Although I have been to China a number of times on business, I had visited only a few cities and never took the time to be a tourist. My wife had not been to China and since this country was high on her bucket list, we finally took the plunge and did a tour in late September / early October. Overall, the fall was a pretty good time of year to go, the weather was reasonable (not too hot or cold). The only downside was that October 1st is a Chinese National Holiday (celebrating the anniversary of the communist revolution) and the Chinese have eight straight days of vacation time around October 1st, meaning they were taking road trips to the tourist sites just like we were. Luckily, we were able for the most part to stay one step ahead of the local holiday revelers due to our savvy tour guide.
Although I’ve made it clear over the years that I am not a fan of tour groups, we found that a tour was the way to go in China, saving a lot of headaches trying to figure out how to get around this huge, somewhat confusing country independently. We used Sinorama Tours, based in Vancouver, Canada. The tour was an amazing value, largely because the Chinese government subsidizes the tours to promote tourism to China. Our 15 day tour price (approximately, per person) of $1,750 included roundtrip airfare on Air Canada from San Francisco (your departure city may cost more via Vancouver, B.C. to Beijing), all hotels (which were very good business-class hotels), most meals, entrance fees, a 4 night Yangtze River cruise, internal flights (3) and local transportation! Some activities (acrobat show, some dinners and other side tours) were extra. Since the tour company is Canadian, about half our group was from Canada, the rest from the U.S.
We started our tour in Beijing and ended in Shanghai (other members of our tour group continued on from Shanghai and ended in Hong Kong via a few other stops). You can find our itinerary here.
A few observations about China and this tour:
- Soak up the culture. China is teeming with a variety of peoples and cultures within its expansive borders. We were were able to just get a glimpse of its amazing history – take advantage of the local scene where you can, along with the art, museums and world-class sights.
- A fast developing economy. China is changing dramatically and extremely quickly. What blew my family away more than anything was the fast pace of growth in China – new buildings, highways, airports, bridges, etc. going up all at once and everywhere. The scale of construction activity is really beyond comprehension.
- Weather. Expect that most days will be gray and overcast, due to the humidity and smog (bring an umbrella!). I think the government is trying to improve the air quality, but we had very few clear, bright sunny days.
- Crowds. Just plan on lots of local people filling the streets wherever you go. Some pushing and shoving is to be expected in really heavy crowds and you just have to hold your ground (somewhat true at airports or on planes too). However, I never felt unsafe or worried about theft, although I made sure I knew where my valuables were at all times and limited what I carried with me during the day. Take the usual precautions with your belongings and you should be fine.
- On the tour, the food is OK. Sinorama runs many tours, and the tour groups tend to eat around the same time at the same locations, sometimes hotels or other venues with large eating areas. Real Chinese food in China is not quite P. F. Chang’s. The quality varied, and we would say it was “OK” for the most part – some meals were good, some so-so, some not so good.
Sinorama admits the food quality varies. Just go with the flow. Common dishes included some bland vegetables, scrambled eggs in a tomato base soup of sorts, fried chicken pieces, occasional other meat dishes, and always a serving of watermelon at the end of the meal.
Learn how to eat with chopsticks! We also wandered around and found some excellent small restaurants on our own.
- As part of the tour, expect some visits to local businesses. This is the part that I usually hate with tours, the “forced” shopping and feeling that you must buy something to support the locals. However, over 15 days we only visited a few factories: silk, cloisonné, jade, terra cotta, and some other art shops. Not too bad for the length of the tour, and few of these workshops were quite interesting – we even bought a few things!
- The tour provides excellent transportation. We had large, comfortable tour buses in each location and the three flights within China were comfortable. As stated above, China is developing rapidly and every city we flew into had a new, huge, modern airport.
My future posts will focus on the sights we visited. Once again, I commend Sinorama for their excellent work in accommodating such varied tourist needs and coordinating so many logistics.