Last November I went on vacation to China. In a subsequent post, I’ll write about health issues in China, but for now I’ll just talk about the trip for those interested.
Why China, you might ask? Well I’ve always been curious, and had only been to Hong Kong about 20 years ago, and when a great deal came up, I couldn’t pass it up.
Through Travelzoo I learned of a tour from SmarTours. For an incredible $1099 per person, we had airfare on Air China from San Francisco to Beijing, 5 nights in a nice and well located hotel, a flight to Shanghai, 3 nights in a nice Holiday Inn, also well located, western and Chinese breakfast buffets in the hotels, the flight back to San Francisco, via Beijing, and all airport transfers with an English speaking guide. Additional tours were all optional, but I later learned that the trip was so cheap because it was subsidized by the Chinese government. The tours most people took stopped at government owned stores (silk factory, jade store, pearl store, etc.). As the guide told us, the Chinese government has lent a lot of money to the US, and they hoped us tourists would spend some of it in China!
In Beijing we opted to go with another tour company, recommended by a flight attendant we know, www.chinatour.net. I actually emailed them what I wanted just before getting on the plane. When we arrived at the hotel and I could get on the internet, I confirmed the email they had sent while we were in the air. Our guide called at 10:30 pm and we agreed to meet in the lobby at 8:30 the following morning. We took a private tour for the first 3 days. For a cost of ¥3000 ($484) for two people, we had a driver and tour guide, lunch and most admission fees. The first 2 days events lasted over 12 hours, with the driver waiting to drive us back after acrobatic and Kung Fu shows. For lunch the second day we paid a small surcharge to have a higher quality meal as we had them modify one of their itineraries.
The first day our guide and driver met us at 8:30 am. We went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Because the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was about to start to select the new president, security was tighter than usual, and some
We hadn’t asked, but our guide then brought us to an enjoyable tea ceremony where we were served five different kinds of tea. There was a “pee boy” to test the water temperature. If you pour cool water on top of the head, nothing happens. But if suitably hot, the ceramic boy pees.Then we went to a Chinese acrobat show. Our guide purchased the tickets then took us to the entrance. The ticket taker tried to direct us to the 2nd floor, but when our guide said, ‘what?!’ he pointed us to much better first floor seats near the front.
Rather than go to the chain Quanjude for a Peking duck dinner, as part of the company’s tour, I opted for DaDong, which was well worth the extra cost. In addition to roast duck with condiments, we ordered peas, soy soup, and pomegranate salad.
Without us ordering they also brought persimmon and candied crab apples. This was epicurean Chinese food fit for a foodie. At ¥288 ($46) for two, it was a bargain. Our guide sat across the table waiting for us as the driver had already left to park the car. It seemed a little strange, but she helped with ordering and explaining things.
Great Wall at Badaling. Despite being off season, it was pretty crowded, but definitely worth seeing. We were lucky with the weather. It had snowed a couple of days earlier, which prevented some tour groups from going, but it was nice and sunny for us. Afterwards I went to use the toilet before leaving. I pressed what I thought was a peddle on the floor to flush the toilet. When I heard a loud sound I looked again at the peddle and realized it said “SOS”. I then found the real flush handle and made a hasty retreat!
On the way back our guide had us stop at the Derun Pearl Gallery. They have the distinction of being located at the National Olympic Sport Center, apparently because the owner or developer owned some of the land before it was turned into the center.
Next it was time for spicy Szechuan food before attending the Legend of Kung Fu show. The story was a little campy, but it was enjoyable.
We asked our guide about housing. She said most people pay off their house or apartment in 2 or 3 year, longer if it’s a real expensive place. They don’t take loans for cars and pay cash.
The following morning it was off to the picturesque Summer Palace. In the afternoon we strolled down the Fuxiang Hutong. That evening we walked around a mall near our hotel. I was surprised by temperature extremes. On the bottom floor was an ice skating rink, yet in the stores it was much warmer than typical American malls. I felt hot with my jacket off, yet most Chinese kept their coats on and appeared comfortable.
We went to dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. As we found at most of the restaurants we went to, the waitress stood waiting to take our order as soon as they brought us to the table, before we had even removed our coats, much less looked at the menu. The menu had many pages, and it was not always easy to figure out what a dish consisted of with their English translations (Heavenly dragon meat, anyone?). One dish I was surprised to see was sweet potatoes with blueberry sauce. It was kind of bland, but it sure looked good.
The next day we spent most of the day at the Hongqiao (Pearl) Market. That was more time shopping then I bargained for, but it was interesting and we obtained some good deals. You do have to bargain aggressively. One saleswoman grabbed my wife’s arm to prevent her from leaving, and I literally had to pry her fingers off!
The following day a bus took us to the airport, and it was off to Shanghai. After checking in at our hotel, we went to the People’s Park then the Shanghai Museum.
The next morning we took the metro (subway) to see the Yùyuán Gardens and nearby stores. From there we took a taxi to the Bund. The distance was not far, but the man at the hotel desk suggested not walking as he said that area has a lot of pick pockets. The Bund is an elevated walkway by the water, which gives a great view of the Pûdong New Area financial district across the water, and an amazing skyline. To get across we took the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. It was not nearly as fantastic as they made it out to be (unless perhaps you’re an 8-year-old boy), but it got us there. We stopped at the Apple Store there before going to the Shanghai World Financial Center, where we went to the 100th floor observatory for a stupendous view.
Another metro took us to the French Concession part of town. We walked a fairly long distance to go to the Bâoluó Jiûlóu restaurant. My Lonely Planet guide said it was a large and lively place. When we got to the address all we saw was what looked like a small, dumpy restaurant. We almost left, but then walked in and asked for a table. We were taken around the corner only to discover a very large room full of people. I enjoyed a thick pea or soy (?) and coconut soup.
The next day it was off to the town of Suzhou. The train station was close to our hotel, but we wasted a half hour in the wrong building before finally finding the place we had to go to buy the tickets. Fortunately they had a line for English speakers. Unfortunately we found out that we needed to show our passports just to purchase a ticket, though it wasn’t needed to board the train. So we had to go back to the hotel to get our passports. It was a fast train that took us to Suzhou, and the landscape blurred past. When we arrived at the station, we weren’t sure where we were in relation to the town, and our guidebooks made no suggestions. At the “Information” booth the attendants barely spoke English. They suggested a 30 minute bus ride. We and two others in our group decided to take a taxi. It turned out to be a 5-10 minute ride that only cost less than $2!
We went to the zen-like Suzhou Museum, designed by architect I.M. Pei. It contained modern art (some paintings were labeled with dates such as, “2011 AD” just in case you thought it might be 2011 BC), ceramics, jade, textile, and other pieces.
Afterward we went to the Humble Administrator’s Garden. This is a very large, and not so humble, garden, with lots of water features and Asian buildings. We had lunch at a noodle shop then wandered down the colorful Píngjiang Lù road. One had to watch out for the numerous bicycles and motorbikes.
In the evening we took the metro to East Najing Road and walked down the heavily neon-lit road. We were surprised to see a large group of mostly women doing a form of a line dance, as well as some smaller groups ballroom dancing.
We had dinner at the Lost Heaven restaurant, a large and delightful place serving Bai, Dai and Miao folk (Yunnanese) cuisine. We ate tofu with eggplant, a shrimp dish, Burmese chicken curry, and a pumpkin truffle soup. This was the most expensive restaurant of the trip at about $100 per person. But the rest of the meals were cheap, and if you’re a foodie, it’s worth it to try a delicious, and hard to find cuisine.
We ended our sightseeing with another trip to the Bund to see it at night. We took our photos just in time, before discovering that they turn off many of building lights at 10 pm.
The SmarTour itinerary showed us flying from Shanghai to San Francisco. On the bus to the airport we learned that although that was true, it was not the whole story. We actually had a flight to Beijing with a 3-4 hour layover first, which made for a long day of travel. It took a long long time to get through security in Beijing. They did not ask people to take off belts, so almost everyone set off the metal detector. They subjected most people to a pat down and having a metal detector wand passed over them. Water bottles were confiscated, even if bought past security in Shanghai, and again just before boarding in Beijing, even if purchased after passing through Beijing security.
If you’ve made it this far, I think you will enjoy seeing more of my photos at http://www.danielginsberg.com/Travel/China-2012/27271654_z6ZLck#!i=2291644664&k=FqnMv9X. To reward my faithful readers, I’m offering 70% off those photos for this month only on all prints and merchandise, using the coupon code WBSChina. Feel free to just look, however.