run to the nearest lookout tower and light a fire, to let all of China know they were under attack. This moment of wonder, imagination, and fascination, are the experiences I will continue to search for, and when I look back, will be the ones I remember, for they make me feel fully alive.

Overlooking the Forbidden City at Jingshang Park. Photo: Alison.

“We will go another time – not this trip” (Alison in reference to visiting China. Episode 1 of Alison and Sam's Big Adventure Podcast, Why did we decide to do this? Our 6-month trip around the world).


While I had a desire to travel to China, I initially thought the preparation would be a burden (the visa process is extensive) and, plus I was scared to go on our own (China is notorious for being difficult to travel to as a foreigner). However, as Sam and I adventured across the world, one thing was obvious - China was everywhere. From investing in urban development in Kenya, to leading building projects in Cambodia, to being the majority of high-end travelers in Langkawi, Malaysia; the Chinese are in every country, being a constant topic of conversation and having incredible influence.


China’s presence in each country we went to, combined by our previous intrigue, made us consider adding China to our itinerary. Our friend and podcast guest, Arieb Yakoob (Episode 2, Stockholm, Sweden), gave us a tip about a “visa-free transit” he did in China for 72 hours. So, Sam and I scoured the internet and after a lot of research, found an even better option for us - the “144 Transit Free Visa.” This visa let us go to one city in China for up to six days (we chose Beijing) and do our visa on arrival with no fees or paperwork. Once we saw the cheap flight price from Beijing to Argentina (only $600 compared to $1,200 from Japan) the decision was made - Sam and I would fly from Japan, stop in China for four days, and then fly to Argentina. Did it make geographical sense? No. Did it make fun, educational, and financial sense? Absolutely.

On November 16th, we flew from Osaka, Japan to Beijing, China.

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep. For when she wakes, she will shake the world” – Napoleon Bonaparte. Sourcing credit, Crazy Rich Asians (the movie).


Beijing, China November 16th – November 20th, 2019


China, officially known as, “The People’s Republic of China” is the world’s third-largest country geographically, and the most populated country in the world – with 1.38 billion people. Additionally, China is the world’s oldest continuously living civilization, dating back 5,000 years. The country is currently the largest exporter of goods and has the second-largest economy in the world (right behind the good old USA).


So, this is what we are dealing with…one of the biggest countries containing twenty percent of the world’s population - woah. The oldest civilization that has avoided societal collapse - impressive. A leader in global economics - cha-ching. Talk about a major player in the game.


With China’s incredible past and unique place in today’s world, Sam and I were thrilled that we had the opportunity to spend four days in Beijing. Some of our highlights were:


The Great Wall of China: The longest manmade structure in the entire world – over 13,170 miles. We opted to skip the main tourist sections of the wall and went to a place further out (Jinshanling). We did a three-hour hike on the wall and at times, had it completely to ourselves.


Tiananmen Square: One of the ten largest squares in the world that houses several historical buildings. Also, famously known for the 1989 protests. The square is under heavy security with uniformed and undercover guards and visitors must present identity documentation.


The Forbidden City: Previously home to the emperors and their families (from 1420-1912) and now the Palace Museum. Our tour took us through the grand palace complex.


Jingshan Park: We stumbled across a brigade of singers and musicians. This park gave us a bird’s eye view of the city and was magical until a group of twenty schoolchildren joined us and would not stop screaming.


Hutong Bike Tour: What kind of city trip would be complete, without a bike tour? Bikes are our favorite way to see new cities because it is fun, covers more ground, and we get a decent workout. Fun, learning, and fitness – count us in! This tour took us through the Hutongs which are narrow alleyways known for showcasing Beijing culture and history.


Houhai Lake: A popular hangout spot with fun restaurants and bars. We saw locals playing ping-pong, mahjong, and doing tai chi. There was a sign saying, “no swimming” but when we went by, people were diving into the water despite the fact that is was thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Our tour guide said it was normal.


Public Transit: The trains in China were some of the best we have seen and only cost thirty-five cents. Interestingly, each station had a security checkpoint and cameras every couple of feet.


365 Inn: Shout out to our friend, Katie Walter-Jeffrey and her new husband Daniel Walter-Jeffrey (former teachers in China) who recommended this hostel to us in a prime location and our oasis amidst the big city.

The Great Wall. Photo: Alison.
View from inside the Forbidden City. Photo: Alison.
An action shot of us biking at The National Center for the Performing Arts. Photo credit: our fantastic guide, Lily.
Sam's favorite spare rib soup. Photo: Sam.

We cannot experience highs if we do not experience lows


At this point on Sam and my six-month world journey, we have been to twenty countries. Out of all of these countries, China was the hardest country to prepare to visit. In researching the 144-transit free visa, information from credible sources was scarce, we personally did not know anyone that had done it, and if we got any information wrong, we could be in serious trouble. I had several moments of mini panic attacks (and one vivid nightmare) in picturing us arriving in China and being detained or sent back. At one point I even wondered, “Is this even worth it?”


In doing my frantic research, I stumbled across an article by a travel blogger (wish I could remember their name) who talked about countries that are easier to backpack versus those that are more difficult. The author mentions that while it can be fun to go to places that are more developed for tourists (queue image of Sam and I chilling on the beaches of Koh Lipe, Thailand), it is important to mix in countries that are more challenging (queue image of Sam and I sweating in ninety-degree heat trying to cross the streets of Varanasi, India). More difficult experiences get us outside our comfort zone - providing those moments of accomplishment and euphoria.


In looking back on that moment at the Great Wall of China, feeling full of wonder, fascination, and on top of the world, and asking myself again, “was it worth it”– the answer is yes. What came before - the lows, anxiety, stress, and work, made the victory at the end that much sweeter.


Highs, Lows, Best Bites, and Lessons Learned:


Sam

Highs:


1. Walking down Qianmen street in downtown Beijing - smells of duck and dumplings & seeing new things and local people.


2. Breathing in the air on top of the Great Wall of China.


3. Staying at 365 Inn - amazing food, vibe, location, and had a pull-up bar/workout area.


Lows: Protests going on in Hong Kong. Would have loved to visit HK.


Best Bite: Peking duck egg rolls.


Takeaways: Do not always believe what you hear. For example, I thought there would be horrible air and smog in Beijing and everyone would be wearing masks. Turns out, the air and weather were great and almost nobody had on masks. Other myths there debunked as well.


Alison

Highs:


1. Standing on top of the Great Wall of China.


2. Biking through Beijing and getting a great feel for daily life. We even went to the "5th avenue" of Beijing and Sam got Apple headphones.


3. Seeing the movie, Midway, in theatres. We had not been to the movies since Kenya (where we saw the Lion King), and it was so fun. This was the only movie playing in English. Who knew we would be in Beijing, watching a movie about WWII featuring the USA and Japan?


Low: Being nervous something would go wrong.


Best Bite: Leek and potato dumpling.


Lesson Learned: Find a balance of getting outside of my comfort zone (that is where the growth happens) as well as time to reset and recharge (equally important).


Community


Sam and I are extremely grateful for our community of family, friends, and fellow travelers who have been keeping up with our adventures because they continue to help us when internet research will not do. An old friend from high school, Marina saw my, “Malaysia & Thailand – Island Hopping and Reclaiming Southeast Asia” post where I was asking for tips on China. It turns out, Marina has been living in Shanghai with her boyfriend and loves it so much, they are extending their work contracts for three more years. She told us everything we needed to know about China and made our trip smooth sailing once we were on the mainland.


One of Sam and my big reasons for doing this blog and podcast (aside from staying in touch with family and friends) is the hope that it will inspire others to go on their own adventures - whether that be traveling or working up the confidence to go after a goal. Specifically, for China, I am attaching a couple of links that helped us prepare. If you think you might want to go anywhere Sam and I have been and have questions - whether it's deciding where to vacation, doing an extended trip of your own, budgeting, or anything at all, feel free to reach out to us on social media, text, or the question box on our website. We would love to help!

What’s next?


Sam and I landed in Costa Rica yesterday and are currently, posted up on the beaches of Jaco. After being grilled by the customs agent in Costa Rica (we had no return ticket), we said January 15th was the date we are heading back to the states. So, while our travels our over (we are not planning on going anywhere after Costa Rica), we are just getting started for what is next.


We are currently working on rebranding our website, blog, and podcast (turns out, “Alison and Sam’s Big Adventure” is not the most professional name – who knew?). Moving forward, we are going to be relying less on Instagram and Facebook for sharing new content, so if you want to stay in the loop when we release new podcast episodes, blog posts, and be a part of our survey for our new title (seriously, we need help), make sure to subscribe to our website here.


What are we going to be covering if we stopped traveling?


Now that the end is drawing near, we feel like we have the most to share that will help other travelers, lifelong learners, and adventurers. We will be releasing content on our overall learnings: budgeting (we have gotten this question a lot), packing, what we would do differently, and more.


There are also a couple of countries we have not posted about: Singapore, South Africa, and most recently, Argentina. Argentina was our longest stay in any country besides Kenya (16 days) and we are stoked to share our thoughts on Buenos Aires (our top pick if we were to live in any international city) and Patagonia hiking (Sam’s #1 bucket list item… achieved). So, stay tuned and if there is anything else you would like to hear about, let us know.


As always, thanks for following along.


With Love,

Alison

When your random photographer insists you make a heart. Only in Beijing ♥

Helpful China Travel Resources:


1. Alison and Sam’s Big Adventure, episode 11, China Without a Visa - Why You Should Visit Beijing and the Great Wall. My favorite podcast we’ve done together! We talk about impressions of China, apps you will need if you go, and the places we recommend in Beijing.


2. Transit Visa Interpretation - Helpful interpretation of the visa-free transit.


3. Steps on the Transit Free Visa - A great breakdown of how to prepare for the visa-free transit and what to expect at the airport.

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