We recently took a trip to China. Definitely a bucket list item. It was a spur of the moment Groupon Travel junket, and I had a hard time convincing our travel partners that this was a legitimate tour, given the incredible price. It all checked out, though, so we booked it nearly a year ago.
It seemed to take forever for the departure date to get close, then all of the sudden it was here and we scrambled to get everything ready. There were a few last minute issues, but overall, the 30+ hours of travel each way and the in-country movement was pretty pain free.
Our trip included the Great Wall (Rick's #1 destination), the Forbidden City (my #1), the giant Buddha, canal and lake tours, lecture and shopping at the Herbal Institute, tea plantation, and factories for jade, silk, and fresh water pearls, and jaunts around the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Wuxi, Suzhou, and Hangzhou.
The Forbidden City turned out to be a disappointment. While all the magnificent buildings and carved stones and gardens were there, the buildings themselves had been stripped empty and were just there. After seeing movies and reading about what was there in the past, it was sad to see all those people just milling about in the huge courtyards or sitting and talking in these ancient, empty shells.
The Great Wall was amazing, but note to self (and anyone who goes) if you're going to hike the wall, hit the stair-steppers at the gym for at least a couple months, every day, on the toughest setting, first - at least if you want to be able to go down stairs without groaning the week after your hike. The stairs are uneven, from maybe an 8" lift to up to 20" and it's really hard on your legs to have that unevenness, on top of how steep the climb is. We were told the reason they were uneven was so any invading army that got on the wall wouldn't be able to attack in unison - they'd be tripping and falling over each other if they tried - and I'd say it would be very effective in that!
The giant Buddha was quite a sight, but even more so was the Buddhist Temple nearby. If you don't find yourself wandering in circles staring at the ceiling in wonder, there is something seriously wrong with you. The artwork, detail, variety, etc. is just incredible. I've never seen anything like it, and while I've never been to the Vatican, I'd have to think the temple could rival anything there. It's just stunning.
We spent more than we should on things to bring home, but since it's highly likely this is the only time we'll ever be in China, I don't regret any of that.
We also had great guides. Most in their 30s, I'd guess. And while the trip is heavily subsidized by the Chinese government to draw out-of-country travelers, their spiels were surprisingly candid and not at all one-sided. One of the best comments was "the people are not the government." After seeing the VERY over-the-top "conspicuous consumption" displayed, especially in Shanghai, I worry that they will become a country of the 1% and the 99%, because there didn't appear to be much of a middle class, and there is definitely a group of ultra-rich.
The whole tour was a real eye-opener as far as what we expected and what we found. And yes, the tour is designed for us to see what they want us to see, but they couldn't have made the people in the streets smile at each other, wave and want to be in photos with us, etc. in every odd spot we decided to stop along the way. The people seem happy. The country is incredibly clean. And their landscaping is fantastic (yes, I know, they have lots of people to take on these jobs at what is likely subsistence wage). Based on the stories the guides told of the horrors of their grandparent's life compared to the relative comforts of their current lives, I can understand why they are pretty happy right now.
I hope the leaders of China make more changes to help better the lives of their billion+ residents, and not just a few at the top, and they realize that just cleaning up the cities foreigners see, and moving their polluting business further from the eyes of the world, won't be enough in the end.
I can hope.