China is a contrast of modern and ancient, of tradition and innovation, of peacefulness and high energy: a place unlike any other and a country that should be on your list of Top 5 Places to Visit.
My visit to China three years ago was with the Chamber tour. I traveled with over 20 other people, but had no travel companion. I traveled with people I knew and perfect strangers – at least for the first few hours. While I’m no travel agent, I know what works and know a bargain when I see one. The China trip was spectacularly both.
I’m an organizational freak, so I bow down in admiration to our tour group for how well every detail of our trip was planned. From the time we left until we returned to Arlington, everything was taken care of for us. The transportation was great, the days were packed with activity, the experiences were highly varied, and I got to see how the Chinese live their daily lives. The tour guides were highly knowledgeable and friendly. All I had to worry about was what to buy as gifts/souvenirs and whether I wanted something extra to drink or eat.
Was everything perfect? No, but in hindsight, most of the “grousing” was more due to cultural differences than to actual deficiencies in the tour. And the little things that weren’t perfect paled in comparison to the amazing experiences:
- Shanghai at night and shopping on the city streets
- The Forbidden City and gardens
- Tiananmen Square with its eerie memories
- Temples, gardens, artifacts and laughing, frowning, serious, ancient Buddhas
- Master lessons at a tea farm in how to properly make tea
- Chinese apothecaries and healing practices
- Lunch with a Chinese family and our tour through a traditional neighborhood
- Walking through a town market on Saturday morning as town residents did their shopping
- Boat trips on canals, lakes and streams.
- Learning how silk rugs, jade pieces, porcelain and fresh water pearls are created.
- Start walking as exercise regimen. This tour is not for people who cannot walk well or who have difficulty with mobility. While you could go, you would miss out on a lot.
- Make this a true vacation. Divorce yourself from your iPad, your laptop and even your cell phone if you can. Instead, bring a camera. Besides the “lugging around” factor, your personal memories of actually seeing China rather than photographing it will be what last.
- Pack lightly/pack to leave behind. China’s weather is varied. You will buy more than you think you will. With these two axioms in mind, pack layers and don’t worry about how stylish you look. I took old clothes, left them behind after they were worn, and had tons of space in my suitcase for those “had to have” purchases.
- Read up on the Chinese personality and behavior. It’s different from ours and can be initially confusing until you figure out how to act Chinese.
- Don’t take a lot of cash. I managed very well on $300 and a credit card.
- Find a credit card that doesn’t charge a fee for international purchases. Capitol One is one, and USAA only charges 1%. Make sure your credit card company knows you’ll be in China.
- Take the “optional” tours since you’ll be left on the bus if you don’t and they are spectacular.
- Ask the Chamber to find you a roommate for your hotel stays if you are traveling as a single. You’ll save money and with the schedule for each day, you’ll be doing little more than showering, sleeping and repacking your bags in the hotel.
- Negotiate the price of EVERYTHING! The Chinese will sell to you at full price but won’t respect you in the morning. The calculator is the negotiating tool!
- Keep your eyes and ears open: there is something fascinating going on almost everywhere!