We just returned from a two-week private tour of China, ticking off several items from my partner's "bucket list" -- The Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, pandas and Shanghai. Our travel agent worked tirelessly to help us hone our schedule. He was a tremendous help, answering our endless questions promptly. Our guides also were wonderful, with a good command of English and wonderful depth of knowledge. Most were very easy-going and chatty. When we had an issue with a plane ticket (a typo in my name), our guide was able to straighten out the problem with a series of phone calls and texts. We made the flight with time to spare.
The four-star rating has nothing to do with the travel company, which definitely rates five stars, but with the destination. China is not an easy country to visit, involving a 12-hour time change and 13-hour flights to and from New York. Day after day of sightseeing in big cities is not my personal idea of a "vacation" -- I like to add some time outdoors at beaches or in the country, not a possibility in the parts of China we saw. The temperature was in the 90s almost every day, even in April. The crowds, traffic and air pollution are overwhelming everywhere.
We had two very lucky experiences. First, we managed to visit the Great Wall on a day without crowds! Most of the tours seem the leave early in the morning (all "to beat the crowds" -- go figure). Our afternoon tour was delightful and awe-inspiring. Second, it had rained just before we arrived in Shanghai, washing away the haze and lowering the temperature. With the sun about to set, the sparkling view of the skyline across the Bund was extraordinary.
The Terra Cotta Warriors archeological site was wondrous, and the pandas were as adorable as pandas always are. Both places were extremely crowded, however. We also ventured out on our own in Shanghai, where we visited the Jewish Refugees Memorial Center and a district of warehouse-style artist studios. The volunteer tour guide at the refugee museum spoke wonderful English and was very well informed about this interesting and heartwarming era in Shanghai history. Armed a list of addresses in both English and Chinese (from our guide) and a map on which the concierge had circled each spot, we managed to get around without much difficulty.
What was most interesting, however, was getting a first-hand look at a country that is about as foreign as it gets for most Americans. It's a land of contrasts -- the ancient and the modern, extreme poverty and extreme wealth, communism backing rampant capitalism that benefits a few at the expense of the many -- and of the environment.
"Big city" does not mean the same thing in China as it does in the U.S. Every place we visited had populations of 30 million people or more. Each city has acres of high-rise apartment towers built just after the revolution in with no regard for beauty. Each also has areas of "worker housing" that is little more than shanties. Interspersed with this grimness are ultra-modern skyscrapers housing high-tech and financial firms. Also present in every city are lovely parks, many of them formerly private gardens now open to the public. Unfortunately, many ancient landmarks were destroyed in the revolution; some have been replaced by replicas. There is new construction everywhere, of infrastructure as well as housing. Without the bickering of opposing political parties, stuff gets done.
And every city has beautiful modern tourist areas, with five-star hotels, tree- and flower-lined boulevards, shopping malls and all the trappings of rampant capitalism. The very wealthy Chinese upper class frequent these areas more than foreign tourists. Class distinctions exist, and are as wide as anywhere in the western world.
First, I would avoid Beijing except as a jump-off spot for the Wall. I'd hole up at the hotel on arrival and rest until the following afternoon, then visit the Wall. As the communist capital, even among other Chinese, Beijing has the reputation of being relentlessly grim and political. Not even our wonderfully personable guide could remedy that. And the food was awful (on the plus side, we each lost almost ten pounds in two weeks!).
Second, I'd fly from city to city rather than take the high-speed bullet train. China is huge, and the train rides were long, with views almost unbearably ugly and depressing. The smog never lifts. We passed city after city, many larger than NYC, all with those bleak apartment towers and shanties; nuclear power plants; and scraggly-looking farms.
Third, I'd spend a couple more days in Shanghai, a relatively modern, fun city with a strong western influence. The restaurants there were wonderful -- soup dumplings! -- as were the cocktails (wine and mixed drinks are not available outside the big hotels in the other cities). The hotel, an Art Deco beauty on the Bund, was lovely.
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