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China Focus: tour impressions/review (long)

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Jul 24th, 2011, 11:30 PM
  #1
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China Focus: tour impressions/review (long)

As promised, here is a report on a tour with China Focus that my husband and I went on in late May/early June. This was the first guided tour we have ever done as generally I like to arrange everything myself, do lots of research, and stay in more local inns, B&Bs and hotels.We also like having direct interaction with locals as well. Although there were a number of posters on this and another site that seemed to want to drive home the point that we could do our trip independently (and I had no doubt of that), my husband wanted to do a tour this time. We knew someone who had done this same tour as well. Additionally, I do not feel we could have done quite so much w/out a lot more hassle and wasted time. Nor could we have gotten the flights as cheaply as China Focus (even though I know some people say you can get flights more cheaply once you are there, I certainly didn't want to take a chance w/such limited time.) We like the flexibility going independently usually gives us and we always build in open time in order to fit in things we did not plan on doing. Having said all that, I can say without hesitation that CF delivers what they promise. I can highly recommend them. From the get go everything was handled in a professional and very friendly way. They offer a very good product for anyone looking for a very reasonable tour in China. They have a number of different tours, and they do not nickle and dime you. (There ARE tips to pay. We gave our guide the tip money and she gave it out to the other guides. Whether or not she kept ANY of it, I wouldn't know. The tips cost $70 pp for our entire tour.)

Almost everything is included in the tour, including travel insurance (for all portions of the trip you have booked through them). We did the 13 day Life Experience tour, which took us to Beijing, Xi'an, Guillin, Yangshuo and Shanghai, w/side trips to Suzhou and Tongli from Shanghai. We flew between all major cities but took a 3 hr. boat down the Li River from Guillin to Yangshuo.

By the way, our national guide was fabulous, both in knowledge, attitude and temperment. She was a very bright woman, humble, unpretentious, & casual, and she and answered all of our questions frankly. She also had a very open mind. Everyone learned SO MUCH from her! The local guides were very good, too, and all guides spoke English well. The only exception was the Shanghai local guide, who was rather boring, however, citing statistical facts about too many ordinary buildings etc. He also spoke in a timid and dull way. Fortunately, our national guide made up for him.

We chose to get our own air to/from San Francisco from the midwest, flying to SFO a day ahead of time. On departure day we and others were met at the airport by the same very pleasant guy who usually answered the phone when I called China Focus for info. or w/questions. (Note: I was able to get our plane seats assigned by calling Air China a month prior to our trip.)

Our group was not over large, but we did have enough people to get the national guide. to accompany us on the entire trip. At first there were about 10 in our group, although we met several other nice people who were on a longer China Focus tour that flew over on the same plane w/us. (We saw them in 2 of the hotels we were in as well.) 3 more people joined our group a day or two after our arrival in Beijing. They had had problems w/their flights from Atlanta, which had nothing to do w/China Focus. Our last day in Beijing another couple joined us who were already in Beijing and only wanted to tour the other areas. So our group had 15 in it. Ages ran the gamut, with the youngest traveler about 7 or 8 w/a 21 yr. old brother and their parents- late 40's?); a couple 28; 3 people in their 30's; and the rest in their 50's & 60's. Buses were always very nice and had a/c and there were always empty seats to spread out if desired.

Hotels: This is as good a place as any to talk about hotels and food. First off, the only issues we had w/any of the hotels were things others have reported on already that hold true in Chinese hotels in general - no matter if the poster traveled on their own or w/a tour co. The beds were generally VERY hard compared to most western beds, but the sheets were always very clean. It was often NOT always easy to get housekeeping to add an extra blanket onto the top of a mattress for padding, but persistance or getting our guide to speak to someone for us at least got us the blanket to put on there ourselves! For one thing, although I am sure they generally want to please the clientelle, they do not seem to have quite the knowledge of what is expected by a western guest. IMost of the staff members were young (20's to maybe early 30's) and just didn't seemed super-experienced, although they usually looked very nice and were attractive. Usually, in the end, we would get what we needed, however. I don't think any of this had one thing to do w/us being on a pkg. tour, either. On the other hand, at times in the breakfast buffets, we had some staff members that really tried hard if you asked for something special - like ice for my morning tea.

Re: the food:
This was the downside of the trip for my husband and I, and also for the couple we knew who had done the tour last fall. None of us are big lovers of Chinese food. (Oh, I like things like pork or shrimp fried rice; potstickers; cashew chicken; lemon chicken; and egg foo yung, prepared UNlike they would likely be in China!). Please keep in mind that we do not expect people in another country or culture to prepare their food according to our tastes. So I realize this was just our problem. We knew that food would be challenging for us.

The hotels all provided very nice breakfast buffets with many choices, both hot and cold, plenty of fruit and so forth. We usually ate more food at breakfast than at any other meal since we knew we wouldn't care for what was to come later. In our Beijing hotel the buffet was often quite crowded so finding a seat was sometimes difficult. They offered both asian and western style foods. Bacon was boiled and in all but the Bejing hotel, it did not appear to be cooked, although I think it was. (A few times I was able to dig around and find a pc. that appeared "done".)

The restaurants we were taken to were all dim sum style. The plates were saucer sized - very small, meant to be refilled during our meal. The restaurants were clean and fairly nice. Yes, they did cater to groups in many instances, but also to Chinese groups and locals as well. I'm sure we were given what they deemed as westernized versions of Chinese food, but it was generally not really much like western versions. We saw a lot of the same food over and over. In fact, watermelon was our dessert at EVERY SINGLE restaurant we went to w/our group (unfortunately for me because I hate watermelon!). I imagine in another season it would have been something else. (My husband and another lady had birthdays on the same day during our trip, so we had our guide call ahead and arrange for a birthday cake. This cake was DELICIOUS, and like cake we are used to. It was nicely decorated on top with fruit. Yum!) At most meals we got a version of sweet & sour chicken or pork. Dumplings were the things I often liked when we had them. Meat was never served in large pieces, but in very small, chopped pieces, usually mixed into some very sweet sauce or something. ( I think the largest ps. were slices of Peking Duck at a place supposedly "famous" for Peking Duck.) White rice was served at every meal, of course, which is what several of us ate the most. Soups were pretty awful - no seasoning and they tasted like bland dishwater (except for once, a frequently served soup that was meant to be similiar to egg drop soup 'almost' really tasted like the type we have in the U.S., though it, too, was still less flavorful), and that was a consensus within our group even for those who enjoyed many of the other foods. I know that after a couple of days of very similar dim sum offerings for lunch and dinner, nearly everyone began to joke about longing for some western food. By late in our tour, nearly everyone was craving it! We were always given our choice of ONE small (6 oz?) glass of Pepsi or Sprite, OR Chinese beer. The bottle of beer was quite large so those who like beer (I don't) were lucky. Twice we had wine when a couple of us chipped in on a bottle split the cost. The food on Air China was not good even for airplane food and that's that. We had more free time in Shanghai than anyplace else, so we were able to eat in the French Concession (district) - once for a snack (very welcome, real regular nachos w/salsa and a cocktail) and a very good Italian dinner w/salad. Another time we dined late (alfresco) in Yangshuo's nightlife area at another place w/western food and again, I went for Italian food, which was tasty enough. That night we actually had already had dinner - around 5:30 or 6 - but had not eaten much dinner at all, so decided to get something we LIKED later on and did.

I'm not going to comment too much on things we saw or did. Anyone can read the China Focus website for that info. I'll just say we saw and did a LOT! Our favorite part of the trip was the 3 hr. Li River cruise, and the subsequent afternoon, evening & overnight in Yangshuo. This area is lovely w/dramatic scenery that is other worldly due to the karsts and their formations. We LOVED the wonderful show on the river there at night. (That was the only part of our tour that was optional and of extra cost - $40 pp - but well worth it as it was so unsual and beautiful!) Yangshuo also had lots of souveniers for sale at street markets and many restaurants in a certain nightlife area. Additionally, it was a free afternoon in Yangshuo that some of us rode out into the countryside in tuk tuks (think of a sort of rickshaw almost that is pulled by a motorcyle) to see another, nearby, peaceful river where people enjoy long bamboo raft rides. We also go to go into a 300 yr. old home on that foray and meet the occupants, as well as stop in a tiny little town surrounded by rice paddies. Occassionally we saw someone working in them or standing guard over water buffalo in their fields. I would tell anyone not to miss Yangshuo if at all possible!

I should mention that we never felt pressured to buy in any of the mandatory shopping "factory" stops. In fact, all were interesting and our stops were not overlong. I think China Focus handled these very well and kept them to a minimum. There were several times when some of us would have liked to have had more time to look at the offerings we were bypassing at various sites, etc. There are roving vendors at various sites and they often do not take no for an answer. Once they get their wares into your hand it is sometimes hard to make them take it back if you do not want it. People complain about pushy vendors,and we have traveled a lot and seen our share. I think some of those in China are as bad as I've seen or worse as they will walk with/follow you for blocks sometimes, even though you tell them no about 200 times! Also, if you buy something, be sure not to let them pull a "bait and switch" on you. For instance, they may hold out a fake Rolex watch and you think you have a great deal at $5. After they get the $5, they will sometimes quickly switch to a version of the fake watch that is not made as well as the one they originally showed you. This goes for a lot of things - right down to the length on a kite being shorter (after they get your money) or a switcheroo of a little lazer light for kids to one that is NOT the color you were buying or whatever. So, buyer beware!

Although we were allowed to skip segments of our tours if we wanted and I had definitely planned to do that, it was somewhat difficult to do. The reason? Usually the days were pretty well planned and we went from one thing to another, w/the order sometimes changing according to various things that might affect our schedule or time in a place.Therefore, if you wanted to skip going to see something, you might have a tough time hooking back up for the tour later - for lunch or dinner or a particular site. Usually there were a few things I did not want to miss mixed in with something I'd just as soon not spend any time on. There was also no going back to your hotel before dinner to freshen up or anything first. (We didn't like that. Had we been traveling on our own we'd have always gone back to our hotel to catch a breather and freshen up before dining.) We sometimes went out exploring after dinner, when most of the others in our tour had already packed it in for the evening.

Oh, yeah! Don't expect to sleep in. Each morning we received wake up calls, usually around 7 a.m., but sometimes earlier and once or twice later. We usually had to be on the bus by 8:30 or 9 a.m.

As for a tour vs. going to China on your own, I think if you have LOTS of time in China and can take things very slowly, doing it on your own is possible, but it would take a lot more effort for most people I know than Europe, South America, Africa or even the middle east. Don't feel "bullied" out of doing a tour. (There is more than one right way to do most things.) I think we made the right choice in doing a tour to China, although it is still not our preferred method of traveling & wouldn't be for us in most other destinations. I don't expect we'll be doing any more tours for a long time - if ever. It has nothing to do w/China Focus. I think they are an EXCELLENT company & fear IF we ever do another tour the next co. will not be as good! We did greatly enjoy meeting the people on our tour and have made some new friends as a result. That was one of the best aspects of it.

Sorry this is so long & lumped together, and that it took me so long to get around to posting it, but I hope it helps someone else in some way!
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Jul 25th, 2011, 02:24 AM
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nice balanced report on the pros and cons of China group tours

Thanks for posting I think I will keep self-guiding there...
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Jul 25th, 2011, 06:55 AM
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Glad you enjoyed your trip. I am puzzled by your description of the effort involved in arranging an independent trip to China when you didn't do so. Accurate information is the key to making good travel decisions whether you go on a tour or make your own arrangements.
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Jul 25th, 2011, 01:01 PM
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Thanks for the replies.

Yes, Quovadis, I did try to present the tour as I saw it.

Marija, you are correct about accurate info. I did do quite a bit of research and know that I could have planned the trip myself and knew how to go about doing so. My husband, however, was adamant that we do a tour - esp. after speaking with his boss, who had visited China last year. So for us it wasn't an option this time. I have a friend who was there for about 22 days on her own, arranged some local sightseeing w/guides in advance and did a lot on her own. She would have been happy to give me tons of info. had I wanted it.

I will admit, that although I researched sites and modes of transport and cost, I stopped short of the amount of research I usually do when we travel because I felt I had more than enough info. for someone considering a tour. I didn't figure train routes or times; I didn't consider how much time to allow for this or that; and I didn't do nearly as much research on what type & price accommodations we would want, or which restaurants we wanted to try. However, I DID do quite a bit of reading and learned what there was to see. I knew we would like Yangshuo and we did and would have loved to have spent a couple more days in that area.(The expected drawback of a tour!) I checked airfares both to and within China as well, and still felt the tour was a good value for what we got. We are not the types to feel we get better deals or quality at "factory stores". And we did head off on our own a number of times. Sometimes it was easy, armed w/directions and info. Sometimes not so easy. I will say that I personally found it took more effort than any place we have ever been to communicate, despite signage in English at places western tourist are likely to go. (I usually actually sort of like the challenge such a trip brings!) But many times signage in English was NOT as widespread as I expected. And I was surprised at how little many hotel staff members spoke, if any. (Hey, it's their country and that's o.k.!) And yes, I did arm myself w/written phrases I might need, etc. (I do not have an Iphone or anything to translate aloud for me, but that would be something that would be invaluable for anyone visiting China independently IMO.)

At any rate, I am not urging anyone to choose a tour over visiting China independently. My "review" of China Focus is for people who want to do a tour to China and are searching for help choosing a co. (In fact, when I was doing the asking prior to our trip, someome on one forum ASKED me to please report back as everyone asks if anyone has toured w/this or that company but hardly anyone reports their experience!)

In NO way am I connected to anyone at that or any other tour company and my aim is not to dissuade anyone from going there on their own, even if I offer an opinion that, to some, may not encourage an independent trip.
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Jul 26th, 2011, 08:48 AM
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Glad you provided a candid report that is very enjoyable.

Curious aboout the the ice you asked to put in your tea, what kind of water was the ice made from?
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Jul 26th, 2011, 02:48 PM
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How were your flights on Air China?
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Jul 27th, 2011, 02:46 PM
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mlbcruiser,

I just wanted to thank you very much for the very detailed review of your tour (read it twice now). I have just booked a tour with China Focus for my family and am having a very hard time finding reviews that I can trust. I am very nervous as I like to know exactly what is going to happen day to day and China Focus has not given me enough details.

We are like you in that we mostly travel independently. (The only other group tour we did was in Egypt but that was for two days.) We have decided that for our first, and hopefully not last, trip to China we will do a tour. It helps tremendously to know what to expect ahead of time.

I hope to also do a detailed review when I get back. It's still a few months away though. I also contribute on TripAdvisor quite regularly so hopefully people will consider my reviews.

Thanks again and please feel free to add more to your review. I will take anything and everything!
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Jul 28th, 2011, 03:39 PM
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Shanghainese, I did not ask what type of water the ice was made of. I assumed it was safe as was the water provided on the buffet lines. We had no problems from it whatsover.I got ice in almost (if not all) of the restaurants we went to, including a couple that we visited on our own that had western food as well. China Focus appears to be pretty careful re: standards so their clients will not get sick. I would think probably most other reputable tour companies that offer similar trips are as well.

HappyTrvler, the flights on Air China were good enough but basic. We were given blankets, pillows and headphones. On the way home The movie screens were set on the front wall that separates the cabins, and were therefore a bit low w/the picture a bit "light" from a distance. I am 5'5" and had to tilt my head up and back a bit to see the lower half of the screen. (They showed Secretariat and I forgot what they showed in the other direction.) Usually I get COLD on planes and close the a/c vent, however I didn't on Air China so I would say their a/c was a bit weaker than what you find on U.S. airlines. The meals were usually white rice, w/either seafood, chicken or thin, small pcs. of beef on top. Not much variation at all. The chicken and beef seemed sort of processed to me. The flight attendants were all pleasant. The airline is o.k. if you are saving a decent amount over some other one. If not, go for the other carrier. As for boarding processes, etc., they were fine.

Smith01, our neighbor's parents have taken a lot of tours, including the same one w/China Focus. I knew I could rely on their experience in judging a good tour co. from one not so good. They told me a lot of what to expect and whenever I had other questions, I just called China Focus! Usually I got Jason, but sometimes someone else. They were always happy to answer the questions. Let me know if you have specific questions re: anything and I will try to check back on here when I can get a chance.

Thanks to all of you for the kind words about my post.
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Jul 29th, 2011, 10:11 AM
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Glad t hear none of you got ill. I asked because tap water in China is not pottable and bottled water is strongly recommended unless the hotel or restaurant have their own water purifying system. Some tourists go as far as brushing their teeth with bottled water ...
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Jul 29th, 2011, 01:29 PM
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Thanks for taking the time to write the report. It was in no way too long. The more details the better.
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Aug 1st, 2011, 04:02 PM
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Well, none of us got sick on the WATER. I was not initially going to mention this, but decided to - along w/the mention that there is no true way to diagnose food poisoning w/out the contaminated food being tested:

2 of us in our tour group became ill w/classic food poisoning symptoms after having eaten mixed seafood & rice dishes on our planes on different days. (I had asked for chicken the day I became ill, but they were out of it.) The first was a young man in our group (about 21 or 22), only he got sick on the flight between San Francisco and Beijing. I became ill from 60 to 90 min. after eating the seafood dish on the flight back to the U.S. from Beijing. The illness came on rather quickly once I noticed the first inkling of symptoms, and lasted about 4 hours or so. I was MISERABLE! A flight attendant took my temperature (no fever) & suggested that applying pressure to the area between my thumb and forefinger might bring relief (didn't at all). I was given a face cloth and offered what I am pretty sure was Dramamine (no thanks!), so they tried to help. Finally, when the "waves" of symptoms began to slow somewhat, I asked for a tiny bit of Sprite as by then I felt quite dehydrated. I managed to keep down about 1/3 cup of Sprite by sipping it VERY SLOWLY over a period of about an hr. before landing. I think this helped me a LOT. I was SO glad to be able to walk off the plane on my own! Once in the airport, I drank icy lime juice w/sugar, and ended up not wanting the soup I had ordered. I stretched out on some chairs to catch an hr's. catnap during our 5 hr. layover and was able to eat normally by the time we got home. I know not everyone who ate that dish on the plane had a problem, but it's odd that both the young man on our tour and I had eaten it (though not on the same day) just a while prior to being sick. Little pcs. of fish, tiny octopus (both "arms" and pcs. of calmari type rings) and maybe some shrimp were in it, and those things contaminate bacterially somewhat easily. I did not know the young man had been sick after eating the seafood on the first flight of our trip until we were talking in the baggage area after our flight back to SFO . I had initially felt happy to get anything as the pilot had announced they might run out of meals before getting everyone served. Little did I know!

My apologies to Air China if it was not the seafood dish! - ???
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Aug 3rd, 2011, 11:04 AM
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Hi mlbcruiser,

Thanks again for all of your thoughts. A few of questions.

1. When you arrived at SFO and were met by representatives from China Focus did they give you a more detailed daily itinerary of your trip? I prefer to know exactly where we are going each day before we arrive.

2. How were the flights in between the cities? I'm wondering how long you would have to wait at the airport before the flights.

3. You said there was an 8 year old on the tour. Did the child appear to be enjoying him/herself? We have kids so I'm anxious that the kids will be overtired from the long days. They are well travelled so I think that they should be fine but I do worry. How did the guides treat them?

Again, thank you very much for your time answering my questions!
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Aug 4th, 2011, 02:54 PM
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SMith01--You might be interested in the tour we recently did with our family of six, including 2 pre-teens, with China Highlights. I wrote up a report here a couple weeks ago. China Highlights will arrange a private tour with just your family, which you can customize as you wish. Also--if your children are tired during the day, you can adjust the sightseeing as necessary--something rather difficult to do with a group tour. You will be almost completely in control of your daily itinerary.
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Aug 4th, 2011, 05:55 PM
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kameo903,

While I very much appreciate your thougths on this, I am already committed to China Focus (down payment) so China Highlights is not an option this time.

I just wish there were more China Focus reviews in cyberspace so I know what to expect. I am very grateful for mlbcruiser's detailed review.

Thanks again!
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Aug 4th, 2011, 08:06 PM
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MLBCruiser

Such a succinctly fine report, MLB...will undoubtedly help many Fodorites a they prepare for a China visit. Since you loved the Yangshuo. Li-River trip, may I present my 2007 pics of Guilin, Yangshuo, and the famous terraced rice paddies a few hours from Guilin, etc. You will recognize many of these.

I'm sure you have you own pix, but I wanted to share these with you. The pic of the long-haired Dong women was featured as photo of the week in a Sunday L.A. Times Travel Section last year.

We traveled independently for three weeks (BJ, Xian, Guilin/Yangshuo, terraced paddies and Shanghai) only hiring local guides in BJ and Guilin mainly for their cars and driver. Finished up in Japan.

Back in 1984, the only way in was through an accepted tour company . We took Pacific Delight on a wonderful 26-day journey through a drastically different China. No private cars, all bikes! We drove the official guide nuts as we and two friends constantly ventured off on our own (note: did the same thing in USSR in 1985...the rigid Intourist Guide in Uzbek SSR is probably still muttering Russian obscenities under her breath!)

http://picasaweb.google.com/stuartto...erAndVicinity# 2007

http://picasaweb.google.com/stuartto...4AndJapan1946#

https://picasaweb.google.com/stuartt...ndStoneForest# (1984)

http://picasaweb.google.com/stuarttower/Beppu194648#
(had to separate the 1946 Japan pics from the '84 Chinese)

Happy travels, MLB.

Would love to see your pics...we probably duplicated many scenes.

Stu Tower
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Aug 5th, 2011, 06:09 AM
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Thank you for your excellent trip report. I found it descriptive and very helpful. We are planning a trip to beijing this fall for 6 days. We are also independent travelers in our 60's. We do however take a day tour at times. I was most interested in your comments on the hotels and street signs, and hope the map we have is good. I am however looking forward to the food. I have eaten some suthentic Chinese style food in the US and agree it is unusual at times, especially the pork dishes Thanks again for your report.
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Aug 7th, 2011, 06:24 PM
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You are very welcome, Alan. I preferred the pork dishes more than any other food we had. The dumplings were actually my favorite dish, but then I am a huge potsticker fan at home, so I sort of figured that. Maybe in the fall you will be more likely to get some almost clear days if you are lucky. Our guide referred to the grey w/a slight hint of blue color of the sky as "Beijing blue" during the most clear day we had.
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Sep 11th, 2011, 05:57 PM
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Thanks for a nice trip report. I have just started exploring China as a potential trip. We, too, love independent travel but think a tour might be the way to go for this one.

My husband and I both laughed at your thoughts on not being able to return to the room before dinner -- we weren't able to do that on our last vacation either due to the location of our hotel and didn't care for that at all!
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