I recently returned from an amazing trip in China. We booked the holiday with Sandra and Dave from Andara Travel. They presented us with a number of options covering different itineraries and areas of China. We decided on the China Explorer tour, because it covered the main attractions that we wanted to see, and the date and duration of the tour suited our travel plans perfectly.
Upon arrival at Beijing airport, peering through the plane’s window, the roof of the terminal building faintly resembled a dragon with scales. It already made me excited about the holiday! At the Arrivals hall, I was met warmly by Margaret Zhao, our local tour leader and transferred to our hotel in Beijing. The Beijing Far East Hotel is located in a wonderfully quaint area of Beijing, in the Hutong district. Whereas the location is brilliant, the hotel is more like a backpackers hostel, which is fine as that is what we expected. The hutong area still contain those original grey courtyard – style homes and little cobblestone streets, lined with pretty red lanterns here and there. Our guide told us that the government is planning to flatten this area in the near future and build modern skyskrapers on it – how sad! So I’d recommend visiting this place whilst it is still there. We had a wonderful Chinese banquet on our first night, and walked around the hutongs and market stalls in the area. For breakfast, our guide took us to a local cafe (basically a few plastic tables and chairs out in the street) and translated the menu for us. It was such a lovely experience to have a ‘local’ breakfast amongst the other local customers. The food was good, very cheap, and we all enjoyed it.
Whilst in Beijing, we also visited the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Drum and Bell towers, and of course, the best part – The Great Wall. Our group had a private mini bus that drove us to the Wall – the not-so-touristy part which was a good call. You can get up to the wall 3 ways: Walk, by cable car, by chair lift (a bit like those at a ski resort). I chose a cable car ride up but some of my energetic fit friends decided to hike up. Being up on the wall, was an amazing experience, and I felt a bit emotional to actually be there. We were there at the start of the Autumn and the red and yellow colours of the trees and bushes on the surrounding mountains looked incredible. You will need some good footwear (trainers) because there are a lot of narrow steps and uneven bits. You can get down the wall 4 ways: Walk, cable car, chair lift, and TOBOGGAN! Of course, I had to choose tobogganing. It was such good fun, you have full control of how fast or slow you go as there is a ‘handbrake’. If you go there, do it! The guide also arranged for some members of the group to see a Kung Fu show, which they said was really good. Then, we had a delicious Beijing style hotpot dinner, and again our wonderful guide Margaret helped us through the process.
We left Beijing and took an overnight train to X’ian. There we visited the Terracota Warriors which was an awesome experience. X’ian also has a fully intact city wall built all around the old part of the city (around 20-30kms) and we rented bicycles and cycled along the top. You can just cycle at your own pace and stop and enjoy some beautiful views of the city of X’ian. Pretty red lanterns all along the wall provided splashes of lovely colour. One night we also went to a cultural dance show preceded by a scrumptious dim sum banquet.
We left X’ian and took another overnight train to Suzhou. Our group slept in economy class (hard sleeper) – it was certainly an interesting experience, and one where you need a very open mind… Travelling with friends, this was fine…but if you want to go with your husband/wife/partner, I’d recommend that you book the deluxe soft sleeper cabin (there you get a private cabin and private toilet). We arrived at Suzhou which was a beautiful city – there they call it China’s Venice. There are plenty of stunning gardens that are meticulously trimmed/pruned with tranquil water features/bridges, and of course, a lot of beautiful pagodas. Our guide took us on a boat trip through the main canal and it’s so beautiful, you just want to take photographs of everything. That night, the guide took us to a local cafe, where she helpfully translated the menu for us and helped us to pick a nice dish – again, the food was very tasty and cost next to nothing. The following morning, the guide organised rickshaws to take us to a park where there were hundreds of elderly locals doing their Tai Chi. Anyone can join in, albeit where the motions look simple and easy, it certainly isn’t! We also explored more of the old town of Suzhou and walked along the side of the canals, and had a delicious authentic Chinese crepe for breakfast, and a stroll along the wetmarkets.
Then, we left the beautiful city of Suzhou and headed to our final destination, Shanghai, by bullet train. There, we had time to stroll around the shopping area around Nanjing Road (lots of lovely places to buy gifts and souvenirs), even if you don’t like shopping, it is still a very beautiful area just to walk around and see. Then we walked to the Bund area and it was actually better than I expected. They have still preserved a lot of the old colonial buildings but across the harbour the ‘new’ Shanghai stood shiny and tall. The Pearl building is actually prettier in real life than in pictures. Some of my friends went up to the top level of the building that looks like a bottle opener (think it’s the financial centre) and walked on glass bottomed floors at the 100th and something floor. The guide also arranged for us to see an acrobatics show, which Shanghai is famous for. The show lasted for about 1hr 10, and it’s SO worth going.
Overall, we used a lot of public transport (their MTR, buses, trains), which the guide did deliberately so that we could get to see some of the real China, and we ate in quite a lot of local, non touristy places (it was optional, you could still go to any modern/international restaurant if you don’t like the local food). This is what I enjoyed most about this trip, you are not just rolled up in cotton wool and just see the touristy things, you get to experience real local life. We had the same tour guide that accompanied us throughout our trip which I really liked, she got to know us and was able to give a more personalised service.
Sandra and Dave’s advice and help were invaluable in making the whole experience smooth and enjoyable from beginning to end. No question/request was too small or big for them. Thanks guys – and here’s to the next trip!
By Liesel Denner