Have you ever wondered what those amazing internet travel deals are really like?
Are they merely the ‘Fawlty Towers‘ of travel or are they genuine value for money?
Well a few weeks ago, Kenn and I took the plunge and decided to put one to the test. We traveled to China for the first time on a 10 day tour with TripADeal. It seemed too good to be true! The basic tour price was $1999 for two people which included accommodation, breakfasts, tours and direct flights with Qantas and not an airline we had never heard of and which might drop us into the the South China Sea at any moment! An extension to see the Terracotta Warriors which has always been on my bucket list was also available for an additional $1000.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained as the saying goes, so Kenn and I contacted our wonderful niece, Amanda Sullivan at Dynamic Travel who organised everything, including our visas for us. And just like that, together with my sister Jenny, her good friend Pauline and about 30 others, Kenn and I found ourselves flying off to the forbidden kingdom.
The itinerary took us from Beijing down to Xian (to see the warriors) and across to Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai and gave us a taste of some of the wonders of Imperial China as well as some of the new China’s technological marvels while inviting us to appreciate some of China’s natural beauty and culture.
We arrived in Beijing in the evening and were met by our super friendly and helpful guide Frank. Soon our luggage was stowed on our coach and we were on our way to the Schonbrunn Hotel which was a considerable distance from the city centre.
This was an older hotel and I was a little disappointed in our room which had a very smokey smell, something you don’t encounter in Australia. Frank told me later that I could have asked for a room change but at the time I didn’t want to be that ‘difficult person’. In retrospect, I should have as we spent 3 nights here.
Nevertheless, the bed was reasonably comfortable, the linen nicely pressed and the hot water plentiful. If space is something that you value when travelling then I would opt for a twin room as I noticed that the rooms Jenny and Pauline shared were much larger than our doubles. Breakfast was included and while western options were a little limited, it was more than satisfactory. Kenn and I enjoyed our morning omelette, resuming our tussle with toaster and exploring the buffet each day.
Our first day in Beijing saw us visit a pearl factory, explore Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, enjoy dinner in Beijing’s theatre precinct and marvel at the special effects of a theatrical performance entitled, The Golden Mask Dynasty.
While the pearl factory was interesting, the visit to Tiananmen Square and the forbidden City was the highlight of the day. Despite it being school holidays, (which we didn’t know when we booked) and very hot (high 30s), the square is so huge that the crowds weren’t a problem and the communication headsets enabled us to enjoy Frank’s commentary.
The forbidden city too was vast. While the pavilions and the emperor’s throne room remain intact, most of the furnishings have been removed so it is difficult to gain a sense of how people lived here when the emperors ruled.
And it is very barren which surprised me. The city is built upon metres of paving bricks to prevent the possibility of underground attacks, surrounded by walls, guard towers and a moat, so there are no gardens. Consequently, the whole area radiates heat! There was however an icecream vendor with a delicious selection of gelati which was very welcome as was our air conditioned coach at the conclusion of our tour.
This was followed by dinner and the theatrical performance, The Golden Mask Dynasty which was an optional tour but well worth it.
The following day dawned hot and sunny but proved to be one of the highlights of the trip, the visit to the Great Wall.
On the way there, we visited a jade factory.
Then we drove through the countryside until we reached the Juyong Pass section of the Great Wall.
This part of the wall dates from the Ming dynasty and if we wanted to, we could climb to Watchtower number 4 from the headquarters below.
All I can say is that the Ming soldiers had to be incredibly fit to fulfill their duties. The steps are incredibly steep and quite uneven. The Ming obviously hadn’t heard of workplace health and safety regulations!
But Kenn was not so easily daunted and the final guardhouse and the most spectacular view was waiting for him.
That evening we joined an optional tour to see Bejing’s 700 year old Hutong area by pedicab as well as visiting the three lakes area of the city.
Our final day in Beijing was also full of fun and exciting experiences. We visited the Bejing Zoo to see the giant pandas. And we learnt about traditional Chinese medicine at Tongrentang in the city centre, where we had the opportunity to be assessed by a traditional practitioner. The talk was very persuasive, but I couldn’t get stories of wild animals being hunted to extinction to become products for Chinese medicine out of my mind so couldn’t make myself try some of their products. I was in the minority though! A fantastic lunch at one of Bejing’s best dumpling restaurants followed and then it was time to catch the very fast bullet train to Xian, a journey of about five hours.
A fabulous experience, the train proved to be very fast, smooth and comfortable even when reaching speeds of 300 kms an hour and it was a real pleasure to travel through such a vast swathe of the countryside. But there was one little hiccup. We thought that the train would have a great dining car and planned to enjoy dining a la the Orient Express. But alas, the dining car was more like a truck stop with a very limited menu which sold out of food very quickly. Then we noticed that most of the Chinese passengers on board had packed their own obviously aware of the dining car’s limitations. We wished that we had done the same.
Nevertheless, we arrived safely in Xian. Driving along lamplit, tree lined boulevards I could have imagined that I was in Paris except for the Chinese signage. Our hotel, the Grand Nobel Hotel was lovely. We were sorry that we didn’t get to spend more time there, but on the following day the Terracotta warriors awaited.
And the chance to wallow in the marvels of one of the world’s great archaeological sites.
We also enjoyed a lunch featuring local dishes of Xian before heading to the airport for our evening flight to Hangzhou.
Our flight was very pleasant and a couple of hours later we landed in Hangzhou. Can you imagine our consternation when our guide, Thomas told us how happy he was to see us as we had flown directly into the path of a typhoon! However, despite some wet weather, we were soon comfortably settled in another very comfortable hotel.
The next morning saw us exploring a tea plantation for Hangzhou is considered the tea capital of China. It was stunningly beautiful.
From the tea plantation, we made our way to West Lake an UNESCO world heritage site and was easy to see why.
We walked to the lake through woods fringed by lotus ponds and tea pavilions
There were lots of choices for lunch and soon we were on our way to Suzhou. It took about two hours by bus. Our hotel in Suzhou, the Snowy Sea Hotel was in my opinion the best we experienced on the tour.
The following day, we visited a silk factory and took a tour along one of the many canals in Suzhou.
But the highlight for me was the visit to the famous Lingering Garden, another UNESCO heritage site.
Needless to say I would have loved to have included many more photos but this post is already too long. What is interesting is that this garden is only one of many you can visit in Suzhou. Late that afternoon, we were on the bus again, this time for Shanghai, our last port of call on the tour.
Shanghai is a fabulous city. We enjoyed every moment of our time there. But there was one drawback. Our hotel was pleasant but situated a long way out of the city. This meant that if you wanted to immerse yourself in the city, you needed to take the optional tours as getting to and from the hotel under your own steam might have been a little difficult and expensive.
Consequently, we took the optional tour to see the acrobatic show ‘ERA’ and enjoy dinner in the centre of the city. This show was enjoyable but I really was expecting something better. And to make matters worse, our bus had been delayed by a couple of tardy passengers, something that I imagine happens quite often on tours. But it meant that the dinner I had been looking forward to had to be rushed. Half an hour is not sufficient to savour one’s food in an exotic, expensive restaurant!
The following morning, Kenn and I parted company with Jenny and Pauline and decided to take an optional tour to travel on the fastest train in the world: the Maglev train. I couldn’t believe my eyes when it reached 430kms an hour! It was thrilling. Then we rejoined the tour at the bund. This riverfront promenade is delightful and the heritage buildings built by the Europeans in the 19th century impressive. Our trip back in time continued at the Shanghai museum. There were so many treasures to see. I loved the pottery including a variety of Tang horses as well as the beautiful Ming furniture in particular.
As for fabulous places to eat, our tour guide, Thomas took us to the French Quarter for lunch where Kenn and I stumbled on a very trendy warehouse eatery. Oh the dilemma of what to choose!
And then it was onto the Yu Garden, a haven of peace in a bustling metropolis.
But the best was yet to come: the Night Cruise on the Huangpu River. If you do only one optional tour, this is the one to choose. The light show rivals that of Singapore and that’s saying something. These shots taken with my phone hopefully give you a taste of what you will see on the cruise.
And then we woke up and it was our last day. We were free to explore on our own, but TripAdeal organised a fun day for us a very little extra cost. We visited a Buddhist temple,
and an outlet mall which was super fun among other things.
Then it was time to bid China farewell as we caught our night flight home.
This tour was good value for money. If I had my time over, I would choose to travel either in Spring or Autumn as August was way too hot and I’m used to heat! Of course the hotels in the two major cities of Beijing and Shanghai were the most basic of those offered on the tour but not unexpected given the price point of the tour. You are on the go all the time on this tour which was a good thing for us but some might like to travel at a gentler pace. The tour guides were really excellent and nothing seemed too much trouble. Yes I did have a ‘fawlty towers’ moment in Beijing but overall I would have to say, TripADeal is a great deal.