We used China Discovery to help us plan and visit Guilin, Yangshuo, Xian, Chengdu, Chongqing, Yangtze River Cruise and Shanghai. They arranged all our flights and train travel starting in Hong Kong and ending in Shanghai. The provided guides in each location. All guides were professional and helpful. There were six of us travelling together. China Discovery provided a driver and van along with the guide at each location.
Compared to previous tours we have taken with ** and ** this approach was a definite step up and less expensive. Many of the meals were included and the guides helped us order and arrange meals when they were not covered by the tour.
We really enjoyed the Li River Cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo. This is well worth doing and was included as part of the tour. Although not paid for through the tour we saw the "Impression Sanjie Liu" show in Yangshuo. It is spectacular and not to be missed. Thanks to our guide Carina for suggesting it and getting us to and from the show. Xian and the Terra Cotta warriors is a must see on any tour of China. Our guide Walderon did a great job including helping rent bicycles to ride the ancient Xian city wall. The Pandas in Chengdu are another must see. The Yangtze River Cruise was interesting but a little disappointing. The crew were very good and helpful with enough English speakers for us to manage without a guide.
We arrived early in Guilin and cleared customs easily meeting our guide Carina. She and the driver drove us to Guilin and we went for lunch at the hotel before checking in. The food was OK but not great. This sums up our overall experience with the Guilin Bravo hotel. It was a nice building but they did not enforce the no smoking rules. The AC did not seem to work in our room so when we left to go out for the afternoon we hoped we had turned it on and it would cool while we were out.
We headed out first to the Reed Flute caves for an underground tour of the stalagmites etc. It was interesting but not as grand as the ones in Slovenia. We went from there to the pearl museum which is actually a government run pearl store. we bought some nice pearls at what we think is a good price.
Next stop was a park (Elephant Trunk Hill) with a rock formation on the shape on an elephant drinking on the river's edge. We walked through the park and went back to the hotel. We were all exhausted so went for a drink and snack followed by bed.
Beautiful Reed Flute Cave and Elephant Trunk Hill
Up for breakfast at 7 am and an 8:15 pick up. Breakfast was an attempt at western food and was not good. I would not recommend this hotel to anyone else. I think China Discovery should stop using this hotel.
We headed off to the Lijiang river cruise in our mini-bus, as it turns out along with thousands of others. Carina said about 50 boats take 60-100 people each downstream to Yangshuo. The first part of the cruise was particularly scenic with many Karst mountains and picturesque views. We took many pictures. The boat had three decks. Two indoors for passengers with reserved seats where tea and lunch was served. Then an observation deck on top. We spent much of the 3.5 hour cruise out doors. A very busy river with lots of traffic.
We got to Yangshuo and had to run a km long gauntlet of souvenir sales people then more of the same on West Street. No purchases made. We were driven to the Jasper International Hotel and had a rest. The air conditioning worked in this hotel. Back for dinner arranged by Carina at a restaurant called cloud 9 upstairs above West Street. The food was very good but too much. We had roast potatoes, rice, cashew chicken with vegetables, crispy duck, eggplant, seasoned pork in little pancakes, tomatoes and egg. We shared one glass of homemade rice wine just to taste it. Interesting but not a keeper or purchase.
From then we went to the "Impression Sanjie Liu" show. It is set on the Li river. The audiences sits on tiered seating on an Island looking down the river with mountains all around. The mountains are spotlighted at various times during the show. Most of the show takes place on the river. There are hundreds in the cast many of them children from nearby villages. It is produced and directed by the man who did the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies. It lasts about an hour with seventeen small segments. Dancing, singing, spectacular numbers with dozens of men on Sampans using red cloth in the water. It's hard to describe but it was amazing.
Thanks to Carina for suggesting we go to the show and explaining what would happen in the show.
To help alleviate poverty local children and adults are recruited and paid to be in the show. There is a school for the children on the property which focuses on performing arts but it also provides other education for the children in the production. The themes are drawn from the folk stories of the 4 local minorities.
Picquresque Li River & Wonderful Impression Sanjie Liu
We met Carina at 9 after another poor breakfast at the hotel. We went to see the Banyan tree park which houses a 1400 year old Banyan tree. It was an impressive tree but the park itself as a national park has seen better days. We then went for a viewing of Moon Hill which is a Karst mountain with a moon shaped arch/cave near the top. The hike up would be 1-2 hours. We then visited a family home. We were told the house was built in 1702 by a general. It would have been an important house then but now has become quite run down. I believe this was one of the families chosen by the party to showcase China. There are many photos on the walls over the decades of people who visited. Four seniors say they live in the house. They were friendly but we were not sure they lived there as we did not see any bedrooms. In the front part of the house was a modern coffee shop which was nicely renovated.
Carina did a good job helping us and showing the sites. I think though you should change what people are shown. Some of the sites are not very interesting.
From there we headed to Guilin Airport. It was a two hour drive to go 84 miles because of road conditions. Poor bumpy roads which had recently been paved but had bumps and heaves as though the road bed had not been properly laid.
Carina helped us check in at the airport. It was confusing as all airlines but one had to use the same check in counter. We never would have figured that out. The security lines were very long so we skipped lunch and got in the line. It took us over an hour to get through the line. People were pushing and shoving for position as two lined merged. It was grim. Mark was being pushed from behind and people were trying to barge past on my right. The security check was the most thorough we have seen since 911 with a mandatory pat down. Finally in we quickly ate some fries as we were to leave in 30 minutes but the flight was delayed for two hours so we had lunch and what passed for dinner at the airport.
The flight was just under 2 hours and we were given a small bottle of water. We met our guide Walderon easily and headed for our hotel. It is in the heart of downtown Xian and inside the old city walls. The room is OK a bit dated but comfortable. We went for one drink in the hotel bar to decompress before bed.
Moon Hill (photo shared by our dear customer Shifra and Hugo)
We had a more relaxed morning with breakfast in the hotel at 7:30 and a pick up at 8:45 am. Breakfast was better at this hotel. Our first stop was the Terra Cotta warriors. It is a huge property. You walk for about a Kilometer to get to the first building holding pit# 1 after first showing your ticket. Pit number 1 is huge. The size of 2 football fields. Most of the warriors have been excavated in this building but not all. Here are mostly infantry, while in Building 3 are cavalry. After the Warriors were created by about 1000 artisans using clay molds and the images of real soldiers they were stored in columns with clay walls in between. The columns were covered by heavy wooden beams and earth with plants planted on top. Shortly after the emperors death a new group of invaders found the Warriors and burned and destroyed much of the work, leaving for the most part pieces of Warriors, except for kneeling archers who were not knocked over. The archaeologists have painstakingly put them back together for the display we see today. We saw work continuing on Warriors which were still under repair.
Pit 2 is largely unexcavated with many mounds under which more Warriors exist. When the Warriors are first excavated they have color on them which quickly fades in the atmosphere. We were told part of the delay in excavation was to preserve the color of those still buried.
There were perhaps 50,000 people visiting today. Our guide told us of holidays in October when over 100,000 people visit. He estimated the government generates $600,000,000 CDN per year in revenue.
After you leave the building housing the pits there is a vast complex of paths and shops to extract your tourist dollars whether you are Chinese or a foreigner. It is truly tourism on an industrial scale.
Next we went to eat at the Aegean Hot Springs Resort Hotel near the Warriors museum. It was a great lunch we we could not finish. The dishes were:
We headed off to the Xian City Wall which is a restored completely intact version of the wall constructed in the 1400's. We chose to ride the 20 km wall on rented bicycles. It was a great ride on a nice sunny day. The wall surface was all bricks so a bit bumpy at times. The bikes were one speed mountain bikes with shocks so we never got going too fast. It was fairly quiet on the wall so traffic was only an issue in a few places. A great experience! But we were definitely glad to stop.
From there we headed to the Muslim Quarter which is about 10 blocks in a T shape. We walked down one of the legs of the T. It was a mass of humanity selling, buying and watching with many food stalls all selling halal foods. Every stall had an angle to draw people in. They were all side by each so the volume of competition was fierce. There many different kinds of street food with lots of raw meat being butchered and cooked on the spot. Whole carcasses of beef, sheep and lamb. It was an amazing mix of people from all over the world.
Amazing Xian Experience (photo shared by our dear customer Lewisr)
Second day in Xian. We have a new guide named Cindy. We headed out with the group at 9:15 am first to the Wild Goose Pagoda and Buddhist temple complex in the heart of Xian. It is a functioning Buddhist temple which stands on a site which has housed a temple for over 1000 years. The pagoda has been added to but the current version is about 400 years old. Most of the rest of the complex has been rebuilt recently.
It was a pleasant place and we got there before the majority of tourists so enjoyed the relative peace and quiet. The story is of a monk who travelled to India to bring back the deeper teachings of Buddha to China in the 1400's. He built the pagoda and monastery when he returned. The city surrounds it now but there is a picture there from sometime last century showing it in an open field. The story is depicted a number of times in various murals. Some in Jade where all colours are represented by Jade of that colour. Very beautiful and well carved. Other murals are beautifully carved in wood panels covering a whole room floor to ceiling.
From there went to the provincial museum and although our guide dutifully toured us through case after case of relics from thousands of years ago none of us was too motivated. The place was very crowded and it was hard to hear our guide.
We went for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant which serves Buddhists. She pre-ordered us 8 dishes most of which everyone enjoyed.
We headed for the airport and had quite a different experience from Guilin. Security was tight with explosive detection checking at the front door by armed guards. Once inside this large modern airport people queued up and did not barge in front. Security at the gate was high and we were all searched with a wand as was every passenger.
We got good seats in the front of the plane all in a row thanks to being there early.
We were up early again for an 8:15 pick up by Tan our guide for the Panda Research Center in Chengdu. Breakfast was more Chinese than western as the clientele were mostly Chinese. It was food that is all I would say for it.
The Panda Research Center is large property spread over many acres. They have over 100 Pandas of all ages in various enclosures and buildings. The typical arrangement for the pandas is an outdoor area with trees and climbing apparatus with quite a bit of space so if the Panda wants to get away from the crowds they can. Then there is an indoor cage or room they can go in when they are allowed. The indoors is air conditioned as the temperature for part of the year is too hot for them.
We saw a number of Pandas in their enclosures. They are fed large quantities of Bamboo shoots which they eat pretty much all day. The rest of the time they sleep. They are originally carnivores and still have the digestive tract of a carnivore but live primarily on bamboo and have done so in the wild for centuries. Because their digestive tract is that of a carnivore they must eat a lot of bamboo to get the nutrients they need. This means they also poop a lot. We saw one inside cage with very much poop. They were just going in to clean.
They artificially inseminate the females as mating is very difficult as in the wild they are very selective about their mates. Pandas are loaned to zoos around the world at great cost. Between that and the steady flow of thousands of visitors it is a great source of cash for the government.
We enjoyed the Pandas but we are all a bit worn down and some of us are not well. So after lunch at a Chinese restaurant where once again too much food was ordered we went to a park for an hour then back to the hotel. We both slept for over two hours.
We went out looking for a bar where we could get a drink and some light food. We walked four blocks in the neighborhood of the hotel and found nothing suitable. There were many cell phone stores new and used with street vendors selling used cell phones. If you need a cell phone in Chengdu this is the place to come. There is a South Korean restaurant next to the hotel and we went in there. They had pictures and English descriptions and a helpful person who spoke some English. We ordered a beer each and small dishes for just under 60 Yuan. I had rice with vegetables and beef. It was good and just the right amount.
Great Time with Giant Panda (photo shared by our dear customer Jon)
We were up for an 8 am pick-up for the bullet train from Chengdu to Chongqing. Our guide Tan could only take us as far as the entrance as you had to have a ticket after that point. We went though security and had to find our own way to our gate. Our guide explained the train and car number but not the gate number so one of us asked inside the terminal and was shown where the number was on our ticket. We were worried we would not have enough time and had all our bags with us but when we got to the gate it had not opened yet and everyone was lined up. It opened about 9:10 am for a 9:24 departure. It would have been helpful if more of how it worked could have been explained.
After going through an electronic ticket machine you go down an escalator and your train is right there. We had reserve seats and found our car. It was a modern train. Our seats were the first row right by the luggage storage. There was not enough luggage storage space so we had the smaller bags in front of us but because we were the first row there was lots of room. The ride was 1.5 hours with two stops. Average speed was 275-295 km per hour unless we were going through a station. It was a very relaxing journey. Mostly farm land with a few cities. Every piece of land was cultivated with many small groups of houses. They looked well kept and reasonably comfortable.
Our guide Jim met us right at the platform and had hired a porter to carry the big bags. We had a good walk to the place where the mini-bus picked us up. We first went to lunch. It was OK but once again we did not get to choose our dishes.
After lunch we went to the Three Gorges Museum. It was interesting and described the forced move of over 1 million people so the valley could be flooded for the dam. Many archaeological relics were saved and stored in the museum. We were the only non-Asian people and that was our experience for most of the day. We were an oddity for many people. Two teenage girls politely asked if they could take their picture with Sheila and they were thrilled when she said yes. Gary had the same experience later.
From there we went to a park high above the river and saw local people playing games, dancing and fishing.
Last stop before the cruise was an 11 story shopping mall perched on the hillside. We wandered around killing time.
When we headed for the cruise the guide told us dinner was not included and it was expensive so he encouraged us to buy food at a grocery store for dinner. We did so and headed for the ship terminal. It turns out this was not necessary as food on the ship was fine and not expensive. The bus had to drop us off a long way from the ship. No vehicles were allowed. The guide, Jim, hired two porters to carry our 6 large bags. There was quite a wrangle between the guide and a porter who wanted the work. One porter took 2 bags and the other tried to take 4 but could not manage it. They carry them with a large bamboo stick and ropes over their shoulder. So part way he left two bags and brought the other two. We did not want to have them out of sight so we waited on land. Jim was long gone to the ship. The porter went back and got them eventually and left them on land while he carried the first two bags on the long gangway to the ship. He did not come back for a long time so Gary and I carried the last two bags to the ship. The walk from the bus to the gangway was about a .750 km and the gangway was at least 300 meters. The river is low and the gangway floats on pontoons out to the water deep enough for the ship.
It was 30 C and very humid so we were sweating like pigs by the time we were done. Thankfully we were escorted into the air conditioned dining room to wait to check in. We were offered the chance to upgrade to a suite and took it. We have a nice suite with a separate seating area and a private side deck.
We went for dinner and had an approximation of a BLT. After the mandatory orientation we went to bed in our air conditioned room.
On the Yangtze River. The section of the river we saw today is quite populated with homes businesses, cities and towns along its banks. At this time of year the river level is 30ft below its high point. We have real luck with the weather to this point but today it is very cloudy and hazy with smog. We are assigned to a table in the dining room with one other couple from Austin Texas.
After breakfast we went to hear a talk by the ship's Doctor Yin. Through a translator he talked about the Chinese theory of medicine Yin Yang and Chi. He then asked for a volunteer and a woman with shoulder pain cam forward. After assessing her he then demonstrated acupuncture, pressure points, cupping and scraping. She spoke of having a significant improvement after the 20 minute treatment.
This morning we were docked at Feng Du and optional shore excursion visiting a ghost city which is an old temple area along the river. We chose to stay on board. We had a quiet day visiting, napping and reading. There was an included shore excursion at 5 pm to yet another temple and I tried to go but we turned back as it would be a 40 minute round trip in the pouring rain. It had been raining on and off since the early afternoon.
We went to a fashion show put on by the ship's crew. Participating were staff from all parts of the ship including housekeeping, the dining rooms and bar. It was done in three phases. First a dance with traditional dress and the girls in stacked hairdo's and long nails, then other traditional dress from different dynasty's, modern dress and traditional dress of the various minority groups. It was quite well done and the costumes were colorful and well made.
Our last full day on the ship is tomorrow and we see the three gorges. We are hoping for good weather. Today we took no pictures due to the smog. There is a plastic/metallic smell in the room. Not sure what it is. There is much cigarette smoke in the hallway. People smoke on their decks with the doors open.
The Victoria Sophia is an old ship. It has been renovated but flooring is uneven and ventilation is poor. At one point they had to put a portable fan in the hallway to clear the cigarette smoke. The food was OK and sometimes quite good. But is 3 star at best.
Interesting Yangtze River Cruise (photo shared by our dear customer Wim)
When we got up we were already at the dock for the optional shore excursion. We had breakfast and spent the morning on the ship. We both attended the workshop on snuff bottle painting. They have an artist in residence and he does really nice work painting the inside of bottles of various sizes. We bought one with the gorges and had him put our names and date inside. We paid cash so got it and some pearl earnings at a discount.
We enjoyed the late morning on the private deck and sailed though the first of the Three Gorges. Later after lunch we docked at an area near Goddess Mountain and took a small boat up a narrow and steep gorge. It was quite pretty. Our guide was named "Sunny" she was about 25 and married to one of the boat operators. They have a 9 month old son. The latter lives with her mother while Sunny and her husband live in dormitories while they are working. Hard life.
Back on the boat we enjoyed more time on the deck while we sailed though another gorge. Dinner was a seated serving with many dishes. There about 8 appetizers and just as many main courses. The food was good but we could not eat it all, not even close. Way too many announcements in high volume Chinese and English to have any kind of conversation.
We were up early at 5:30am as we were to have our bags outside the room by 6:30 am this morning. We had a rough night with another boat rafting to us at 10:30 pm with lights shining in the window after we had gone to sleep.
At breakfast we learned due to high winds (about 25 knots) they could not bring the boat to the disembarkation dock. There were at least 8 boats waiting to unload. We waited about 2 hours then got under way. Porters were used again to move the bags to our bus. I discovered the porters who carry luggage here had created an innovation to make it easier to carry the luggage.
Their bamboo sticks are cut from larger diameter pieces of bamboo so the surface they use on their shoulder is wider and flatter doing less damage to the shoulder.
Once on the bus we did a tour of the 3 Gorges dam. It's a massive project and the impact on 1.4 million people is staggering. Their homes were flooded and they were moved all over China to relocate them. China calls them immigrants.
We met our guide Fay at Qichang and asked her to take us to the airport rather than sightseeing. Security and check in was easier here in a small regional airport. We had a light lunch at an airport on the restaurant which Fay helped us order and departed for Shanghai at 7:25 pm. We met our next guide Emily at the airport and she connected us with our driver who took us to the Narada Boutique Hotel. It was a nice hotel with a good selection at breakfast. A nice outdoor terrace as well. It is in a good location to get to the Bund
Good Views in Cruise Time (photo shared by our dear customer Sebastien)
We slept in and met everyone at 10 am. We walked to Peoples park and then over to Nanjing road. The park was pleasant and a favorite gathering place for locals. Nanjing road is a blocks long pedestrian mall with many stores, international and local. We walked it all the way to the Bund and the Peace Hotel. We walked the Bund and stopped for lunch at a Subway (55 yuan for both of us). We walked back to the hotel and had a rest. We met the gang again and went to the bar next door for drinks and dinner. I had pasta with pesto sauce and duck. We walked back to the Bund and saw the lights getting many great pictures.
The Night View of Shanghai from the Bund (photo shared by our dear customer Montgomery)
Emily met us at the hotel and arranged our transport to the airport. Overall our guides were good. For the price the trip was great. I would have a paid a bit more to get slightly better hotels and river cruise if they were available.
Other than getting to and from the airport we did not use a China Discovery guide and in Shanghai and managed quite well. However, as non-chinese speaking tourists I cannot emphasize enough how helpful it was to have the guides on the rest of the trip. It took all the stress out of managing the travel. With only 6 of us we had flexibility to do more or less than was planned. I also want to thank Rita and Lyn who did a great job organizing the whole trip for us.
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