Overview: To make the most of a 2 week visit to China it probably is best to use one of the tour operators, see the Daily Telegraph’s useful overview rather than going into detail here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/china/articles/china-travel-operators/. Our tour began in Beijing, covered Xian, Chendgu, Longsheng, Yangshuo, Guilin, Suzhou and ended in Shanghai. See the UK government website for up-to-date travel advice for China: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/china
Entry to China: Visas are required, and have to be applied for in person at an official Chinese Visa Application Centre – in the UK these are in Edinburgh, London, Manchester and Belfast at the time of writing. Costs run from around £151 per person. Interestingly, visitors to Hainan Province using a Chinese authority approved tour operator, can enter visa free.
Money: Best to pre-order your Chinese Yuan before you travel, or use one of the many ATMs on arrival.
Travellers cheques are difficult to exchange, and credit cards only accepted at larger hotels, restaurants and shops. Tipping is usual and expected – our main guide, and the local ones used during the tour kept us well briefed about this. At some of the tour outlets, such as the silk factories, the guide gets a cut from anything spent by the group. Guides might sell you optional extra tours – but don’t let that cut short those you have paid for. Our guide tried to hurry us through the Panda sanctuary in Chengdu, keen to sell us an additional evening excursion, but we had become wise to this practice and refused to be moved!
Day 1: Arrival in Beijing
We stayed at the Yuyuang Hotel, http://www.yuyanghotel.net costs about £80 a night and is fairly centrally situated, not far from the Chinese embassy area. On landing we thought the weather seemed overcast, it was only upon walking out of our hotel to stretch our legs that we realised this was heavy smog, not the greatest for anyone with respiratory issues. Strolling by the embassy area we bought some beer in dust covered bottles from a hut at the side of the road to have in our room later – sold to us in a gift bag!
Day 2: Tiananmen Square & The Forbidden City
The smog was so dense that it was difficult to fully gauge the scale of Tiananmen Square. We poignantly recalled the June 1989 incident, when a protestor famously walked in front of oncoming tanks – launched by the Chinese military authority to quash the protests at government oppression the day before. No-one appears to know who the man was or what became of him. Our local guide knew nothing of the incident.
Moving onto the Forbidden City, so called as it was shielded from the outside world for many years since its inception in 14th Century as the domain of former Chinese emperors – everyday people were not allowed entry. It is well-preserved and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
Day 3: The Great Wall, Martial Arts Performance and Cloisonne Workshop
Moving to the Great Wall, our tour took us to the Mutianyu section, a fully restored part of this magnificent spectacle – the ascent is steep and we made use of a cable car. Expect to be approached by hawkers as you enter the Great Wall – rule of thumb is to avoid eye contact if you are not interested. The smog from the now more distant city was less prominent here but the views were not completely clear. At over 13,000 miles in length and dating to 770 BC, the wall, built to prevent invasion and protect the silk road, is the longest and oldest in the world.
Moving on to the Cloisonne Workshop – we saw examples of fine filigree work. I purchased a bracelet, but unfortunately the clasp never worked – pretty as it is. We also purchased a small metal vase – much more durable.
In the evening we went to a Martial Arts Performance, costing around £25 a person.
Day 4: Xian
Getting to Xian involved an internal flight. Remember that the luggage allowance might be lower than that of international flights, so take care not to purchase too many heavy souvenirs en route. We stayed at The Purple Mountain Hotel, arriving in the early evening. Dinner consisted of tepid attempts at Western food unfortunately – presumably they thought we would like it. We enjoyed an escorted (of course!) tour of the local night market.
Day 5: Terracotta Army, Xian
Our visit took us to 3 of the 140 pits discovered by peasant farmers. The site, dating to 210 BC, was discovered in 1974. Interestingly, all the figures (which include horses and dogs) are male, and no two figures are exactly alike. The Army was produced to protect ancestral Chinese emperors in their afterlife.
In the evening we saw the famous Xian Castle and Bell Tower, as well as the illuminated Big Goose Pagoda. We also went to a Tang Dynasty show, complete with dumpling dinner – blinking lovely!
Day 6: Chengdu
We also saw the Great Goose Pagoda (and Museum) in the daytime, seeing images of Empress Wu who ate too many lychees – over 300 a day would make anyone somewhat rotund. Enjoyed a memorable hot pot meal, where diners select their own ingredients and spices, cooking them in their individual table pot – then enjoying the liquor at the end, resembling a spiced consomme. We then flew to Chengdu, where we stayed at the Xinhua International Hotel on Guloudong St, Qingyang Qu – its pointless giving the link to the hotel website, as with many Chinese hotels, if the site loads at all it gives little information.
Day 7: Leshan Grand Buddha and the Chengdu Panda centre
We got a brilliant view of the largest Buddha in the world at Leshan from a small boat, on the river confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers. The Grand Buddha, cut into the red sandstone rock face, is certainly impressive at over 71 metres high – it dates to the Tang Dynasty in 713 BC. En route I thought it was a scene from a Pink Floyd album when a pig with its legs raised in the air floated downstream – until we saw another!
After the Grand Buddha, we were taken to a Sichuan tea house.
Our tour of the Chengdu panda centre began in the nursery area, showing the pandas being hand fed by workers. Pandas are notoriously lazy and sometimes the young do not survive if they rely only on their mothers – despite being shown videos to help teach them parenting skills (really!). We respected the rules of not photographing these beautiful babies because camera flashes can damage their tender young eyes – other tourists were sadly not so respectful. We were amazed at the pandas, including their smaller red and white cousins that we had never seen before, and the sight of the bamboo forests alone was pretty awesome.
Day 8: Guilin and Longshen
After our early morning flight to Guilin, we were taken to lunch in an ethnic minority restaurant high above the Longsheng Rice Fields – a steep ascent but worth it for the reward of the magnificent views of the rice terraces around and below.
We stayed at the Guilin Osmanthus hotel – as beautiful as it sounds. Strolling in the evening we saw a magnificent silver and gold pagoda.
Day 9: Yangshuo and river cruise
Our transport to Yangshuo was via a small river cruise boat. We were amazed at the river fishermen and their cormorants, but even more stunned at hawkers on the flimsiest of rafts coming close to our boat trying to sell trinkets to us. Docking in Yangshuo, we were greeted by a crowd of hawkers and had to pass through another ‘hello’ market – best not to reply at all as the sellers can be remarkably persistent – and our guide told us quite categorically that tourists will be ripped off.
Yangshuo, accustomed to western tourists, has a West Street area – full of none-oriental style bars and shops of every creed – Caribbean, German etc – not for us though – we do West when we go west. We saw a musical show on the riverside later, very beautiful and the music and lighting uplifting.
Day 10: Cycling in the Yangshuo countryside
The countryside around Yangshuo makes a 4 hour cycle ride relatively easy going. Passing fields of rice and pomelos, we stopped at a remote village and noticed a meat vendor selling his wares, uncovered from the weather or insects, at the side of the road – he doubled as a barber with his barber’s chair close by.
One of us had a puncture, and out of nowhere came someone to repair it at a tiny cost – everyone seems to have a role in China. Dinner later involved another boat trip – to a remote pavilion in a sparsely populated village. Our craft’s propellor became fouled in the shallow and rocky river bed – the boatman removed his shoes, and waded into the water – he just happened to have a spare propellor on board, which he duly replaced – we were on our way again in moments. Even in this remote village we were greeted by friendly hawkers – but not so friendly children – who threw (quite hard) stones at us (doubtless unwelcome) foreigners! I think I taught them an unposh English word!
Day 11: On to Shanghai
Leaving Yangshuo, we tooks a 2 hour flight to Shanghai – the internal flights are somewhat chaotic – they often run late, there is no explanation given as to why, or any effective air conditioning to speak of. We stayed at the Zhongya Hotel. We attended an amazing Shanghai Circus Acrobatic show – and cringed when we saw the high speed motorbikes whiz all directions in the ‘dome of death’ – it is one of the most death defying shows we have ever seen anywhere in the world.
Day 12: Suzhou Silk Factory, Jade Buddha Temple, Tiger Hill Bonsai Garden & French concession area
The silk workshop and factory was definitely worth a visit – the silk goods for sale representing good value and at a fraction of the price in Shanghai shops. It was amazing to see the silkworms in action. We also loved the Tiger Hill Bonsai Garden seen later – some fellow tourers commented that they preferred more floral gardens – but we thought the architectural detail of these gardens stunning, calming and extremely memorable. In the evening we made our way down to the French concession area – ok so perhaps not authentically Chinese – but it was extremely beautiful, and it was wonderful to get a nice glass or two of decent wine – Chinese wine although improved lately was not delicious.
Day 13: Shanghai shopping
In the more traditional shopping areas, you will notice that shops of a certain type are grouped, e.g. a street full of bathroom components, another full of cycle shops – there are also market areas but everywhere hawkers – it would have been nice to get one sentence of a conversation completed with my partner without being interrupted to see if we wanted to buy a Rolex! Beware that the Chinese take a dim view of designer fakes and if you purchase them they could be confiscated from you as a minimum penalty.
Day 14: Back to the UK
On checking out of our hotel our guide called me back to the reception desk – where a whole load of gesticulation was going on which somehow involved me – our guide resolved whatever issue it was – but never revealed what it concerned – I will wonder to this day what that was all about.
China is a fascinating place to visit and our tour was merely a whistlestop overview of some of its key highlights. Smoking however is very much the norm and sadly many hotel guests ignore no-smoking rules – one of our hotel corridors became so smokey I almost thought there was a fire! Toilet facilities, particularly on local cruise boats, are not good – and will never have paper – and pungent aromas in some public toilets are only faintly disguised by burning josticks. Our guide warned us that too much Chinese food can give westerners constipation and he was correct – although you will obviously want to try authentic dishes. This was certainly one of the more diverse and fascinating of #poshmumsjourneys.