|Beat that StairMaster!|
Day 1 – Arrival in Beijing
The hotel was very nice, but far from the downtown area. I have found this arrangement to be pretty typical with tour companies since they have to park their big buses and shuttle you around most of the time anyways. Usually it isn’t an issue, but it can make for expensive cab rides. We were able to speak with our local guide, Lilly, after checking into the hotel and she apologized for the mix up and gave us the meeting time for the next morning in the lobby. We waited for about an hour assuming they may have been running late.
Day 2 – Beijing
One of the best things about this tour was knowing that a huge hotel breakfast buffet was included each day. All of the buffets were a good mix and Chinese food and an American breakfast. My typical breakfast consisted of coffee, pineapple juice, a croissant with Nutella, fried rice, and some veg/meat stir-fry… a breakfast of champions, for sure!
|Traditional Peking Duck|
Just like with Thailand, most of our travel time was due to the fact that we were always sitting in traffic. Since the wall is so great indeed, there are multiple places that tourists tend to visit. We went to Juyongguan Pass. Our bus was supposed to drop us off at a higher point in the mountain side, but the road was closed so we stayed in a less steep area. What I didn't realize about the Great Wall beforehand was that it has a lot of steps! It's not just a flat wall, it is like the great steps of China. I would have loved to see Rocky filmed here because he would have never made it to the top. After about 30 minutes or slow, my movements slowed down pretty drastically. After the next 15 I sat on the stairs and started to second guess my decision of walking that far. All I thought about was how in shape those warriors must have been. Because the wall goes for such a far distance, it is hard to really take it all in from one spot. I found myself not as impressed as I have been at some other historical sights, only because I couldn't really appreciate it all. If I could do this again, I would definitely look into some kind of helicopter ride or something over the wall so I can really get a sense for it.
After our walk along the wall, we headed over the a jade “museum” for lunch and a brief instruction on how jade is excavated and polished. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food here. Who would have thought a shop would offer such a good meal too. The museum itself was more of a shop with a short discussion and demonstration, but that is what I expected when I arrived. Fortunately, I actually wanted to get a small pendant and found one that didn't cost too much. I wouldn't have thought you could haggle in shops like that, but negotiating happens everywhere! I wouldn't be surprised if you went into a shop like H&M and starting bargaining, ha! Heading into traffic yet again, we made our way to an area downtown with more shopping and an exotic food market.
|Beautiful architecture in the Summer Palace|
After leaving the building, we continued down the street to Wangfujing Street to peruse the high-end shopping and more importantly, the food market. Now I am not naive enough to think that local people eat scorpions on a stick everyday, but to see even a few people snacking on them was pretty shocking. In addition to scorpions, there were also kebabs full of starfish, snakes, tarantulas, grubs, and seahorses... something for everyone! For the less adventurous folks, there were steamed buns, stir-fry, and other sweets. I am not one to eat street food anywhere (even in Boston), so I passed. I was tempted to buy some tea and other souvenirs though. I ended up with a silk embroidered piece of artwork that was haggled down to 50 yuan from a 600 yuan starting price, yikes!
|Rickshaw ride through a Hutong|
Day 3 – Beijing
|The Forbidden City|
After our morning stroll and a quick stop into a pearl "factory", we drove to a different part of the city for a rickshaw ride in the rain. In addition, lunch that day was provided by a local family living in a hutong within the city. My guide book makes hutongs look very pretty and spacious, but in reality, so many additional structures popped up within the hutong that was explored that I couldn't tell where the outer wall even was. It seemed run down and dirty, and while I try not to complain, I think this might have been a scam. The food was fine and the host was very welcoming, but it just didn't add up. There was so much pressure for us to eat at this home that the people who opted out of this optional expense were pretty alienated. The bathroom situation at the hutong was, by far, the worse I came across. Allegedly none of the homes have their own bathrooms (which makes you wonder where they shower since I saw they definitely had indoor plumbing in the kitchen), so we all had to use the communal toilets in the alley. The squatty potties were taken to the next level because not only were they holes in the ground, but none of the “stalls” had any doors, just very small dividers. Needless to say, I became much closer to a few of the women on that trip in that bathroom.
After that situation was taken care of, we piled back into the bus to head over to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, we could not actually walk on the square due to a visiting foreign dignitary, but we did walk around it and take a quick picture before continuing on to the Forbidden City. This spot was drastically different from the Summer Palace. Unlike the beautiful trees and landscaping I saw earlier in the day, the Forbidden City was completely concrete and bare. Our guide told us this was because the buildings were made of wood and they didn't want anything inside the fortress that could catch on fire and bring everything down with it. Additionally, there was large tubs all around the outer wall to hold rain water to douse any fires that may have started during an attack. We were also supposed to visit the water nest and Beijing Olympic park that day, but due to all the traffic, we never made it there.
Day 4 – Fly to Xi’an
Our group was chauffeured to the airport the next morning and split up onto two different flights landing within an hour of each other. I do not know why we were booked on separate flights, but since we arrived second and didn’t have to wait around for anyone, it didn't seem like a big deal at the time. When we met up with the group, we found out that we were being consolidated into an even bigger group while touring in Xi’an. The other group was also in Beijing for a few days, but stayed at a different hotel and were escorted around by a different guide. It still wasn't completely unmanageable with the larger group, but it did make coordinating times at the sights much more difficult than before. I actually felt bad for our guide, Aaron. He did a great job though!
|Local artist creating a mini warrior|
The optional tour for that night was the Tang Dynasty show and dumpling dinner. I did some research in advance on the show and decided it wouldn’t be a good use of our time. Instead, some of the group headed out to a local restaurant with great reviews for a dumpling feast of our own. I don’t eat much seafood, so I chose the meat and veggie dumpling dinner while everyone else had the seafood as well. The dumplings were very good and I definitely enjoyed some more than others, but it seemed like a somewhat authentic experience and no one went home hungry! Fun Fact: Some restaurants will charge you for napkins.
Day 5 – Xi’an
|View of Pit 1|
The ~40 minute drive was not too bad considering we had been sitting in heavy traffic during most of our travels within China. Just outside of the venue, we made a pit stop at another local “museum” to understand how the clay warriors were made and view some local furniture and art. This was the only place I found during the entire trip that sold Christmas ornaments, so even though I know I didn’t get the best price, I bought one anyways. I like to collect ornaments and now I will have a little koi fish dangling from my tree next year. After 45 minutes or so of this museum/shopping experience, we were all sent upstairs to eat lunch at the buffet. I don’t know of many shops that offer lunch as well, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. We didn’t even have this experience in Thailand, so it is pretty unique. The food at the Jade museum was awesome, so I was hoping for something delicious. Sadly, I was letdown; I didn’t really enjoy any of it. Good thing I had my snacks ready for that long afternoon.
|YuYuan Gardens and Huxting Tea House|
The last sight for the day was at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda square. I actually wish we were able to spend more time here because it was a fun open area with lots of shops, restaurants, and people walking around. The pagoda itself was closed by the time we arrived, so we could not go in, but walking around outside was delightful. In addition, I was able to pick up a green tea and red bean cheesecake and green tea latte from Starbucks for a taste test comparison to what I get back home. I concluded that the green tea latte I had there was more powdery and rich flavor than what I get back in Boston. I like them both though, just for different reasons. I also liked the flavor of the cheesecake, but the red beans made it very crumbly instead of creamy. One of the optional tours for that night was to take a bike ride along the ancient city wall. I am glad I did not book that in advance, because the rain would have made it a miserable and potentially dangerous experience. A small number of people did pre-pay for the tour and they did not end up going. I would have liked to take a walk along the wall, but that didn’t happen either.
|Inside the YuYuan Garden|
Day 6 – Fly to Shanghai
Domestic traveling is definitely one of the weaknesses of China Tours. I really hope they are working on this with the revised itineraries since it was dreadfully unorganized. This time around, the people in our tour group were split between three different flights. While they were all planned to landed within 2 hours of each other, some of the people on our tour were told that their seats were not confirmed and others were later told that their flight was cancelled all together. My group ended up being the first to land, so we had 1.5 hours to kill at the airport before collecting the next group. The third group was actually split onto multiple other flights and one never made it to Shanghai until 11pm. They had to spend the entire day at the airport in Xi’an! Since we only had the next day to walk around the city, this unfortunately arrangement really cut into the time we could see the city.
|Tea tasting experience|
Day 7 – Shanghai
The only day we had completely away from the group was in Shanghai. I actually found it a little odd they didn’t have anything planned in such a big city. There were some optional tours to take a train out to Hangzhou, but I doubted anyone wanted to do even more traveling. The good news is that I had purchased a travel book a few weeks before that had two 90 minute walks laid out through the Old City and French concession. That morning we took a cab to the Chenghuang Miao bazaars and Yuyuan Garden where I played tour guide for the day. When I would imagine China in my head, the first thing that I envisioned was a beautiful garden with koi ponds and stone paths. 7 days into my trip and I finally found what I was looking for… Yuyuan Garden was a beautiful sanctuary located within a walled border in the middle of the city. We got there early before it was too crowded and spent a few hours walking around and soaking it all in. We stopped in the Huxting tea house for a tea tasting with traditional snacks. I ordered a jasmine flowering tea and cautiously picked at the snacks laid out in front of me: some mini eggs, what may or may not have been tofu, a salted prune (I think) and something else that tasted both like jelly and sardines at the same time. The good news was that the tea was delicious and the rest was a learning experience.
|Green tea latte and cheesecake|
A similar excursion was offered through China Tours for an added fee (inflated for profit of course) for the night before, but everyone was exhausted from traveling all day and I don’t believe anyone went. We walked down East Nanjing road and along the waterfront before reaching the ticket office. Within a few minutes, we had our tickets for the 5:30 river cruise. When we arrived, I noticed the open top of the boat was packed, but no one was sitting on the second deck where all the tables and chairs were located. After walking up to the deck, I learned this was a VIP section that was available for only 50 Yuan extra (~$8 USD). After walking all day, this was an easy decision. I handed over my money for a complimentary orange juice and a seat out on the deck for the next hour. The cruise was short but provided an excellent view of the skyline at night. I highly recommend doing that on your own just to get out on the water for a bit and see the city from a different angle. After we docked, we made our way back to Xintiandi for dinner. That day was one of the days I really wish China Tours would have booked us into a hotel closer to city center. It would have been a lot of effort to get back to the hotel to change before coming back in town for dinner. After perusing the menus outside each restaurant, we decided to try out the pizza. Because of my bad experience flying back from Thailand, I didn’t want to take on anything too adventurous before the flight home the next day.
Day 8 – Fly Home
One last perk of booking our own flights was that we didn’t have to get up to meet everyone in the lobby at 4:00 am to meet their flights. Our flight out of Shanghai left at 4pm, so we had a leisurely breakfast and made one last attempt to get some treats to bring back home. The concierge at the hotel directed us to a nearby shopping “mall” where we killed a few hours before checking out. China Tours redeemed themselves for the mistake when we arrived in Beijing and arranged for a private car to the Shanghai Pudong airport. The trip to the airport was easy since it was Tomb Sweeping Day and everyone was headed in the opposite direction to pay their respects to their deceased ancestors. The long flight back home was a little bit better because we were able to use our frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class! I think I know how I will be using my miles accrued miles going forward… now I just have to plan my next trip!