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Going on Tour

chinaI was jet-lagged and disappointed, on arriving into Beijing in the cold and rain, crossing the congested, grey city at a snails pace on the first of many bus journeys alongside my new miss-matched companions. But this was to be altogether a different holiday experience from my usual independent adventures. But how else to visit China with a time restriction...??? Such a huge country, with an even larger language hurdle and so much to see in far flung corners of it. I would swallow my traveller's pride and GO ON TOUR.

The inviting price of this trip kept catching my eye as it popped up on my screen whilst working, seemingly calling to me. The first time I ignored it, but each other time my resistance weakened. One day I snapped, dragging a friend into it with me. We would go to China - the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, the Yangtze River cruise, Shanghai...

I was nervous about travelling en-masse. I have circumnavigated the world more than once with myself at the helm. So I kept my expectations low - from there you can't be disappointed.

wetWe were unlucky actually. We were travelling under a dark cloud - it rained in every destination - and many shivered in inappropriately light clothing (the forecast had been very different) and several of us got stinking colds - lead by me!  Our guide did say that he had only hosted 3 trips with such bad weather in 18 years! But his warmth and good humour worked wonders. (We love you Sharp!)

There were early alarm calls and long periods of time on a bus, brisk excursions amidst a constant crowd, canteen-like meals, and scheduled factory visits in the hope we would buy jade, pearls, silk, cashmere and ming pottery at great expense. (My resolve did slip on a cashmere scarf I admit!)

But despite all that I couldn't help enjoying myself. I think, as a natural traveller, I just like being on the move. And because my life at home is hectic and I am the key organiser in that, I really enjoyed being told what to do for a change. The logistics of the travel ran perfectly - we took planes and a bullet train but most days we spent hours on a bus. Even short distances was slow in traffic. But I fell asleep each time so quite enjoyed even that! Of course it would have been better if we had views from the windows but the rain and smog put paid to that. I do have a sensation of having passed through China in a tunnel.

fishdumplingThe meals were trickier. We filed into large establishments with round tables and sat with others on our group. I was shocked at how so many of my fellow companions were so difficult to communicate with. I had thought I was good at connecting with people! The meals were spicier than we normally expect from Chinese food, and except for special dinners of dim sum (dumplings) and Peking Duck, the food was pretty much the same throughout. Sweet and sour chicken, egg rice, tasty aubergine, mushrooms, sliced pork, leafy veg...I didn't mind it, but I did feel sorry for the vegetarians in our group who had boiled veg and white rice for 2 weeks. We weren't confronted with rat, cat or snake thankfully, which are apparently more commonly eaten in Southern China. Sucking on a chicken foot or duck tongue is a delicacy but I couldn't face either I'm afraid so I can't report back on that.

Thankfully we did make some friends and our little group would meet in the evening for a laugh over a beer. There was plenty of time to sleep it off on the bus afterall! There weren't many opportunities to escape the group, but once we reached Shanghai we took off making the most of the views of the Bund and Pudong's highrises all lit up at night, eating out with a bit more flair than we'd got used to.

I didn't find China particularly cheap, although I'm sure it could be if you were travelling independently. We were shepherded around the tourist shops, trapped on a quality cruise ship or in a 5 star hotel (although I can't pretend I didn't enjoy that too).  However I did manage to buy some very cheap tack to bring home along the way. When buying in the street you need to barter hard! A regular meal out (not on the Bund!) would cost about a fiver, a large local beer was about £2 outside of the hotel, and taxis were about £10 for an hour. Other than that I can't really guide you on costs I'm afraid. Being on a tour is like being a child - everything is taken care of.

makingfriendsDespite the positives and negatives of travelling in a group, I enjoyed myself and saw a lot more of the important tourist attractions and cultural shows than I would have done had I gone solo. What I experienced less of was the man on the street, local life, going out in the evening (our hotels weren't central). And I did miss that I have to say. No one takes a lot of notice of foreigners in China these days (on the tourist trail at least) - except one day we did have a lovely experience meeting a school full of friendly children who treated us like we were famous - keen to practise their english and photography!

TO FOLLOW - Blogs about the destinations we visited - and hopefully some quirky properties in China to stay at now I have a good contact there!

I booked the trip through TravelBird. I may not have sold it very enthusiatically in places but it was well organised, action packed and extremely good value. If you surrender to the experience you will enjoy yourself. If you see a bit of sky along the way, all the more I'm sure.

It was purely bad luck that we had grim weather. October is supposed to be a good month to visit and there were mid-20s temperatures and sunshine the days either side of our stops. The summer is too hot and sticky and the winter horribly cold, so aim for Spring and Autumn and I hope you have better luck than us.