Where: Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Ya'an and Shanghai, China
Why: Back in January I saw a blip in my Facebook newsfeed about “work with pandas on vacation”. I followed the link on a lark and ended up booking the trip. The 12 day journey would include 2 ½ days volunteering at a panda breeding facility in Ya’an, in the Sichuan province in China. China wasn’t high up on my bucket list (indeed, I’d been saving it for the next “milestone birthday” trip), but this opportunity turned out to be too good to pass up.
How: The tour was organized by Access China Tours for the non-profit group Pandas International, Inc. PI is a charity which helps fund certain panda research and breeding facilities in China. While membership in PI was not required for the trip, most of the travelers (10 total) were members and a portion of the tour cost went to PI directly. I worked with Cherry at ACT who was attentive and responsive to my requests.
Ordinarily I would never consider a tour but China was not someplace I felt I could easily (read: easily) navigate on my own. To cover the ground we did in the time we did required three internal flights and a private mini-bus and guides/drivers in each city. This was, in my opinion, the most expeditious way to make this trip. Plus, I sort of got used to the whole private guide/driver and someone to deal with the logistics and the on-the-ground issues in Russia last year.
Airlines: I flew United BOS-ORD-PEK going over and PVG-SFO-BOS coming back. I chose United solely for the Economy Plus, which was going to afford me extra legroom for minimal extra cost. I wanted to be comfortable but not break the bank on airfare. On the Chicago-Beijing leg, the flight was practically empty and I had the middle seat between me and the guy in the aisle empty, which was nice. From Shanghai to San Fran, the flight was oversold and packed, but the extra legroom made all the difference.
Internal flights were on either China Southern or China Eastern Airlines. Two of our three flights departed exactly on time (defeating the pre-conceived notion that all domestic flights are late) but our flight from Chengdu to Shanghai left 45 minutes late, which was due to air traffic control issues and I am guessing heavy rain. All three flights were fine, with service and experience comparable to any other carrier I’ve taken. In-flight meals were Chinese cuisine (of course!) and good. All luggage made it without issue.
Hotels: all of these were part of the tour package, I did not pick them but was not disappointed with any of them.
Beijing – Doubletree by Hilton Beijing
Any hotel that hands me a hot chocolate chip cookie after 31 hours in transit has won me from the start. I know that's a Hilton/Doubletree thing around the world, but I wanted food and a shower in that order and they fit the bill.
I stayed here 2 nights at the start of my vacation in China. My room was good sized and the bed was comfortable. The bathroom too was good sized with plenty of room to move around and good counter space. Everything was perfectly clean and quiet. The wired internet worked well, but the fee for it was sort of high. Other than that, I have no complaints about the room at all.
Breakfast is served in an enormous restaurant and has an equally enormous selection. Problem is it is quite crowded and the lines at the various buffet stations can be long. Heck, even waiting to get a table can be a long wait. I found the breakfast atmosphere too frenzied and loud for my liking that early in the day.
There's an ATM in the hall near the restaurant, which is quite handy.
I was not bothered by location as I was escorted by a local guide and did not have to get around on my own. I had no occasion to engage staff, so can't speak to service.
I'd gladly stay here again if I get the chance.
Xi’an – Grand Noble Hotel
I only stayed in Xi'an for one night so my review may be tempered by that fact. The location is exceptional; we were able to walk to the restaurant we ate at as well as the market streets nearby no problems. The room was average; my queen sized room felt as though the bathroom area was actually a converted kitchenette, if that makes sense. There was one closet that housed the toilet, one that housed the shower and the sink/mirror faced into the living area with a pass through as if I was to serve dinner through there. Sort of odd, but completely functional and clean. The bed was large, comfortable and clean. Again, I had no complaints whatsoever about cleanliness, comfort or quietness (I heard no street noise whatsoever). Breakfast buffet was vast and delicious. Overall everything was fine, but there was nothing to make this an exceptional place to stay, just ordinary. I'd have no problem returning though. I had no need for contacting any staff for service so can't really comment on that. The wired internet connection in the room was free and fast.
Chengdu – Tibet Hotel
We spent two nights here and of the five hotels I stayed in, this was my favorite.
From the spacious lobby to the breakfast area, the Tibetan vibe is obvious. The room was spacious, immaculately clean and comfortable. The bed and linens were clean and comfortable. The tv spun around to be viewable either in the bedroom or from the tub in the bathroom. The bathroom had separate bath and shower, both of which were very modern. I liked have a small foyer into the room and plenty of room to spread out.
The wired internet connection in the room was free and fast. The breakfast was good, but with less Western options than I'd have liked, but I realize being away from the larger cities with more Western visitors, that's the way it is.
Location was not an issue for me as I was being escorted by a local guide. But being on the corner of what appears to be two busy streets, I was surprised at how quiet (silent) my room was overnight.
I had no reason to contact hotel staff, so cannot speak to service. All this said, it should be obvious that I would gladly stay here again! (I seldom hand out five stars for hotels, but this one is very close!)
Ya’an – Moonstar Hotel
We spent three nights here. I loved the hotel. After staying in three of China's largest cities for a week, this was a nice "escape" from the big city feeling. It was wonderful to sleep with the windows open and hear nothing but crickets (or cicadas?) at night and the rooster in the morning. The location that makes it so quiet makes it very secluded. Without a car, you have access to nothing in Ya'an if you're traveling by foot. It is on the opposite side of Ya'an from the panda base at Bifengxia, so budget about 45 minutes to get there in early morning traffic through Ya'an.
We ate at the attached restaurant for both breakfasts and dinners. All of the meals were good. Breakfast buffet was entirely Chinese though, no Western options other than fried eggs. There was coffee, but it was already milked and sugared on the hot plate. None of the restaurant staff speak English, so ordering dinner is tough without Chinese speaking assistance. That said, we still had great meals, if not exactly what we ordered.
Free wired internet in the room, wireless internet in the lobby.
The room was spacious and comfortable. Bed and bath were immaculately clean. The combination of a comfortable room and a quiet atmosphere was a much needed break at the midpoint of the trip. I would stay here again when I return, but would need a rental car or guide/driver to get me around.
Shanghai – Lexington Plaza Mingde
I went to Shanghai with such trepidation after reading all the reviews about this hotel on TripAdvisor. Rest assured, it is not nearly as bad as advertised.
The Lexington Plaza is large and non-descript. This hotel could be anywhere in the world, NYC, DC, Berlin. It's a big western chain, period, and that fact lends itself to non-descript character and impersonal staff, at least as I've experienced in all my travels. This is, however, the only hotel I stayed in in China where every concierge, bellhop, cleaning person greeted me with a hello in English when we passed in the corridors or elevator. That says something...
The hotel's location is remote from tourist areas, but this was not a problem for me as I was being escorted by a local guide. The area around it reminded me of the area just west of Times Square, NYC. So if you've been in neighborhoods like that and lived to tell about it, you'll be fine here.
The accommodations are excellent. My room was large, immaculately clean and quiet. Bathroom and bed were clean and comfortable. There was a wired internet connection for a fee in the room which was reliable but a bit slow. I was told by my fellow travelers that wireless in the lobby was faster.
Breakfast was average; this was the fifth hotel of five in China for me, and it had the slimmest offerings of them all but a good combination of Chinese and Western foods. I had no complaints about the restaurant service, but did find the dining rooms a bit dark for breakfast time! We had drinks in the bar one night and the service there was good for the number of people in the group.
I rated this Average only because there was nothing that made it special or memorable to me and I felt the fee for wired internet use in the room was high. I had no issues or complaints or problems otherwise. Compared to other hotels I stayed in on this trip, this was just average.
Usually, food and restaurants are such a big part of my trip reports. Unfortunately, I don’t know any of the names of the restaurants we ate at, because they were all in Chinese and I never asked for them in English. For a tour group, I felt we ate amazingly well. In each city, we ate whatever the local popular cuisine was, so in Beijing we had Peking Duck, in Xi’an we had the dumpling dinner, in Chengdu we had Sichuan hot pot and Sichuan tapas-style meals and in Shanghai we had a traditional Shanghainese meal. Having gotten terribly ill once in Spain, of all places, I am gun-shy now when it comes to even slightly adventurous eating. I got over that in China if only because everything was so good, and tasted fresh and was really tasty. I loved the Sichuan food, and the hotter the better. I fell hard for Ma Po Tofu and a green bean and Sichuan pepper dish that was insanely good. I also enjoyed the 21 courses of dumplings we had in Xi’an and appreciated that the dumpling was usually shaped in the form of the filling inside it, so if it looked like a fish, or a pumpkin or a nut or a chicken, it probably was. It was interesting to try things I’ll probably never find here, like lotus root, and like them. Only now I find myself wanting them again!
The Tour Itself: Our guide said to us one night on the way back to the hotel “This vacation is not for your rest, this vacation is for you to see as much as you can.” Man, I like to jam-pack my vacations, but this trip made even my most industrious independent travel look like child’s play. I don’t regret seeing anything or how we did it, but I think the general fatigue I had when I got home, coupled with brutal jetlag, really got to me. I don’t think we could have done it any differently, but I do wish we’d spent more time in some places (Beijing, Shanghai) and skipped things in other places (Jinsha Museum in Chengdu). I knew when I started reading tour books to prepare that my list of “would love to see this, but won’t on this trip” would be longer than I wanted, so I stopped reading and just went with the flow. Next trip I’ll circle back to “everything else”, I suppose.
We had one tour manager who was not just our guide in Beijing, but stayed with us the entire time and facilitated everything. We'd have to have our luggage outside our room before breakfast, but then we wouldn't see it again until we picked it up in the next city, and we'd show up at the airport with boarding passes already done for us, with about a half hour to kill before the flight, so I feel he really maximized our time on the ground. I'm not used to that service traveling alone! In addition, in each city we'd have a local guide who'd add more color and facilitate our moving around each locale.
That said, only having 10 of us on the tour made us a very efficient bunch who got very friendly very quickly. I was truly sad to leave my tour mates at the end of the tour, because I felt like we'd been through so much together.
Miscellany: More than any other trip, this trip was just sensory overload. There wasn’t much that we did that I didn’t have to consciously process. Brushing your teeth (don’t use the water!), taking a shower (keep your mouth closed), using squat toilets, looking out the window, reading a menu (or asking for a translation), listening to music….everything was new, exciting, different, strange, challenging. I think that constantly being “On” and taking everything in adds a dimension to travel that I hadn’t had before. Nothing I’d seen in Europe or Russia challenged me this much. I loved it, but it is tiring too.
General Travel Tips: Yes, bring your own toilet paper, especially outside the big cities. And be prepared to squat often, especially outside of Beijing and Shanghai. I found once we left Beijing, western toilets were non-existent outside of our hotels.
Bring Handy Wipes to wipe clean your hands and anything else that may be in the line of fire in the toilets. I also highly recommend melatonin or some other sleep aid. I spent the first three days getting next to no sleep due to jetlag until I had a doctor on the trip prescribe me something. And when eating, use common sense. The only people in our group who suffered any form of intestinal distress ate apples, pears or nuts bought in street markets.
For internet access, I downloaded and installed Stealthcube's VPN on my Dell mini. I found it pretty intuitive to use but did have a bit of trouble connecting just to Facebook in Beijing, otherwise I never had any issues getting to either Facebook or my blog, both of which were restricted sites there. It was $8 a month for Stealthcube and money well-spent.
Next up: sights and pandas!
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Where: Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Ya'an and Shanghai, China