Monday, 22 April 2013

A Group Tour of China

I  am, by nature, an “independent tourist”.   If at all possible, I prefer to research the options and make my own arrangements in line with my personal preferences.

Why, then, participate in a group tour in China?

Shortly stated, we wanted to see a number of the main sights in China, and we weren't confident about finding our way around a country with which we weren't familiar and where we were concerned that we wouldn't be able to decipher many of the signs (in fact, this wasn't the issue that I thought it would be, as many of the signs are in English as are even the spoken announcements on the Shanghai and Beijing metros). Hence, our choice of a package tour.   We reviewed a couple of the available offerings.  Our final decision was a Wendy Wu tour which included Shanghai, a 4 day cruise on the Yangtze, the pandas at Chengdu, the Terracotta Warriors at Xian and the sights of Beijing.

And we met .... Wendy Wu!
There are lots of other combinations available (both from Wendy Wu and others), and there are many, many things in China that we obviously didn't see, but one factor that particularly influenced us was the tour duration – 13 nights in China.   This represented the best balance for  us between seeing the things that were of interest to us without being too long.   We added a few extra days before the tour started to spend on our own in Shanghai (good decision!) plus an extra night at Beijing after completion of the tour (no regrets about this, it was great to get out and about but one day was enough).   In hindsight, the arrangements turned out well for us.

Although the publicity documentation refers to the tour as being “comfortably paced”, it was pretty “full on”!   We came to value the couple of hours “free time” that we were granted here and there.  We felt that by the end of the tour, we'd done enough!
Steps - Ghost City excursion

Some general observations may be of interest.

All the members of our group were “middle aged” or perhaps a little more!   So, had there been younger travellers,they might not have been entirely comfortable.   On the other hand, as the brochure clearly stated, there's a lot of walking, and  anyone not able to handle this would have real difficulties  A couple of the excursions involved a significant number of steps:  the “Ghost City” excursion as part of the cruise and the Great Wall component of the Beijing excursion.

As is probably the case of any tour of this nature, things would get “challenging” if someone couldn't keep up the pace.   A number of members of our group contracted a cold, and although this didn't interfere with their ability to participate, it did illustrate that, had something worse developed, it would have been very disruptive (an outbreak of food poisoning must be every tour packager's worst nightmare!).

It's interesting that Wendy Wu uses a lot of internal flights. A couple of this company's packages do have overnight train trips, but they're in the minority.  Our itinerary had 3 domestic flights (on, as it happened, 3 different airlines).   In all, we either arrived or departed (or both) from 4 separate airports.  Each one was modern and efficient.  
Beijing smog
The hotels were basically of a good 3-star standard, although they varied slightly in quality, but the locations in  Shanghai and Beijing left something to be desired.   For  tour members  content to confine themselves to tour activities (the majority, I think), this wouldn't be an issue, but especially for people who add a night or two extra in order to 'do their own thing', this isn't optimal.   However, I suppose people in this situation will be comfortable using taxis and or the metro (in our experience, easy to use).

All meals were included on our tour.   Hence, we weren't required to make our own arrangements even for lunch.   This was appreciated, although all meals (except breakfast) were “Chinese-style” and occasionally you hankered for a pizza or something!   Nevertheless, the meals were all of a high standard, and the dishes provided varied quite considerably.   All breakfasts included a range of “Western” options, although sometimes the queue for the toaster could be a little long!

One of the best aspects of our group was its compact size (16).   A parallel group of about the same size also operated.  On top of this, the national guide couldn't be faulted.  He  was across every detail of the arrangements, always followed up any queries, checked with you shortly after checking in to your room that everything was OK and so much more.     In addition, there was a city guide in each city, so on each excursion, there were always two guides present!   The quality of the city guides varied a little, but we certainly had no complaints.
The Yangtze cruise was the highlight of our tour.  This isn't to say that the other aspects weren't good;  they were.  But the cruise component was outstanding.   We were on the Victorian Jenna, which I gather is just a little more up-market than the Century line vessels that Wendy Wu also uses.

It's interesting how well the members of our group adapted.    I guess we sometimes (hopefully silently) deride tour groups that we see in Australia, but our group (including people from Australia, New Zealand and Britain) quickly adapted:  we wore our ID lanyards, we followed our guides (holding the flag) and we conscientiously assembled at designated meeting points!

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