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Imperial China Tour, by Mary Levine

                                                CHINA – IMPERIAL TOURS – MARCH 2017

The trip of a lifetime! That is how my husband, Michael and I approached our trip to China with Imperial Tours.  And we were not disappointed.

We flew American Airlines, non-stop from Chicago to Beijing.  Beautiful plane, even in economy.  Comfortable seating, even in economy.  The staff, pleasant and helpful, even in economy. 

The timing of the flight was perfect.  We departed ORD at 330pm and arrived Beijing around 7pm, the next day. We were met, in true Imperial Tours style, at the plane and guided thru immigrations and customs. Then met our local guide and driver and were whisked away to the Peninsula Beijing.

Check-in was a breeze, in true Peninsula fashion. We dropped off our bags in the room – after oohing and awning our home for the next 3 nights, we met our group for dinner.  The food, wine and company was delightful. The perfect ending to a long journey.

After a filling breakfast, we joined our group for a full day of touring. The weather was amazing. We had 3 gorgeous days in Beijing – 60 degrees and sunny.  Where was the smog (in Shanghai)? Where were the 23 million inhabitants? A huge city yes, but I did not feel overwhelmed. And a clean city, too.

Imperial Tours likes to start the day early, before the crowds and congestion. Our China Host (an Imperial Tours exclusive feature) for the entire stay was Jamie Greenbaum, an Aussie with a wonderful personality and temperament (8 travel advisors and a companion is not an easy group). He was a gem. In addition to our China Host, we had a local guide in each city.  John, the Beijing local guide was personable, knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor. No question was denied.  We all had pre-conceived ideas of how the Chinese government operated in this communist country. 

In Beijing, we toured the Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square.  Each site was vast – encompassing many, many acres- and well taken care of.  I never felt overwhelmed with crowds which is a feat in of itself – 23 million inhabitants PLUS tourist!  This is one of the many reasons to travel with Imperial Tours.  Clients will enjoy the sights without being part of the masses.

Located next to the Summer Palace is the Aman Summer Palace Beijing.  The Aman is the only hotel that is anywhere near the Summer Palace.  Aman properties have a pedigree of great locations and understated luxury and the Aman Summer Palace was beautiful. The décor was Chinese but, modern and minimalist and inviting. After lunch we entered the Summer Palace like a next-door neighbor, through a side gate!

Dinner that night was Peking Duck!  The restaurant was walking distance to the Peninsula and frequented by the Chinese and tourist alike.  Most dinners in either restaurants or hotel dining rooms were served ‘family style’ and in China that includes a “Lazy Susan”.  It makes perfect sense and a great way to feed a group. The food was wonderful. Everywhere we dined, the food was delicious. All special food requirements were met, again not an easy feat for our China Host, Jamie or the restaurants. And just like back in the states, no matter how ‘full’ you are after eating Chinese food, you will be hungry after an hour or so!

Outside of Beijing is The Great Wall. Again, Imperial Tours knows the right way for their clients to experience the Wall.  Most tour companies will take clients to an entrance located about 45 mins. From Beijing.  And along with the short drive comes the hordes of tourist! This is when you feel like you are one in 20 million+.  Luckily, we had the complete opposite experience.  We rode in a very comfortable minibus, plenty of room to spread out and listen to John, our local guide give us a history lesson.  We also watched the movie, The Last Emperor in anticipation of our touring for the next day, the Forbidden City. 

When we arrived to the entrance to the Great Wall, we were the only vehicle in line.  There was no queue because we were the only group!  No crowds. Just sunny, blue skies and a Great Wall as far as the eye can see! We walked a bit to an outpost and there it was, lunch. Imperial Tours catered a lunch, white linens, china, and crystal under an open sky.  Did I mention there were no crowds, just our group of 20 and maybe 6 or 7 other tourists – and not American, Chinese tourist.  After lunch we hiked along the wall and then headed back to Beijing.  We could not be late for dinner!

The Rosewood Beijing, located in the central business district hosted dinner in their “Country Kitchen” dining venue after a site-inspection. The hotel is beautiful, very contemporary, lots of wood and warm colors.  The restaurant is an open-kitchen atmosphere and the food was amazing.

After dinner, a few of us were treated to the house car, a Tesla and joined one of the Imperial Tours staff for a drink at a local club. Yes, we were the oldest patrons but, had a great time being with the locals.

The next day we flew to Xi’an for 2 nights. The airport(s) are not intimidating when you have a China Host to send your luggage ahead and check-in the bags and obtain boarding passes for everyone. Also, Jamie was very clear in explaining the nuances of the check-in procedure for domestic flights within China.  Not the same as the USA. And frankly, without a China Host, I probably would still be waiting to board a plane!

For the next two nights, we were the guest of the Sofitel Legend Peoples Grand Hotel, Xian. A beautiful Art Deco design/interiors hotel, city center. A great location for exploring the area on foot during our free time in the early morning.

Our first night was ‘free’ and we explored a local ‘food court’, underground near the subway.  I won’t lie, a little intimidating because NO ONE spoke English!  We were the only ‘western’s’.  The Chinese were not fazed by our being there and did their best to help us make the right choices for dinner. Xi’an is known for their noodles and they are wonderful. Best part of eating local and not in an established restaurant…the next morning we all woke up feeling great. No one had any adverse reactions to the food.

I can’t say enough about the Terra Cotta Warriors – it’s a sight to behold.  It’s difficult to comprehend the massive undertaking to make the warriors and why is baffling, as well.  We also toured the Muslim Quarter/Market and Great Mosque.  In the evening, more wonderful food and a dumpling demonstration.

The next day was the Shaanxi Provincial Museum and lunch at the new Hyatt Regency.  I liked the location of the Hyatt – in a park with a lake and walking trails. Totally different than the Sofitel Grand which is good because it gives you a choice.

We then flew to Guilin and stayed 2 nights at the Banyan Tree Resort.  It was nice to be outside of a city with fresh air and beautiful surroundings.

We enjoyed a Bamboo Raft ride on Li River.  The scenery was a bit eerie with limestone mountains shrouded in fog and a light mist. The river is used by locals for washing their clothes and tourist on the rafts.    Once again, Imperial Tours provided the opportunity to be a tourist without the crowds.

After the raft ride we jumped on bicycles and toured the country side, making stops at several homes to view the local craftsman at work. The rice paddies were just starting to be worked for the season.

After lunch we went to a local market to shop and browse.

Dinner at the Banyan Tree restaurant was a ‘western’ style meal which we all enjoyed.  Chinese food is great but, not every meal/every evening. The last stop was Shanghai and what a difference from the countryside of Guilin to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. The next four nights we were the guest of the Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund.  The Peninsula Shanghai is beautiful, the best Peninsula I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying at. The style, design, service, food and location…all top notch.

Oh, as I mentioned Shanghai is where we encountered the smog.  I thought it was hazing in the morning and expected it to ‘burn off’.  Well, it just got thicker – with all the cars on the highways, of course it got worse.

We had a private tour about the Colonial History with an American from Baltimore.  He was very interesting and I would highly recommend his service in the future. The vibe in Shanghai is a combination of New York and LA – on steroids!

We visited the Puli Hotel for a site inspection and lunch.  This is a lovely boutique hotel in a great location.  We visited the Yu Gardens, the French Concession (my favorite part of the city) and saw an Acrobatics Show at the Ritz Carlton.  On our own, we had a private tour of the Jewish Quarter with an Israeli guide.

Imperial Tours gave us some free time to explore on our own which is a must.  We felt safe always.

In my opinion, this was a carefree, hassle free way to see China for the first time.  I think a China Host is valuable and would benefit everyone.  It’s not just about having someone to guide you in the right direction and lean on for all your needs.  Jamie is brilliant and gave us great insight to China that you would never know on your own. 

China in one word – fascinating! Don’t miss it, put it on your list, near or at the top!

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