Going to China is always fun and this trip was no different. Overall I'd say I was not blown away by the activities and services provided by our travel company. As a veteran China traveler, I definitely could have done a better job in some places if I had just organized things myself. The greatest value added by the travel company was there logistics network on the ground. Getting around far west China on my own might have been a challenge without the help of locals.
Dunhuang/Jiayuguan was the highlight in every respect: most interesting location, best hotel, best food, best tour guide.
1. I would eliminate Suzhou from the itinerary. It was a near total waste of time. When we were picked up in the morning the guide went on and on about our full day ahead and said we'd probably get back around 6pm. We returned by 4/4:30 after having toured two gardens (the second a smaller and less interesting copy of the first), the handicraft "museum" that consisted of two rooms and a dozen objects, and the embroidery "institute" which turned out to just be a store trying to sell us stuff. The most interesting thing I learned while there was that Suzhou was the start of the historical Grand Canal, but when I asked to make a stop to see it I was told it wasn't possible because we had to get back...even though we were running like two hours ahead of schedule.
2. I would handle all my meals myself, the food on this trip was terrible with few exceptions. The breakfast at the Dunhuang hotel was fantastic (the options for breakfast in Beijing and Shanghai were good too), and one night our guide let us choose our own food for dinner and that meal was good too, everything else sucked. This was hugely disappointing because I've been to China loads of times and I know Chinese food can be delicious. I resented both the lack of choice and the terrible taste of the food provided.
3. I'd beef up my Beijing itinerary. The Great Wall takes care of itself so of course we enjoyed that. However, the rest of our day in Beijing was incredibly dull (and so was our guide.) After a nasty lunch we headed to the Summer Palace. This place has lots of history, it's huge, so I was expecting a good time. Instead we walked in, stood on line to get on a dragon boat, rode a 5 minute crossing to another dock on the lake, walked by the Marble Boat, then left. SIGH. Then we drove to the hutong district, walked a circle around the hutongs for 30 minutes...and that was the end of our day. I'm not sure if the problem was with our guide or with our chosen activities, but I'd want to change either or both to make the day less of a bore.
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