A Critique of My China Tour with Photos   Leave a comment

I signed on with China Tours adding to the time I was spending in China on my own.  I did their 11 day package that included Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, a Yangtze River Cruise, Yichang and Shanghai.  The package cost me a little less than $2000, meals, hotels and transportation included.  I have read that getting a tour for less than $200 a day is a good deal for a person, like me, on a budget.  You pay in advance.  They charge a 3% fee for using credit cards or PayPal.  Basically they pass on the expense to the customer.  I did a bank wire transfer which cost me the Bank of America fee, $45, saving $15.

Mine was  an “add in” tour, meaning you join people who want to tour the same time as you. This lowers the cost, as individual tours can be expensive, for the single traveler who does not have their own group.  There were five of us: a couple from Canada, living in Cambodia, a couple from St. Petersburg, FL, and me.  With add in tours, who you travel with is the luck of the draw.  I got lucky.  I enjoyed their company.

China Tours employs a tour guides at each destination who are responsible for each group.  This made the service and experience a bit uneven.  Our Beijing guide was wonderful, patient and knowledgeable.  The Chongqing guide was unnecessary, as we were only there to go from the airport to dinner to the boat for the cruise.  Our Xian guide, though nice, acted at times as if our arrival was an intrusion on the other things happening in her life.  The Shanghai guide paid more attention to the script and moving us along than us.  Fortunately he quelled his anger with me for “getting lost” as he lost track of me at the museum gardens we were visiting because I had stopped to greet some friends.  But that did not stop him from chasing me down to see if I was going to tip him, as I had to leave the group early.  It is customary to tip each guide at each location, including the staff on the river cruise we took. The river cruise guide (not employed by China tours) was nice and knowledgeable, if you could find her.

The agency had a tough time communicating to their guides.  They were not very knowledgeable about the whole experience we were getting, only their part.  Most disconcerting, to me, I had told them in advance that I am not meat eater, but I do eat fish and other seafood.  They told each guide that I do not eat meat or fish or seafood.  At each place where we had a meal scheduled I had to either fight or pay for something more than vegetables, which by the way were very good.

So, here is my tour schedule, with a little review along the way:

Apr 13(Fri) Arrive in Beijing – I was coming from Changchun.  They had a guide meet me at the train station and take me by care to our hotel.  This was nice, as the tour was actually not to begin until the next day.

Apr 14(Sat) Beijing – (Accommodation Mercure Beijing Downtown – 4 star ) – I really liked this hotel.  It is located close to restaurants, taverns and the services a traveler needs.  Our guide met us after breakfast at 8:00 a.m., early for me but what the hell.  We took a nice van to Tiananmen Square.  From there we went to the Forbidden City. Then, we went to one of Beijing’s many Hutongs, were we took a rickshaw through the narrow alleys to the home of a local family who served us a wonderful lunch.  A very nice touch!  From there we went to the Summer Palace, a wonderfully well-preserved imperial garden that was the get-away place for the royal families.

Apr 15(Sun) Beijing – We traveled to the Temple of Heaven, where the emperors of Ming and Qing Dynasties worshipped and prayed for good harvest.  Later, we went to lunch at a fantastic restaurant on the way to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall.  At this section there are cable cars taking those who do not want to climb up to the Great Wall.  That night we had a very disappointing dinner at one of Beijing’s many restaurants serving “authentic” Peking duck.  Perhaps it was because we had eaten a nice breakfast (which came with the hotel stay) very big lunch, but we all felt that three big meals in a single day was bad planning.

Apr 16(Mon) Beijing-Xian – After breakfast, we traveled to the site of the Beijing Olympics, we saw the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube, kind of uneventful.  But the drive through the city seeing some of Beijing’s architecture was very nice.  From there we went to the Beijing Zone, once a military-industrial factory complex that the Chinese government allowed its art community to colonize.  The vibe was funky, relaxed and playful.  It is a place full of eateries, shops, and art/culture galleries. From there we went to the airport for a flight to Xian. We hated to say good-bye to our guide, hugging at the airport.  He set the bar very high and unfortunately none of the other guides came close to his caring attitude and professionalism.

Apr 17(Tue) Xian (Accommodation Grand New World Hotel, Xian – 4 star ) – We were met at the airport by our next guide.  Our hotel was a testament to old world charm, needing to be updated.  But we were all looking forward to seeing the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses.  And we were not disappointed.  The site created by Emperor Qin’s was amazing.  To think that one man, the same genius responsible for the Great Wall and the organization of China into municipalities, could have spent over 40 years, involving over 700,000 people and so much of the country’s resources on creating an army to protect him after his death is hmmmmm……wild.  The site is both an archaeological dig and tourist attraction.  There is a jade factory outlet, vendors, restaurants, and a new hotel and spa being built just outside the entrance. From there we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, stopping to see this “Leaning Tower of China”. After visiting the site of the Warriors, it was anti-climactic.

Apr 18(Wed) Xian-Chongqing – After breakfast we were taken to Xian’s ancient City Wall, constructed over 600 years ago to protect the city from an attack. We had just enough time to rent bicycles to ride atop of the wall. For those of us able, a longer ride would have been nice.  From there we visited the Great Mosque, where those of Islamic faith worship. I had a chance to meet the Imam, who challenged me to lift a very ancient, long and heavy spear. It must have weighed at least 150 lbs. Of course I did….jajaja. Through our guide, he asked if all Americans thought  Muslims were terrorists. I told him no, just the ones who do not think. To get to the Mosque we walked through a maze of alleys with shops, selling artwork, souvenirs, goods (including western clothes)and places to eat. We all wanted to be here for more time. They had great prices. All to be haggled, of course! But we had to get to the airport to take our flight to Chongqing.

Apr 19 (Thu) Yangtze River Cruise (accommodation President No. 3) – We arrived in Chongqing just in time to have dinner and be taken to our cruise ship. We departed that night. There were two off shore outings offered during the cruise at Fengdu there was the Ghost City tour and there were canoe trips on Shennong Stream, which I was told was beautiful. I did not go. I wanted to simply feel the Yangtze discovering the scenery of the river running through the three gorges. It did not disappoint.

Apr 21(Sat) Yichang-Shanghai (Accommodation Ramada Plaza Gateway Shanghai Hotel – 4 star ) – At Yichang we left the boat to see the Three Gorges Dam project, the largest dam construction project on earth. The site is well guarded. I was struck by the descriptions, written to give a sense of pride to the accomplishment. And perhaps also sway the belief that the cost of the project in resources and its ecological damage was not worth it. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million people were displaced because of the project. It is also clear that the Chinese need energy.  It is hard to argue with their belief that coal-burning plants reek much more on the environment than the dam.  After the tour, we boarded the ship docking in time to meet our guide who took us to lunch and got us to the airport in time for our flight to Shanghai.

Apr 22(Sun)  Shanghai – This was the best hotel of the stay and clearly not the Ramada that comes to mind when I travel in the United States.  That night I had arranged to meet, at their hotel two couples, from Austria and England, I had met on the cruise.  We went to a neighborhood restaurant dining like kings and queens for $37 dollars.  We hung out afterwards, drinking ourselves silly in one of Shanghai’s party neighborhood bars.  For obvious reasons I cannot remember the name.

Shanghai is a picturesque city; it is international, full of life and many things to do – day and night.  On this day, we went to the Shanghai Museum.  The museum itself is rather small.  But it is full of artifacts, treasures and descriptions of the way of life in ancient China.  Even the Museum’s architecture was art with its own story.  Afterwards, we traveled to the Bund for lunch and sightseeing.  From the Bund you can see the city’s skyline, which is like artwork.  Many people flock to the Bund’s river walk to take in the awesome views.   Afterwards we went to the Yuyuan Garden and Bazaar.  The gardens were gorgeous, and full of interesting places to take lots of photos.  That is where I “got lost.” But I was tired of the walk-bys and the Shanghai tour guide had gotten on my nerves.  So, I bid my good-byes to my travel companions.  They went to Tianzifang, a neighborhood full of stalls, restaurants, cafes and shops of selling artwork.  I needed some by myself time.  And Shanghai is not a bad place to be by-oneself.

Me and friends from Austria at the Yuyuan Garden

Apr 23(Mon) Depart from Shanghai – The other people in my tour left this day to return home. I stayed in Shanghai for another day for a business meeting. I was also going to Hong Kong and from there to the Philippines. Another blog, another time!China Tours is not a package at the higher end of the China tourism market. It is for more cost conscious travelers. I was very pleased by the quality of the hotels. The cruise ship was in no way 4 Star. There are nicer cruise lines on the Yangtze. A bit to my surprise, were the various side trips to places like the Jade factory (Xian), silk factory (Shanghai), tea house (Beijing) and pearl center (Beijing) where the obvious goal is to sell tourists as much as possible for a so-called discount price. In exchange for learning we had to put up with a bit of sales. China has opened its doors to tourism. That is very clear. It has also commercialized antiquity very well. All in all, I am glad I took the tour.

Artist (deaf) hand painting lacquer furniture

Posted August 23, 2012 by Wayne

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