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Girl’s Guide to China

Author: Robin P.
Date of Trip: September 2006

I have three fabulous friends with whom I share a love for culture, art and best of all, travel. We took our first trip in 1997 to France, when none of our husbands were interested in going. That turned out to be such an incredible experience, we decided to go to Italy 18 months after that. And Italy was so wonderful, we decided that since we all had husbands who still weren’t interested in going the places we wanted to go, and since we were having such a good time, we would continue our adventures and take a trip to a different country every 18 months. We’ve been all over Europe, so for our last trip, we decided to “step outside the box” just a little. We chose China.

If you have a spouse that loves to travel with you, great. But if you don’t, take heart! This is an amazing way to travel, and you won’t believe the money you’ll save when you get to split everything four ways!

(I have kept journals on each of these seven trips, all between 50 to 105 pages, with the one on China actually being the longest).

Normally, we do all our own planning for our trips, but China is not a place for foreigners to be on their own, especially four American women. We used an agency in Dallas, McIntosh Tours, to help us organize our trip. For a very reasonable cost, we had what seemed like the perfect agenda. We flew into Shanghai, then to Yichang, where we boarded a boat for a four-day cruise on the Yangtze River. Then we flew to Guilin, then Xi’an, then to Beijing, covering 15 days.

The flight over on Northwest, on frequent flyer miles, was a nightmare. After flying almost four hours from Detroit, the pilot announced that there was mechanical difficulty of some sort, and we would be returning to Detroit, and spending the night. That caused us to miss our first day in Shanghai, including an appointment with a tailor, and a day trip to Souzhou, which was a major disappointment.

Shanghai was a fabulous starting point for a first visit to Asia. It’s ultra-modern skyline is like none other in the world. Our agent had arranged a guide and driver just for the four of us for the entire trip, which I highly recommend. It was infinitely better than being herded around with 40 people all touring on a bus together and following someone holding an umbrella above her head.

We were booked into the Seagull Hotel, near the Bund. Even with a 4-star rating, it was better than any of our expectations, with a beautiful somewhat art-deco lobby, and modern, comfortable rooms.

Each morning, we were greeted in the lobby by our wonderful, capable guide, Stacey, who led us to our car, always waiting just outside the door. This was the most incredible treat, to have the driver waiting every time we needed him.

We saw Wu Gardens and the Jade Temple our first day. Although both are obviously tourist spots, both are definitely worthy of a visit. Stacey, being the savvy guide she is, took us in the exit door, so when the crowds started arriving, we’d be going “against the flow,” and wouldn’t get caught behind a large group, of which there were several. We all bonded in no time with Stacey. Besides the obvious benefit of not having to be with a bus load of strangers, it was such a treat to have a guide to ourselves. We constantly bombarded her with questions, which we would not have been able to do if we had been with a group.

We asked her to take us somewhere we could buy pearl jewelry and were all very pleased with the place she took us, the Fanghua Pearl store, which was not far from the Wu Gardens. We actually walked there rather than having the driver take us.

At the Fanghua Pearl store, they will make a necklace or bracelet for you while you wait. You pick out the size pearls you want, and a clasp, and they will string and knot them with the speed of lightening, and in just the perfect length of your choice. I got a triple strand 6mm bracelet with a large, gold clasp for around $200, which was a bargain. We had all researched the cost of bracelets and necklaces before leaving home, so we’d know what was a good deal.

We had done some research ourselves regarding wonderful places to eat. Having made all our own arrangements for all our other trips, it was a little hard for us to completely relinquish all control on this one. Although our travel agency had arranged all our meals, we wanted to try some we had found ourselves, that we had seen written about in magazine and newspaper articles. Stacey was happy to accommodate us, and took us to our restaurant of choice. Incidentally, the guides do not eat with you, but will get you a table, and order for you if necessary, and leave you until it’s time for pick up.

We found the food to be just wonderful, although we had been told that probably wouldn’t be the case for the most part. As long as you go to a reputable place, it’s not a problem. I don’t recommend buying “street food,” tempting as it may be. You do not drink the water, unless it’s bottled. So, one of our first stops each day was to buy a couple of bottles of water.

On our second day, Stacey, took us to an area called the French Concession, which although it has some historical significance, is not really worth spending time there, other than perhaps a drive-through. By then, we had all bonded with Stacey, and enjoyed asking her all about her life, her family, children, the economic status of China, and a wealth of other trivia. She was a fountain of information and spoke excellent English.

That evening, she dropped us off for a performance of a Chinese Acrobatic Show. Ok, I admit, this sounds really hokey, and we were all somewhat lukewarm about even going. But what a surprise it turned out to be! It was absolutely incredible, and like nothing we had ever seen before. It was extremely entertaining, and a lot like Cirque de Soleil. It is something that should not be missed, especially if you like being kept mesmerized and on the edge of your seat for two hours.

Our last morning in Shanghai, Stacey delivered us to the airport for our flight to Yichang. She had all our plane tickets for all the interior flights. She walked us all the way to the security gate, making sure we had everything in order before leaving us. We wished she could stay with us for the duration of our trip in China, but we would be met by a new guide in each city. So, after goodbye hugs, and e-mail exchanges we left her, and headed for the next phase of this incredible adventure, a cruise on the mighty Yangtze.

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