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Destination & Places

Jump Aboard the Chungking Express—If You Dare

The notorious Chungking Mansions and neighboring Mirador Mansions in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui, can be intimidating at first sight, especially as a solo female traveler. Full of aggressive touts and frequented mainly by African and South Asian men who gather round the entrances, there’s barely a woman to be seen here. But they also offer some of Hong Kong’s cheapest accommodation.

As someone who’s lived and traveled quite a bit in the Middle East (perhaps one of the most difficult regions to travel as a solo female), I’ve become somewhat accustomed to various kinds of unwanted attention. While it’s almost always harmless, it’s a hassle to deal with and on my many previous visits to Hong Kong, I’d avoided both places. But on my most recent visa run a few weeks back, I decided it was finally time to give them a try.

Known for coffin-sized rooms and painfully slow elevators, these huge buildings offer an abundance of budget accommodation of varying standards, yet their dubious reputations precede them. Stories abound of cockroaches, dodgy door locks, ancient electrical wiring and worse.

Mirador

I started at the Mirador Mansions located at 58-62 Nathan Road. It’s smaller and somewhat quieter than Chungking and was a good way to ease into things. Touts lie in wait at the ground-floor entrance but once you escape you can wander its floors—full of tailoring businesses and Indian men hanging out their washing—in relative peace.

I was pleasantly surprised by Motel Double Yield, the Chinese-run establishment which I chose. The HK$300 (RMB 237) room was windowless and the size of a cupboard, but it was clean, well equipped, offered free Wi-Fi and had friendly and helpful owners—and there wasn’t a cockroach to be seen.

Chungking

The Chungking Mansions is the more famous of the two and lies just down the street at 36-44 Nathan Road. Built in 1961, this former fire-trap is a massive 17-story labyrinth of residences, restaurants, guesthouses and shops and houses about 4,000 residents. It’s a melting pot of nationalities which has seen a fatal fire, at least one homicide and all manner of shady dealings including drugs, prostitutes, scammers and petty crime.

I stayed here on my final night and it’s certainly a bit more full-on. Walking into any of its entrances, you’ll be assailed by touts who’ll try anything to strike up a conversation. The most effective thing to do is ignore them completely—if you get drawn in, it could take quite some time to extricate yourself.

The bottom floor is a teeming confusion of around 140 shops and food stalls. There are money changers, mobile phone and electronics stores, Internet cafes, clothing shops, Indian grocery stores and restaurants. If you’re on a budget and partial to butter chicken, dosas or tikka masala, the ground floor of Chungking is also a good place to head.

The upper floors feature around 80 budget accommodations in five different blocks, each with its own set of two lifts, invariably with a long queue waiting to enter. I was initially less impressed with the European Hostel, the deceptively named Indian-run establishment I stayed in here, mainly because of the unenthusiastic service. It was a maze of stairways and locked doors just to get to my room and I’m frankly not even sure it was actually located in the hostel I booked.

But the room itself was nothing to complain about for the price. The HK$200 (RMB 158) double room was cheaper, slightly larger, offered free Wi-Fi and came with a window, though the Indian man sleeping on a mattress in a small alcove just outside my door was a little disconcerting at first.

The Round-up

Rooms in these buildings are invariably box-like but the ones I stayed in were clean, had bathrooms and offered free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, TVs, safes and mini-fridges in as little space as possible. While you might have to shower over the toilet, you can certainly find some decent places here at reasonable prices.

Book first to avoid the touts, or otherwise be prepared to bargain. Be sure to check your room first and make sure there’s a decent lock on your door, which you should always make use of.

Safety-wise I didn’t feel physically threatened in either of these places during my stay but I was more impressed with Mirador in this regard. If you’re a woman traveling solo, you’ll certainly get some attention, which is more pronounced in Chungking. Minimize this by avoiding eye contact and ignoring unwanted conversations.

While Chungking has apparently been cleaned up significantly since the 1990s and now has security guards and over 200 CCTV cameras installed, it’s best not to be complacent and you might want to avoid the back alleys in the evenings.

Overall, I’d probably favor the Mirador and its relative peacefulness. But if you’re looking for adventure and atmosphere or fancy a samosa or two, Chungking definitely offers more. If you’re not claustrophobic and can handle riding tiny elevators with some shady looking characters, why not consider these legends of Hong Kong the next time you drop by?

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Destination & Places

Beyond Badaling: An Overview of the Great Wall’s Many Sections

Ahh the Great Wall of China. Or as the Chinese like to say, Chángchéng, literally, the “Long Wall.” Every kid in the world has heard of the Great Wall and until I double-checked, I was among the many that said things like: “The Great Wall of China is the only man-made thing visible from the moon.” Nothing man-made is visible from the moon except for swirling carbon clouds around the poles, but that won’t stop people from sagely pointing out that the wall that almost kept out the Mongols and the Manchus is one the most ambitious construction projects man has ever undertaken.

The Great Wall of China is now a tourist attraction that stretches from the border with North Korea west to just passed Dunhuang, where it slumps into the desert, exhausted and dusty.

Much of the wall is attributed to that famous tyrant, Qin Shi Huang, but most of what we today call the Great Wall was built up during subsequent dynasties, most recently during the Ming Dynasty. As the map below demonstrates (click on it for a larger image), the Great Wall is actually a series of wall sections that were built separately over several centuries.

The Mighty Dragon

The wall served as a deterrent to uncivilized bands of horseman drooling over the fat heartland of the Yellow River Valley, it provided a (slave wage) day-job for unruly peasants and a tour of duty for excess soldiers and dangerously competent generals with an eye on the Imperial throne.

But for today’s China, the Great Wall is much more than just a “defensive bulwark,” it is also a symbol of China, of the Chinese people and an icon of strength and longevity: a winding, sinuous dragon of stone representing the ancient Chinese civilization.

Building the Great Wall of China

The image in my head of a continuous brick wall split by towers that rolls across northern China is only part of the truth. The vast majority of the wall building happened during the Warring States Period, the Qin Dynasty and the Han Dynasty — between 2,000 and 2,600 years ago. During this period, the ancient Great Wall stretched for 3,700 miles from the ocean in the east to the edge of the desert in the west.

Building and defending the wall required thousands of laborer-soldiers, brought north from the heartland to help build, defend and settle the buffer lands along that wall. When the Han Dynasty fell, the ability to maintain the wall and the desire to defend it waned and it left the collective memories of the people for some time. Only after the Ming armies threw out the Yuan Dynasty (Mongols from the north who managed to break through the wall) did the wall regain its importance as a line of defense.

The Great Wall all of us have seen in photos is more likely to be the walls built during the Ming Dynasty, between 500 and 700 years ago. The Ming Dynasty was one of the strongest and most advanced civilizations of its time, but they still had to deal with those northern warriors, so the leadership built up one of the strongest walls ever built: a 3,500-mile-long crenellated brick wall across northern China with thousands of watchtowers and a dozen choke-points, all defended by a massive army.

Mutianyu Great Wall

If you’re planning to see the Great Wall, you’ll need to decide which part of the Wall to go to. Most tourists squeeze a half-day trip to the well-restored sections of Badaling or Mutianyu into a busy Beijing sightseeing itinerary.

However, unless the only reason you want to go to the Great Wall is to check it off your to do list, Badaling is a tourist trap that is best avoided. If you’re pressed for time, Mutianyu is a decent compromise option; it’s only an hour and a half’s drive from downtown Beijing, but unlike at Badaling, it is possible to get away from the crowds if you keep walking beyond the restored section.

However, a longer trip out to one of the other sections is well worth the time and effort. Read on for an overview of the sections organized by location and take a look at our Great Wall Google Map to see where they are.

The Great Wall n

One of the best sections near Beijing is Jinshanling, a fairly remote part of the wall that gives you the chance to explore away from the groups but is still accessible as a day trip from the capital. Until 2010, Jinshanling was also a great starting point for hikes to Simatai, a section once popular with in-the-know hikers and Beijing expats for its tourist-free authenticity. Unfortuantely, the land around Simatai was gobbled up by property developers and the section was officially closed for four years while a five-star hotel, golf course and faux watertown were built. Simatai is now reportedly only open to tour groups.

Not far from Simatai, heading west along the wall, is the Gubeikou section, a windswept region of reflection where travelers can try and imagine hordes of barbarians to the north, smelly, cold companions lying beside you in the tower and soft beautiful women far, far to the south…

The Great Wall retains its remote and forgotten aura west of Gubeikou, north around the Minyu Reservoir and back down to the Mutianyu section, 70 km outside of Beijing, which attracts travelers with a combination of well-restored walls and bright seasonal plumage.

Further west of Mutianyu are the remote and beautiful ruins of the Jiankou section. After the Jiankou section, the wall doubles back on itself and then just as quickly swerves back west before reaching the Huanghua Pass, a section of the wall 65 km outside of Beijing and known for fields of small yellow flowers that bloom here each year. This section also weaves around three lakes and a reservoir and is one of the most scenic section of the wall near Beijing.

The wall at Juyongguan is only 50 km (31 mi) north of Beijing and was the most heavily contested part of the wall. The Guangou Valley mouth was a major route for invading northern armies, so the fortifications here were most important. Unfortunately for the defenders, this section also serves as a reminder of the Great Wall’s failure to keep out the Mongols: the Yuan dynasty erected a marble tower here, the “Cloud Viewing Platform,” to commemorate their conquest of the Chinese heartland.

Not far from the Juyongguan section is the most famous section of the Great Wall, Badaling. This section in particular has a reputation as a tourist attraction—thousands of tourists labor up this part of the wall any given day. This is where you will see the famous quote from Mao Zedong: “You’re not a real man till you’ve climbed the Great Wall.

Check out this comparison of five Great Wall sections near Beijing for a more detailed head-to-head of Great Wall options near the capital.

The Great Wall in the Northeast

The Great Wall meets the ocean at Shanhaiguan (Shanhai Pass), a fortress on the sea near the coastal city of Qinhuangdao. This part of the wall was a vital defensive point, lying at the sea and at the mouth of a wide valley leading from the north down into the heartland.

Heading back inland is the Huangya Guan (Huangya Pass) section of the wall with its marvelous sunsets and the Great Wall Marathon. Huangya Guan is officially located within the municipality of Tianjin, but at 126 km (78 mi) north of the city center, this unspoilt gem is actually closer to Beijing (96 km or 59 mi east of the capital).

Running north from the sea, toward Dandong in Liaoning Province, is the Great Wall at Hushan (Tiger Mountain), which forms part of the border with North Korea. This section of the wall sees little tourist traffic and its proximity to North Korea might prove alluring for some travelers — it is also considered to be the easternmost fortification of the Great Wall and a relic of the ancient Yan State, a powerful rival to the Qin more than 2,000 years ago.

The Great Wall across the North

It’s easy to associate the Great Wall of China with Beijing, but the vast majority of the fortifications are nowhere near the city, but spread out across several provinces: starting with Liaoning in the northeast and snaking across Hebei (which surrounds the municipalities of Tianjin and Beijing) and west through Shanxi, north a bit into Inner Mongolia and then west along the fringe of the Gobi Desert through Shaanxi, Ningxia and ending at the mouth of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu.

The Great Wall in Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi is the longest stretch of the wall, but also the section most affected by time and the elements. In the east, around Beijing, Hebei and Liaoning, the builders were able to use stone and bricks. Farther west in the grasslands, the wall becomes a thick rampart of packed earth, pressed reeds and mud and whatever else the local laborers could get their hands on.

This made for a thick and imposing wall, but also a wall susceptible to erosion. Across the north, the wall is dotted by small settlements and fortresses marking a time when this region of China was much more fertile than it is today. This stretch of the wall is great for long hikes and camp-outs, horse and motorbike treks and awesome trips like the Mongolian Bike Challenge, which cross some of the same country.

The Great Wall in the West

The Great Wall out in the deserts of Ningxia and Gansu provinces can hardly be called such; this part of the wall is so vastly different from the solid symbols of strength and longevity in the east that it hardly seems it could be the same thing. Only the fortresses of Jiayuguan and Yumenguan, which have been reconstructed and are open for tourism, can conjure up the idea of imperial defense against hordes and the border of civilization. As soon as it leaves behind the rebuilt towers of the fortresses, the Great Wall becomes solitary brown heaps, sagging atop rocky dunes and crumbling into sandy hills.

The edges of the Great Wall also mark the edge of ancient China’s imperial reach. The Han, Tang, Ming and Qing all exerted some control as far as Central Asia, but mostly along established trade routes protected by fortress-settlements or alliances with nearby Turkish, Tartar or Mongol warlords. The contact zone between the Chinese empires and the western world straddles the edge of the wall here: Dunhuang has a fascinating mix of Indian, Greek and Chinese influences and China’s far west province of Xinjiang is a melting pot of cultures. The Great Wall, as often as not, proved as a catalyst for communication between different cultures, as much as it kept people apart.

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Destination & Places

Shanghai Corniche: A downtown oasis on the banks of the Huangpu

[showtime] (Click left or right of the image to view slideshow) Whatever your thoughts about Shanghai Expo, its legacy to the city’s urban infrastructure cannot be denied. So the clean air and construction-free city center may be a distant memory, but being the world’s stage for six months sure gave a boost to projects such as the new and improved Bund area, so many new metro lines I’ve already lost count, a city-wide paint job and a new terminal at Hongqiao airport to name but a few and this past week, I’ve come across yet another slice of leftover Expo pie, called Shanghai Corniche. (More after the jump… )The city’s best kept secret, Shanghai Corniche is a downtown breath of fresh air (well almost, if you discount the occasional smoke spewing tug boat passing by on the river). Part of a mammoth project to redevelop Xuhui’s waterfront (that’s the bit that stretches south from the Lupu Bridge, opposite the Expo site) there’s still a lot of work to do before it becomes the complete commercial and residential mega-hub it will eventually be, but what’s already there is most certainly worth a look. The re-development has integrated much of the waterfront’s original industrial features with dock cranes towering over pedestrian walkways and an old railway shed and tracks from what was Shanghai’s original port train station, the Shanghai Nanpu Station built during the Qing Dynasty (1907), left intact. There’s even an old steam train at one of the main entrance points on the southern most end of Ruijin Nan Lu. A pedestrianized zone (with free public bicycle rental at several points along the 8.5 kilometer stretch) Shanghai Corniche is also home to an elevated walkway, climbing walls, basketball hoops and what looks like it might eventually be a small skate park. There’s also the “Maritime Tower” which in the future will be used as a viewing point. Traffic free (and right now virtually people free too!) it’s a great piece of downtown open space and perfect for a run, an afternoon stroll with the kids, walking the dog or just watching the boats go by–and it’s lit up all pretty at night too. How to get there: Head south, south, south down Ruijin Nan Lu to arrive at the north end of the Shanghai Corniche waterfront and the old Nanpu Railway Station, or hop on Metro Line 7to Chuanchang Road. Head for the river and you’ll arrive about halfway down.