|Inside the T12 Mall in Wuxi|
Earlier this month we returned from a 10 day trip to mainland China. The experience is one I will never forget, and the price was unreal: $299/person, plus a mandatory $180/person gratuity and the cost of a Chinese Visa.
The tour price included airfare from New York to Beijing, Beijing to Shanghai, and Shanghai back to New York. All of our hotels were included as well as breakfast. Admission to several sites, including the Great Wall, plus the tour bus and guide, were all included.
The catch? Considering the cost of our plane tickets alone would be more than $299, it's hard to believe we got such a bargain. However, there was a "catch": we were required to make several shopping stops on the tour, but even those were interesting (more about that below).
|Entrance to the Forbidden City|
We arrived in Beijing in the middle of the night after a delayed flight. By the time we arrived at the hotel it was after 4 in the morning, and our tour was heading to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in just a few hours. This made for a difficult first couple of days as everyone in our group was recovering from the long flight and lack of sleep.
We stayed at the first hotel, the Chun Hui Yuan Resort, for three nights. The Beijing part of our tour was very physically active, and my body was sore from the long flight and all the walking. Fortunately, our resort had natural hot springs-fed hot tubs in each of the rooms. After a long day of sightseeing, what a relief to soak in the oversized hot tub!
On our second full day we visited the Great Wall. What an experience! It was cool and wet that day, which ended up being a blessing because of all the stairs we climbed. While our tour guide was with us the entire time we visited the Forbidden City, she let us explore the Great Wall on our own. That was a real treat because everyone had different physical abilities. My partner and I chose the "steep" side to climb because there were far fewer tourists to compete with. What a workout!
Our tour cost was subsidized by the Chinese government. It seems like this is a standard way of doing things if you take a group tour in China. In exchange for an unbelievable price, you have a few mandatory "shopping" trips. Our first was to a Chinese Herbal Institute, where we learned about traditional Chinese medicine through herbs. I enjoyed this stop. We were in a classroom setting and a doctor taught us about ancient Chinese medicine. While he did this, students at the institute gave each of us a free foot massage and soak in some sort of herb water. This was exhilarating after all the walking we did in Beijing. After the doctor spoke, more doctors entered the room to check our palms to identify ailments we had. This was pretty hokey. A doctor felt my hands and, through a translator, said I needed to lose weight and take something for my liver. Everyone in our group had some ailment that an expensive prescription of herbal supplements would treat. I took a pass on that but tipped the student 20 Yuan (less than $3) for the massage.
After three nights in Beijing, our group flew to Shanghai. We started this leg of the tour in Suzhou, where we visited the Garden of Master of the Nets. We also visited a silk factory, another one of the mandatory stops. Again, it was an interesting stop, as we were educated about silk and then allowed to roam the massive silk store. I caved here and ended up buying a couple of silk shirts. I figured it would be nice to take something home I could actually use. We took a boat ride along a canal and saw some unique architecture. We stayed the night at the Pan Pacific Suzhou. As with all our hotels, it was beautiful! There were extensive gardens in the courtyard of the hotel. Several from our group walked down the street for dinner. My partner tried chicken feet, but I couldn't do it!
The next day we visited Wuxi. Interestingly, the city of Wuxi requires tour groups to use a local guide, so we met up with a second guide who traveled with us that day. I felt like this was one of the ways China stimulates its economy. Our second guide was great, but it seemed unnecessary to use two guides just for this one stop. We visited a huge park on a lake. Also had another shopping stop at a pearl factory. This was my least favorite stop as I care very little about pearls, but it was neat to see a shell opened up and the pearls that were inside. We spent the night at the Grand Park Wuxi, which was in the heart of the city center. Whereas most of our hotels were fairly isolated, this one was walkable. We went with a couple of people from our group to the T12 mall, which was across the street from our hotel. It was really cool to see what a Chinese mall looked like. This one was vertical - 12 stories - but was fairly similar to an American mall, just with different stores.
Following Wuxi, we headed to Hangzhou. The mandatory stop here was my favorite: we visited a tea plantation. The bus meandered down narrow roads along a valley surrounded by tea trees. It was one of the most beautiful drives of our trip. We arrived at an educational tea plantation which had several classrooms along with ornate landscaping. The presenter told us how the Chinese consume tea (literally, they "eat" tea, since the traditional method includes the actual tea leaves, which you can chew up and swallow). Once again, we succumbed to the experience and I ended up buying some tea. We bought a big bag and some small tin containers to divide the tea to give as gifts. Later that day we visited West Lake, a huge park with gardens and water and a view of the Hangzhou skyline. That night, we stayed at my favorite hotel, the Grand New Century Hotel Radio & TV Zhejiang. This was by far everyone's favorite, luxurious even by American standards.
Onward to Shanghai, where things took a turn, for me at least. The bus ride from Hangzhou to Shanghai was long, over 3 hours. We stopped for lunch at a rest area, which is where I think I got food poisoning. When we arrived in Shanghai, we visited the Bund, a river walk along the Huangpu River with amazing views of the city skyline. Then as the sun set, we headed to a dock to take a boat ride on the river. This is a must-do activity (it was an optional add on at $45/each). The Shanghai skyline lights up after dark like no other city. It was mesmerizing. But by this point, I was beginning to feel sick to my stomach. I figured I just needed to use the bathroom. Most public restrooms in China are disgusting, so we never even considered using them. The have squatters for toilets - basically holes in the floor. There is no soap or hot water, so not very hygienic. I made it to our hotel, the Rezen Hotel Shanghai Zhiwei Century, where we would spend the final two nights. Our plan for the last full day was to do our own thing. I had downloaded the Didi app, which is the Chinese version of Uber. But our plans changed. That first night, I was awake most of the night, sick. I've never had a stomach ache like I had. It had to be food poisoning. The next morning I skipped the free breakfast. Unfortunately, I couldn't step away from the bathroom for more than 10-15 minutes, so we ended up stuck in the hotel room the entire day. We made the most of it though. I had downloaded a VPN prior to our trip which enabled us to use Netflix just like we were back home. We watched a couple of movies, I drank a lot of Sprite, and we made the best of a bad situation. The second night I was still in a pretty bad place, but things were beginning to improve. I made it to breakfast the next morning, but barely ate a thing. We had several hours before we needed to head to the airport, but I was just too queasy to venture away from the hotel.
Despite the food poisoning, we had an amazing trip overall. While in China we spent just under $1,000 over 8 days. This included optional tours, lunch and dinner, the tea and silk purchases, and a few small souvenirs to give as gifts. Together with the tour package, gratuities and visa (which is valid for 10 years in case we decide to go again), the all-in trip for two cost about $2,500.