Zoe & James' China Diary

Posted: 03 July 2013

Zoe & James' China Diary

On 26th May Zoe and James, our long haul specialists, set off on their six day tour to China. Read all about their experiences in their tour diary.

Day 1

07:00 James and I arrive at Birmingham airport, all set for our China Adventure.

Utilising one of our nearby airports we hopped on the short KLM flight to Amsterdam connecting with our China Southern flight to Beijing. Flying overnight allowed us to get as much sleep as we could on the flight, ready to start as soon as we arrived in Beijing.

Day 2

05:20 We land in Beijing on time and ready to go.

07:20 We leave the airport unfortunately without my bag which seems to still be in Birmingham. Not the best start, but our lovely guide Gary who has been waiting patiently for us greets us with a warm and friendly welcome.

Due to our extra time in the airport baggage claim/office we managed to hit the Monday morning rush hour.

Our first experience of Beijing is one of bumper to bumper and wing mirror to wing mirror traffic as cars fill every inch of space possible in their morning rush to work!

09:00 We arrive at our first stop of the day the beautiful Summer Palace.The first sight as we walk into the grounds of the palace is a typical yet surprising one. A group of ladies practicing Tai Chi!

Each lady is performing their Tai Chi moves in perfect synchronicity while throwing a ball around on a racket. The skill and grace involved was quite mesmerising but off we dashed to explore the palace.

As we strolled through the court area where the emperor and empress would conduct official meetings we emerge at the side of Kunming Lake with a hazy view across to the pagoda.

It was at this point that I really felt like I had arrived in China and could breath in some fresh, if a little smoggy, air!

We then walked under the canopy of the Long Gallery. This 728 meter corridor stretches along the side of Kunming Lake offering a covered walkway covered in beautiful paintings from which to view the lake.

We were surprised to find so many people in the parks singing, dancing and exercising.

We came across a rather large group having a conducted sing song, which created a lovely atmosphere. We then headed for a dragon boat ride across the lake to give us a relaxing and peaceful finish to our time in the Summer Palace.

11:00 Next we headed to see the famous face of China the beautiful Giant Pandas at Beijing Zoo. The zoo houses a small selection of the cute and cuddly bears and is the first zoo to have a panda born in captivity.

Of course we couldn’t leave without picking up a cuddly panda to take home to our little ones; they are a must if you want to be in their good books when you get home.

12:30 Next on our itinerary was a well deserved lunch at a local restaurant and we were really looking forward to our first taste of authentic Chinese food.

Gary was great in helping us to pick suitable dishes whilst getting us to experiment with new foods. We stopped briefly at our hotel to drop off James’ bag, have a quick rest and freshen up before our tour of the hutongs (narrow streets and alleyways).

Jumping on a rickshaw for a whizz around the old streets is a great way to see things with minimal effort.

Stopping en route for a visit to a traditional house is a great experience too and gives you a unique insight into a traditional Chinese family and their day to day life.

17:00 Our next experience was a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. We sampled a large selection of teas as we were talked through the various brewing techniques and health benefits of each particular tea.

Then it was time for a bit of shopping and dinner along Nanluguxiang Street where we were meeting our local agent Sunny.

We have worked with Sunny for many years and it was wonderful to finally meet her face-to-face.

She talked us through our tour and we discussed arrangements for our groups that are due to travel in the near future.

After dinner we went back to the shops, as there was still no sight of my bag…. a clean outfit for the morning was required!

20:00 Time to head back to the hotel for some much needed sleep after a long and exciting first day in China.

Day 3

06:30 An early start for breakfast and a hotel inspection at the Dongfang Hotel where we spent the night.

08:00 Gary and our driver arrive to take us out of the city for the day as we head to the Great Wall.

09:00 Our first stop as we start to leave the city is the Jade factory offering us a rest stop and the chance to see some craftsmen at work. The jade pieces here are beautiful and start from around £12 for a family ball, these are what you will see being made and are rather lovely.

Each layer of the ball signifies a member of your family so the more layers you have the larger, more detailed and more expensive the ball. (and the bigger your family!)

10:30 Next on our list is a visit to the Ming Tombs. At this point we are out in the countryside and the tombs are surrounded by beautiful mountains. The tombs themselves are placed in accordance with fengshui.

The complex is spread over 80 square km, we only visited a small section but the most important and well preserved. Emperor Yongle’s tomb is the first of 13 Ming dynasty tombs.

Visitors will see the Ling’en Hall where the Emperor’s heir offered sacrifices in his memory. The hall also contains artefacts unearthed from the tomb which is an underground palace.

12:30 We stop for lunch near the wall to refuel ready for the trek. After a very filling and enjoyable lunch we drive for another five minutes before we reach the wall.

On arrival in the car park there is no sign of a wall just a vast amount of street vendors that you have to weave your way through to get to the cable car that takes you on the final part of your journey. It’s a lively and energetic atmosphere at the bottom of the wall as the vendors all vie for your trade.

If you have time to haggle there are some bargains and quite nice souvenirs to be had.

Once you have finally run the gauntlet and arrive at the cable car station you catch your first glimpse of the wall as it snakes along the top of the mountain. As the cable car starts to whisk you up to the top the noise below fades away and the atmosphere and the view changes in seconds.

Emerging at the side of the wall you are instantly taken aback by the beauty of the mountains and the wall. For me this was one of my personal highlights and walking along the wall snapping the changing views was a great experience.

The fact that after an hour of walking along the wall I had over 50 photos said it all to me.

15:00 Returning to the car we head back to Beijing, having a quick power nap en-route.

17:00 Back in Beijing we head to the restaurant for a traditional Peking duck banquet. For someone who doesn’t like duck this was an experience, never the less I gave it a go. James on the other hand is a big duck fan and he along with the guide very much enjoyed it.

For our last night in Beijing we stayed at the Rainbow Hotel giving us the chance for another hotel inspection and a leisurely drink in the lobby to review the day’s events. The day ends on a positive note as I am reunited with my bag. Hooray!

Day 4

09:00 After a good breakfast we check-out and meet Gary and our driver for our last day in Beijing.

Our first call of the day is a hotel inspection at the Holiday Inn ‘Temple of Heaven.’

10:00 Arriving at the Temple of Heaven we firstly have a good laugh at just a few of the 9 million bicycles in Beijing. As we arrive at the park it’s obvious today will be a busy day as the weather is spectacular, crisp with clear blue skies so we have our sun cream at the ready.

As you enter the park it’s the usual sights of people dancing, singing and the tai chi crowd.

Now, though, we find something new, a huge huddle of people with pieces of paper on the floor in front of them. Our guide explains they are searching for potential partners for their children. Credentials such as age, height, occupation are all displayed and the odd photo being flashed to the potential future in-laws.

The Temple itself and the grounds are very open and large and the colours of the buildings are so vibrant in the sun.

The purpose of this temple was for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties to offer sacrifice and prayer to heaven for good harvests. Trying to imagine how it would have felt during this period makes you appreciate the space and scale of the complex.

11:30 Our next stop was the Silk Factory which is more of a shop with a few displays on how the silk is produced. A sales assistant walks us round the different displays talking us through the process from the worm to the final articles. We also had a go ourselves stretching out a layer of silk to make a duvet.

We then head next door for lunch in a very nice restaurant and take respite from the hot midday sun.

13:00 Refreshed and ready to go we set off to Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world.

The size of the place is amazing and even with so many people it felt quite un-crowded. From here we walk into the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City feels very different from the other complexes we have visited, your immediate feeling is that you are being enclosed within its walls.

As you walk through the complex towards its centre you see the layers that the buildings and gates create. The Imperial Palace has seen 24 emperors since it’s completion in 1420.

It is divided into a southern section housing the administration buildings and a northern section which is the living quarters of the emperor and his family.

The first sections feel very grand and open but the complex becomes a maze as you venture further in.

This complex has no really greenery and feels much more formal. The palace does house the Imperial Garden which is beautiful and is a lovely end to the tour.

From here we end our time in Beijing with a journey to the train station and spend some time with our guide Gary having dinner and discussing our future groups before we climb aboard the overnight train to Xi’an.

20:45 Our train departs Beijing so we relax for the evening in our cosy cabin. I must admit I was not looking forward to this part of the trip but overall it was an interesting experience and after a long, hot day in Beijing sleep came fairly easy.

Day 5

08:00 We arrive in Xi’an and meet our local guide Ann who gives us a very warm welcome to her city.

Jumping in the car we take a short drive from the station to the Xi’an City Hotel for an inspection, breakfast and a quick change.

Initial impression of the city is that it feels much calmer and less crowded than Beijing even though the population here is still larger than London!

09:45 We head out of Xi’an city to visit the world famous Terracotta Warriors. We take a quick stop en-route at a factory that hand makes varying versions of the warriors as well as producing beautiful lacquer wear. A good place to purchase a small souvenir warrior for around £8.

11:30 We arrive at the Terracotta Warrior complex and head into a 360 degree cinema room showing a short film about the tomb and it’s discovery. We were very lucky in that one of the original farmers who discovered the warriors was in the museum shop and if you purchased the museum book he would sign it for you.

Entering into the first hall the size and impact is immense. The army lines up in front of you row by row.

As you begin to focus on the individual soldiers you can see the detail and differences in the hairstyles, faces and clothing.

Here you will start to see how the tomb has been excavated and the warriors rebuilt, of all the warriors only 1 was found 95% in tact.

Moving through the various halls you can see the different ranks and formations of the army as well as the various levels of excavation and repair.

Ending our visit with lunch on-site we walk back though the market area to the car, reflecting on the vast scale of the tomb. A really enjoyable and interesting visit not to be missed.

15:00 Now we are back in Xi’an and we head to the city wall. A little apprehensive we agree to a bike ride along the wall. I’m so glad that we decided to do this, it was really fun and a great way to see the city. You can hire a bike for 100 minutes to do the 9 miles loop of the city.

It’s a bit bumpy and the bikes have no gears but once you get up to speed you can wiz by with the old city enclosed within the wall and the new high rise city on the outer edge.

17:00 We hand back our bikes feeling worn out but full of beans Ann takes us to the Muslim quarter to walk around the traditional streets and market. This has a great atmosphere and is what you expect from the traditional side of China but alongside the traditional clothes and food stalls you find your cheap copies of headphones and sunglasses, I didn’t really fancy any ‘Raybends!’

We end our day in Xi’an with a lovely buffet meal where we see the first large collection of westerners together since leaving Amsterdam airport. Back at the airport Ann escorts us to the departure lounge before bidding us farewell and thanking us for visiting her beautiful city. It was a great day and Xi’an is a lovely surprise.

20:45 Our train should depart but we have a delay….. 21:45 we finally get going.

Day 6

This morning we watch the world go by as we travel towards Shanghai, this journey we found is a bit too long, so we would recommend flying if your budget allows.

12:00 We finally arrive in Shanghai and meet our local guide Chris. Carrying our bags he walks us to our car and takes us straight to lunch.

We enjoy the experience of watching our food be prepared as we work up an appetite.

Leaving the restaurant we rejoin the traffic jams of Shanghai and find the driving here appears to us to be just as chaotic as in Beijing.

Our first stop of the tour is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, it was great driving in amongst the enormous skyscrapers but unfortunately due to the wet weather the tops of the buildings were hidden by clouds.

The view therefore was a little disappointing but the tower is an experience in itself, with the rapid lifts, arcades and indoor roller coaster.

We did luckily get a slightly better view of the city from the lower ball.

16:30 After a brief stop at another silk emporium we arrive at the Yuayuan Gardens. The gardens cover around 5 acres and offer a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city.

The garden was completed in 1577 by a government official and is a great example of a traditional Chinese garden with its rockery and Koi ponds, it is very beautiful.

After spending time in the garden we explored the surrounding market. It’s a very lively place with some great stalls and shops. Be prepared to haggle for a bargain. This is a good place for students to have a little shopping time.

Jumping back in the car we drove along the Bund to arrive at our restaurant for our evening meal.

A selection of dishes was laid out for us with a huge jug of tea, a welcome refresh and refuel.

After our meal we head out the back of the restaurant to the river side where a boat is waiting ready for our evening cruise along the Huangpu River.

20:00 Our ‘paddle’ steam cruise departs, heading along the Bund with wonderful views of the 2 sides to Shanghai.

On the West bank we had the old buildings of the Bund which were the start of Shanghai’s fortune. The foreign banks, consulates and newspaper buildings are a beautiful contrast to the modern skyscrapers of Pudong on the East bank.

The Pudong district is now China’s financial and commercial hub and is crowned by the Oriental Pearl.

Shanghai by night is spectacular and a great way to end our time exploring the city.

Day 7

After spending our final night in China at the Holiday Inn Express, Putuo we do our last hotel inspection and grab breakfast before heading to the airport for our journey home.

Arriving at Shanghai airport we bid farewell to our guide Chris and I say goodbye to my bag hoping this time it will be there at the other end!

It has been a wonderful experience that has provided us with a great overview of the 3 cities and has proven to us that China is a ‘must do’ destination for any school group looking for an exciting, eye opening and educational experience.

The excellent value for money of these tours is an extra bonus that I hope will encourage more schools and students to visit this vast country that is so different from our own.

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