Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Our Beijing Tour: Planes, Trains and Rickshaws

(The Great Wall of China at Mitianyu)
Several of you have been asking about our mega trip over Christmas break, and since this was a long trip (for us, at least--21 days), it is much too long for one post, so I will begin with the end-Beijing. This was my favorite city, I suppose because of the history. Before we left, I researched quite a bit and also asked many people who had been there to share their experiences. Even though I was told it was better NOT to go with a tour company and NOT to take a hard sleeper train, I am quite pleased to report that we did indeed do both, and would do so again in a heartbeat! We were in Beijing for 3 days and 2 nights; the tour company we used was and they were very helpful. We had a private driver (with a large, comfortable, heated van) and a private English speaking guide who were both with us for the entire tour, picking us up at the airport and dropping us off at the train station, and taking us everywhere in between. The price included all this AND entrance into:

The Great Wall at Mutianyu (took the cable cars up and the sleds down)

Visit to a jade factory
(yep, the whole thing is made of jade)
A visit to a traditional Chinese Doctor, who "diagnosed" us for free (no pics allowed!)
The Summer Palace
(icy in winter)
The Temple of Heaven
Tian'anmen Square/Mao's Tomb
(the noticable difference between this and the Washinton DC Mall--no demonstrations)
The Forbidden City
The Olympic Bird's Nest and Watercube
An Acrobatic Show (no pics here either)
"The Legend of Kung-Fu" (this was outstanding, a combination opera/play/Kung-Fu Show)
A traditional Peking Duck Dinner
A rickshaw ride through a Hutong
Lunch in a local Hutong home (one of our favorite parts of the trip)
2 other meals in local restaurants (all meals, except breakfast, were included)

We had a say in the itinerary, since it was private. I looked at what the website suggested and only made a few changes, the biggest change being a trip to "The Wall" at Mutianyu rather than the 30-minute closer Badaling. I had heard there were less people and we wanted to sled down. (In retrospect, since it was about 40 below zero, I didn't really have to worry about tourists, but I was pleased with my choice, nonetheless, and the ride through the countryside was a plus.)

They also bought our train tickets home as soon as they were available and had them ready for us; this ensured that we were all in one room and was included in the price, and I didn't have to worry about buying tix the moment they went on sale. I've heard it can be tricky to get everyone in one room if you don't get them quickly, and it was nice not to have to worry about it.  Our hotel was free (I'll explain later). The total for 6 of us for all this was $1400 USD, and the train tix were about $500 of that, so take out $500 and it breaks down to about $50 per person, per day. Looking at the list of what we did, and considering the meals, I think this was certainly a fair price. The shows alone were absolutely marvelous, as was the food. Could I have arranged everything on my own for less? Probably. Would I have done so? I doubt it. I loved that we had this great itinerary all ready, an English speaking tour guide and a private van for just our family. It made my life very easy and I didn't have to stress about finding places, getting lost and buying tickets. Did they want us to purchase jade trinkets at the jade factory and herbs at the Chinese doctor? Sure. But we just said "No," and moved on. There wasn't any pressure. Our guide was a sweet 20-something named Yo-Yo.
(I look like a dork was soooooo cold...YoYo was adorable!)
She filled our heads with so many facts that we would never have known. We also never had to wait in line anywhere as Yo Yo would have the tix and wave us through to the front. In my opinion, it was worth every penny. The only other money I spent was for breakfast. The hotel provided free coffee and tea, and I walked about a  block to the supermarket and bought bottled juice, fruit and rolls; much cheaper than the hotel breakfast.

I booked our hotel online using American AAdvantage sign-on bonus points. The Radegast Lakeview Hotel is rated 5-stars, but surprisingly, it only used approxomately 9,000 points per night, so I was able to book two rooms for two nights, all for free! (Very few hotels let a family of 6 all stay in one room...)
(photo from trip advisor)
It was more on the outskirts of the city, and I had read that taxi drivers had a hard time finding it, but our tour guide and driver knew exactly where it was. The lobby was beautiful:
Radegast Hotel CBD Beijing - Lobby
(photo from agoda)

Our guide helped us check in, otherwise, the language could have been a barrier as the English was broken at best, though I'm sure we would have figured it out. I wanted to be sure that I wasn't charged, and it was nice to get that assurance! The rooms were spacious and clean and the bedding very comfy.

There was free wifi, a pool, free parking, several restaurants and a fitness center, though we only used the wifi. We had a nice view of the lake, and our last morning there, we crossed the street and stolled around the water's edge. We could see the Temple of Heaven at the other end of the lake. I'm sure it is beautiful in the spring with what appeared to be many cherry trees...though the snow and ice seemed to be a good fit for this gray city.
(the view out our window-the lake is right across the street)
The bathroom was very impressive, with a shower and separate tub. The toiletries included the usual soap, shampoo,conditioner and lotion, but there was also bottled water, a comb, a shaving kit and a toothbrush kit included.
The ride home in a "hard-sleeper" train was an experience unto itself! Many folks had warned us not to do this, since hard sleepers are 6 people to a (tiny) doorless room--three bunks to a side-- but since we are a family of 6, we knew we could have the car to ourselves, and privacy on this 22 hour ride from Beijing to Hong Kong wasn't a priority. It was everything we imagined it would be!! We were surrounded on both sides with people who apparently knew each other, as they were in the 24" hall talking, playing cards and eating outside--and sometimes inside-- our (doorless) room.
(kids on the top 4 bunks)

You have heard that mainland Chinese are not known for their manners? You heard correctly. Let's just say that we nick-named one "the gas man," and leave it at that! I suppose there are those who would not apprecaite this type of situation, but we were quite entertained.
(neighbors playing cards outside our door)
However, at 10 pm when the lights in the hall were shut off, everyone went in their rooms and settled down. We all slept very well. There was a restaurant car, and there we shared a meal with some great folks from South Africa who were back-packing through China. They ended up coming to our home in Hong Kong for a meal and a shower and I'm quite sure we will meet again. I doubt this would have happened on a plane.
All in all, we had a wonderful time in Beijing. Honestly, who doesn't want to say they've walked on The Great Wall of China??