The General Tours tour of Classic Cities of China (Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Suzhou, Guillin, & Hong Kong in 14 days) comprised a comfortable number of people not a huge group like a lot of tour companies put together and was a wonderful mix of history, culture, Chinese stage entertainment, traditional food, and modern life. All our guides were very good with quite understandable English skills. Our Beijing guide was exceptionally knowledgeable both about history and current events, and in Shanghai, our guides commentary explaining the principles of the feng shui and how it applied to the arrangement of the Yu Yuan Garden was not to be missed.
Of course, we thoroughly enjoyed all the major tourist sights of our China tour: Tianan Men Square, the Forbidden City, the pandas at the zoo, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Terra Cotta Warriors, the canal ride in Suzhou, the Li Jian River cruise in Guillin, and the tram ride to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. We would not have wanted to miss any of that.
But there were some other highlights that made the trip extra special: the delightful visit to a Hutong school (we brought children's books in English and presented them to the principal as gifts from America - by the way, wrap gifts in red paper as the color supposedly brings good luck); the relaxing walk on the Ming Tomb Spirit Way; strolling through a Beijing park to watch people talking, singing, playing musical instruments, and exercising; driving by the Olympic Village as it was being built; lunch with our guide at the Empress restaurant in the Summer Palace; the Tang Dynasty dinner theater in Xian; and the opportunity to do a white-glove, hands-on examination of archeological relics in Xian all were unforgettable. In addition, our Beijing guide went out of his way to arrange an unscheduled experience for some of us with reflexology after a long, tiring day of walking in Beijing. We had many laughs about that!
Every day was filled with memorable experiences for us all. General Tours and the affiliated Chinese tour companies did a great job of choosing food and restaurants that we as Westerners could enjoy without being overwhelmed by the cuisine differences. In particular, we had two delightful meals in Guillin, both with beautiful, artistic presentations of each course. The meal at the Yishi Teahouse was truly exceptional - the presentation was like art and the food delicious.
Two of the most interesting, and surprisingly so, places we visited were the silk factory and the Silk Embroidery Research Institute in Suzhou. We were amazed at the artisans skills and recommend everyone on future tours see both those factories. There was never any pressure to buy things although the guides in all the cities did give us opportunities to shop (but there wasn't too much shopping as there are with some tour companies). We also enjoyed several relaxing tea ceremonies and enjoyed the different techniques displayed by the ladies who conducted the ceremonies.
All the hotels were well chosen too and extremely comfortable. The staff at the hotels was always efficient, helpful and friendly. The breakfasts were especially delicious because one got to partake of good old American food or continental cuisine or even more oriental-style food if one chose. Some days, it was really nice to enjoy omelets and plain old cereal. It was also fun that the tour allowed us to sample so many different modes of transportation in China: rickshaw ride, boats, trains, airplanes, tram, and so on.
It is difficult to think of anything to complain about although two airline flights inside China to Guillin and to Hong Kong were delayed and entailed long waits. The one to Guillin on Eastern China Airlines was delayed six hours, although the airline offered a token payment ($25 per person, snacks and a meal. (We had to ask for that - pay attention if a crowd develops at the gate desk - someone will know enough English to tell you if they are offering payment or meals.) We noticed that the pilots on the Chinese airlines tended to be foreign, mostly Australian, and we felt safe.
One thing you probably need to be aware of is that many of the toilets are squat toilets such as one encounters in the Middle East. Always have tissue ready in your pocket as there are very few that have toilet paper. The best toilets are in the hotels and in the places where tourists are taken to purchase furniture, silk, pottery, etc. Also, you will be confronted by street peddlers with goods of questionable quality. Your guide can give you a Mandarin phrase to say that usually discourages them.
Nevertheless, there was so much to enjoy and admire that all of us on the tour considered this one of the most enjoyable tours weve ever taken. We will certainly take another General Tour. We were impressed by the friendly people in China, especially to Americans, the number of whom enjoyed speaking English, and the remarkable growth and vigor of the beautiful country. The tour awakened what will undoubtedly be a lifelong interest in things Chinese.
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Best Suited For: Couples
Tour format: Various
Tour type: Group
Tour length: Over a Week