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Trip Report Family Trip to China

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Family Trip to China
with China Highlights

This trip came about due to a desire to introduce our grandchildren to China. My husband and I became interested in the country after living in Taiwan among the Chinese in 1966-67, when he was stationed there during the Vietnam War. We had since made 3 trips to China—the latest in 2000, and felt it was time to visit again, before the country was irrevocably changed. Our grandchildren, ages 14 and 12, were at a good age to take this trip—old enough to appreciate and enjoy the sights, but young enough that they weren’t too tied up with their own activities at home. After we invited them, our daughter and son-in-law decided they would also like to accompany us, so we had a family group of six.

Although we had traveled independently on past trips to China—a process made considerably easier by my husband’s ability to communicate (at a basic level) in Mandarin—we decided to get some help with the logistics this time. We had only two short weeks due to other commitments, so we didn’t want to waste any time. I searched the Internet for tour companies, and came upon China Highlights—a branch of CITS. They offered both group and private tours, and one of their stock tours was quite similar to the itinerary I had in mind. The price seemed quite reasonable compared to some other tour companies I researched. Also, the reviews I found online were all positive. When I Emailed the company, a tour advisor named Grace Wang responded. She was my contact throughout the process, and, if she was out of the office, one of her colleagues handled my inquiries. I must say I was impressed with their quick follow up to my questions and concerns. I selected the tour which was closest to my desired itinerary to get a price, and then made a few changes in destinations, hotels and activities. One of the things I did was to eliminate all the planned shopping stops, so we would have more sightseeing or free time. China Highlights had no problem with this. They also arranged all my requested hotel and itinerary changes with no problem—and made helpful suggestions. It all worked out very smoothly.

I arranged our own International air, and it took awhile to find what I considered a reasonable fare. I booked with ANA in February, although I wasn’t entirely pleased with the schedule—it contained layovers both to and from China, with an overnight in Narita, Japan, on the return. I was especially concerned about the overnight after the big earthquake and possible nuclear disaster. Since I could cancel these reservations for a $300 pp charge, I continued to search. About a month before our departure, I found a better schedule with Continental on Orbitz, with a price that just about covered our cancellation fees. The flight to Beijing was direct, and we had only a 1 ½ hour layover in Narita on the return from Hong Kong. Although our flights were long and uncomfortable, they were on schedule.

China Highlights: I really can’t say enough about our satisfaction with them. I’ve already mentioned that the planning process went very smoothly. In the execution, our guides were all excellent. They were always prompt, helpful, flexible when we wanted to change or add to our itinerary, and very knowledgeable about the cities and sights. We were ferried around in comfortable air-conditioned vans or small busses. Of course, the drivers were Chinese, and their way of driving is sometimes a little (or a lot) frightening. However, except for a small fender-bender, we survived intact.

Cities & hotels: 3 nights in Beijing at the Park Plaza Beijing, 2 nights in Xi’an at the Grand Noble Hotel, 1 night in Chengdu at the Haiyatt Garden, 3 nights in Guilin at the Guilin Bravo Hotel, 1 night in Yangshuo at the Green Lotus, and 3 nights in Hong Kong at the Salisbury YMCA. I feel this itinerary was just right for us, and I wouldn’t have changed any of it.

I was pleased with all our hotels. They ranged from 3 to 5 star hotels, and all in good locations, which is the most important thing to me. At all of them we were just short walking distances from pedestrian shopping streets, night markets, and interesting restaurants. Our included breakfasts were excellent in all but the Green Lotus in Yangshuo, which fell a little short in this category. Winner for best breakfast would be the Salisbury YMCA in Hong Kong, with its great service and sunny restaurant with a view of the harbor. Winner for best view from our rooms was the Green Lotus with its stunning view of the Li River. I didn’t get the lake view I had expected at the Guilin Bravo, but we were upgraded to nicer rooms in their new wing. And they had a very nice outdoor pool and fitness center. The kids also enjoyed the pool at the Green Lotus and at the Salisbury YMCA in Hong Kong, although the pools at the latter were not really geared to hotel guests and my grandson were rather disappointed that he had to pay extra to use the fitness room there. The rooms were small and simple in the YMCA, but we couldn’t beat the price for the location--a couple blocks from the harbor and Star Ferry and across the street from a subway station.

Food: Breakfasts at our hotels were generally excellent with lots of food choices and made-to-order omelets. Lunches were included with our tour, and the restaurants chosen were generally good and included local specialties. We could order from the menu or enlist our guide’s help. Since the menus are so large and the dishes so unfamiliar, it was usually more efficient to have our guide’s recommendations. Meals were a special challenge for me, because I have Celiac Disease, and am “allergic” to anything containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley). During the planning process, I had a card with instructions for the restaurant translated into Chinese characters by Grace Wang. This helped a lot—especially for dinners, where we were on our own. I must say that China is a pretty tough country for those with gluten-sensitivity, but our guides all did their best to insure that I had something gluten-free to eat. The main problem is the soy sauce which is used in so many dishes, and which almost always contains wheat. I brought a bottle of gluten-free soy sauce with me, and some of the restaurants would use this to make a dish for me. Generally, I ate mostly steamed rice, fried rice with egg (without soy sauce), and sautéed vegetables. So I didn’t starve, but I couldn’t partake of some of the more interesting dishes. The rest of the family loved the food. Only once in awhile, toward the end of the trip, did anyone choose a pizza or hamburger instead of Chinese food. The guys reported that the beer was also very good, but, again, I couldn’t partake because beer contains barley. And, unfortunately, the wine in China still leaves much to be desired. Meals which were especially memorable were our Peking Duck dinner at the Da Dong Restaurant in Beijing, lunch at the Xin Shuang Quan Restaurant in a garden setting near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the lunch of locally-grown organic foods at Longji Ping ‘an Restaurant at the Longsheng Rice Terraces near Guilin, Nomad’s (Mongolian Barbeque) in Hong Kong, and our final dinner splurge at the Hutong Restaurant with an unforgettable view of Hong Kong Harbor. There was only one restaurant—in Chengdu—that was not good. I don’t have the name, because our guide changed the itinerary restaurant to one in which she felt it would be easier to get some gluten-free dishes. Although the food was fine, the atmosphere, service, and the restroom cleanliness left a lot to be desired.

Shopping: My daughter and son-in-law made their largest purchases at the Terra Cotta Warrior site near Xi’an. This included a terra cotta warrior replica about 18” high, and a lovely celadon tea set. For artwork and general souvenirs, we had the most luck in Yangshuo, Stanley Market and the Lady’s Market in Hong Kong. We were more receptive to shopping there because it was near the end of the trip, and we wouldn’t have to cart our purchases around so long.

Memories: Oh so many, but here are some of the highlights.

Beijing: Of course, hiking on the Great Wall—the Mutianyu section. The expression on my grandson’s face after he tried a snake skewer in the night market on our first night (he was a little more cautious in his food choices after that). The grandeur and history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Having our photo taken in Chinese finery at the Summer Palace. The beauty of the Temple of Heaven. The pedicab ride through a hutong (the old traditional housing area), followed by tea and conversation with a local resident. Our first attempts at bargaining with the vendors at the Great Wall. The traffic and crazy driving. The hordes of people—especially at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on a hot, steamy Saturday. The forests of new apartment buildings to house all those people. Our Peking Duck dinner at Da Dong.

Xi’an: Of course, the awesome Terra Cotta Soldiers. My husband’s hilarious terra cotta warrior photo. Biking along the city wall early in the morning. Our auto accident which we knew was bound to happen (luckily, it was minor). The tea ceremony. The very entertaining Tang Dynasty show. Walking in the rain through the Muslim Quarter.

Chengdu: Of course, the Panda Research Center. My granddaughter having her photo taken holding a baby panda. We couldn’t believe the number of people who were willing to fork over the equivalent of $75 to have this photo. The restored old Jinli Street.

Guilin: Of course, the gorgeous scenery of the Li River Cruise. The huge Reed Flute Cave, in which President Clinton once held a dinner party. The visit to several classrooms in the Children’s Palace. The visit to the boathouse of a local fisherman, who plied us with his homemade wine, peanuts, watermelon and lychees. Our visit to the offices of China Highlights and our lunch with Grace Wang. The colored lights and entertainment along the shore as we enjoyed a night cruise through the 4 lakes and under numerous bridges. The view of the Longsheng Terraced Rice Fields, and my husband being carried in a sedan chair (he has bad knees) up the mountain while enjoying a beer. The firecracker “welcome” in the minority village. The relaxing foot massage enjoyed by the entire family—except my grandson, who luxuriated in his first full body massage.

Yangshuo: The awesome limestone karsts (mountains) which line the rivers and surround the city. The cart ride into the countryside and visit with an old woman in her ancient home. The “WOW”of the Impressions Light Show with its 600 actors and 2500 spectators. The efficiency of our guide and driver in getting us in and out through the mobs of people at that show. Being slowly poled down the Yulong River on bamboo rafts. Souvenir shopping on West Street. My husband’s hilarious Chinese hamburger incident. The anxiety of almost missing our flight to Hong Kong followed by disbelief when they held the plane for us for more than a half hour—a delay that was extended because the security officers wanted to have their photos taken with my grandson!!!!!

Hong Kong: Of course, Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry, Repulse Bay, Aberdeen Harbor. Shopping & lunch by the water at Stanley Market. Our evening harbor cruise to see the lights along the shore. (For the girls) shopping in the pouring rain at the outdoor Lady’s Market. (For the guys) shopping for electronics at the huge Golden Mall. The view of the city and laser show and our farewell dinner at the Hutong Restaurant. Listening to jazz at Ned Kelly’s Bar.

In summary, our itinerary offered a wide variety of sights and experiences that were of interest to all the different generations of our family. Although my husband and I had seen most of the major sights before, it was so enjoyable to experience them again with our children & grandchildren.

Much has changed since my husband & I last visited most of these same cities 15 years ago. The people enjoy considerably more economic freedom, and there are many signs of conspicuous consumption—such as upscale malls, designer labels (not always fakes), very expensive cars and small dogs (we rarely saw any sort of pet before). They consider themselves more Socialist than Communist these days. However, they are still subject to the political control of the Chinese Communist Party. The one-child policy is still in effect, with some unavoidable consequences, such as an increasing surplus of bachelors. Before, the streets were thronged with bikes, while autos have now taken over. The traffic is so heavy, especially in Beijing, that the government has taken measures such as banning certain cars from the city on certain days of the week—depending on a number on the license plate. Crossing the street can be dangerous, and we were warned not to rely on a green “walk” signal for safety. The smog wasn’t as bad as we had expected—a result of the continuing dismantling of old coal-burning power plants. However, rain shortly before we arrived probably also helped. There also wasn’t as much littering and spitting as before. Even cigarette smoking seems to have abated, and is not allowed in numerous public places. These latter improvements came about in preparation for the Olympics which Beijing hosted in 2008. Many of the old hutongs (housing areas) have been razed to build skyscraper apartment buildings, but the government seems to be more aware of the importance of preserving some of the old areas. We didn’t get nearly as many stares as before; the Chinese people are much more used to seeing Western tourists. Still—there were several instances where Chinese wanted to have their photos taken with us. One thing that hadn’t changed was the friendliness we encountered everywhere.
I’ve always said China is my favorite country for travel, and, although I’ve traveled to many different countries in the past few years, I would still rank it Number One.

Please let me know if you have any questions. Kami

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