Nexus Holidays China Sampler

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.

China – Shanghai

There was a moment today when the guy sitting behind me, Paul, said “You know I think I wouldn’t mind living in Shanghai for a year of two”. Without hesitation, I told him I’d thought the same thing earlier in the day. It’s odd, of course, because we’d only been in the city for less than twenty-four hours. Thinking logically about it, it’s probably because of the familiarity of the place. it’s the most “Western” city we’ve visited so far. It’s also reminded me a lot of Sydney. Maybe it’s also the fact that it’s a city based around water that gives the place such a good energy. Obviously we were both jumping to premature conclusions, but one thing I am sure of : I’d like to come back and visit the city again. Maybe for the next International Art Fair?

The organised parts of today’s tour included a trip to the airport and back on the high speed train (reaching 430km/h), a visit to a clothing and electronics market (where I bought a really nice winter jacket at a really good price), a visit to Shanghai Bund, a walk around the city, and a night-time cruise.

“So that’s where all of our coal goes?”, I joked to Sue, as we reflected on the bright city lights of Shanghai. City lights in Sydney (and most other cities) are normally a dull affair of corporate logos and simple colours. In contrast, the city lights of Shanghai are bright, colourful and imaginative. There was a real sense of theatre and occasion, I thought to myself, as we travelled around the harbour.

For the additional cost of 50 Yuan (about $9-10) we paid for “VIP Seating” which meant we got to sit outdoors in a less crowded part of the boat, and an orange juice was even thrown in. Sadly, there was no white wine, so I settled for a beer. Indeed, there’s been an almost complete absence of white wine on the entire trip. In fact, I had an experience the other day which reminded me very much of an episode of The Simpsons. It’s the one where The Simpsons travel to Australia, and was when Marj went into a bar and tried to order a coffee. The barman replied “beer”. The exchange continued between them where Marj kept saying “coffee” (even spelling it out) and the barman replied “beer”. The other day I tried to order a glass of wine in a hotel bar, and a similar exchange ensued.

As we ended the day there was a little bit of sadness in the group, as eight of us (including Sue and I) are ending the trip tomorrow and returning home, while the others are continuing on a four day river trip. “I know I’ll see you in the morning, but I’d still like to give you a hug tonight”, a woman from Adelaide called Carrie said to me, as we entered the hotel lift. There have been some really nice people on the bus with whom we’ve shared some wonderful moments of insight and humour.

China – Tea Plantation

I learned more today about green tea than I have my entire life. Our day started with a visit to a nearby village of Mei Jia Wu, where they seem to grow nothing but tea. Amongst the things I learned included: how the different size of tea leaves produce different flavours; how the spring harvest is considered the best; how you can usually get five cups of green tea using the same leaves, how you should drink black tea in the morning, and how you should drink green tea about half an hour AFTER eating your lunch and dinner to assist in fat absorption.

Until the “big sell” and “shopping frenzy” came at the end of the demonstration I was inclined to say this was the most interesting visit we had made to a factory/retail outlet on the trip. I’m not one for jewellery and silk, and I’m generally not one for shopping (unlike many others on the tour), but I really enjoyed visiting the village, and in particular, taking a walk out into the tea plantations themselves.

The major part of the day involved a three-hour (or so) bus trip to Shanghai where I slept on and off and listened to some music and to some podcasts.

We arrived with just enough time to spend an hour or so walking around the Shanghai Museum which I enjoyed very much. “Some of you might not like museums” our tour guide Helen said at one point, to which I softly responded with a smile, “Some of us don’t like shopping”. The two most interesting exhibitions for me were the one which featured some of the traditional clothing of some the ethnic minorities, and the one which featured some fantastic sculptures.

Throughout the tour there have been a few optional extras to the programs where Sue and I have been the odd ones out. While almost everyone else attended, neither of us have had much of an interest , for example, in attending light and sound shows by the bloke responsible for the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Tonight I was the only one in our group who elected not to go to the acrobatics show. Sue went along, and I’m sure she enjoyed it, but, as I explained to everyone, “acrobatics are not my thing, I would have preferred a few more hours at the museum”.

So I came to the hotel early and booked in. Wow, what a fantastic room I have. It’s something like 60 square metres, has fantastic views, has a fantastic bathroom (with separate spaces for shower and toilet, and with a TV over the bathtub), and is probably the best hotel accommodation I’ve stayed in. Realising the comfort level, I thought to myself, “I’m in the the night”. I did wander out for a while though to buy a shirt, I had a swim, and paid a brief visit to a bar called “Eddy’s Bar” which was nice, and where I got chatting to a couple of locals.

One of the blokes I chatted to was called “Kevin” who told me he was moving to Australia later in the year and that he’d just “passed the test”. One of the interesting things about young Chinese men and women is their adoption of “Western Names”. That is, they “choose” a name to be known by. I didn’t dare ask if he named himself after our former Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister. I thought it was a question best left unasked.

China – Shopping and Travel

Earlier in the trip I wrote about how the “shopping parts” of the tour were the ones most likely to divide the men and the women of our group, including the jade factory, the silk factory, and the copper art works. But 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. That wasn’t the case at today’s visit to the pearl factory. Once the oyster shell had been opened and we had seen the contents, the eyes of virtually every bloke in the room glazed over.

A few of us were outside as quickly as we could be, having feigned an interest for a suitable period of time. I walked with a couple of blokes around the corner where we stood and watched a television commercial being filmed. The only thing we know about what was happening was that it was a television commercial, with absolutely no idea what it was about. All we saw was a couple of people in white lab coats standing outside an environmental monitoring agency truck, and with a young girl on a bicycle riding past saying “hi”. I don’t think we made it into any of the shots, but you never know.

After the pearl factory, we visited a nearby wetland (which was lovely) and even got to hang out with a handful of locals practising their ballroom dancing.

An hour or so later and we were in Hangzhou, where we took a cruise around the lake and visited the really lovely nearby park.

China – Shopping Day

Partly by design, and partly by chance, this ended up as a “shopping day”. The planned part was a visit to a “silk worm factory” in Suzhou. And when I say “factory”, I really mean showroom. The unexpected shopping expedition was when we went looking later in the afternoon for somewhere to have my haircut and my beard trimmed.

The visit to “Silkworld” was another part of the tour “compromise” I wrote about the other day. In exchange for heavily subsidised travel, food and accommodation, each day we’ve paid a visit to an attraction where it’s assumed we’ll all make a few significant purchases. As with some of the other attractions, some people have spent a LOT of money, while others have spent very little. The visit to “Silkworld” was another occasion where the women of the group have been deeply interested, while the men of the group have shown little interest, lurking around on the fringes. I actually did buy a scarf, the kind of scarf I’ve been trying to find for some time, and, as it was at a good price, I was more than happy. A few other members of the tour group suffered “shoppers regret” soon after they made their purchases, when they’d incorrectly calculated the exchange rate. There was a general feeling in the group too much time had been allocated to this factory visit.

After lunch we travelled to nearby Wuxi, and have pretty much had free time since arriving. Sue and I went for a walk down the street later in the afternoon in search of a haircut and beard trim. Thanks to Google Translate I was able to organise a really good haircut. There’s nothing terribly complicated about my haircut and beard trim (aside from the length) which is a good thing. But I have to see Google Translate has been incredibly helpful throughout the day, including with our next purchases.

Feeling satisfied with my haircut, we wandered another block down the street to a small suburban shopping centre. I’ve been thinking about purchasing some new frames for glasses for some time, so on a whim, we wandered over to the local optometrist and tried on a few pairs. You can imagine our surprise when we discovered the already heavily discounted frames were actually half price. Hence I bought a couple of pairs of frames I really liked, and when I return to Sydney I’ll take them along to my optometrist to see what can be done with them.

Earlier this evening the tour group had some further free-time, and so we wandered around the main tourist district of the city where there were lots of restaurants, lots of bars, lots of live musicians and live karaoke. As we left, I noticed there was still a large contingent of the tour group downing a beer or two at a local brewery. I sense there’ll be a few hangovers tomorrow morning.

China – Surprises

I never thought I’d ever find much interest in silk embroidery images of the Mona Lisa and Chairman Mao, but somehow today I did. We’re spending the night in Suzhou, the silk capital of China (apparently) located about ninety minutes by bus from the centre of Shanghai.

The day started early. Really early. A four-thirty wake-up call for a five-thirty departure for the airport. I think it’s fair to say there was a degree of scepticism in the group about the need to leave so early. But by the time we got to the airport, got our boarding passes, and finally made through the longest and slowest security lanes I’ve ever experienced, we only had short time to sit down before our nine o’clock flight from Beijing to Shanghai.

My friend Kate has also been in Shanghai, and anticipating that we might be at the airport at around the same time, I dropped her an email, asking about her plans. In a strange twist of feed, just as we were arriving, she was catching the fast train to Beijing.

The flight from Beijing to Shanghai was pleasant enough, though I know the meal on the China Eastern flight was a little challenging for some of the tour group. Despite being fairly adventurous with food, I’ve never been much of fan of the “typical” Chinese breakfast which today consisted of congee, pickled vegetables and tubers, and a red bean paste bun. You can imagine, then, the reaction of some of the other members of the tour group who are, let’s say, a little less adventurous than I am. But many of the people I chatted to laughed it off to experience.

In stark contrast, Sue and I loved the Hong Kong BBQ Pork we enjoyed for lunch at Shanghai Airport.

From Shanghai, we headed directly to Suzhou, a city of about eight-million people.

In contrast to the thoughtful, witty and dry “Eddie”, our tour guide for Suzhou is “Jessica” (I’m using their self-defined English names by the way) who was vivacious, funny, and who is knowledgeable and passionate about the city in which she lives.

Our first stop was “The Lingering Garden”, which was absolutely lovely, with lots of ponds, bonsai, and some beautiful mahogany timber furniture. From there was took a cruise along the canals which have earned Suzhou that common epithet “The Venice of The… East/North/West/South”. The cruise was really fascinating, as it took us into the water backyards of people who live along the river which, thankfully for them is heavily regulated, which means they enjoy the benefits of a water lifestyle without the risk of flooding.

Finally, we made our way to for a bite to eat and to view the silk embroidery works at at local art gallery. That’s where we saw the embroidered images of the Mona Lisa and Chairman Mao. The craftsmanship involved in the works we saw was truly amazing, even if sometimes thematically they were a little boring. “The younger artists like to push the boundaries a little” I was told by the tour guide when I asked her. I ended up buying a piece by one of the students. At about $40, it was an absolute bargain, and I really liked the work, even if one of my major criteria was that it should be small enough to fit in my hand luggage. There were lots of other, more major works I really liked, and were within my price range. Just the whole thing of getting a major art work (made of silk) back through Australian Customs was too much to contemplate, though.

So here we are, spending a night (and then tomorrow morning for further activity) in Suzhou. We’re staying in some very nice accommodation, the kind of accommodation I doubt I could normally afford if I was travelling in a country like Australia. So after a swim and a bit of poolside chat, I put on my clothes and wandered for a look around the neighbourhood. The shops were still open at about ten thirty at night, though the neighbourhood was fairly “sleepy”. Nonetheless, I popped into a local bar called “The Deep Breath Bar”.

China – Day of Contrasts

Today was a definitely a day of contrasts.

We started the day off at a medical clinic where we learned a little about the principles of Chinese Medicine. Minutes later, a group of doctors and medical students made their way around our group. While the doctors free advice to the tour group about a range of ailments, the medical students massaged our feet and legs.

I was more than happy with the student’s work and so gave him a reasonable tip. I wasn’t as convinced about the value of a five to ten minute consultation with a doctor I’ve never met before, and who hadn’t come with the recommendation of a friend or family member.

A lot of people in the room were diagnosed with a range of ailments, and were recommended medications in the range of hundreds and thousands of dollars. The doctor who sat down next to me shot me a stern look when I told him I wasn’t interested in a diagnosis, and then, after he asked me to poke out my tongue, he simply said added I should “exercise more”.

From there, we headed to the Giant Panda display at Beijing Zoo. Although I was anticipating we might have been deeply disappointed – these great animal attractions often have a habit of being asleep and in caves most of the time – we were delighted with seeing the pandas, even if they were rather slothful.

After lunch, we paid a visit to one of the Hutongs. Ironically enough, the Hutongs (many of which were destroyed in the years leading to the Beijing Olympics) have become major tourist draw-cards as evidence of “Old Beijing”. There were several other tour buses in the area of the one we visited. Although there was a real sense of tourism about the place (not quite The Rocks, but close), I really enjoyed our wander through the area. A young man whose family lived in the area came in, chatted to us for a while about traditional Hutong life, and then told us some of the rooms were now available to hire. “A French couple got married here and had their wedding night in the room over there” he told us.

In contrast, we ended the day visiting the main up-market shopping centre of the city. Prada. Zahra. Apple. H&M. You care to name just about any major brand name, and you’ll find them in this part of Beijing. All of that said, we still saw some homeless, shoeless people walking around this part of the city, as evidence there’s a growing divide in China between the super-rich and the super-poor.