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Cruising China on the Cheap

Despite having been a tour operator for over 40 years, tours are a subject I write about only infrequently now. But I believe our readers will enjoy learning about what is possible with a bit of luck and advance research. For years I wanted to visit mainland China, but I never made it any closer than Hong Kong. Consequently, I was perusing the numerous emails offering travel specials that I receive regularly hoping to find a bargain when, last spring, exactly what I was looking for surfaced.

This was a 15-day, end-of-season, fully-escorted program operated by the Sinorama Group, a Chinese-Canadian company based in Montreal. To be included were nine nights’ lodging at five-star hotels, a four-night cruise on the Yangtze River, motorcoach transportation, “step-on” city guides, all but a handful of meals, all admissions for a comprehensive sightseeing program, all tips for guides and drivers, airport transfers, a full-day high-speed train trip between Shanghai and Jingzhou, scheduled flights from Chongqing to Xi’an and Xi’an to Beijing, and round-trip air transportation from Seattle.

Now I’m going to tell you how this all turned out. First, there is absolutely no risk in booking with licensed Canadian tour companies, whose customers are covered by that country’s well-designed consumer protection program. The hotels were all excellent, and one, the brand-new Shanghai Baoshan Delta Hotel, was spectacular, even extending to the bathrooms’ heated toilet seats.  Our guides were quite good throughout, although occasionally spoken “Chinglish” was a bit difficult to comprehend, and our “national” guide, Mi Nan, was very attentive to detail. Sightseeing was outstanding, although, not unexpectedly, we were taken to about half a dozen erstwhile “factories” designed to encourage purchases by visitors. Food was plentiful and generally tasty, so everyone was well fed.

Our Yangtze ship, Sinorama Gold 3, was attractive, and cabins — all with balconies — were spacious and most comfortable. The round-trip air turned out to be nonstop on Delta 767s, not on some off-brand carrier. And our English-speaking group numbered only 18 agreeable souls. The entire trip was well organized, and the late November/early December weather was mostly good. There was a fair amount of haze or fog, which sometimes limited visibility in southern China and on the Yangtze River, but there was no pollution in the Beijing area, the trade-offs for clear skies and sunshine being chilly temperatures and fresh breezes. The only cold and windy place was at the Great Wall, although the day itself was sunny and bright.

Other memorable sightseeing included city tours and attractions in all the cities noted above, plus the Yangtze’s magnificent Three Gorges, the massive Three Gorges Dam project, the pandas and other critters in the Chongqing Zoo, the Terra Cotta Warriors, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. Surprises included hundreds if not thousands of high-rise apartment buildings of 40 stories and more everywhere, sprawling cities with many millions of inhabitants, monumental traffic jams, and countless luxury stores and shopping facilities.

Here’s the biggest surprise, though: The total price of this package, round trip from Seattle, was $1,399. I spent about $90 additional for incidentals like soft drinks, bottled water, snacks, the meals not included, and gratuities, and, of course, I had to get a Chinese visa.

So keep your eyes open: Deals like this one are out there to be claimed by the diligent.