BACKGROUND: When my friend Sue first spotted the “Nexus Holidays China Sampler” late last year, we both thought it sounded “too good to be true”. For about the cost of a return flight from Sydney to Beijing (about $1200-$1300), the sampler price also included an internal flight from Beijing to Shanghai, accommodation in “five star hotels”, about three quarters of the meals, tour guide support, and entry to lots of major tourist attractions. That it was previously advertised at close to $3000, and was now being offered (through Living Social) at a much lower price, made it sound even more extraordinary. After consideration of the uncertainties we decided we would go ahead and book anyway, deciding to pay an extra $400 for single accommodation instead of the twin-share. Right up until the last couple of weeks before travelling, we still couldn’t quite believe the generousness of the deal.
The last time I was in China (I mean, the first time I was in China, which was in 2010), I visited my friend Kate who was living here pretty much permanently. She was working at an art gallery there, and had an apartment in a building a very non-western part of Beijing. She invited me to come to visit and so of course I said yes. Being with someone who had spent a bit of time there, and who had developed a network of contacts and friends (mostly among expats) meant that I was able to go a little deeper more quickly into life in Beijing than the average tourist on a package deal, which is what I did on the China Sampler. I got to do some amazing things and really treasure the memories of that trip in 2010. It’s one of those holidays where I can pretty much recall everything that happened on every day, and the way I felt about my experiences. But this time around, being on a tour group and the experience was different. Not better, not worse. Just different. On the positive, I probably received a little more of the “educational backgrounder” than I’d enjoyed previously. On the negative, there were moments when I wished for something a little less “touristy”.
FLIGHTS WITH CHINA EASTERN: I was pleasantly surprised with the flights, since I’d read some pretty average reviews of China Eastern. People who write things like “the worst airline ever” without an explanation are wasting their time and mine. And those who fly budget but expect first class are just dreamin’. But having applied those filters I still want expecting much. China Eastern surprised me. We flew from Sydney to Shanghai on an A330: modern aircraft, good but not great entertainment system and plenty of leg room. The leg room was further enhanced by having scored four seats in the centre row between only two of us.
ACCOMMODATION: The accommodation was excellent. It was genuinely in the range of four to five star throughout, with large rooms and good facilities. The only negative from my perspective was the accommodation in Beijing was quite some distance away, some thirty to forty-five minutes from the centre of town, which meant by the end of the day, we were much pretty much stranded. In all the other cities, however, we were close to town.
TOUR GUIDES: Throughout the tour we had a “national guide” and a local guide in each of the cities we visited (Beijing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou and Shanghai). They were all knowledgeable, friendly, and all spoke reasonably good English, and often with an unexpected sophistication.
TOURIST ATTRACTIONS: We visited all of the “key” tourist attractions including Tiananmen Square, The Imperial Palace, The Summer Palace and The Great Wall of China, as well as lots of smaller attractions including The Lingering Garden which I’d never heard of before. Of all the attractions, the only one which disappointed my slightly was our visit to The Great Wall. I’d visited what I thought was a more attractive, more interesting part of the wall when I visited in 2010, whereas our visit on this occasion was to a very touristy, very busy part of the wall. Everyone else enjoyed it, though.
SHOPPING EXCURSIONS: An important part of the tour is a number of “shopping expeditions” which, I’m sure, go some way to subsidising the overall costs. These expeditions included visits to a Chinese medicine facility, a tea factory, jade factory, a silk factory, and a copper art factory. As I don’t have the “shopping gene” these were the parts of the trip which I found least interesting. These were the parts of the tour most likely to divide the men and the women of our group. Even if the blokes weren’t all that interested in the finished product, there was still something about manufacturing which was enough to keep the men interested. There were times when I (and others) thought too much was allowed for these shopping adventures. Others, however, really enjoyed these parts of the trip, and many people spent a lot of money. One couple, for example, bought $7000 worth of Chinese medicine products. A few other members of the tour group later seemed to suffer “shoppers regret”, as soon after they made their purchases, they realised they’d incorrectly calculated the exchange rate.
OPTIONAL EXTRAS: Throughout the tour there were quite a few optional extras to the program, which included light shows, an acrobatics show, a hot pot dinner, a visit to the hutongs, and yum cha lunch to name but a few. While many people had paid for all of the optional extras, Sue and I took them on a case by case basis.
FOOD: About two-thirds to three quarters of all meals were included in the price, including breakfast every day and usually one or two further meals. I’m a little more adventurous in my taste in food than were most of the other people on the tour, and so I was sometimes a little disappointed with the food. That said, other people on the tour found it all a little more challenging than they were used to. There was a general agreement, however, food servings were very, very generous.
TOILETS: Although squat toilets are the norm in China, they posed a few “challenges” for the female members of our tour group, particularly the older ones. Most of the time, however, our tour guides provided good advice about which toilets were more “western” in style. To overcome our uneasiness about squat toilets, Sue and I adopted a routine of going to the bathroom for a number two each morning at the hotel.
OVERALL: Going on a tour group is, by its very nature, about individual compromise. Our group ranged in age from late 20s to late 70s, with most of the group aged 50-65, so there was room for a lot of different interests based on age alone. You need to go on a tour accepting there will some things you will enjoy, some things you won’t, some people you will like, some people you won’t. Life is about compromise. Sue and I were discussing this on the bus at one point, noting we would have found it difficult to have done so many of the things we had if we had travelled by ourselves. “We could have hired a driver and guide”, I said to Sue, but balanced that by noting it would have been more expensive to have done so, and then on top of that, there would have been all of the additional costs (including entry prices, accommodation and flights) which are all covered as part of this tour. Overall, I thought the trip was excellent value and would highly recommend it to others if the offer comes up again.