In April, my mother got wind of a travel deal offered by the Chinese government. They were offering ethnic Chinese from the US, Canada or Australia an 8 day tour of Beijing for $99. The price includes 7 nights in a 4 star hotel, 3 meals per day, transport and services of a guide.
Five months later, I find myself at Beijing Airport’s immigration area with my parents and my sister.
I know you aren’t supposed to judge a country by its airport but when you are tired and jet lagged and faced with a large disorganised crowd all vying to be admitted into the country, it doesn’t put you in the best frame of mind.
We did get some laughs out of the immigration card. It refers to all foreigners as ‘aliens’.
It took us 45 minutes to clear immigration, not too bad a wait but it did require us to be ruthless when lining up. There was no evidence of polite British queuing.
Once we collected our luggage, we walked past customs where I kept getting cut off by people who felt they needed to create a horizontal line in front of me.
We found a guide holding a flag with our tour group on it and he directed us to wait in a section with the other people from our tour. There were at least 100 people there waiting. Turns out there were 26 tour groups arriving and our particular tour had 44 people in it.
We had to wait at the airport until all 26 groups had arrived so we could get a transfer to our hotel.
We arrived at 2.20pm and didn’t leave the airport until 5pm. By that point there were hundreds of irritated tourists.
We hopped on the bus to our hotel in peak hour traffic. I promptly fell asleep and woke up 2 hours later still on the bus.
We were very late in meeting up with Aillyn, a Malaysian lady who works with my parent’s friends from Saudi Arabia. Their daughter was one of the first friends I had in Jeddah.
She took us to eat dinner at Chef Dong, a popular restaurant widely regarded as having the best Peking duck in Beijing.
The dishes were beautifully presented and well cooked.
The next morning we met up with our tour group and guide, who apologised for the chaos at the airport. He explained that the Chinese government wanted to promote China to us and that we were the first year that they were trialling this travel deal.
They had already tested it on US citizens in earlier batches and the groups from now to the end of the year were made up of Canadian and Australian Chinese.
As I boarded the bus, I realised I was now part of a tour group that I painstakingly try to avoid while travelling. Basically a huge group of Asian tourists from the 50 to 70 year old demographic.
Our tour was conducted entirely in Cantonese rather than Mandarin which is a good thing for our family. It was reassuring to meet other Chinese people on tour who didn’t know Cantonese or Mandarin.
We visited Tiananmen square, the largest public square in the world and the site of the massacre of hundreds of students during the revolution.
It was very crowded and the queue for Mao’s mausoleum was 3 to 4 hours long.
It was also the first of many toilet stops along the tour and as Janice and I watched all 42 of our fellow tourists rush towards the toilets, we knew it was going to be a long week.
Our tour guide took us into the Forbidden City.
It is made up of over 800 buildings and 10,000 rooms making it one of the largest imperial complexes in the world.
Unfortunately we felt it was slightly overrated. I went there anticipating beautiful temple-like structures in a serene and regal environment but instead I found hoards of tourists pushing to get past each other and through each gate.
As we delved further into the complex, there were larger open spaces and we were able to see more of the detail in the design of the glazed roofs.
There were large cauldrons spread out throughout the complex. Apparently they used to be gold plated but throughout the years, the Chinese people would sneak in during the night and scrape the gold off.
We spent 3 hours walking through the Forbidden City and it dragged on a little as we didn’t understand what the guide was saying most of the time.
His Cantonese was too refined for us. it wasn’t until we left the complex that Janice finally gave me a genuine smile.
We had Peking duck for lunch. I was quite impressed with our first group lunch as there were 9 dishes for every 10 people, including one soup and a big serving of rice.
We were given two large bottles of beer and a large bottle of coke/sprite at every meal. Our tour also provided us with unlimited bottled water.
The dishes were mostly vegetables though, steamed cabbage, stir fried pak choy, stir fried cucumber & carrot, tofu, stir fried onions, aubergine and cloud ears with eggs.
Little did I know that those dishes were going to be my staple diet for the next 7 days.
After lunch, we went to see the Temple of Heaven, used to offer sacrifices and to pray for good harvest in ancient times.
I found it far more beautiful and serene than the Forbidden City. I also really liked the colour scheme.
We spent an hour there before stopping by South Luogu Lane. It was built as residential blocks but has since been converted to a tourist street filled with cute little shops and restaurants.
The only thing we bought was Taiwanese pancakes filled with red bean and green tea.
The highlight of the day was the Chinese acrobatics show. Even though it was an amateur production, the stunts and feats performed were as good as any that I have seen in Cirque du Soleil.
We finished off the evening with dinner and a night time visit to the birds nest, which was the stadium built especially for the 2008 Olympics.
After a 5.30am wake up call the next day, we headed to Chengde. It is a 3 hour drive there and I was thankful that the tour guide didn’t talk through the whole journey.
We arrived at Bishu Shanzhuang, the Imperial Summer Villa and Mountain Resort.
It was 5 degrees cooler here than in Beijing though the sun was shining and the skies were blue.
Bishu Shanzhuang translates roughly to “Flee the Heat Mountain Resort” so it was used as a secondary palace where affairs of state were conducted when the Forbidden City got too hot.
It took us over 3.5 hours to cover the whole resort.
It houses the largest imperial gardens in China which included a lake that we rafted across.
A local guide was provided for this part of the tour and she spoke Mandarin. This meant Janice, Dad and I hurried ahead to look through the buildings and artifacts on our own.
It gave us time to pose for some cool photos.
While the scenery was beautiful, by 1pm, I was wondering if my parents had deliberately selected this tour to punish me for some past or present wrongdoing. We hadn’t eaten since 6 am and the raft was coasting along very slowly.
At 2pm, we welcomed the hearty lunch, with all the usual vegetable dishes as well as (if you can believe it), LEMON CHICKEN! I was surprised they would serve this dish on a Chinese tour.
After lunch we visited ‘Putuo Zongcheng Miao’ in better humour.
Known as the Temple of Potaraka Doctrine, it was dedicated to Emperor Qianlong on his birthday in 1771.
On the way up the steps, I saw a squashed Praying Mantis.
After all the sightseeing, we headed into ‘Chinatown’ to visit a tea shop, the first of many government endorsed shops.
It was called ‘Dr Tea’ and there, we were given a talk about the history of tea making and types of tea in China.
We were able to sample 3 different types of tea before the hard sell commenced. We bought some tea but didn’t spend as much as others on our tour. One of the sales ladies asked my parents to buy some more tea as she hadn’t reached her sales target yet. Luckily we left most of our money and cards locked inside the hotel safe.
We ate dinner in Chengde and made the 3 hour journey back to Beijing, arriving back at the hotel for another late night and yet another early start to look forward too.
Our fourth day was highly anticipated as we were to visit the Great Wall that day. First things first, a visit to the Jade Museum.
We were given the grand tour and a presentation on how Jade is carved into jewellry or structures.
My favourite was a carving of 100 horses which took it’s creator 10 years to sculpt. Unfortunately I couldn’t buy it as I don’t have a spare £180,000 lying around.
We were lead into the back part of the exhibition hall where the staff promptly began their hard sell.
We weren’t interested so we took photos and went back to the bus to wait for the others.
By the time we finished at the Jade shop, it was 10.30pm and we wasted no time in driving to the Great Wall.
There are 3 parts at which tourist can climb the Great Wall and the one we visited was called Juyongguan Pass.
It isn’t the steepest and many of its steps have been restored.
The Great Wall is the most famous image of China and is the very reason why we were so keen to come to China.
It took us 40 minutes to climb up 1300 steps.
At the beginning our progress was slow as the stairway was packed with people walking up and down the wall.
As we climbed higher, there was less traffic.
The steepest section was the first 3 flights of steps so this probably put people off from climbing further.
The views kept getting better and the steps grew shallower.
By the time we reached the second highest fort we could take photos without other people in them.
We only had 25 minutes till it was time to meet up with our tour group so we legged it down 1300 steps.
I was starving by the time we had lunch and was very disappointed with what was easily the worse meal of the trip. We had sweet and sour pork, sweet and sour fish with plenty of bones, hot and sour soup that was just pepper and starch and lots of cabbage and pak choy.
After lunch we visited the Underground Palace of Chang Ling Tomb.
There are ten tombs there of which only one is open.
The coffin isn’t the original and much of its surroundings were rebuilt which was disappointing.
We made our obligatory stop to a government sanctioned shop where we were regaled with a silk demonstration.
I enjoyed the demonstration though I was determined not to get sucked into buying anything.
For dinner, we had steamboat with unlimited vegetables and meat. We hit the jackpot! It certainly made up for the lousy lunch.
The fifth day saw us heading to the top of Coal Hill in Jingshan Park, which is the highest point in Beijing and overlooks the Forbidden City.
It was 300 steps to the top which should have been a cinch after the previous day’s climb.
Once again the views from the top were worth it.
The skies were blue and the sun was shining.
The views were so nice that in spite of the tour I found myself starting to like Beijing.
The park was full with people out for their early morning exercise.
They inspired dad to try his hand at a local form of exercise.
Just when I thought I didn’t have anything to complain about, our guide took us to a herbal medicine shop.
We spent 2 hours there before eating lunch, and then driving 2 hours to the town of Tianjin.
There we visited its Ancient Cultural Street with its classic Chinese architectural style.
The street has been converted to shops selling various types of handicrafts.
Janice and I had our Chinese names engraved on a Chinese stone seal.
Her seal was the Dragon as she is born in the year of the dragon. My seal was the Phoenix as I was born in the year of the Rooster.
The Dragon and the Rooster are considered one of the strongest relationships in the Chinese Zodiac as they represent yin and yang.
Our next stop was the Tianjin food hall where there’s over 1000 different types of food sold.
While most of the food on sale was already cooked, consumers were also able to pick their food live.
I certainly didn’t have the stomach for it.
On day 6, we visited the Pearl factory first. Here a salesman posing as the son of the owner of the shop gave us some sentimental story about how he just got engaged and is so happy about it that he can give us huge discounts on what we buy. He even went so far as to say that his mother is Burmese and their family owns a jade mine in Burma. (hence the ability to give great discounts)
Pure Jade can only be found in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Whether his story was true or not, it certainly resulted in a mad rush to buy jade and pearl jewellery. We were given these cheap and tacky looking jade pendants in celebration of his engagement.
A small select group of us waited in the bus for them to be finished. We ended up spending 3 hours there. The next day two guys on our tour came across another tour group who said they were given the same story EXCEPT it was the daughter who had just got engaged! How dodgy is that?
The Birds Nest stadium was our next stop.
We were given 45 minutes to walk around the site where the 2008 Olympics was hosted.
The National Aquatics Centre (water cube) was just opposite. It was a warm and sunny day. Our guide said we were extremely fortunate to see blue skies as Beijing usually has a lot of smog.
Apparently, before the 2008 Olympics, when factories were told to shut down to improve the smog conditions, it was unheard of to see blue skies.
We had lunch, with the same type of dishes as previous days except with what was easily the cleanest toilet out of all the public toilets we had come across.
On average, after we depart from the hotel, there are 6 toilet stops during the day. Janice and I have strong bladders so we often went only once at lunch and weren’t able to contribute to the constant discussion and rating of the public toilets.
As far as everyone else on the tour was concerned, this particular toilet that we accessed at lunch was a seven star toilet!
Many joked that this holiday was a tour of Beijing’s toilets. People were certainly remembering Beijing for the wrong reasons.
After lunch we visited Yashow market, a 5 storey shopping centre frequented by foreign tourists. It sells ‘brand name’ items made in the very same factories that the original goods are. The difference is that the items in this centre are stolen or made on the sly.
They checked our passports at the gate to ensure none of us were locals. There I bought a Columbia ski jacket, ski pants and ski gloves for £75 and a goretex rain jacket for £20.
Next we headed to a professional dance performance.
While there were some acrobatics in the show, it was the set and special effects that stole the show.
On the last day, we visited the foot reflexology centre.
There we were given a free foot massage while being lectured on how foot reflexology works and about the medical centre that we were visiting.
The water used to soak our feet in was very hot and it took awhile for us to keep our feet submerged in the water.
While we were having our foot massages, Chinese doctors came around to read the lines on our palms. They told dad that he had a liver and kidney imbalance and that he would require medicine to combat this.
Dad refused so he moved onto mum, diagnosing her with bad blood circulation, constipation and poor sleep patterns. He also said she would develop Alzheimer’s if she didn’t take medication. She refused and annoyed, he moved onto me. He said I had irregular menstruation and this could lead to my tubes being blocked in the future.
After a third refusal to buy medicine, he took a glance at Janice’s palm and dismissed her as being perfectly healthy.
Unbeknownst to us, another Chinese doctor had cornered Dad’s friend Uncle Don and told him that he could guarantee that his diabetes would be cured within 2 months if he took their medicine. That medicine ended up costing Don $1000 AUD which effectively paid for all our foot massages.
The same doctor who sold him the medicine told me that my doctor had given me an incomplete diagnosis. He asked to look at tongue and promptly told me that I eat too much of animals organs. What the??? I told him I don’t even like animal organs. After that I made a beeline for the bus as I knew he was going to try a hard sell.
After lunch we walked through Donghuamen Night Market.
It’s open during the day as well and our guide preferred to take us there in the day as it’s safer and cleaner then.
Donghuamen Market is the street that is often featured on travel programs.
It is known for it’s Chinese ‘delicacies’
There was nothing there that I was tempted to try, no matter how much they fry them or how cheap they are.
You’d have to pay me $1 million dollars to eat one.
The only items that looked edible were laden with thousands of calories.
Our last tourist stop of the trip was to the Summer Palace, the largest preserved garden in China and a former summer resort for emperors.
It has the longest corridor in the world. (though it’s an outdoor corridor)
While the grounds were beautiful, it seemed as though half of Beijing’s residents (population of 25 million) were there.
We celebrated/ commiserated the last day of our trip over an early dinner.
It’s been a mixed trip, both boring and interesting, good and bad. Our family were able to see Beijing for $99 per head so we can’t complain about that but I’m sure we would have enjoyed China more on a different tour.