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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Guided Tour, Travel, Travelzoo

Guided China: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

TravelZoo Top 20 has offered some great trips in the past few years and I’ve taken advantage of some of their promotions, including to Ireland, The Azores, and Alaska. I’ve had my eye on the China trip for a while, and over the years, I’ve watched the price drop from around $1,000 to $499 for different trips respectively.

While January isn’t the best time to see China and while a guided tour isn’t my preferred way of travel, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally make this trip when the price dropped to $499 from Boston (and when I roped a travel buddy in.)

After a couple of days of deliberating, we finally locked in the deal for $588 for January 16th-24th. This included roundtrip airfare from Boston on award winning Hainan Airlines, one domestic flight from Beijing to Shanghai, all hotel stays (4 and 5 star), breakfast daily, guided tours to The Great Wall, as well as local city tours in Suzhou, Wuxi and Hangzhou and all transfers.

When I broke this down after the trip, I got this:

Airfare from Boston to Beijing and Shanghai back to Boston: $636.00

Airfare from Beijing to Shanghai: $153.00

3 nights at Beijing’s Garden International Hotel: $124 x 3 = $372.00

1 night at Suzhou Grand Metro Park: $80.00

1 night at Wuxi Jiangsui: $115.00

1 night at Hangzhou’s Xinghai International Hotel: $60.00

2 nights at Shanghai’s Crowne Plaza Pudong: $125 x 2 = $250.00

Before we even start adding in meals, local excursions, transfers, etc… we’re looking at over $1600.00 if you plan it yourself. This was too good of a deal to pass up.

However, the old saying, “If it seems to good to be true, it often is,” pops into my head. There was definitely a ‘catch’ to this trip. Obviously, tourism is suffering in China and the government have stepped in and are subsidising these trips. In turn, we get a good deal but have to make the obligatory daily factory visits.

If you know what you’re getting into, then ok, but know what you’re getting into. This isn’t for everyone. As an avid, independent traveler, I much prefer to plan my own itinerary, seek out my own hotels/guesthouses/restaurants and have the freedom to choose how I spend my own time.

That being said, having the assistance with the language barrier and all our transfers was extremely helpful. And as a budget traveler, I enjoyed a little bit of luxury at such a deeply discounted price. This isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for a different sort of adventure and want to snag a good deal, I say go for it. At the end of the day, it is all what you make of it!

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, long term travel, Shanghai, Travel, Travelzoo

Surviving Shanghai

Finally our moment of freedom has come. We have one more day in China and it’s a free day to explore Shanghai. Or so we thought. There’s mention of a morning factory visit and then optional city stuff followed by a farewell dinner and a boat cruise near The Bund, but we decide we will go our own way today.

I sleep in a little bit and leisurely head down to breakfast as the rest of the group is finishing up and headed to the bus. I grab a cup of coffee and pick up the local English paper. And just as I sit down with some dumplings, Katherine comes over to me and says, “We have to go on the factory visit this morning. And if we don’t, we have to pay $100 each.” At this point, I’m pissed. What kind of situation is this, where we’ll be fined if we don’t attend? I’ve visited more factories this week than someone on a business trip, and today is meant to be our free day. Katherine follows up with, “We’re free to go after the visit, but we have to go this morning.”

I look outside and the bus is waiting for us and a few others who had the same idea initially. I chug my coffee, grab my coat and head to the bus. I pass Michael on the way and say to him. “I know you’re in a tough situation, but this isn’t right.” I half jokingly tell him I feel like a hostage.

We make our way to the other side of Shanghai and as we turn into what will be the last factory visit of the tour, Michael says, “There’s something different about this business. This is the only factory that is not government run. It is private. They sell jade and jewelry.” Just what we all need more of!

We enter in and are taken to a fancy showroom where we’re seated around a big, dark wooden office table. A lady greets us and begins to ask us all about our trip – where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what Chinese we have learned. She seems to be biding her time, and a well dressed overweight man walks into and out of the showroom a couple of times. I get the sense that something is off. I look to Jay and Ivy who are sitting next to me and say, “Are these guys Chinese mafia?” Ivy, who is Vietnamese starts nodding her head in agreement and says, “He is not Chinese, he is Vietnamese, and yes, I’m pretty sure he’s mafia.” As she goes on to explain the housing market crash and the relations between the Chinese and Vietnamese, I have visions in my head of what will happen if no one decides to buy anything. This really isn’t how I wanted to spend my last day in China.

Fortunately, I’m at the back of the room, nearest the exit, so Katherine and I walk out and wait by the bus. It’s at least another 30 minutes before the rest of the group finishes up. Michael asks us to sign a waiver, stating that we are choosing to leave the group tour and are responsible for ourselves for the rest of our time in Shanghai, as if we’ve never traveled before. And then, we truly are free.

Fuxing Road, Shanghai.

We begin our whirlwind tour of Shanghai, first jumping on the metro and heading over to Fuxing Park, where we watch a couple practicing their ballroom dancing moves (Yes, it’s a thing), while kids fly kites and a few practice Tai chi.

Shanghai is surprisingly orderly and modern compared to Beijing. I can see why people love this city. There’s a subtle energy here that isn’t overwhelming, but there’s definitely a buzz.

The master mixologist, Roger.

We decide to look for a spa to get a foot massage and then make our way over to The Bund, but Katherine recommends we stop at a little corner cafe for a drink. It’s still early, but after the morning we’ve had, we all oblige. We duck in to Sober Cafe, where we meet the friendly barman, Roger and spend the afternoon taste testing his award winning cocktails. Roger is originally from Japan, but he has been working in Shanghai for a couple of years now. He tells us of the speakeasy movement taking place right now and says he’ll message us later to see if we want to meet up.

A lot of the day has slipped away, but we head over to a local spa for one of our last opportunities for a massage. The boys opt for a one-hour traditional massage and Katherine and I take an hour of reflexology. I’m asleep 30 minutes in, but we all leave with a second wind and jump in a taxi to head over to The Bund.

Shanghai’s beautiful skyline.

Katherine, Warren, me and Ray.

The Bund is the former Shanghai International Settlement and is a collection of varying architectural styles, including Baroque Revival, Art Nouveau, Beaux- Arts and many more. Because of this, Shanghai boasts one of the most unique skylines in the world. We make it our mission to see it from a few different angles, heading up to Bar Rogue for one view and then over to the much more refined Hyatt hotel for a look down from the VUE bar.

The view from Bar Rouge.

It’s bitterly cold and Shanghai is due its first snowfall of the season tonight. As we sit huddled under heat lamps on the outside patio, the first flurries start to fall.

Katherine and I shoot each other a look that says, “I wonder if we’ll make it out of here tomorrow.” As much as we’re on the same page about being ready to head home, we both know we wouldn’t mind an extra day to explore independently.

Today was a reminder of how we travel – a free day to roam, explore, get lost, make friends, and discover the hidden gems on our own. It’s been a great trip overall, but to end with a day like today reminds me of how I like to travel. I’ve given the guided tour a try… and while there are many good things I can say about it, especially in China, I think there’s no better way than to go your own way.

Next post: Guided China, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly…


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Hangzhou, Travel, Travelzoo

Green Tea, West Lake & Outback ???

Terraced tea fields near Hangzhou.

The grounds of Dragon Well Tea Plantation.

Terraced tea fields near Hangzhou.

Hooray, it’s our last day of the guided tour before we arrive in Shanghai this evening. We start the day at Dragon Well Tea Plantation on the outskirts of Hangzhou. It’s a cool, damp morning and the mist hangs thick over the terraced tea fields. It’s a beautiful glimpse into an older, more rural China, away from the sprawling metropolises we’ve been spending a lot of our time in.

Lotus Lake

We tour the grounds and then head into a tasting room where we learn all of the detoxifying benefits of green tea, while leaves steep in cups in front of us. We finish our tea, and Ray and I sneak away across the road to frolic in the terraced fields.

West Lake pagoda.

West Lake.

From here, we head to our last group lunch, which is one of the better ones of the trip. We then head to West Lake, where we spend a damp and cool afternoon walking a small section of the 50 acres this park occupies. The lake is dotted with bridges, temples and pagodas, and despite being the off-season, it’s crowded with locals and tourists alike.

West Lake.

Despite being busy, there’s still a sense of peacefulness and I picture what the lake may look like on a spring or summer day, when filled with bright green lotus plants. We have a couple of hours to explore, so I wander off and watch house boats make their trips around the lake and then I stop to listen to a street musician playing guitar.

We reconvene at the bus at 2:30 and begin the almost 3 hour drive to Shanghai. I’m associating Shanghai with freedom, but learn that we won’t be going directly to the hotel. There’s an optional performance tonight, ERA- The Intersection of Time, Shanghai’s equivalent of Cirque de Soleil. The plan is to go straight to the show. If you don’t opt in for the show, well, you can just wait on the others who do.

I ask Michael if we can make our own way to the hotel, but no, he will need to be there to check us in. So there goes one free night in Shanghai. Katherine and Warren decide to opt in for the show, and Ray and I decide to grab a bite and then look for somewhere to get a foot massage. There’s a small shopping center near the show venue, and we agree on a western meal at Outback. Ray and I indulge in overpriced steaks and red wine. We then head over to the spa for a foot massage, only to find out the spa is under construction. We decide to tell Katherine and Warren we had the best foot massage EVER, as we’re sure we will hear ERA is the BEST show they have ever seen.

We all reconvene after the show, head to the hotel and have a nightcap, toasting to the end of our guided tour… and the full free day we have in Shanghai tomorrow.


Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Hangzhou, Lake Tai, Travel, Travelzoo, Wuxi

Finally Wooed in Wuxi

Lake Tai

 We wake to a bright morning in Wuxi. Paired with the energy of our evening last night, I feel positive about what today will bring. After breakfast, we meet Angela in the lobby, where she again passes on her father-in-law’s compliments to the boys on their chopstick skills.

Lake Tai

We all load on to the tour bus and head back to Lake Tai. We have the chance for a short but brighter walk before heading to the pearl factory a few minutes away.

Cracking open oysters and counting pearls

You know the drill by now. We’re greeted at the factory doors, taken into a showroom, told about the cultivation of pearls and then let loose in the showroom. Well, we were all destined to break at one point in time, and apparently, today is my day. An hour (and a couple of hundred dollars) later, I now own two beautiful strands of pearls. (I keep telling myself it’s ok because the trip was so cheap!)

From the pearl factory, we head to a tea pot museum, home to the largest tea pot in China and some pretty impressive and detailed craft tea pots. However, after my little spree at the pearl factory, I won’t be spending $300 on a teapot and tea cups. Thankfully, this is a short visit and we then make our way to lunch before the afternoon drive to Hangzhou.

A typical lunch

Lunch is another game of “Is this pork or chicken?” but there’s an actual coffee shop downstairs, so Katherine, the boys and I excuse ourselves from lunch and indulge in a $5 cafe latte. It’s everything that lunch wasn’t!

From here, we part ways with Angela, thank her profusely for her hospitality and begin the 2 hour drive to Hangzhou.

En route, Michael comes around to collect the $90 mandatory gratuity that each person owes. This was clearly laid out to us at the time of booking and is non-negotiable. This money is to be shared amongst our two Michaels, all our local tour guides, and the bus drivers. It’s nothing when it’s broken down this way, and the trip still remains such a bargain.

Still, there are a few people who feel like the gratuity should be “optional” and not “mandatory,” and therefore decide not to pay it. It’s a little awkward for everyone.

Xing Hai International Hotel

Smoggy sunset in Hangzhou

We arrive in Hangzhou by late afternoon and check into a beautiful hotel. Michael checks in everyone who has paid the mandatory gratuity and we make our way to our rooms, curious as to the fate of the others… It turns out that the people who refused to pay up will be responsible for covering the cost of their hotel rooms in Hangzhou tonight. Michael says, “Sorry, in China, we have to punish you the Chinese way.”

Unfortunately we’re quite far from the city center and after venturing across the road to check out the dining options, we end up at the hotel buffet. I feel I’ve failed as a traveler again, but after all those meh lunches, a couple slices of pizza really hit the spot.

After dinner, we sit with Nick and Sue in the hotel bar, discussing our weird and wonderful group dynamics. The boys return from massages with a bottle of liquor that tastes more like lighter fluid, so Ray goes out to buy a couple of bottles of wine and we sit in the hotel lobby until the wee hours of the morning, talking life. We’re making the best of it, but there’s no denying we’re ready for our arrival in Shanghai tomorrow and to have our freedom back… Or so we think…




Around the world travel, Backpacking, China, Compass Holidays, Suzhou, Travel, Travelzoo

Seeking Authenticity in Suzhou

We arrived in Shanghai last night and were greeted by Michael, not “Follow Michael” but a new, younger, more hip Michael, who will be our tour guide for the second part of our trip. We reconvened with the few people who had taken the early flight and waited for the others who were arriving on the later flight… Then we make our way to the Grand Metro Park Hotel in Suzhou, which is a 2 hour bus ride. We arrive late, get our room keys and are told we have an 8am start the following morning.

We’ll be on the move the next few days, traveling from Suzhou to Wuxi to Hangzhou, and we’ll have little free time until we arrive in Shanghai on the 24th. But for today, we’re exploring Suzhou, called the ‘Venice of the Orient’, and we’re greeted after breakfast by Michael and Jenny, our local tour guide.

I visit the Family Mart to buy more chocolate before boarding the tour bus, and Jenny begins to give us some background on Suzhou. It’s one of China’s wealthiest cities, and has also become a home base for tech companies, including Philips, Samsung, Seagate and Microsoft have. In turn, this has birthed a large expat community, so English is more widely spoken here and international schools are very common. Suzhou is also known for its classical gardens, and is home to one of China’s most famous, The Lingering Garden, which we are on our way to visit.

The Lingering Garden

The Lingering Garden

Originally constructed in 1593 during the Ming Dynasty, this now public UNESCO sight is a collection of temples, courtyards and corridors connected by winding footpaths that surround a large pond. Despite the gray day we’re visiting on, it’s still a beautiful, serene sight.

Jenny leads us all back to days of Mings and Qings, of opium dens and past emperor’s reigns.



Suzhou’s largest silk factory.

The early stages of a silkworm’s life.

Suzhou is also known for its silk, and our next stop is one of the largest silk factories in the city. En route,  Jenny gives us the lowdown on the benefits of silk, telling us that silk pillowcases are the secret to why Suzhou’s women are the prettiest. She also shows us the latest “bargains” she’s found at the factory. A Gucci scarf that she says has the slightest imperfection and therefore can’t be sent to Gucci. But it can be sold to us for a mere $98!

We arrive at the silk factory and we’re greeted by an enthusiastic lady who you guessed it, shuffles us in to a demonstration room. We learn all about silk production, as she hands around sealed glass tubes that contain the different stages of the silk worm’s life, from the ‘pup’a to an actual full size worm. We then head to the factory to see how the minute strands of silk are threaded onto a silk spool and eventually spun into a final product.

The silk spinning machine.

What’s for lunch??

Someone asks what happens to the pupa, and she jokingly says, “Well, wait and see what you’re having for lunch. They are great protein.”

From the factory line, we’re taken to a showroom. Our guide’s enthusiasm is put to shame compared to the efforts of the sales staff. They flock to us, explaining that each purchase of a comforter and pillow set comes with a free suitcase.

The finished product.

They explain how these silk comforters cure ailments like rheumatoid arthritis and eczema, and  Matthew, a member of our group, who was diagnosed with liver problems at the medical institute pipes up and asks “Will it cure my fatty liver?” We all have a chuckle, and despite the fact that the showroom is the only heated room in the building, I sneak out to see what else there is to be seen. I’m not buying any silk and I’m really not buying into any of this anymore.

I head up to the second floor, which is home to a clothing store, full of silk dresses, coats, ties, pashminas and pyjamas. It doesn’t take long to figure out that again, it’s a rip off. I walk up to the third floor, and there’s a restaurant where a group of people are having lunch. It’s freezing and I try to order tea. The lady brings me a glass of hot water. The boys venture up, and she tries to sell us alcohol from a huge glass jar at the front of the restaurant. A preserved snake sits in the jar. She says, “This make you warm.” I think I’ll pass.

A Suzhou side street.

The market.

Kids wait for their mum to finish work in Suzhou.

We find Katherine and decide to venture out on the streets to see what’s around. We stumble on a food market, full of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. To the side is a dumpling stand, where we have no choice but to indulge. Who knows what they will be serving for lunch? Pulpa?? We walk back towards the silk factory and pass an impressive number of hair salons. Literally every other storefront is a salon… We chat with a few kids whose mum is working inside, and then we are back at the factory.

What a $1,000 silk comforter looks like.

It’s literally two hours later and people are still shopping. Our factory guide sees me and I decide to entertain the idea of finding out how much a silk comforter costs… only because I see one I actually like. I point at model A-3 on the wall and say, “How much would that cost me?”

“Oh, you have good taste,” She says.

I look around at the bags and suitcases on the floor and realize just how much shopping has been done. Maybe since it’s the end of our visit, she will make me a good deal.

She continues, “This is the finest silk, take two year to make. Only comforter cover, no insert, no pillow.”

She picks up the calculator. And then says to me. “Comforter cover $974, but we give you bigger suitcase as a gift.”

I don’t know if I choke or choke back a laugh. I’m wondering where the bargain “Made in China” stuff is ??? She follows me for the next 10 minutes, lowering the price, but even any significant reduction wouldn’t get her a sale. I’m officially over it as we head to another mediocre factory lunch.

Suzhou’s Grand Canal.

From lunch, we’re taken to the Grand Canal where we’re given the option of a $35 river cruise. We’re well past the point of understanding how this whole tour package is working now, so Katherine and I again, decide to opt out of the organized tour. Surely, we can walk alongside the canal and get the same views we would from the overpriced boat, right? I tell Michael our plans and he assures me there’s really nowhere to walk.

A street food vendor bakes a sweet bean curd dessert.

We still opt out. And, we end up taking a nice stroll along the canal, and find the public boat that costs less than $10 for a roundtrip excursion on the canal. We also find the street vendors, and that lovely scarf Jenny showed off this morning that was for sale at the factory for $98 is hanging up. I venture over and ask how much. After a little bartering, I get it for $8USD and feel like I’ve won a mini battle against this “organized tour.”

As it begins to rain, we meet a street food vendor who is cooking up a dough filled dessert, filled with sweetened bean curd. We take shelter under his little canopy, and despite that we’re still full from lunch, we buy the last cake on the platter. I try to force Katherine to eat most of it and she keeps handing it back to me.  We throw away the last bite.

We buy some roasted chestnuts and make our way back to the bus, where we wait for the others. Here, we part ways with Jenny and begin our journey to Wuxi, where we pick up Angela, our other local tour guide.

Lake Tai

We head to Lake Tai, and Angela tries to get us excited for our walk around Lake Tai, depsite the fact that it’s now pouring. I’m proud of the group, who don rain coats and share umbrellas so we can all comfortably partake in the tour.

Angela is a Wuxi native and of all tour guides does the best job of capturing the group’s attention. She is informative and full of knowledge about her home city, but remains approachable and welcoming.

At the end of our walk around Lake Tai, I ask her if she can make some recommendations for an authentic restaurant for dinner. She replies, “There are some very good restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. I will give you the names, but you are always welcome at my home for dinner.”

Mother and Father-in-law and Mr. Wong, cooking up dinner.

Well, after a few days in China, I think I’ve come to the understanding that people don’t say what they don’t mean here, and I think for a moment how awesome it would be to have dinner at a local’s home. But I don’t think more about it until it’s dinner time and the hotel room phone rings. It’s Ray and Warren, and they’re meeting Angela in the lobby in a few minutes to go to dinner. Do we want to join? Katherine is not feeling well, but I can’t miss this opportunity for what I know will be the most authentic meal of the trip, so I throw on my shoes that I literally just took off, grab my raincoat, and head to the elevator bank.

In the lobby, Ray and Warren are standing with Angela, who is waiting to see if anyone else wants to join. Michael, our tour guide is ordering a pizza delivery for the rest of the group, but Mr. Wong, our bus driver from the past couple of days is going to join us, so the five of us head out for Angela’s apartment, which is two blocks away from the hotel.

The only time I saw Mr. Wong smile!

We head up two blocks and over one in order to hit the market, where Mr. Wong buys what he wants to contribute to the evening’s meal. From what I can tell, he buys a couple of leeks, but they are bigger and longer than the leeks we get at home ? After a couple of other stops for vegetables, we reach Angela’s apartment building. We head up to the second floor and are welcomed inside. First, she gives us slippers and then we are introduced to her daughter and her mother and father-in-law who live with her. Her husband is away for work in The Philippines.

Angela and her daughter.

She ushers us in and pulls a few plastic chairs around the table in the main room so we can all sit. We all crack sunflower seeds as Angela and I peel garlic cloves, and in what seems a matter of minutes, dishes are ready to be served. The table is pulled to the center of the room, and more chairs are brought in to seat everyone, and mother and father-in-law sit down with us. They speak no English, so they seem to welcome us in the only way they know how. For mother-in-law, that is to feed us and smile at us, and for father-in-law-that is to fill our cups with as much ‘Medicine wine’ as we can take. I’ve had a taste and am sticking with beer, but the boys are stronger than me and rival him for a little while.

The crew at dinner.

We indulge in an amazing home cooked meal, where dumplings keep seem to appearing on our plate. If I eat too quickly, my plate is full again… with a fluffy egg dish, sauteed green beans, chicken and mushrooms, salted peanuts, and Mr. Wong’s leek dish, all of which we attempt to eat with our chopsticks. Grandpa gets a big kick out of the fact that the boys are very good at using chopsticks and congratulates them by filling their cups again.

We FaceTime with Angela’s husband and her cousin, and then we have the time to chat with Angela about her family, her line of work, tourism in China, her daughter, education and life in general. And although Angela is  our tour guide, for that moment she is a friend and we are just hanging out.

Tonight’s experience is what I seek when I travel. Not the visit to the silk factory, nor the comforter with the free suitcase, but sitting with the locals, learning about their way of life, eating their home made food, watching grandpa get drunk on baiju. As he gets more gregarious, Angela gives us the cue it’s time to go. We all have another early start in the morning. Grandma hugs us all goodbye and grandpa shakes everyone’s hands aggressively, and Mr. Wong, who seems much less affected than grandpa, finishes his last sip of baiju, and walks us back to the hotel.







Around the world travel, Backpacking, Beijing, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Travel, Travelzoo

How Do You Say “Softly” in Mandarin?

Ads on the Beijing metro.

We have one last free morning in Beijing, and Michael has organized a late checkout for everyone, so after breakfast, Katherine and I head to Tiananmen Square. We were here the other day but headed straight for the Forbidden City, and because of Tiananmen’s historical significance, I want to pay a proper visit.

Tiananmen Square

So, we head back to Happy Valley, make the journey by metro to Tiananmen East, clear security and walk from one end of the square to the other. Besides a few statues, there’s not much to see here, but I feel better having made the visit.

We hail a taxi and head northeast towards Dragonfly spa, a place that’s been recommended by a friend for massage and reflexology. Luckily, my maps is working without an internet connection, and I’m able to get us within walking distance to the spa. The language barrier is proving to make solo navigation challenging!

We arrive in an area that seems to cater to Westerners. A Hilton hotel sits next to a shopping complex that’s home to Starbucks, a wine shop, a public swimming pool, and the place we’re after, Dragonfly.

We take a few minutes to peruse the menu and both Katherine and I decide on a 1-hr traditional Chinese massage, which is a combination of deep tissue and acupressure. Andy, my masseuse, collects us from the waiting room, takes us to our respective rooms and shows us the linen tops and bottoms we’re to put on. They are made for petite Asian ladies, and I just about manage to get the pants over my hips.

Dragonfly Spa

Andy speaks very little English, but I tell him I like a strong massage. He goes to work, and I realize he has understood what I said. Maybe a little too much because as he works his way down my back, I’m literally twinging in pain. I start to say, “Ok, maybe not so hard.” But he thinks I mean the opposite and pushes so deep on my lower left back muscle, that I know I’m going to feel it for days. A little whimper comes out followed by “Owwww.” And he exclaims, “Ohhh, you mean softer.” Yes, softer, that’s the word I was looking for!

Andy finishes up an awesome massage, and tells me his name again, “You come back, you ask for Andy.” “Yes,” I say, not even attempting to try to explain I’m just visiting and actually leaving for Shanghai in a matter of hours.

I find Katherine in the reception area, and we laugh at the matching pillow imprints on our faces. We settle our bills, $30 each, head to Starbucks for something to wake us up, and grab a taxi so we can make it back to the hotel to check out and make our transfer to Shanghai.

A few people from the group flew out on a very early flight this morning, and the rest of us are on either a 5:20 or 5:55 flight from Beijing to Hongqiao. We drop half the group at Terminal 1 and the rest of us head to Terminal 2 and check in at the Hainan counter. We have lost Michael, who seems to have broken his own golden rule… “Follow Michael,” and don’t get the chance to say thank you and goodbye.

Katherine and I clear security, grab a snack at a Chinese fast food joint, top up our chocolate supply at one of the duty free shops, and board our flight.

It’s a short flight, but we have time to reflect on Beijing and the trip so far. Because I feel partly responsible for Katherine’s happiness on the trip, seeing as I’m the one that suggested it and sold her on China to begin with, I ask her, “So, what do you think so far?”  Her reply, “We’re in China. We paid less than $600. I’m just taking it for what it is.”

As independent travelers, it’s tough for us to have so many of our decisions made for us. We are used to doing the research, the planning, the bookings, the navigating. Doing that kind of work before a trip ensures (most of the time) an enjoyable adventure, and there’s a sense of satisfaction when you figure out a place. BUT, it IS China, and I’m not gonna lie, there’s something nice about these 4 and 5-star hotels, the bus that shows up for our airport and city transfers and the assistance with the language barrier, and oddly enough, the weird and wonderful members of our group are growing on me.

I think about what Katherine said, and agree that we could have never planned this trip for the price we got it for. (Hence the factory visits). I will move forward with an open mind about this “organized travel…” or so I tell myself tonight.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Beijing, China, Compass Holidays, Great Wall, Guided Tour, Travel, Travelzoo

The Great Wall After The Greatest Jade Factory

I wake up at 2am. Maybe it’s the excitement of our trip to the Great Wall, or it could be the fact that we went to bed at 8pm…I will myself to stay in bed until 4am. Needless to say, we’re the first to arrive at breakfast. Here, we spot a few people from our group who we’ll be spending the day with.

We have Ray & Warren from Utah, who I will affectionately refer to as “the boys.” Nick and Sue are a lovely British couple who now live on the Canadian side of Lake Huron. Veronica from Philadelphia, flips houses for fun, but is a world renowned psychologist who is basically changing the way mental health is treated in the Middle East. We have Stacie (originally from Chicago) and her girlfriend Kiva from New Orleans. Stacie is in finance and Kiva is a personal trainer. We have, Matthew (architect) and his boyfriend D’Andre (a model) and Matthew’s mother Marilyn (who is super sweet, just a little hard of hearing). We have the old couple who sit next to each other on the bus and yell their observations at each other (they must be hard of hearing too). Jeff, a lawyer who tagged this trip on to the end of a business trip, is traveling with his sweet and super athletic cousin, Nathan, who is a mortgage broker in Arizona. We have the quiet newlyweds from Chula Vista, CA that keep to themselves and two other couples: Jay, an American guy, and his Vietnamese girlfriend Ivy, and a fun couple from Toronto. We have two Jet Blue flight attendants, who are based out of NYC, and there are three older gentlemen who are en route to the Philippines to do missionary work. Then there’s Katherine and me, who are really new to this whole “group travel” thing.

All in all, we’re a pretty diverse and eclectic group. I hear the ‘Real World’ intro in my head, “This is the story of 20 people picked to travel China and have their lives taped…” It feels like a really interesting social experiment!

Bird’s Nest Stadium

Home of the 2008 Olympic Games

So, after breakfast, we all pile onto the tour bus and Michael (“Follow Michael”) greets us and tells us the plan for the day. Our first stop is a quick visit to the park where the 2008 Olympic Games were held . It’s a balmy 22 degrees, so we bundle up and make our way for a close up shot of Bird’s Nest Stadium, which hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the track and field events. Now that Beijing has been awarded the 2022 winter Olympic games, officials are trying to decide if they can re-use this stadium or if they will build something new. It’s a pretty neat steel structure and just behind sits the IBM building, constructed in the shape of a dragon.

IBM as seen from the Olympic Park.

We head back to the bus and Michael informs us that the next stop is to a jade factory on the outskirts of Beijing. This will be followed by lunch and then our excursion to the Great Wall.

Crafting Jade.

Less than an hour later, the mountain ranges surrounding Beijing become visible and we all start to peer out the bus window looking for glimpses of the wall in the distance. I’m anxious to get there… it’s one of the main reasons I booked this trip, but the bus makes a right turn into the parking lot of the jade factory, and we shuffle off the bus and into the entryway of the factory. We’re greeted by a petite Chinese woman, who takes us through a small hallway, where we can see artisans creating jewelry and trinkets from the jade stone. We’re then taken into a small meeting room where we’re taught about the various types of Jade and the different qualities that exist.

Jade for the Chinese is the equivalent of diamonds to Americans. Jade is given as an engagement gift, often as a bangle bracelet, which is to be worn on the left hand as it’s closest to your heart. The stone is thought to have healing properties and bring good luck, and Jadeite – the most precious type of Jade is believed to bring good fortune. Well, I would hope so, seeing as when we’re shuffled out of the meeting room and into the showroom, I see the price tag on the jade bangle… a mere $795 !! I won’t be bringing any jade home! But we wait patiently while others do their shopping. In my mind, I’m thinking I could do another China trip for the price of that bracelet…

Lunch is in a restaurant off to the side of the showroom and is a slew of unmemorable dishes placed on a lazy susan. Katherine and I have taken to buying chocolate in the mornings and subsidizing the lunches, which pale in comparison to our breakfasts.

Juyong Pass

A look out tower along the Great Wall.

Finally, after the shopping spree and lunch, we’re off to the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall. This is one of the most visited sections of the Great Wall, a) because of its proximity to Beijing, and b) because it is home to one of the wall’s greatest passes and forts, Juyong.

Michael covers our admission costs and sets us free. We’re told to reconvene at the bus at 2:30, which gives us almost 2 hours to explore and trek. Katherine, the boys and I trek up to the top tower at our own paces, stopping to savor the views in all directions.

The Great Wall of China.

The Juyongguan section of the Great Wall

While we’re standing on a part of the wall that feels massive to us, we look off in the distance to see pieces of the wall that look like specs. I follow the wall as far as my eye can see, and it looks like a little pencil thin trail hugging the mountains off in the distance.

It’s difficult to find words that match hundreds of years of craftsmanship from 700BC… not to mention 8000 kilometers of it. It’s a marvel and it’s awe-inspiring.

We begin the trek back down and explore the small courtyards and pagodas near the pass before heading back to the bus.

Michael informs us that on the way back to the city, we will make a surprise stop at the Institute of Chinese Medicine, where everyone will get a free 30-minute foot massage. This pleases everyone who has just hiked for the last couple of hours, but Katherine and I look at each other, wondering what other scheme we’re in for. “Don’t worry,” Michael says. “You no pay, just give them tip of $2 if they do good job.”

The Chinese Medical Institute.

Himalayan herbs.

So, the tour bus makes a right turn into the medical institute and we’re shuffled off the bus, into a building and further into a room filled with over-sized pink cushy chairs. A man in a white coat gives a short presentation on the importance of Chinese medicine and the history of the institute, and then one by one, workers come in carrying buckets of hot water.

Himalayan foot soak.

They line up in front of all of us and dump sachets of Himalayan herbs into the water and instruct us to place our feet in the buckets. Then the doctors begin to make their rounds, looking at everyone’s hands, and giving out their diagnoses, all while the workers begin our promised 30-minute foot massage.

The foot massage ends up being about 10 minutes, and no one comes to read our palms. They seem to know who to go to, and after selling a couple of “regimens” at anywhere from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, it seems our time is up.

Free foot massages.

I stop one of the docs, who takes my pulse and says, “Ah, it seems you have low blood pressure.” Well, no shit,” I think!?! No one collects a tip for the massage, and we’re shuffled out and back on to the bus as quickly as we were shuffled in. Pictures of Obama and Clinton during their visits hang on the walls, as if to give the place a bit more credibility. And don’t get me wrong, I’m the daughter of a naturopath, and I buy into all this stuff, just not at the rate of $2,000.

I get back on the bus and ask English Nick, who likes a good beer, what his thoughts were on all of that. He looks at me and says, “Well, my livers done, but that’s nothing I didn’t know.”

Peking Duck dinner.

Now, we have been given the option of a Peking Duck dinner, and since this was mine and Katherine’s plan anyways, we decide to join the group, as we both know if we get back to the hotel, we’d have a hard time dragging ourselves back out.  We begin the long drive through Beijing’s rush hour and arrive at the restaurant almost 1 1/2 hours later. The dinner is overpriced and a little underwhelming, and we realize we could have done better on our own, but we’ve checked it off the Beijing to-do list.

We arrive back at the hotel and think back on the day. All we really wanted to see was the Great Wall, and since hindsight is 20/20, we’re realizing we should’ve just organized our own tour separate from the group. We’re starting to understand how this trip is going to play out though. And we’re thankful that the following day’s events are optional. We have a free morning in Beijing before moving on to Shanghai later in the afternoon…. TBC.



Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, China, Compass Holidays, Guided Tour, long term travel, Travel

“Follow Michael” – The Beginning Of My Guided Tour Through China

Even just a few years back, if you’d asked me if I would consider booking, book, or actually go on a guided tour, the answer would have been “no.” Not just an “i don’t think so,” or a “let me think about it,” but an ‘it’s against my religion kind of “no.” ‘ You see, in the world of hard core travel, guided tours are like the cardinal sin. They’re the easy way out for the traveler who doesn’t want to do the planning, for the apprehensive traveler who’s afraid of the language barrier, or for the fearful one who thinks the location isn’t safe to tackle alone. They’re the opposite of authenticity.

Hainan Airlines from Boston to Beijing

Well, forgive me Father of Travel because I have sinned… and I’ve gone and booked a cheaper than chips 8-day GUIDED trip to China. I hope that given this is close to my 65th country, I have some sort of clout… but as I see the Compass Holiday flag in the busy arrival hall upon landing in Beijing, I wonder if I have sold myself out.

After the 13 1/2 hour flight, I’m too tired to really think about it that much, and in my zombie state, I curse the missing two travelers our group of 20 or so is waiting for.

After about an hour of waiting, our Chinese tour guide, “Michael” who refers to himself in the third person, rounds up the group, and exclaims very loudly and in his very thick accent, “Follow Michael.” And we do as said, and make our way to the tour bus waiting outside.

It’s 10pm now, 9am to our bodies, so we don’t know if we should feel ready to go to bed or start the day. We board the bus for the 40-minute drive to the promised 4-star hotel, and Michael begins our first Chinese history lesson… Communism, Socialism, Mings and Qings. My friend Katherine, who I roped into taking this trip with me, is asleep in the seat next to me. I fight sleep as Michael tells us, “China is a chicken: Beijing is the neck, Shanghai is the belly, Hong Kong is the foot. ” He then comes around to sell us water and see if we want to opt in for the Beijing City Tour the following day. No, no thanks. We’re all set and will explore on our own. Katherine and I are two of the four people not opting in to the guided tour the following day.

Garden International Hotel, Beijing

As we drive, I see a pretty, ornate building and wonder if it’s our hotel. I nudge Katherine. “Wouldn’t that be awesome if it was our hotel?” I say, as the bus turns around and pulls in to the entrance.

THE Toilet

We step off the bus, gather our bags and make our way to the lobby to get checked in. It’s late and the hotel is empty, but the staff is eagerly waiting to assist us. We get our keys and head to our room, which is just as luxurious as the view of the hotel from the roadway. Not to mention the heated toilet seat!


I call the front desk to confirm what time breakfast is, and the employee that answers the phone uses google translate to tell me to “hold on one second” and “I will call you right back.” And he does, breakfast is 7am-10am on the 2nd floor.

I quickly try to check Facebook, Instagram, email…Nothing. It’s looking like I’m going to have a nice digital detox while in China.

Despite the time difference, we crawl into our comfy beds and sleep. And I wonder what this guided trip has in store for us?

Ambos Mundos, Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, Havana, Hemingway, Travel, Varadero

Adios Coche, Adios Christy…

Rocky’s ride

The following morning, we head to Cafe Ria for our last breakfast and wait for Rocky to pick us up. Just before 9:00, I move from the small patio to stand on the sidewalk and sure enough, I see Rocky’s car coming down the road. I give Christy a thumbs up. Our arrangement was made so hastily and under such odd circumstances, that we were slightly hesitant about it all panning out, but it had.

We throw our bags in the back and begin the 3 hour drive back to Havana, stopping every 30 minutes so Rocky can pour water over the car’s radiator. I don’t mind the stops as it affords us amazing views of the surrounding scenery. To our left are lush, green rolling hills and to our right are miles and miles of sandy coastline. It continues like this until we reach the tunnel that will deposit us back in Old Havana.

The journey that never was…

We’re booked in at Carlos’s B&B for the night, which is centrally located on Aguilar. Carlos is nowhere to be found, but the cleaning lady lets us in and shows us to our room. We drop our stuff and decide to head out to Hemingway’s finca for the afternoon.

We walk down Aguilar to the waterfront, stop in a corner cafe for a mojito and then begin to negotiate a ride to the finca. We find a driver and begin driving back towards Vedado. Funny, I thought it was in the other direction (?) I can’t really communicate this in my broken Spanish and trust the driver knows where he’s going. We pass the many embassies that line Quinta Avenida, and just as we’re admiring the beautiful architecture, our car stalls out.

This is nothing out of the ordinary really. If you think about it, these cars are ancient. Our driver gives us a reassuring nod as he gets out of the car to check out the problem. The look he gives us when he gets back in is not as reassuring. The car is dead!

Adios coche…

He doesn’t hesitate and flags down another driver on a side street to pass us off to, directing him on where to take us, and moments later we arrive at Hemingway’s Marina. No, not Hemingway’s finca… his marina. This jaunt has gone wrong from start to finish, and we explain to the driver where we’d been hoping to go. Not entirely understanding how we got here, but feeling a bit sorry for us, he graciously agrees to take us back to Old Havana. When we arrive back in the city, we exit the cab at Plaza des Armas and head to Ambos Mundos. If we can’t have Hemingway’s finca, we will at least visit his hotel.

Ambos Mundos, Hemingway’s Hotel

Floor to ceiling windows and doors let afternoon light stream into the first floor of the hotel, and an older gentleman plays piano near a corner entryway.  Everything seems to circle the large mahogany bar that sits in the middle of the room. People come and go taking a respite from the afternoon heat,  admiring the space and checking out the collection of photographs of Hemingway on one of the tiled walls. We take a seat at the bar and order a couple of rums and toast to the journey that never was. Wasn’t it Hemingway who said something about grace under pressure??

We walk back to our casa via Plaza Vieja, the square that always seems to be bursting with life. An outdoor concert is in full swing, so we grab chairs at a table nearby and listen to the last set. We then head back to Cafe de los Artistas, where Christy and I toast to our last night in Havana.

We head home, check email and hear from Sarah. She is home in snow-covered Boston, and another storm is on the way. She advises Christy to check her flight and then tells me she’s connected me with another traveler she met after we left Havana. His name is Matt and he’s also a photographer. I send Matt a quick message with details on where we’re staying and tell him to stop by in the morning if he wants to share a ride to Trinidad. One part of the adventure is over and another about to begin.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cuba, long term travel, Travel, Varadero

A Break from our Break in Varadero

We wake the next morning with one thing on the mind and one thing only, the beach. We pack up a day bag, grab breakfast at Cafe Ria (because it was so good yesterday), and begin the walk to the beach. We take a different route today, walking on a street parallel to the beach passing stall after stall of souvenirs. Sombreros, sundresses, tee shirts, postcards, jewelry, maracas…you name it, you can find it. Shops are interspersed with street side cafes and cantinas and the occasional casa or apartment complex.

We continue down this road to the to the bus station to inquire about transportation back to Havana, only to find out that all buses the following day are fully booked. I refuse to worry. I’m officially in a Cuban state of mind, and I tell Christy we shouldn’t worry… we will sort something out. It’s hot and we don’t want to sacrifice any more beach time, so we head straight there.

We cut across a couple of side streets and look for access to the beach. Much of the beach front is taken up by all inclusive resorts, where you have to be a paying guest to rent chairs and umbrellas or even be served a drink. We quickly find out they won’t budge on this rule and begin to seek out a public entryway to the beach, our dreams of reclining and being served fruity drinks from coconuts shattered. We find public entry to the beach at the top of the next street, next to a construction site for a new all-inclusive spot that will be opening next year. At the end of that small street is a little cantina that sells cheap Cristal and strong mojitos in plastic cups. This will work perfectly!

We attempt to set up our spot on the beach, but it’s impossible for me to take my eyes off the view. To the left and right of us is powder white soft sand for miles, and in front of us, as far as the eye can see is the most beautiful crystal clear aquamarine ocean. It’s one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. 

We dump our bags, strip out of sweaty cover ups and run down to the waters’ edge. The water is luke warm and inviting, and we wade out about 30 feet or so, playing in the small waves. As the water laps my shoulders, I look down and realize I can still see my pink toenail polish. I am well-traveled, but I have never been in water like this. 

We spend the day frolicking in the ocean, walking along the beach, and sunning ourselves with the surrounding half naked German, Canadian and Italian tourists. And occasionally, we pop back to our little cantina for a mojito or two. I can spend hours here and we do. But as the light changes to a softer shade, indicating the arrival of evening, we are reminded that we still have no way of getting back to Havana tomorrow.

We pack up and walk along the beach, back to the direction of the roadside stand where Pedro & “Potpourri” work. Before we stop in to visit with them, we pay a visit to the nearby all inclusive resort, where we manage to steal wifi for a few minutes. On the front steps of the hotel, we quickly check email and texts and I send my dad a “Happy Birthday” message. Then a beat up 90s Nissan pulls up. Without hesitation, I walk over and ask the driver if he wants to take us to Havana tomorrow. We agree on the price of 30 CUC and a pick up time of 9am outside Cafe Ria. Well, that was easy. With that sorted, it’s now time for happy hour and our last night in Varadero.