The Cast: Myself (46 YR F business person) very well traveled
Partner (52 YR M professional photographer) moderately well traveled
Supplier: China Odyssey Tours- Custom private tour 13 days/Asiana Air
Destination- LAX to Beijing-Xi'an-Chengdu-Guilin-Yangshou-Shanghai
Ok now I know there are some people who just get wiggy at the idea of using a tour company for travel in China but I had a near death experience in Thailand several years ago (in short it included 6 weeks in two hospitals, talk of amputation, 3 surgeries and 11 months of antibiotics via an IV) so now, I feel safer using a tour company for certain destinations.
COT did a most excellent job both in the pre-planning stage and in the execution of our adventure. I had MANY MANY itinerary changes and our contact Andy Xie handled it all with aplomb. Always responding within 24 hours with flexibility, clarity and really NICE manners. The guides were overall excellent, some better then others but all spoke English clearly and were able to provide a great deal of background information which is important as there is NOTHING more frustrating then asking a question and having a guide blow you off, or clearly have no clue The guides were all very good a B+ to A Also they were careful to make us feel the shopping stops were optional I ended up choosing not to go to several and they were fine about that. Some were actually interesting I liked the jade cutting and the silk factory but as I am not much of a shopper those were the only two we did.
We decided on a mix of Western/Chinese for our stay:
Beijing: Double Happiness: a fantastic Chinese hotel located in one of the more traditional neighborhoods in old Beijing if you want to feel like you are REALLY not in Kansas this is a great place to start. The hotel is 200 YR built on a traditional quadrangle design. This sucker positively oozes atmosphere. Good b-fest of mostly Chinese food, rice dumplings etc if you are seeking a robust western b-fest this won't get you there, but the food was tasty and the coffee was hot
Xi'an: Sofitel Renmen Square: apparently the nicest hotel in Xi'an: huge b-fest good gym well located. A tad (small tad) bit tired in decore if you are used to 5stars in the US but passable.
Chengdu: Hotel Buddha Zen: LOVED this place, we had an exterior room that overlooked a bustling street of food and the smell of dumplings and cooking was positively intoxicating! Decor was LOVELY. They even have a traditional Chinese harp player in the courtyard of the hotel. B-fest was "eh" but I did have a 28 dollar/hour Chinese massage in their spa which was a great value.
Guilin: Sheraton: we really just breezed in and out getting in LATE and leaving early, huge b-fest and passable gym with pool. Nice riverfront location.
Yangshou: Tried to get into the Mountain retreat but found out at last minute they were overbooked. Ended up and Dongling River Retreat which had an AMAZING view from our room but nothing else.
Shanghai: Le Meridien: What can you say, a wonderful hotel. LOVED our Bund view room on the 39th floor, helpful staff. A shower so dang cool I had my partner take a picture of it.
General note: China has some mighty fine water pressure that is my pet peeve when I travel, limp, chilly showers YUK! Not a problem at any of the hotels we stayed in.
General note #2: China has some NASTY air quality, possibly the worst I have seen AND I live in Los Angeles and have been to Cairo in the summer.
Transpo in China: Combo of Air China and China Eastern both very good, on time. They do less of a security check in China, no shoes off, no liquids in see through bags. We pack extremely lightly 25 pounds per person so we didn't check anything.
Communications in China: We ordered cell/blackberry from Pandaphone since we run an Internet business that freakishly does not shut down when we go out of town (dang) this turned out to be a good thing as the wireless Internet from Chengdu to Yangshou was spotty at best. We also wasted money on Freedur (for skirting the Great Firewall of China) which didn't work at all and still blocked social networking and Youtube.
Food: We are not "foodies" particularly, though I do admire travelers who hit the world with their Michelin guides and their hunt for the perfect repast.. that ain't us the food was all very good, we only went to 1 "tourist bus" type place and that was outside of Shanghai that was downright horrible. Every other place was pretty darned good and we are picky eaters. One thing you notice really fast, Chinese people are not afraid of bones (like my travel partner) at one place we had what appeared to be fried chicken bones (we dubbed them Chicken McNuckles). In Guilin I fell in love with these sugared potatoes and went a little nuts on them. If you are a vegan, I wish you luck in China. We tried to be meat free but gave up after 1 day, food in China is just meaty and spicy (luckily we liked spice) in India we had a problem with restaurants seeming to "de-spice" their food for our assumed western taste.. NO SUCH issue in China my lips are still on fire from a particularly delicious pepper beef thing.
By Shanghai I am afraid to say we hit a Pizza Hut; two weeks of Chinese food was getting too much for my mouth so yep we sold out. But DANG it was good.
By far my favorite thing was to see the Pandas in Chengdu, I sprang for the extra money and had my picture taken holding a baby panda.. un-be-lieveable! I cried with joy for 30 minutes. These critters are entertaining, the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Center is very lush and the pandas all seem like they are in a very nice, robust and enriched environment. They are really active and I could have stayed there for the entire three weeks.
Great Wall: we went to the Mutinyanu (spelling) and hiked up it was not very crowded at this time of year and the weather was very good not too hot it was very thrilling to be on the actual Wall.
River Li Cruise: SO scenic it hurts, in a country that seems a little starved for green space (maybe it was just our itinerary that was starved) this cruise amazed me. Like a freakin' antique painting. We went from Guilin to Yangshou Ultimately I was glad I opted for this rather then the Yangzee cruise because we met a couple from England who told us their cruise ship on the Yangzee was stuck for 25 hours in one place due to fog (yeah they seemed bitter). Generally I loved the Guilin/Yangshou portion of the trip. We shelled out extra for the light show in Yangshou and I loved it.
Partner LOVED the Warriors of Xi'an.. I was kind of "whatever" but maybe I didn't have my China groove turned on yet.
Additional odd notes: not only do they not have a whole lotta toilet paper, but they don't use a lot of napkins in restaurants sometimes they just have like, facial tissue. Get used to it and ladies it helps to nurture your knees as you will be squatting a lot/ western toilets are few and far between. ALSO in Beijing people don't really wait in line for the restroom.. I had to channel my old punk rock ethic to slam into a stall. No one seemed offended and if I had not done that I would still have been waiting to get to the bathroom.
Touching: Curious Chinese people have no problem touching something on you that it interesting. Its weird the first time a lady reached up and grabbed my glass necklace, just to look. I met a New Zealand lady who had her hair and breasts touched by other women, I didn't have that problem but I am one flat chested chick.
Summary: China is amazing, go see it before the country becomes one endless wave of 70 story high apartment buildings (which it kind of looks close to doing). People were great and the infrastructure is mighty fine.
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China Odyssey Tours: Just returned from two AMAZING weeks!
The Cast: Myself (46 YR F business person) very well traveled