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Trip Report Incomparable China: Urban/Rural & Islands

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My husband and I typically travel independently, but for China, I wanted more support. So, based on many positive TripAdvisor reviews, I contracted with a local tour operator, China HIghlights, to handle our transfers, most domestic flights, booking of some hotels and many private day tours. Our travel advisor contact person, Michael Hu, was excellent in responding quickly to emails and changes in itinerary and we felt very comfortable knowing he was just a cell phone call away (which they provided for our use) in case of any problems. The local guides were all good to excellent.

We were in China from mid-October to mid-November 2012, based in Beijing (4nts), Mutianyu (1 nt), Lijiang (3 nts), Xizhou (near Dali) (4 nts), Guilin (1 nt), Yangshou (south of Guilin) (3 nts), Shanghai (4 nts), Sanya (Hainan Island)(4 nts) and Hong Kong (5 nts), and I’d say we had almost perfect weather, with the exception of a very rainy day while visiting the Great Wall (wouldn’t you know).

We flew from Chicago direct to Beijing on American Airlines in a full and very cramped plane. It’s amazing they can’t use an airplane with a more generous pitch and seat width, but at least it was on time (and we were able to use miles for free tickets so we shouldn’t complain). At least the return flight was booked on their partner, Cathay Pacific, direct from Hong Kong. After 12 hours and 40 minutes, we arrived at the very modern international Beijing airport at 9:10 pm, quickly went through the immigration process, and was met by our first guide, Gerry, who accompanied us to our hotel with our driver Mr. Shen in a very nice, new Red Cap car sedan. Gerry was very personable with excellent English and we discussed what we’d be doing in two days (we were doing the first day on our own) and when we should start. The traffic was very good at that time of night and we arrived at our hotel Park Plaza Wangfujing about 11pm.

Upon check-in, we declined the standard upgrade offer to a Club floor for 280 Rmb which included breakfast and afternoon cocktails in the Club, and got a high floor room on the 12th floor. This 4* hotel is a bargain for Beijing, conveniently located next to subway stop, and tucked away behind the Regent in a quiet, park-like setting with a Starbucks and ATM just across the driveway. Since the breakfast buffet was expensive, we opted for Starbucks three of the four nights we were there. Our room was very comfortable, with good linens and pillow, a welcome bathtub in a pretty marble bathroom with pedestal sink. The floor- to- ceiling window gave us a smoggy view over the city and hutongs, but at that height, at least we weren’t staring into another building.

Day 1:
The next morning we got a subway pass from the Concierge, which allowed us to travel on the subway for 2 Rmb per trip and pay when we checked out...very convenient.
We were off for a 10am cooking class at the highly regarded Black Sesame Kitchen, three stops away, and a 20 minute walk. The subway was easy to figure out and not crowded at that time. We walked along a pretty, wide tree-lined boulevard to reach the hutong where the Kitchen is located....thinking all the time, where are the teeming masses of humanity? Where’s the smog that blocks out the sun, since it was a beautiful, sunny autumn morning about 70 degrees? With the help of a local, we turned off on Nanluogu Xiang, the attractive hutong alley, lined with shops and small cafes/restaurants. We had to turn off onto a smaller alley, and enter through a nondescript doorway to finally find the restaurant/cooking school housed in one room with the small cooking area at one side and a large table with 9 other students and the teacher in front. Our fellow students included three women from the Sidney, Australia symphony, a French expat, a couple from Canada and us. The class was entitled “Knife Skills” so the emphasis was on how to use a Chinese cleaver properly. First, we made Smashed Cucumber with Cilantro (pai huanggua), then Potato, Eggplant and Green Pepper Stir-fry (Disanxian), followed by Shredded Pork and Peppers (jianjiao rousi). We were given an apron and some sichuan peppers, to try the “ma” element of taste that numbs your tongue.

The class was a good activity for the first morning, but I wouldn’t call it that “hands on” since the chef did all the wok and deep frying. We basically cut up everything and then we all feasted on it with beer for lunch. Afterwards, you could have stayed longer and tried your hand at the wok, but it was 1pm and we wanted to explore. I also felt it was expensive, about $50 per person, but a good cultural activity. We had also booked their Friday night, 10 course, communal dinner for the next evening, as this gets rave reviews, and costs about the same as the cooking class with wine included. You need to book this about a month in advance as it’s very popular, even with locals. Unfortunately, we ended up canceling it the next day as we were utterly exhausted after touring....more on this later.

We took some time walking around this more touristy, I guess, but interesting hutong but I also wanted to see the Lama Temple, so walked about 40 minutes to reach the temple and explored all the courtyards filled with worshippers kowtowing three times to the various Buddha’s while touching their fragrant joss sticks first to their forehead, then mouth then heart. In the final temple was the Giant Standing Buddha, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, and ls carved from a single piece of sandalwood and looks to be about 4 stories high.

From there, we walked through some more atmospheric hutongs, watching men play checkers and a stylish woman walking a pot-bellied pig that generated a lot of attention and petting. I should have consulted my Luxe guide to Beijing because there were some shops listed in the area that sounded interesting but I missed. However, we had to get back for our 6:30pm reservation at the acclaimed Da Dong peking duck restaurant. This restaurant was just a block away on the 5th floor of a tower building that housed Gucci and other upscale shops. The neighborhood was filled with such offerings as a Ferrari dealer, etc. This preponderance of very expensive designer shops that we saw in all the major cities surprised us and left us not inclined to do much shopping.

Da Dong was huge and glitzy with a white, reflective decor. We were seated at a quiet table in the back and served by a good, English speaking waitress and enjoyed watching several other larger tables “Gambei” each other with communal shots.
My husband loved his 1/2 duck, (plenty for two people) and I loved the shrimp dish, braised eggplant and broccoli. About $60 including a glass of wine and a beer.

Day 2

Gerry picked us up at 8a (he thought that was too early) and Mr. Shen dropped us off at Tianamen Square...the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It was another beautiful, sunny autumn day and the smog was not too bad in the morning. Once again, I’m surprised by the lack of crowds and serious traffic.

In the Square, there were several huge baskets holding flowers left over from the Oct. 1 National Holiday. We saw several large local tour groups gathering....and various piles of backpacks/suitcases being watched by someone while their tour groups were queuing up to tour Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, which Gerry said took several hours. We were glad not to do this. The square is truly huge and surrounded by imposing buildings.

At the entrance to the Forbidden City hangs Chairman Mao’s large portrait over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I never knew that a 12 lane road bisects the square so you need to walk underground and then climb up to enter the Forbidden City,which has been a tourist attraction since 1915. Basically, we kept walking back through various courtyards and buildings (8700 rooms in all), and I was disappointed that we could only look through doors into the various Throne rooms, which were dark and crowded with people all trying to snap photos and trying to look in. Not until later, did I realize we could’ve gone into the Hall of Clocks for an extra fee, but for some reason, I had deleted this from our itinerary early on. I didn’t like the sterility of the courtyards with no trees or grass (for security reasons) but the paintings on the rooflines and ceilings were pretty and freshly renovated from the Olympics. The whole effect was less than satisfying and it seemed like there were countless steps to go up and down so we were exhausted by the time we reached the north gate and had to walk a bit to meet our car. We should’ve asked to take a break and sit down for awhile. I was very glad to have a guide and driver to help us navigate this behemoth.

From there, we went to the Capital Museum housed in a huge modern building. We wandered around for about an hour, looking at ancient Chinese exhibits including old bronzes, a few terra cotta warriors, and ceremonial headdresses. By now, we were hungry and tired so Gerry took us to lunch at Da Wan Ju for Sichuan cooking, which had a very nice atmosphere. He ordered several dishes for us to share asking for our onion pancake, noodles in broth, spring rolls, a chicken stir fry and sauteed tofu with a local beer....all were pretty good and we enjoyed a lively conversation with him.

Refreshed, we carried on to the Temple of Heaven, a huge park complex that we walked around to the various attractions. However, by now the smog had increased so we couldn’t get more than hazy photographs. The highlight was the Temple of Good Harvest, a round, several- roofed brightly painted pagoda building in the Daoist tradition so there weren’t thrones to Buddha, but rather written prayers on sticks. We had walked along the extremely long Long Corridor with it’s pretty painted wooden ceilings with men playing cards along the side benches....through an Echo Chamber where there were too many people to hear anything....up an altar for animal slaughter...after awhile, it all started to look the same. I especially liked the unusual trees...the “dragon trees” with their coiling bark and ancient twisted cypresses that stretched toward the sky.

We got back to our hotel by 4pm and I don’t remember ever feeling so totally exhausted. We had walked and climbed beyond our limits...but perhaps this was aided by jet lag, which I hadn’t really noticed. Luckily, I had cancelled our Black Sesame dinner because the thought of walking even for five minutes was beyond our capabilities. We took hot baths, ate O'Hare airport leftover caramel corn and Tsingtao beer from the minibar and fell asleep by 9:30pm. I hated to waste a Friday night in Beijing in the hotel room, wanted to at least wander around the Night Food Market or Wangfujing shopping area but our bodies were spent. Of course, then we woke at 3am and couldn’t fall back to sleep...but that was really the worst of our jet lag. With a time difference between CST and Beijing of 12 hours, I was thankful it was that mild. I swear by the “No Jet Lag” homeopathic pills from New Zealand that we always take when we fly (along with Ambien to help sleep on the plane).

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