Just back from 4 weeks on the above tour visiting Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuzen, Guilin, Yangshou, Kunming, Chongqing, Dazu, Chengdu, Xian and Beijing. This was an incredible value for money tour that visited many of the main sites in China. The tour was well organised and all sites and attractions listed on the itinerary were visited, although sometimes in a different order than originally given.
The national and local guides were all very pleasant, mostly young and occasionally lacking in detailed knowledge.
All hotels were acceptable, very clean if a little worn - do not expect 4 star luxury.
The food was plentiful but of varying quality, the main problem was that it was all very much the same for lunch and dinner for the whole 4 weeks. The majority of the group suffered stomach upsets at some point, so fast acting diarrhoea treatments are a must. We took some cuppa soups, plain biscuits and hot chocolate sachets for when we couldn't face another chinese meal. A small cup also comes in handy, especially for the train trips.
The internal flights, train journeys and coach travel were all very good.
In Shanghai we stayed at the CCECC Plaza hotel (all hotels reviewed seperately). For me the Shanghai highlights were the Shanghai museum - excellent, the evening river cruise and a short but excellent trip on the Maglev train.
Then it was off to Suzhou and the New Century hotel. Highlights were the old town, particularly at night and the Master of Nets and Humble Administrators gardens.
Next we went to Hangzhou and the Lily Hotel. Highlights were the Lingyin Temple - a fascinating complex. Also visited the Six Harmonies Pagoda and climbed to the top, which was a bit of a waste of time as the views were not great, in hindsight would have spent more time wandering the garden with the miniature pagodas.
Visited the quaint village of Wuhzen, which is lovely but slightly marred by the tour group leaders using megaphones and microphones!! Managed to escape down some quiet alleys to really appreciate this old village.
Flew to Guilin - one of my favourite places - and stayed at the Osmanthus Hotel (flight from Shanghai 2hrs 25mins). Highlights were wandering the lakes area, particularly at night when the Pagodas and Crystal bridge are beautifully lit up, the night market, the local day market which was fascinating, but not for the squeamish! Of course the cruise along the Li River was fabulous - the limestone scenery, the cormorant fisherman, the water buffaloes and just the peace of it all.
At Yangshou we stayed at the New Century hotel. While in Yangshou we went to an excellent show - The Impressions of Sanjie Liu. It's a sort of light and sound show held on the river with the limestone karsts as background - quite magical.
Another highlight in the Yangshou area was a visit into the countryside, seeing local people working in the fields and just going about their everyday life.
Next it was off to Kunming (flight 1hr 25min) for a stay at the Jinjiang Hotel. The Stone Forest was fascinating, although I would have preferred to have wandered around with just my husband rather than with the whole group - one of the drawbacks of being on a tour!! We came across a group of musicians and dancers and it was great to stand and watch them perform. In the evening we went to the Dynamic Yunnan Show, which was really fantastic, full of traditional dancing and singing. The costumes were fabulous, the whole show so professional. Apparently it is going to America soon to tour.
Next it was a 1hr 15 min flight to Chongqing - the city of smog! Stayed at the East Garden Hotel - probably the most disappointing hotel of the whole trip. Not really much going for Chongqing, we did visit the Peoples Square and the Three Gorges Museum which was a really good museum, very well done.
We then drove to Dazu and stayed at the Da Zu Hotel. Highlights of Dazu were visiting the Beishan Frescoes late in the day when all the other tour groups had gone and we had the place to ourselves. Also the Baodin stone carvings are very impressive.
We then travelled to Chengdu and stayed ath the Sichuan Hotel. The Giant Buddha in Leshan was amazing, although lots of steep steps to climb. The panda reserve was very good - the pandas of varying ages are easily seen. One of our tour party paid about £70 to have her photo taken with a "baby" panda, it turned out that her husband had to take the photo with his camera and the "baby" panda turned out to be a rather large adolescent!!
Our train departure to Xian was put back about 7 hours and we were dropped in Jinlin Street for 3hrs of "free time". While Jinlin street is a very pleasant restored shopping area there was certainly not enough to entertain us on quite a cold day for 3hrs - Starbucks did particularly well out of our tour group that day!!
The train trip was very comfortable if quite long. We did go through some lovely mountain scenery en route. Arrived in Xian in the early afternoon and checked into the Oriental Hotel. Highlights of Xian are the Shaanxi Museum, walking or biking the ancient city wall and obviously the Terracotta Warriors. I was amazed at the size of the site of the Terracotta Warriors - huge.
Finally we were off to Beijing by train, the soft sleepers were again excellent. Stayed at the Grandview Garden. Highlights of Beijing were the weather - cold but with sun,lovely blue skies and no smog. Also of course the Great Wall and the Summer Palace - these were 2 places where I got a real sense and feel of the history of China. Tiananmen Square is huge and was probably the first place where it felt like I was in a communist country. The Forbidden City was wonderful but our local guide was not very good and I felt like we were rushed through it without getting a real feel for it.
If you are thinking of doing this trip there are a few things to bear in mind:
1. 4 weeks is a long time to be part of a tour group of 22 people, especially if you are used to travelling independantly. It helps to break away from the tour occasionally to do your own thing. Taxis are really cheap.
2. National and Local guides often have quite superficial knowledge so it pays to research your destionations well beforehand and if possible to obtain maps. The Chinese Tourist organisation is good for this.
3. This is a very informal trip with the emphasis on comfort, no need to pack loads of clothes. Do check up on the temperatures for destinations before you go and this will give you a good idea on what to pack. On our trip the temps varied from 77 F in Shanghai to 38 F in Beijing, so we opted for lots of layers.
4. It must be remembered that China is in the midst of a huge economic boom and so many areas seem like a huge building site -not very pretty. Pollution, which I believe is being addressed by the authorities,is also a big problem in large cities.
5. Although this is not a strenuous trip, there is quite alot of walking to be done, so it may not be suitable for people with walking difficulties.
This was a really great trip with many highlights - Guilin, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, but above those the highlight for me was the Chinese people themselves, who I found to be warm, welcoming, curious and with a great sense of humour