I have done 4 tours with Intrepid Travel taking our Amateur Traveler listeners and readers to interesting places (Morocco, Cambodia, India, Africa). Here is the story of the first trip I took with them and why I like working with them. This was a trip to the highlights of China including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Terracotta Army.
Table of contents: ()
- Bus Tour
- China Highlights
- More China Photos
The idea for our China trip started with an email advertising a guided tour of China from another company. It looked like traveling to China would be much cheaper than heading the other direction to Europe again, especially from out here near San Francisco, California. The one catch was that the trip in the email would be your typical 40 person bus tour.
Our preferred way to travel is independently but we did not know if we were quite ready to visit China on our own. Even with having studied Chinese for a year in night school I never knew more than 200 Chinese characters and would be surprised if I remembered half of those today.
We had enough experience with bus tours from the first Amateur Traveler listener trip to Egypt to know what a big bus tour means – big groups, only eating at restaurants that can hold 40 people, looking at the world through bus windows and lots of stops at shopping opportunities (learn more at Traveling to Beijing, China with a Tour – Amateur Traveler Episode 187). So I started looking at alternatives and in the process came back to the IntrepidTravel.com site. I had been on their mailing list for some time. There were a number of things that I liked about what they were offering:
- They offered different levels of comfort. Personally, I don’t need to stay in a luxury hotel every night. I sleep with my eyes closed. I need a quiet clean room. The China Highlights trip we ended up booking was their middle level of comfort.
- Their trips were not fully structured but offered a lot of free time which sounded like a better fit for people like us who are used to traveling on our own or for people not quite ready to travel on their own.
- Their groups usually have a maximum number of 16 travelers.
- Because they have fewer people they can use more local transportation to get around.
The China Highlights trip is a 9 day trip to Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou, and Shanghai. I had been to Shanghai but not the other 3 destinations. My wife and son had not been in mainland China.
When we took the trip it was called China Express and ran in the opposite direction than it does now. We started in Beijing and ended in Shanghai.
We opted not to get the airport connection in Beijing but made our way on our own to the hotel. We arrived the day before the tour started to recover somewhat from jet lag. We booked the extra night in the same hotel through Intrepid to make things simple. In subsequent trips we have done with Intrepid we have paid for the airport pickup. While we know we can do it on our own, it is so easy to be greeted by someone with a sign with your name on it after a long flight.
We explored Beijing on our own that first day and had a wonderful time. We visited the Temple of Heaven complex ( a UNESCO World Heritage site) which was within walking distance from our centrally located hotel. We even met some very nice local art students from Xi’an who took us to a show they were having where we bought some of their “original” artwork.
That night we met Robert who was our tour leader. Robert was easily the best thing about the Intrepid Tour. Not only was he knowledgeable and incredibly nice but throughout the tour, he went out of his way to provide more than what was offered in the brochure. Within the first half-hour, Robert told us things like common scams in the area… like the one where people say they are local art students and sell knock-off artwork as “original” works which we had already fallen for.
One of the highlights of Beijing was the Great Wall. We drove a little further out to see the area of the Great Wall at Mutianyu which was awe-inspiring. In this area, the wall is reconstructed. It is also very very hilly. Rather than being the Great Wall of China, it is more like the Great Staircase of China. The Great Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We had a few options to get to the top of the wall. We could hike up or we could take the gondola which I think was a separate charge. We opted for the hike which was short but strenuous.
In addition to hiking down or taking the gondola, you could also take a toboggan ride down from the wall. Robert presented the different options and let people choose what worked for them. I opted for the toboggan with a few others from our group. Joan and Mike hiked back down. I think I made the right choice but see what you think. It was a faster way down and was much better on your knees. Joan was afraid that the toboggan would be unsafe but there were people posted every few feet encouraging you to watch your speed.
We visited Tiananmen Square which is still a center for gatherings in China. It is not a place for political discussions Robert advised us as the government is still very sensitive to what happened here in 1989. When we were there they were still set up for Golden Week which was just ending so there were large displays there for the holiday. There we also large, really large, display screens showing scenes of beautiful Chinese landscapes.
The Forbidden City
The forbidden city was made to impress people with the might of the emperor and it still has that effect on visitors. There are two parts of the Forbidden City. The first part is the public spaces where everything is large and imposing. It is filled with large halls where visiting dignitaries would be greeted culminating with the throne room.
The second part is where the imperial family actually lived. It is surprisingly modest. The emperor’s bedroom was no larger than ours. The Forbidden City is, of course, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We had time on our own to explore the city as well, which some guidance from Robert. We visited one of the major temples, the Lama Temple, and got out to an area by a lake where the restaurants were filled with American pop music but the crowd was all locals.
Although Robert was always our tour leader, Intrepid would sometimes provide a different tour guide for a different destination such as the terracotta warriors at Xi’an. We took the night train from Beijing to Xi’an but because it was close to the huge Golden Week celebration we were only able to get accommodations in the 2nd class night train.
Usually, this tour takes the nicer train car. Because of this I would try and avoid traveling around Golden Week or Chinese New Year. During Golden week it feels like the whole country is on the move as many people use that time to go back home and visit family. I would advise that it might be a good time to avoid as a tourist for that reason.
We were picked up a local bus driver and tour guide before visiting the famous terracotta warriors that date back to the 1st Dynasty in China. Surprisingly most of these warriors were broken into pieces by angry peasants, just a few years after their construction as the First “Dynasty” ended a few years into the reign of its second king. The warriors are, in effect, the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. They are also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Our local guide was also terrific, but she had us laughing when she said that she loved living in Xi’an and could never live in Shanghai or Beijing because Xi’an had that “small-town feel”. The population of Xi’an is 8 million people. Welcome to China.
Robert gave a quick tour of the Muslim quarter of this ancient city at the eastern end of the silk road, then we had time on our own to explore and sample some of the local cuisine which is quite different from the Chinese food that we know.
We also had time for those of us who were interested to walk the ancient city walls. As interesting as the terracotta warriors are, and they are fascinating, I loved the “smalltown” feel of Xi’an. The wall themselves date back to the 1300s and are on the tentative list to become a UNESCO World Heritage site in their own right.
This kind of flexibility is an essential part of the Intrepid approach. The whole group would see the major sites and then there would be discretionary time where the more bold would explore on their own while Robert might guide the more timid to their desired destination. We were technically on our own for most meals but often ate as a group since many restaurants could accommodate a group of 11.
Before we left Xi’an we stopped at a center for people with developmental disabilities that is supported by the charitable arm of Intrepid. Score so far, charities one, mandatory gift shop stops zero.
Master of the Nets Garden
Suzhou is known for its numerous gardens which like the sites we saw in Beijing and Xi’an are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We toured the Master of the Nets Garden. These are private walled spaces made by the leading officials of the city for their own enjoyment that are now a treasure for the public.
Another advantage of a group of only 10 people is that you can fit in 5-6 bicycle rickshaws or in 3 gondolas so we took a memorable ride through Suzhou’s traffic to the canals that cut through the old town.
Gondola Tour of the Canals
Suzhou has a number of canals that you can tour on a small gondola. Like in Venice a canal ride may include a serenade as ours did.
Shanghai has its gardens and teahouse from the Ming Dynasty but is in so many ways a thoroughly modern city. We stayed just off its main shopping street a quick walk from the Bund area which was the center of Shanghai in its colonial era. The Bund is across the river from the new skyscrapers of Pudong.
Robert polled the group as we arrived at the city and we rearranged our schedule to do a walking tour to orient us with the city the day of our arrival so that people could have more free time the second day. By this time we were comfortable finding restaurants on our own which always seem to have a picture menu with something vaguely like English for people like us who don’t read Chinese (see Chinglish Menus Items in Shanghai, China), catch a cab or public transportation. My son had learned enough Mandarin to say “no thank you” to the many street vendors which proved much more effective than the same phrase in English.
Ming Dynasty Gardens and Tea House
While much of Shanghai is new there is an area that is very popular with tourists that includes gardens (Yu Garden) and a tea house which date back to the Ming Dynasty (1500s). This area is surrounded by more modern buildings with shops that cater to tourists.
Shanghai Acrobatics Show
While in Shanghai, we attended the Shanghai Acrobatics show. The confidence that it takes to ride a motorcycle in the sphere of death is probably more than it takes to explore a country like China, but a tour like the China Highlights tour does not just show you the sites but also gives you more confidence as a traveler.
I had two different impressions after our tour. The first is that I think I would now have the confidence to travel to China on my own. The second was that I would certainly look at an Intrepid tour again. Even for confident travelers, sometimes it is awfully nice to have an Intrepid and a Robert looking out for you.
More China Photos
We have a number of Amateur Traveler podcast episodes about China to give you more information. For a contrast to this tour, you might check out the episode we did on Traveling to Beijing, China with a Tour – Episode 187 which talks more about what a big bus tour of Beijing would be like.