TripADeal: 2 for 1 trip to China – a great deal?

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One small section of the Great Wall! Not many made it this far on a very hot day!

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.

Beijing

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.

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Jenny, Pauline and myself in Tiananmen  Square.  Behind us is Chairman’s Mao’s tomb.

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.

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Red and gold predominate as these were imperial colours and the decorative features were intricate.  Interestingly, the pavilions are wooden and built in such a way that they withstand earthquakes

This was followed by dinner and the theatrical performance, The Golden Mask Dynasty which was an optional tour but well worth it.

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This show was visually spectacular. They even unleashed a waterfall on stage!

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.

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Watching the artisans at work was a treat. So many variations of Jade, so many beautiful objects.

Then we drove through the countryside until we reached the Juyong Pass section of the Great Wall.

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The view is  spectacular with the wall  snaking across the hills

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.

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Jenny on the ramparts of the garrison headquarters. Behind her is the first of four watchtowers that we were allowed to climb to.

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!

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This is the easiest section to climb!
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Once you reach the first watchtower, the path narrows and becomes even more uneven. Every little bit of shade was like manna from heaven. I’m sure that it exceeded 40 degrees on the wall itself! I only made it to the second guardhouse! The call of an iced tea and an ice cream consumed in air conditioned comfort was too tantalising too resist and I may have been just … just a tad knackered!

But Kenn was not so easily daunted and the final guardhouse and the most spectacular view was waiting for him.

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Imagine how hard this would be in ice and snow … not a job for the fainthearted.
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In the end, it didn’t matter how high or far you climbed, just taking a few steps on a monument so awe inspiring was magical.  And there were little surprises like the temple on the ridge line to savour.

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.

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The Hutong tour was great. We were treated to a performance by one of Bejing’s cricket men  (as in insects not the sport), enjoyed a meal prepared in a traditional way as well as travelling in style in a pedicab. The lake area was lovely and  popular with locals who were enjoying boat rides or just promenading  along the shore.

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.

Xian

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.

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There was a chance to become a warrior!

And the chance to wallow in the marvels of one of the world’s great archaeological sites.

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The scale of the museum is mind boggling. Only the Chinese would have built a museum over an archaeological site. You can view the warriors in their ranks as they would originally have been placed there, see them in pieces still stuck in the mud and see them in various phases of restoration.
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Every face is unique. For a sum you can even have your own face put on a warrior and shipped home. Makes a change from your everyday buddha or garden gnome.
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The horses too were fascinating. The museum is set in beautiful grounds that would be spectacular in Spring or Autumn.

We also enjoyed a lunch featuring local dishes of Xian before heading to the airport for our evening flight to Hangzhou.

Hangzhou/ Suzhou

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.

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Confucius ushered us into the tea house
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The tea house is surrounded by beautiful gardens. Maybe that’s why the green tea tasted so amazing?
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Even the  goldfish seemed happy

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

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Our cruise boat was charming
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while the lake vistas were stunning.

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.

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The house is built around a series of ponds and views of the garden are gained from both within and outside the house

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

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.

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Back in the day, they had a thing for limestone creations.  And we noticed the Chinese have a thing for willow trees … not just a pretty china motif.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Japanese Snow Monkeys

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Hot stone massage anyone?

One of the highlights of our recent trip to Nosawa Onsen was the tour we took with ixsmtravel.com to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park which was about an hour away from Nosawa by bus. Some say travel is more about the journey than the destination and at first I would have had to agree: the view from our windows was breathtaking.

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Thick drifts of snow covered the fields

 

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and rivers quietly flowed watched over by the mountains which surrounded us on all sides

Arriving at the Snow Monkey Park, our bus driver had to park a fair distance from the entrance but not deterred we plodded up the hill to the starting point. We all  thought that the two kilometre walk to the Snow Monkeys would be a walk in the park. But  no-one had warned us about just how slippery the narrow path could be. Although we were all wearing proper hiking boots, we all found ourselves slip sliding away as if we were on an ice rink. And I can’t skate!  So we had to go slowly, very slowly for I could far too easily imagine myself turning into a human toboggan, hurtling down the mountainside.

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 Ben showed his exceptional balance and stamina as he carried Huddy on his shoulders the whole way.

Still inching one’s way along has an up side. There was plenty of time to admire the scenery.

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Snowy forest surrounded us on all sides
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And the light breaking through the treetops was lovely

The narrow path eventually led to the  valley of the Yokoyu-River where steam and boiling water bubble out of small crevices in the frozen ground earning the name ‘Jigokudani’ meaning “Hell’s Valley.” But it didn’t seem too hellish to us!

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You climb up from this point to where the snow monkeys make their home. They are very used to humans. Some blithely padded past us on the way up.

It was worth the effort. We saw monkeys frolicking with their babies, monkeys enjoying a dip in the steamy waters and  monkeys scampering up the mountainside.

And one was keeping watch, checking out the tourists. Examining us as we were examining him.

All too soon, our English speaking guide, who was a delightful girl from Northern Italy, asked us to start making our way back.

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From this vantage point, the path seems to go on forever.

After visiting the Snow Monkeys, the tour took us to the historic village of Shibu Onsen. This was once a village that was frequented by samurai, wandering poets and travellers  who, while bathing in the healing waters of the village’s onsens,  took the opportunity to rest and recuperate. Indeed legend says that good fortune will come to those who bathe in all the town’s onsens.

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If you decide to undertake this quest, you are issued with a special card which you then stamp as you visit each onsen.  

In this village, we were able to get a feel for the ‘old’ Japan. The narrow streets were lined by wooden buildings which were hundreds of years old.

There were  interesting shops to explore. Huddy discovered that he loved Japanese biscuits!

There was even a fountain which reputedly bestows good health and long life on those who drink from it. I couldn’t resist. I had to sip. It was  a little metallic tasting but not unpleasant and you never know …

And of course there was a temple to visit as well. By now it was mid afternoon and the temperature was dropping. The arrival of our bus to carry us home was very welcome.

This was a great day out. Try to make room for it on your next snow holiday to Nosawa Onsen. And remember wear shoes suitable for snow and ice!

Bali Bliss!

Kintamani, Bali
Kintamani, Bali

What does Bali conjure up for you?  I visualised tropical forests full of exotic flowers and monkeys, rice paddies richly green in the sunlight, temples full of strange images and wooden pavilions adorned with comfortable day beds overlooking inviting swimming pools where I would be waited on by my own personal Ketut.  Could I make my vision a reality?  Kenn and I had only five days at our disposal. I contacted my niece, Amanda Sullivan who runs a wonderful travel agency in Cowra. Within an hour of my call, Amanda and her team at Dynamic Travel www.dynamictravel.com.au had us sorted. Flights, transfers, an exceptional hotel and very helpful notes on how to stay out of trouble were ours!

We flew with Garuda. To my surprise, it was an extremely comfortable flight. The in-flight entertainment, food and beverage were excellent. The portent of things to come, I wondered? Arrival was easy. My baggage wasn’t searched, no-one looked at me twice and I didn’t get lost in customs. Before I knew it, Kenn and I found ourselves ensconced in a very comfortable car with a friendly driver winding our way through the hills  to Ubud.

Tropical perfection
Tropical perfection

Our hotel, the Maya Resort and Spa was simply lovely. Our room was very spacious and the bathroom was to die for. There was a lovely outlook from the balcony over the acres and acres of gardens.

Our room
Our room

Then there were the facilities! Both of us fell in love with the amazing lower pool which overlooked the jungle and the river. We swam leisurely up and down ( I didn’t want to splash other patrons with my attempts at butterfly or backstroke) and relaxed on our sun lounges while the helpful staff brought us drinks and little healthy treats to eat. There was also a lovely yoga studio. It’s always good to have a beautiful view to look at whilst attempting mountain pose.

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Bubbles ahoy in the pool

I  enjoyed Happy Hour and diligently worked my way through  a slab of the cocktail menu. The restaurant was exactly what you imagine a Balinese restaurant should be. Every table overlooked a courtyard with its own pool and frangipani tree. The staff were unfailingly helpful and kind. It goes without saying that the food was fantastic. It was hard to leave the resort for the delights of Ubud.  Especially memorable was breakfast. There were special treats like fresh papaya juice, interesting traditional vegetable and fruit porridges  and an omelette man. You know it’s good when you can feel the kilos piling on but you can’t restrain.

Then there was the Spa!

My Spa Pavilion
My Spa Pavilion

This was an afternoon of total indulgence. I was ushered to my private pavilion and greeted by my therapist. My treatment began with a relaxing foot treatment and was followed by a Balinese massage. Every part of me seemed to be floating away. Next came  body exfoliation. Stuff ( I’m not sure what – I was too far gone to remember) was rubbed onto me, allowed to dry then brushed off. Then a yogurty cream was slathered on and allowed to sink in. Just as I was almost asleep, my therapist ushered me to my private courtyard shower. There among the flowers, under the sky, I rinsed off  before luxuriating in a huge copper flower bath which overlooked the river. Three hours later, I returned to Kenn and the real world. An experience not to be missed!

We did leave the resort to explore this part of Bali. We hired a guide who put an itinerary together for us. He took us to a Balinese Dance performance, Batik making, silversmithing, a traditional Balinese home and  a temple celebration where we had to don sarongs and make offerings. It was busy, fascinating and humbling.

Batik in the making
Batik in the making

We also went  to the Kintamani volcano which is amazingly beautiful, visited a plantation and saw Luwak coffee being made. I felt sorry for the civets and couldn’t bring myself to taste the coffee. As far as I’m concerned, poo is poo. We wandered on foot around Ubud, but really only touched the surface. We found the Balinese people gentle, unassuming and unfailingly kind. They take pleasure in the simple things in life symbolised by the offerings they make every day to the gods. Thank you Amanda for making this such a wonderful trip.

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