Sunday, May 31, 2009

Getting Around




We traveled on many different modes of transportations in our 17 days in China.

9 planes
1 rickshaw (Hutong in Beijing)
2 airport trains (to and from Hong Kong airport)
1 airport shuttle (upon arrival to reach the terminal)
2 express airport buses (to and from Hong Kong airport)
2 tour Buses (The Big Bus in Hong Kong and the bus to the Three Gorges Dam)
1 wooden canoe (Shennong Stream)
3 ferries ( from cruise ship to Shennong, Star Ferry in Hong Kong)
1 cruise ship (Empress President #6) 1 river cruise boat (Li River cruise) 1 bicycle for 2 (Xian) 2 cable cars (Fengi and Great Wall) 1 taxi (Hong Kong) vans
1 golf cart (Terra Cotta Warriors)
2 limos (to and From Toronto airport)
Now if only there was a way to count the hundreds of miles on our shoes!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

China Highlights


Leon from China Highlights http://www.chinahighlights.com/ kindly sent us a copy of the picture which was taken in China Highlights office in Guilin . Leon had asked our guide, Vivian to bring us into the office to meet him. He had presents for us and we sat and talked about how much we had enjoyed our personalized, private tour of China that he had arranged. Everything had gone so smoothly and been so much fun.

We have promised Leon a link to our blog here and a link to our photos. Our photos can be found at http://www.webshots.com/ and then click on Advanced Search and Search by Member and type in dublinduo31.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

China Notes to Self




Always bring:


My Acer Netbook was awesome to have with us. Could access internet, download photos.


Lots of kleenex packages



Hand Sanitizers



Internet cable - just saves having to ask desk to bring one



Cotton skirt



USB keys - really handy for downloading cameras






There is really no need to tip.




There are ATMs everywhere.






Would probably fly to Hong Kong without any luggage first if the flight was reasonable. Could then shop for clothes.









Buy your souvenirs as you see them, as most are unique to the area you are in. I am glad I didn't wait to get them in HK as we didn't really see any of the stuff we bought. Hong Kong souvenirs were more on the tacky side.






If you want to see the Three Gorges try to find a cruise that starts at the Gorges as the trip from Chongqing is not very picturesque. On the other hand, the 3 day cruise was great for relaxing and enjoying the side trips that are included as part of the package.



Our Hotels in China

















Our first sample of a Chinese 4 star hotel was the Sunworld Hotel Beijing.

We had been travelling since 6:00 am on May 2 and arrived in Beijing on May 3 at 3:30 pm. We had been travelling 20.5 hours by the time we reached the hotel. This hotel is ideally located 1 block from Wangfujing St. a pedestrian outdoor mall with every shop you can think of and sidewalk cafes to watch the world go by. The rooms are very comfortable. Breakfast is served on the main level overlooking the street. The hotel doesn't appear to have any bars or smoking areas for the guys to enjoy their cigars.

















Next hotel was the Meihua-Goldentang International Hotel in the old part of Xian. The room view was outstanding showing the Drum Tower all lit up at night. This was labelled as a deluxe room. It was extremely large with a huge bathroom. Again a super location for getting around.











We went to the dining room for dinner as it was after 9 pm. The service was terrible and the food worse. Not a good choice.

From Xian we headed to Chongqing to board the Yangtze cruise ship for 3 nights.


Our next hotel was The Bund Hotel in Shanghai. This was probably the favourite of the guys as it had a Cigar Bar and Chinese Scotch! This hotel charged for internet service unlike the other 2.











Breakfast buffet was served in an elegant setting on the 2nd floor. The hotel is used by many business travellers from around the world. This hotel had an odd rule when taking your credit card for a deposit of putting only a very small amount on it. This meant the first time we charged drinks it had to be increased causing much confusion on our part.

From Shanghai we flew to Guilin where we stayed 1 night in the Guilin Bravo Hotel. It also was a good location for shopping and restaurants but I think we were still full from a very late lunch so we lounged around the pool area (the first hotel with a pool) and had drinks and of course th guys could smoke their cigars. We later ordered sandwiches from room service which were excellent. This was the first hotel where we encountered hordes of large tour groups. This meant that the restaurant for the breakfast buffet was packed and lines long. This hotel has a very good shopping area located in it.








The next day we took the Li River cruise to the Paradesa Resort Hotel in Yangshou. This is a beautiful resort with an infinity pool. It also seems to be a main stopping spot for all the large tour groups and school trips. We missed all the groups at breakfast as we had asked our guide if we could have a later start this day as it was going to be a long day since our flight to Hong Kong had gotten delayed from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm. Breakfast location is at the Junk Boat Cafe and was very good.














Our hotel arrangements in Hong Kong had been booked by ourselves based on a recommendation from an associate. We selected the Royal Pacific on Canton Street. We had requested 3 rooms on the same floor overlooking the harbour. As our flight was delayed Sarah had checked in and her room was on the 16th floor overlooking the harbour. We ended up on the 17th floor not overlooking the harbour. Hotel claimed this was due to us arriving late. As it was already almost midnight the desk suggested we go to the bar if we wer hungry before going to our rooms as it would close at 12:30. Very expensive mediocre food and bad service.

The rooms are definitely boutique style as they are extremely tiny as you would associate with any big city such as New York or London. Internet service was expensive.

Let's just say Hong Kong is an expensive city.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

China Recap


It was the most amazing vacation yet. The weather was around 32 degrees every day. The food - what can I say?? I never enjoyed food as much as I did. Every meal, for the most part, was delicious. We ate food we had never tried before, heard of dishes we know we would never try.

The bathrooms which were probably my greatest fear, like most women, worked out to be fine. As long as you always remembered to have tissue in your pockets at all times! We saw the squatters and we saw the most opulent toilet in the Hong Kong Sheraton.

The hotels, as promised by our tour company, www.chinahighlights.com, were all 4 stars. Bathrooms were quite luxurious and most contained safes. Western and Chinese breakfasts were always included in the price. These breakfasts were certainly filling and could keep you going all day if you chose to stuff yourself or else help yourself to some rolls, pastries, fruit or yogurt.

The sightseeing was just amazing and we only touched the tip of everything there was to see. We knew we had an aggresive schedule to begin with and several people had also confirmed that. However, it was certainly a quick overview allowing us to determine where we would concentrate more of our time on our next visit, which will definitely happen. Everywher we went we would say "oh, we'll be back"!

And we will!

China Highlights Tour Guides






China Highlights www.chinahighlights.com provided the best guides that could be imagined. They were responsible for greeting us at the airport, getting us and our luggage to our hotels and getting us checked in. They then conducted our private tours of the local attractions providing us with a wealth of knowledge about their subjects. They provided us with tidbits of information about Chinese life, customs and rules you would not likely hear on a large group tour

Leon Long at China Highlights was our main contact and when one of our party forgot his glasses in an Xian hotel, he arranged to track them down and have them couriered to his office in Guilin where the tour guide then had then sent to our hotel in Yangshou.

This blog is about the guides, please see other entries on food, hotels, cruises and sights.
In Beijing we came through customs and were met with a sea of tour guides holding up signs. We looked for John’s name and met our guide Sean. Sean took us to our van and introduced us to our driver.
As would be the case with all our guides, Sean left us to our own devices for the evening. He said he would be back at nine am the next day to begin our sightseeing.
Sean then was our guide for the next 2 days taking us to Tianaman Square, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Hutong area, Olympic Green, and the Great Wall of China.
He chose excellent restaurants with pre-selected menus. He did not eat with us until the last day.
Sean then took us to the airport and got us checked in for our flight to Xian, our next stop.

In Xian we had Rainy waiting for us. She took us to our hotel within the old city walls. Rainy took us the old city walls to ride bicycles and then to the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Gao's Courtyard, and the Islam district in Xian where she left us to wander on our own to shop and enjoy the sights.
She suggested the optional excursion to the Xian Opera House for a dumpling dinner and show. This was an excellent idea. The driver waited and took us back to our hotel.
Rainy then took us to the airport for our next leg.

We checked in and were on our way to Chongqing for our Yangtze cruise.We were met at the Chongqing airport by Jeff,our youngest guide who was just passionate about his city. Unfortunately our flight had been delayed by an hour and we hit rush hour traffic. Jeff kept up a running commentary while we drove into the city. He had arranged a preset menu at a beautiful restaurant. He then took us to a supermarket to pick up some stuff for the cruise. He arranged our porters for the luggage and got us checked onto the cruise before leaving us.

After our 3 day cruise we were met in Yichang by Season who boarded the ship and then took us to our waiting van amidst the hordes of tourists disembarking from the ships. He showed us around Yichang as we had a few hours before our next flight. Once again our guide arranged our flight check in. We were now on our way to Shanghai.

In Shanghai we were met by Rainy (2) a 22 year old guide. She was as charming as she was knowledgeable. She took us to the Bund Hotel in downtown Shanghai and arranged to meet us in the morning. Rainy then took us to the World Financial Centre, The Bund, and Yuyuan Market and Gardens. We then had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves to wander around Shanghai.
She then took us to the market and gardens. Lunch was at a restaurant in the market which was excellent. We had a variety of dumplings which were sooo delicious.
Rainy arrived the next morning to take us to the airport for our flight to Guilin.

In Guilin we were met by Vivian. She took us to lunch and then we checked into our hotel. Then we were off to visit the Reed Flute Cave and Elephant Trunk Hill.
The next day we headed for our cruise on the Li River. We were on the top deck which is reserved for small tour groups. We had the front table for the four of us. Once again, exceptional service. Lunch on board is a Chinese buffet which we were looking forward to, however, on the table was a menu which China Highlights had arranged for us as they had heard from other clients that the food was only average on the ship. We had seafood salad, mushroom soup ( the best I've ever had) and steak with potatoes and vegetables.

Vivian then took us to our hotel the Paradesa in Yangshou and ensured our rooms were satisfactory for us.

The next day she adjusted the schedule as we did not really want to go bicycle riding as it was 32 degrees and we also wanted to start the day a little later at 10 am.

She arranged a lunch which included beer fish which was absolutely delicious. We then went to the local food market.

Then off, once again, to the airport for our flight to Hong King. As this portion of the trip included clearing customs Vivian could not check us in. She waited, however, to ensure we got checked in and cleared customs before leaving the airport.

This was the end of our package with China Highlights as we headed off to Hong Kong and our own personal guide and tour.

I failed to mention the most important trait shared by our guides - a sense of humour!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

China Highlights


We reviewed many itineraries from various tour companies before we made our final selection. A private tour for our 4 members was our main criteria. We had done a private trip in 2007 when in Egypt and loved the flexibility it provided – http://www.newstar.com/. The itinerary was to include Beijing, Xian, Yangtze cruise, Shanghai and Guilin. We asked that our flight to Hong Kong also be booked and then we would be on our own in Hong Kong, arranging our hotels and tours ourselves. China Highlights arranged for 14 days of our trip. Additional side trips were added for Chongqing, Yichang as we had time available between flights.
We also liked that China Highlights generally didn’t include dinner as that gave us a chance to wander around and choose our own restaurant. Special dinners were provided as an option and it was not problem if we decided against it. There was no pressure to up sell side excursions.
Shopping trips were included again with no pressure; in fact, we enjoyed these as they were always professional and provide top quality items. We generally bought our souvenirs on these trips.

The four of us had narrowed the selection down to about 6 at New Year’s. Then we narrowed it down to two, china Highlights and one other company. The other company was slightly cheaper with a few more options. The guide for that company had kept in touch with me constantly. When Air Canada started messing around with the timings of our flights these 2 companies were the only ones who stayed with us, while we couldn’t make a decision as we did not want to pay for anything until Air Canada finalized our flights. In March, we felt we had to make a final decision and move on with our plans. Leon Long from China Highlights could not have been more accommodating. Hans from the other company was also attentive; however something just did not feel right about his company and website. The copyright was outdated on his site (when mentioned he said he could fix that right away). The photos on his site were stock photos; there were no photos of happy tourists standing in front of Chinese attractions. He provided 6 references, only 2 responded and 1 was from 2003. Gut feel made us go with China Highlights. http://www.chinahighlights.com/ Their website is professional, provides a plethora of Chinese information and has many references and photos.
We could not have made a better decision. All four of us have raved to everyone about how well we were treated. The airport pickups were professional; there was always a guide with a driver waiting for us, regardless of flights delays. The drivers provided large well kept vans. The guides spoke excellent English and were extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their country and subject matter. They also provided additional insights into Chinese culture and life that you would not have gotten with a large tour company on a large tour bus with many nationalities. They would take us to our next airport, check us in, ensure we had seats together and not leave until we were through customs or security.They checked us into our hotels, some even coming to the rooms to ensure they met our satisfaction.

Cell phone numbers were always provided if we needed them after hours.
I will publish a separate blog showing each of the guides and writing a brief review of them with photos.
Once again, I cannot thank China Highlights enough for providing a trip of a lifetime!
We had the opportunity to meet Leon when we were in Guilin. He had asked the guide to bring us by. We had a great chat, he gave each of us a small gift as a token of his appreciation and had our photos taken with him.
The hotels selected were 4 star hotels that provided all the amenities that we like. Large comfortable rooms, spotless bathrooms, always located in prime locations for restaurants and walking around in extremely safe areas.
If we didn’t want to do something or wanted to change anything every guide rolled with it and provided other options. In most cases the lunch menus were pre=-selected by the guide and we could not have complained about any food. See separate blog on food! Meals generally came with beer and if we wanted more we would buy it ourselves. The guides generally didn’t eat with us, they ate with the driver and other guides. For the last meal they usually joined us. Eating by ourselves gave us a break to discuss the fantastic food and chat about what we had seen that day.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Xian


We arrived in Xian and Rainy our guide was there to greet us with a car and driver. She took us to our hotel in downtown Xian within the city walls. We were then left on our own for the evening. We wandered about and then came back to the hotel for dinner. That was not the best food we had so far.
The next morning Rainy picked us aup and we started the day by going to the Xian city wall tower with many towers. We rented 2 seater bikes and cycled along for a while to where we could see the moat with beautiful landscaped areas along it. People were flying kites and men were playing games.
We had decided that we did not want to do the shopping excursions included today to the ceramics and furniture factory. But it so happened that our next stop was the shopping at the factory where they make the official terra cotta souvenirs. They also make beautiful lacquered furniture, carpets, ceramics , silk embroidery and other souvenirs. We bought an archer and a general. We would haveliked an emperor, however you could only get him if you bought a set of 5 then they would throw in an emperor.
After the city wall we drove to lunch about 30 minutes away. Next to the restaurant was the sphinx and a pyramid! It wa an attraction for the 8 wonders of the world.
Lunch was very good. The guide helped you order off the menu. We selected a beef with noodles, chicken and broccoli and mushrooms. Maggie ordered a salad and honey dates. While waiting spicy cold noodles and a bean dish were served.
The Terra Cotta Warriors were next on the agenda. We took a golf cart to the 4 buildings housing the excavated soldiers. The first building representing Pit 1 looks like a hockey arena. The first view of the soldiers is incredible. There are 3 rows of soldiers standing proudly in a row. There no archers in this pit.
We then visited the other 2 buildings containing other excavated items and models of archers and generals which have been pieced together.
We walked around the Islam area of Xian wwhich was located just behind the hotel. We went to a traditional house where we also saw a shadow play show.
We then had time to wander around by ourselves. We saw many interesting foods such as dumplings, dried fruites and vegetables includng kiwi and tomatoes.
We saw dumpling covers being made and walnuts being ground to make powder. There were street vendors for almost anything you could think of. There were huge soup caludrons getting ready for the lunch crowd. We wentdown a side street no bigger than a lane but with 2 way traffic,bikes, moterbikes and pedestrians.There was food within arm’s reach of any drivver making it a true drive-thru.
There were stands with various types of filling which you could select from and then have it fried up in a pancake before you. There were salmon cakes as well.
Birds in cages were singing in cages hanging from branches of trees. Coal was being delivered to the restaurants by a man on a 3 wheel bicycle. Muslim ladieswith theirheads covered were selling their wares, shoes, fans, shawls, tiger balm, chopsticks, luggage.
A woman went by with her bicycle and a hugh flowering plant in the basket.
Then it was time to head back to the hotel to pick up our luggage for our flight to Chonging where we would be boarding the Yangtze cruise.

Photos and Paparazzi





The Chinese insist on having every one of their party’s pictures taken in front of every statue, monument, square, natural attraction etc. I am the opposite, I thrive not to have people in front of my photos.
It started on Day 1 in Beijing. We were at the Forbidden Palace when Alan noticed that people were staring at him and then taking his picture. He is well over 6 feet tall and blond and blue eyed. Maybe that was it. Then women (always women) were shyly taking pictures of Maggie with her blond hair and then tapping her on the arm to ask to get their picture taken with her. I started taking pictures of these people asking for pictures!
On the Great Wall of China, on Day 2 in Beijing, Maggie and I waited for the guys at a top section. There was a Chinese tour group, all sporting their red ball caps, and 2 women stopped to talk to us. They asked where we were from. Ah Canada! Then they asked if we liked Beijing, we figured this out after some initial difficulties. Then what were our jobs, banking, was the easiest answer. Finally they asked if they could get their pictures taken with us.
We took a side excursion to the Shennong Stream while on the Yangtze cruise. On the ferry back to the cruise ship it was John that was the centre of attention. He was sitting across from us and some girls were bashfully watching him. Then they asked if they could sit with him and have photos taken. This went on for a while as more of them got braver and also had their pictures taken. Then the men wanted their pictures taken. John was wearing his silver “Star Trek” sunglasses and a man asked if he could try them on. He then had his picture taken with the glasses. He asked, through our guide, if he could buy them. We tried to explain that John needed them as he was wearing contacts. If we had known they were going to be a big hit we could have brought some extras with us!
We wandered to the front of the ferry and I was stopped by a mother so her little girl could have her picture taken with me. Then she had her daughter stand with John and her grandfather to be snapped as well.
One of the Chinese passengers from Markham near Toronto, was on the ferry. When we were disembarking one of the girls who had initially asked for John’s picture was behind us was beside the Canadian. She asked him to translate that John had a great laugh!