My husband and I have had China on our bucket list for a long time and saved hard for our top adventure of a lifetime. There were just two of us and we met with a guide in most cities (except Hong Kong) and I have to say this was the most relaxing way to fulfill our bucket list adventure, rather than a coach tour.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Beijing
We arrive in a hot and humid Beijing at 10 am local time on the 10th of September. We are very tired after our flight as it’s still the middle of the night to us. Frank (the Westernisation for his name he tells us), our guide for the few days we will spend in the city, meets us at the airport and takes us to our car and driver. One of the first things we noticed about Beijing is the slight ‘fog’ from all the pollution. The second thing is the crazy drivers. It appears that you can drive where you want – it’s almost eye-watering bad with cars, buses, taxis, scooters, and people all vying for the same spot. Thankfully we arrive at our hotel (the Marco Polo) in one piece and check-in. After a wait of around 15 minutes, we are allocated our room, unpack and have a rest before being taken to the Temple of Heaven mid-afternoon. The main temple building there (Hall for the Prayer of Good Harvests) is quite simply a marvel – it’s made entirely of wood and not a single nail has been used. The colors are vivid. Back to the hotel for a rest before dinner and an early night!
Day 2 – Beijing (11th Sept)
An 8:30 am start with a visit to the Sacred Road at the Ming Tombs. The road itself is very peaceful with lovely cypress trees, cicadas, and birds singing. There are some fantastic stone statues of various animals and court officials guarding the road. The Emperor’s tomb itself is very dull. It’s incredibly plain with no decoration and is not at all what I was expecting. It’s not worth singling out for a visit on its own, I’d guess the fact that it’s on the way to the Great Wall is the reason for its popularity. After lunch, we make it to Badaling and the Great Wall. Not ones for following the herds of tourists we chose the less walked north route (turn left at the main entrance). Some of it was incredibly steep but it was well worth it as we have some fantastic shots of the wall without anyone else in them. It really is stunning up there and I can’t imagine how they did it. Of course, you do get hassled by the usual tourist tack stalls selling the “I climbed the wall” T-shirts but I guess it’s to be expected at the most popular point on the wall. Frank also took us to a copper vase factory where the workers lived on site. I’m not big on these government factory tours but this one was surprisingly interesting – plates, vases, and even pictures made from copper that was painted fired, and then polished.
Had the obligatory Peking Duck dinner in the evening and another early night.
Day 3 – Beijing (12th Sept)
We set off from the hotel and walked through Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City. The square for me will forever be associated with the violence that occurred there yet many Chinese tourists see it as a pilgrimage and flock to see Mao’s corpse. The queue was hundreds long. The stories and history of the Forbidden City and very interesting and Frank, who has been a full-time guide for 3 years, is a good storyteller. However, you soon feel a sense of déjà vu and all the halls and living quarters follow the same Feng Shui pattern. The Imperial Garden on the other hand was a revelation. It’s set away from the palace and was our first introduction to a Chinese garden. It’s vastly different from what we in the West would call a garden and I found it beautiful. The rock and water formations are at the same time interesting and calming and the various seating areas help you to see the garden from different angles.
After lunch, we visited the Summer Palace and for me, this was my favorite place in the city. You really could spend all day there wandering about. It seems a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The various palaces and rooms have been beautifully restored and Kunming Lake is huge. After admiring the Marble Boat that Empress Cixi had built (using misappropriate palace funds) we took a boat over the lake to the Marco Polo Bridge and looked at the many stone lions on top of the bridge to see if we could stop any with another tiny lion in its ear as apparently, it’s lucky if you do. Needless to say, we lucked out….
In the evening Before we went to a Kung Fu show, which was great fun.
Day 4 – Xian (13th Sept)
Flight from Beijing to Xian takes off in time and we are met in arrivals by a lady this time called Agnes. It’s lunchtime and we are starving so after quickly checking in to the Bell Tower hotel we head off for something to eat. It’s very overcast and is raining ever so slightly. Agnes tells us that a lot of this is due to pollution. After lunch, we visit the Wild Goose Pagoda, which smells wonderful with all the incense being burned in the various buildings. We have a walk on the city wall and get to know each other a bit better. Agnes is a teacher and a part-time guide is much more laid back than Frank was. We tactfully mention our “we are not here to shop” spiel and she explains how the government shops work – each guide has to take a group to one factory during their time with them. They have to fill out paperwork and get it stamped by someone in the factory/shop to prove they’ve done taken people there. The Chinese do so love their paperwork. We agree to drive into one tomorrow so she can get her stamps but will not go in and she’s happy with this.
We also see signs of poverty for the first time when we are up on the wall a tiny rundown apartment block where Agnes tells us that up to 4 generations of the same family will live in a small 1 bedroomed apartment without an inside loo. It makes me count my blessings.
Dinner this evening is a new experience as we have a private dinner in a small room at a local eatery where we are served a variety of dishes and Chinese tea by two very attentive ladies.
Day 5 – Xian (14th Sept)
What a great day we had today. The Terracotta Army is a sight I won’t forget in a hurry. this has always been on my bucket list! The first sight of the main pit almost takes your breath away. They are magnificent. It’s incredible to think that the large area you are looking at is still so far from the Emperor’s tombs. Man, what an ego he must have had! The detail on the figures are amazing – they are all that famous terracotta brown now but there are pictures there from when they were first uncovered and you can see just how brightly painted they were. What with the color and all their weaponry and armor etc. they must have been a sight. Sadly now the exposure to the air had taken most of the color away. We arrived early enough to miss the busloads of people that arrive mid-morning and certainly made the most of it as we spent hours there.
After a late lunch, we head back to the center of town and the Muslim Quarter. The market there is great fun with lots of stalls selling all the tack any tourist could ever want but surprisingly you don’t get hassled. In a certain part of the market, you’ll find the entry to the mosque. It’s been there since the 12th century, is still used today, and is made entirely from wood. It’s a pretty place and all you can hear is birdsong, hard to imagine you are in the city center.
Day 6 – Chengdu (15th Sept)
We arrive in Chengdu at 2 pm and are met by our guide Louie. She takes us straight to our hotel (the Tibet), which is the nicest one so far and has a simply stunning bathroom. We have a lazy afternoon before Louie collects us in the evening to take us out to a hotpot restaurant. Hotpot is a big thing in this province and it’s a “must-do” and I enjoyed it so much that I think everyone needs it on their food bucket list. You sit at your table and in the middle is a gas burner, they bring you a huge cooking pot with two basic ‘soups’ in. The middle container is the hot soup and in the outside container is the mild soup. They then give you various plates of food with meat, veg, and other unmentionables (which are optional for wimpy adventureless tourists!) and you dip it into the pot and cook it at your table. We are the only Westerners in the place and I feel like I’ve had my first ‘proper’ Chinese meal.
Day 7 – Chengdu (16th Sept)
After breakfast, we head off to the Panda research center, which was our top bucket list reason for coming to Chengdu. They have a breeding program there and we were lucky enough to see a tiny 2-week-old cub in the nursery. Altogether there were 4 cubs in the incubators, plus more being nursed by their mothers which you could watch on the webcams. After that, we went to the main enclosure and I was amazed at how close we were to them. I’d sort of expected them to be in the distance but they weren’t. One of them was asleep over a beam but the other two were quite active.
The undisputed star of the show though was JinJin, who has just had her first birthday and is going to one of the symbols of the Beijing Olympics. She was really lively and was playing with her keeper. I was so lucky as we got there just when a VIP party was being allowed over to meet her and Louie arranged for me to go over. You have to wear plastic baggies etc. to protect her but I was allowed to touch her – her fur felt thick and coarse. The keeper took some great pictures with my camera. It was an unexpected and thrilling experience. They also have some red pandas there which are much more cat-like.
After a fantastic morning, we went to the Wenshu Monastery and had a brilliant veggie lunch where some of the vegs were ‘fake’ meat. It was all beautifully presented. There is also a great teahouse there and we just had to stop by as by now we were really into Chinese tea. Tea houses are very popular gathering places and people will spend many hours in there with their friends drinking tea and playing cards or mahjong or gossiping. You can also have your ears cleaned and so we just had to try it. The guy was most amused that some tourists wanted to have a go. It’s a strange feeling – he has lots of different implements ranging from one that looks like a Qtip to one that resembles a mini-screwdriver. It’s not unpleasant and your hearing is fantastic afterward.
Day 8 – Guilin (17th Sept)
Up at 4.30 am for our flight to Guilin. We arrive at the hotel (Guilin Bravo) at just after 9 am and amazingly they have arranged for a room to be ready for us in case we needed a rest, which is a lovely touch. We arrange to meet our guide, Ding Ding, at 2 pm and she takes us to the Reed Flute Cave, which is stunning. I can honestly say that to date, it’s the best cave I’ve ever been in. The formations inside were just fantastic and there were lots of underground pools where the reflections were amazing. Afterward, we climb up Fubo Hill for some sights of the city. Back at the hotel, we have a swim to cool down as it’s very hot.
The area around Guilin is beautiful, what I would call classic China.
After dinner, we walk around the lake, which is all lit up. Along the way, there is a fountain display in part of it and a pagoda jutting out into the water where there is a Chinese opera. A pleasant way to let our dinner digest.
Day 9 – Li River / Yangshou (18th Sept)
After an early breakfast, we catch a boat for a half-day cruise on the Li River. Only one word will describe this and it’s WOW! The scenery is stunning – it really feels like the stuff you see on TV. It sounds cliché but it’s true. Lovely peak mountains, bamboo, water buffalo, and fishermen. I could have spent all day onboard.
We have lunch on board and afterward are offered snake wine – yes it really is a large flagon with lots of dead snakes in it. Needless to say with my phobia of them, I passed!
We arrived in Yangshou at about 1:30 pm and had a wander around the town then Ding-Ding took us into the countryside in an electric buggy. The roads are really rickety and I spend the whole ride with a huge smile on my face. We saw people working the fields in the way that they’ve done for hundreds of years and stopped off at a traditional farmhouse for a look around. The couple were elderly and made us feel right at home. They seemed really pleased to be showing some Westerners about how they lived.
The old lady showed me how to peel peanuts the ‘right’ way amid much laughing and her husband was a complete nutter who put on an impromptu display of his strength by picking up some stone weights.
Back in town we spent a pleasant few hours by the lake and saw a cormorant fisherman who said we could take his picture for 5rmb but when we gave him 10 he really started showing off and got all his birds to perform.
We’d asked Ding Ding to get us some tickets for a lake show called Impressions that had been recommended by 2 girls we’d met at the Wenshu Monastery and we weren’t disappointed. The show is directed by Zhang Yimou who directed Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I’ve never seen anything like it – there are 800 performers and the whole set floats on the river. The backdrop is the limestone mountains, the costumes and lighting were great. So what if we couldn’t understand the language? It didn’t spoil our enjoyment one bit and it was a great end to a fantastic day.
Guilin and Yangshou are good for the soul – it’s very peaceful and you can feel yourself winding down when you are there.
Day 10 – traveling (19th Sept)
We have a nice lie-in as our flight to Shanghai is not until the afternoon so we are completely chilled out by the time we leave Guilin. Unfortunately, we get to the airport to find that our flight is delayed so we don’t get to Shanghai until around 7 pm.
When we meet our guide Chris who takes us to the hotel and as it’s late when we arrive so we check-in, unpack, order room service, and chill out.
Day 11 – Shanghai (20th Sept)
After a fabulous buffet breakfast, we visit the Jade Buddha Temple. It’s very nice but there is a family in there having a memorial for a dead relative and it feels a little intrusive. We visit the old town and have a wander through there to the Yuyuan Garden. It’s a world away from the high-rise sprawl of the city – there are beautiful trees, rock gardens, and ponds.
After lunch, we spend a few hours in the Shanghai Museum before heading back to the hotel to spruce up before our evening out at an acrobatics show. The show was brilliant. We’ve never seen anything like it – the girls seemed to made out of rubber, they could bend anyway, anyhow! Spinning plates, flying on silk ropes, and various balancing acts made it a night to remember but the real jaw-dropper was the finale of a huge steel ball and several nutters on motorcycles. It started with one inside the ball, going fast and upside down, then his mate got in and so did someone else. They just kept appearing. All in all, they had six riders there is one point. It was amazing.
Day 12 – Shanghai (21st Sept)
Today we visited the Bund and honestly, I couldn’t see what the attraction was. Yes, there are some nice buildings there but it’s nothing I haven’t seen in Newcastle. In my opinion, it’s nothing special.
What is special though is the sightseeing tunnel from the Bund to the Pearl TV Tower. It’s an underground funicular with small pods, that is a fun, light-filled way to cross the river. There are lots of weird lights and figures, it’s really unusual. The view from the top (350 meters) of the Pearl Tower is somewhat spoilt by the smog but you do get a good view of all the boats on the river.
After taking the sightseeing tunnel back over we walk up Nanjing Road, supposed to be great for shopping, and I hate it instantly. It’s crowded and I hate being approached every 2 minutes by a stranger asking if I want to buy a watch or a fake handbag. We don’t stay very long and catch a taxi back to the hotel.
Day 13 – Suzhou (22nd Sept)
Day trip to Suzhou, famous for its waterways and gardens.
We visit the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which is very crowded. In between the people you can see that the garden is lovely and is carefully set out to make it look bigger than it actually is.
We spend some time on the canal, which was quite interesting seeing all the little villages around the waterways, most of which have direct access to the water.
After lunch, we went to the Pan Gate. The garden here is much more serene than the one we saw this morning with various waterfalls and covered walkways and simply huge coy carp. We spend a good half an hour feeding them and it’s very therapeutic.
In the interior gatehouse, we have a go at archery using the old-style bow and arrow and end up with a huge audience of giggling Chinese tourists on the battlements above!
Day 14 – Hong Kong (23rd Sept)
The day I have been looking forward to all holiday has arrived – we are off to the Peninsula in HK. We decided to really splash out and have some luxury after all our tours. Stupidly like a little kid on Christmas morning I’ve been awake ages…..
The flight takes off on time and the transfer service by Rolls Royce to the hotel is fabulous, especially in the humid heat. I feel like royalty. We are met at the door by our own personal check-in clerk and it all runs very smoothly. She notices that we are not leaving until the evening on the 27th and tells us that we can use the spa changing facilities to freshen up which is a nice touch. We are shown to our room (which is gorgeous), the luggage is delivered promptly, and before I’ve even had time to unpack the doorbell goes and it’s our floor attendant with some tea for us.
After unpacking we head for a wander around the Pen’s shopping arcade and then up Nathan Road for a spot of shopping.
While walking we keep thinking it’s spitting on to rain but eventually realize it’s the air con units above us!
Back at the hotel, we chill out for a couple of hours and then get dressed for dinner. We head up nearby Ashley Road and come across a place called La Taverna. After all the Chinese food I am craving something more ‘Western’. The food was absolutely delicious and quite reasonable for 3 courses and 2 half bottles of wine. Part of the experience was a visit to the loo – you had to go out of the restaurant and down an alley into some rather clean but completed unattached toilets!
After dinner, we stop off at Mes Amis for a couple of drinks before getting back to the hotel at around midnight. In between time someone has been to the room to provide a turndown service complete with bottled Evian and slippers by the bed. They have even replaced the towels we’d used only once. This I could get used to…
Day 15 – HK (24th Sept)
We have a blissful lie-in, read the complimentary Sunday papers delivered to our room, and head out about 11 am.
We caught the ferry over the central and had brunch at a great place called Jaspas on Staunton St (no 28-30). I’d highly recommend it. The weather was quite clear when we’d set off but it clouded over and began to rain so we didn’t go up the Peak as planned. Instead, we wandered around Sheung Wan. Upper Lascar Road is a gem of a find. We spent ages rooting around the colorful market stalls and bric-a-brac shops and enjoyed the bartering for the prices.
By the time we got back to the hotel, it was 4 pm so we decided to be very cliché and take afternoon tea in the lobby and nipped upstairs to change into something a bit more presentable. The queue was really quite long but the lovely thing is that if you are staying there you get priority so we got shown to a table very quickly. Tea for 2 is $340 and you get egg and cress and ham finger sarnies, scones with jam and cream, various mini pastries and petits fours, and mini tiramisu in a cup. There are various teas to choose from and you get endless refills. It’s all beautifully presented and the silver service is very nice. It’s a great atmosphere sitting in such opulent surroundings with a string quartet playing.
In the evening we head up to Felix bar for a drink and the view. I have to say I found it a huge disappointment. We were shown to the bar area to the right and upstairs and it’s quite a bizarre shape. You feel like you are on a ship as it’s slightly tilted. The seating is all style and no substance and because of the blinds on the windows, it’s not a clear view of the harbor.
We don’t linger and instead head up to Mes Amis as that bar had a nice atmosphere.
Day 16 – Lantau Island (25th Sept)
The weather is much improved today. We decide to eat in the hotel and go to the Verandah restaurant for breakfast. It once would have had a great view of the harbor but it’s now somewhat obscured by the awful convention and exhibition center they have built over the road. It’s a truly awful building. The breakfast isn’t cheap but it is lovely. A great choice of fresh fruit, cereals, whatever you want to be cooked, breads, pastries, meats, etc. The room is very colonial looked and feels quite regal – that is until a certain someone got her toast stuck in the toaster and the place was filled with an awful burning smell. How embarrassing!
We caught the ferry back to central and then caught the connecting ferry to Lantau Island. If you’re going to do a day trip then I’d recommend this one. Once we got off the ferry we caught the number 2 bus up to the Po Lin Monastery at Ngong Ping. The monastery is very pretty and one of the best I’ve seen this trip. The monastery is overlooked by the Big Budda. At 110 feet it’s the largest outdoor bronze Buddha in the world and is awesome. From up there you can see for miles and the island seems a world away from the cityscape of HK.
We stopped for a drink and then wandered through the new Ngong Ping tourist village to the Skytram, which opened the day we arrived. Catch it back down to Tung Chung and you’ll get a great view of the island and the Kowloon peninsula on your way down. Don’t forget to look behind you for that last look at the buddha – he’s very imposing. At Tung Chung, we catch the MTR back to Tsim Sha Tsui and wander over to take some pictures of the harbor.
This evening was the ‘special’ meal I had booked. We went to Aqua (29th floor, 1 Peking Road) and it was a perfect evening. Our table had a great harbor view and when the light show kicked off at 8 pm we had a front-row seat. The service and food were fantastic. The menu was eclectic and everything beautifully presented. If you want somewhere for a memorable meal go here. The perfect end to the perfect day.
Day 17 – Macau (27th Sept)
We manage to sleep late again today and head out for breakfast at nearby Starbucks before catching the ferry to Macau. The catamaran over there is really comfortable with airline-style seats and I actually manage to nod off on the hour-long journey.
There’s a walk in the Time Out guide, which sounds interesting (market, basilica, fort, and Portuguese architecture) so we stop at the tourist info stand to pick up a map before leaving the ferry terminal. It starts from the hotel Sintra, there are free shuttle busses from the terminal but as we aren’t staying there we can’t use it so we decide to walk there.
It doesn’t look far on the map but turns out to be a complete nightmare. There is a huge amount of building work going on as they are building up the casinos there and lots of the roads we need to walk on inaccessible.
It takes us an hour to get to the hotel. It’s hasn’t been a pleasant stroll with all the inconvenience and by this time we are a bit grumpy and hungry. So much so that we see a MacDonalds and walk right in (something I’d never do at home).
After food and a rest, we start again. We begin the walk-in Senate Square which is a lovely large space often used for festivals that are surrounded by pretty buildings. We walk up the market, which is very colorful.
Near the top, we see some rather strange items for sale which look like different kinds of meat jerky but smell strangely sweet. Eventually, we reach the ruins of St Paul’s, which is a façade that’s all that is left of the church that used to be there after a fire in the 1800s. Directly above that is the fort but truthfully it’s not worth the climb as the view from the top is really uninspiring.
We walk back to the square and catch a taxi back to the ferry. If I’m honest I wouldn’t recommend Macau, we felt like we’d wasted a day. Interestingly enough we saw two couples, who had been on the same ferry as over, waiting to come back. Like us, they’d only stayed 4 hours and wished they’d stayed in HK.
That evening we try dinner at a local Indian restaurant that had been recommended to us. It was very nice and there were a lot of local Indians eating there, which is always a good sign.
Day 18 – HK (27th Sept)
We make the most of our final morning in the Pen by going to the gym and the fab swimming pool. We take our time with our showers and packing. Check out is noon and we leave the room at 1:.50 am, reluctantly, like two kids being told to do something they don’t want to.
We check out, store our luggage, and catch the ferry to central. It’s a beautiful hot, clear day and we take the 15c bus up to the Peak tram. The tram is very steep in places so much that so that you almost feel you are lying down.
The views of the harbor from the Peak are stunning. The wind is refreshing in the oppressive heat. Some Chinese ladies next to us start singing and put on a show. They have beautiful voices.
After a late lunch, we take a stroll around the Peak via Luggard Road. It’s not as steep as the shorter direct route and is a tree-lined walk that keeps us cool in the worst heat of the day. There are some lovely views and rather bizarrely the odd stopping point for exercise (parallel bars, push-ups, monkey bars, etc).
Back over Kowloon, we stop for ice cream and then spend an hour and a half in Kowloon Park. We go back to the hotel at 6:30 pm to get showered and changed. Spruced up and ready for our flight we go back to the lobby for a snack and spend a couple of being waited on hand and foot for the last time.
We both feel depressed at leaving – the Pen has really lived up to its reputation and we really don’t want to go. Our limo picks us up promptly at 9 pm and we are whisked off to the airport. Upon arrival, we are met by a little man who shows us to our check-in desk. A nice final little touch.
Of all the big cities we stayed in HK was my favorite. Maybe it was comforting that they drive on the same side, maybe it was the luxury of the Pen, maybe it was the variety of restaurants but we will be back someday. I would certainly recommend China for your top bucket list adventure – it’s a big, diverse country with many interesting things to see. I feel like we only scratched the surface during our visit