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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, 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?