Ten cities in 20 days — a delightful custom tour of China

By Marcia Brandes, Atlanta, GA
This article appears on page 18 of the February 2014 issue.
Panorama of Shanghai.

Marcia Brandes; Atlanta, GA

China has a geographic footprint about the same size as that of the United States, but it is home to four times as many people. While planning my 2013 trip, I knew I couldn’t expect to see the whole of the country in only three weeks, however, after reading the Eyewitness Travel Guide “China,” I knew there were certain sights I didn’t want to miss: the Great Wall, away from most of the tourists; the grottoes with their Buddha carvings; the rice terraces; the Li River karst formations; the Yellow Mountains, and Shanghai. 

Making plans

I couldn’t find any tours that visited all of these locations, so I had to put together my own itinerary. I decided to work with a travel agent in China, which turned out to be very easy. 

I contacted China Odyssey Tours (Guilin, China; 800/773-0862), which had an informative website and excellent reviews. Susan Su worked with me over the space of several months to fine tune my itinerary. Not only was she very helpful with her suggestions, she was willing to book some hotels that I specifically requested. (I also specified “No shopping tours.”) 

We corresponded by email and spoke via Skype. 

The cost of the 20-day tour for my husband, Steve, and myself was CNY44,984, or approximately $7,500. This did not include our flights to and from Beijing, two transfers that I arranged on my own and tips for the guides and drivers.

Steve and I visited 10 cities during our September trip. All booked through China Odyssey, our transportation needs were met with three domestic flights, three train trips (including two overnight trains), a 5-hour boat trip, an express bus ride and the use of a number of private vans. We also used the Beijing subway extensively on our own. 

All of our hotels were booked by China Odyssey, but meals, except for breakfasts, were our own responsibility. 

Getting settled

We arrived in Beijing at about 9:30 a.m., cleared Customs easily and quickly and found the queue for the taxis. It’s easy to get a taxi to your hotel if you have the hotel name written in Chinese characters, and be sure to have the phone number, too! 

Our trip to the Days Inn Forbidden City cost 107 yuan ($17.50). Be sure your taxi has a meter and the driver doesn’t charge a “fixed price” to your hotel.

The Days Inn is a 3-star hotel and is not fancy. The carpet was dingy and worn, and the room was small. However, there was a king-sized bed and a reasonably sized bathroom with a nice walk-in shower and big, fluffy towels. 

I had heard that beds in China are very hard, but I did not find ours uncomfortable, and the pillows were good. 

The room rate included breakfast, which turned out to be excellent. A well-stocked buffet offered Chinese and American dishes, including dumplings, bacon, sausage, potato cakes, noodles, corn on the cob (!), pastries, fruit, cereal and juices, and there was even an omelet station. We usually ate a combination of both types of food. Who knew stir-fried cauliflower could be so good for breakfast?

The best thing about the Days Inn was its location, just three blocks from Tiananmen East subway station. During our stay in Beijing, we walked to the Forbidden City and visited the Lama Temple, the Drum Tower, the Temple of Heaven, numerous hutongs (traditional neighborhoods crossed by narrow alleys) and the Summer Palace, all by taking the subway. 

It was very easy. All the signs were in English as well as in Chinese, and the cost was only 33¢ per ride! You can even download a good subway map from the Internet and plan your route in advance.

Beijing dining

On our first night there, we walked to the Siji Minfu restaurant to enjoy Peking duck, a dish that originated in this city. The ducks used for this dish are a special breed; it is not just the preparation that accounts for the name. 

View of the Yellow Mountains.

In our hotel room we connected to Google maps via WiFi, plugged in the address of the restaurant and got easy walking directions. It was only six blocks away. 

We arrived about 6 o’clock and were seated immediately. By the time we left at 7, there was a line of people waiting. 

The total bill, including beer for Steve and wine for me, was 296 yuan, or about $50. This was three times as much as we paid for dinner at most of the places we ate at in China, but it was a special meal.

For our last night in Beijing, I had made reservations at the Black Sesame Kitchen (phone +86 1369 1474408), located in a small home in one of the hip hutongs. 

The menu was fixed and included 10 courses plus beverages (wine, beer, soft drinks and water). 

We started with pan-fried pork and pumpkin dumplings, which were wonderful. The next courses were fried shiitake mushrooms; beef with black beans; five-flavored eggplant; red braised pork belly; wok-fried string beans; garlic broccoli; wild rice stems, and spicy chicken, in that order. The last dish on the menu was a delectable candied banana with black sesame ice cream. Heavenly!

Although each course is eaten separately and is by no means a full plate, it is still necessary to pace oneself. 

The meal cost us CNY300 apiece, payable only in cash. Most of the diners were foreigners, so I don’t think this is a typical Beijing restaurant, but it was a delightful experience.

The Great Wall

The only time we used a guide in Beijing was on our second day, for our visit to the Great Wall at Jinshanling. This area is 120 kilometers north of Beijing. There are several accessible areas much closer to the city, but I wanted to be away from the crowds and the vendor booths. 

Just getting out of the city, itself, took quite a while, close to an hour. The traffic was terrible, even on a Saturday morning. Once out of the city traffic, the multilane highway was smooth going, and we reached the wall in another hour.

The weather was perfect — warm, with a bright-blue sky and a few fluffy clouds — even though it had been murky in Beijing. We took the cable car up to the start of the wall, figuring there would be plenty of climbing once we were there. 

There were a few tourists, but it was not crowded. The stairs were quite a climb; good, sturdy shoes are a must. Several watch towers were available to climb as well.

There was one annoying problem. Two very persistent salesladies with bags of very overpriced souvenirs insisted on walking beside us, hawking their wares. I let myself be pushed into buying a purse for 100 yuan; I later saw the same purse in town for 15 yuan. Don’t be pressured by vendors there.


Because the distances in China are considerable, I wanted to do most of our traveling from city to city at night to leave as much time as possible during the day for sightseeing. We took an evening flight from the smaller Nanyuan Airport in Beijing to Datong, in Shanxi Province. 

Students painting by the lake in Hongcun.

Our 36-minute flight was over three hours late taking off. We had to check our main suitcases, even though they were legal carry-on size, because China does not allow any liquids at all in carry-on luggage on domestic flights. They also have a weight limit of 11 pounds per carry-on per person. Fortunately, no one ever weighed my backpack.

We were met at the airport by the guide and driver arranged by China Odyssey. 

After reading reviews, I had specified a stay at the Garden Hotel. There was lovely art in the lobby, and our room had a king-sized bed, lots of lighting and a bathroom with both a tub and a walk-in shower. 

It was a 4-star hotel — quite a change from the Days Inn. There was fresh fruit in the room and even a clothesline and detergent for washing clothes by hand.

Why were we in Datong? Because I wanted to see the Yungang Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands of Buddhas were carved into the rocks in the fifth and sixth centuries. Only a few of the 252 caves are open to visitors, but there are enough to make it an amazing experience. 

These grottoes are only a few miles outside of Datong. The carvings vary from a few inches in height to over 70 feet tall. Photos are permitted in all but the oldest caves.

After the grottoes, we visited the Huayan Temple, dating from the Liao and Jin dynasties. Most of the buildings have been reconstructed, but the complex is one of the last remaining from that time. 

In one of the temples, a monk handed me some incense sticks, so I went ahead and burned them. I figured I’d have to pay something, and, sure enough, he then escorted me over to a table where an old man showed me a visitors’ book where people each wrote their country of origin and the amount they were “donating.” 

He wanted 100 yuan. I shook my head and offered him 40, then wrote that amount down in the book. Our guide told us later that he probably added another zero to make people think that was how much they should pay. He said 20 yuan would have been sufficient.

That night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant. They had an impressive menu, with many exotic dishes such as donkey, fish lip soup and braised ox penis with garlic. We ordered something simple that we could recognize, and it was delicious. 

During our stay in China we enjoyed almost every meal we had. At one point we ordered chicken soup and it came with a whole, uncut chicken in the bowl!

Temple visits

The next day we went to the Hanging Temple, about a 1½-hour drive from Datong. Located at the foot of Mt. Heng, this wooden structure, built about 1,500 years ago, clings precariously to the side of a cliff. 

Caves carved into the side of the mountain make up the rooms and passageways, and bridges connect the different halls. In ancient times, it was also used as an inn to house travelers crossing the region. The rooms are cantilevered over the side of the cliff by beams inserted into the rock walls of the mountain.

We also stopped to see the Ying Xian Wooden pagoda, the oldest completely wooden pagoda in China. Then we drove to Pingyao, another five hours away. Fortunately, the highway was broad and uncrowded. 

I was amazed to see fields of corn and sunflowers. You would have thought you were in Kansas. 

Dancers at the Tang Dynasty Show in Xi’an.

Before we entered Pingyao, in a village close by we visited Shuang Lin, also called the Double Forest Temple, another World Heritage Site. There has been a temple on the site for the last 2,700 years, although most of what is left dates to the Qing dynasty. Housed inside are over 2,000 clay sculptures from the 12th to 19th centuries. The quality of the sculptures showed a great deal of artistry and finesse.


Pingyao Ancient Village is considered to be China’s best-preserved walled town. The walled area comprises one square mile and is closed to vehicles, except for those owned by the inhabitants, until after 7:30 p.m. The village, itself, dates back 2,700 years, and the current layout, said to be in the shape of a turtle, was established in 1370. 

Ming and Qing streets are the main thoroughfares, each lined with shops and restaurants and closed to automobiles. Many of the structures have been preserved from ancient times, and others have been built to retain that appearance. 

Although Pingyao is not on the itineraries of many Western travelers, it is so popular in China that the crush of tourists actually threatens some of the ancient structures. Also, from what we observed, the very murky air caused by burning coke for heat is eating away at the stonework.

We visited two temples in Pingyao: the Taoist temple and the Confucian temple. We also made a stop at the first private bank in China, the Ri­­shengchang bank, founded in 1823. 

We then had a tour of a small furniture museum and the bodyguard museum. Before the rise of banks, bodyguards versed in the martial arts were hired to protect important people and businesses, especially when money was being transported. Pingyao is still a center of martial arts learning.

In Pingyao we stayed in an 18th-century courtyard house, the Yide Hotel. Our room had a brick fireplace and shuttered windows covered in rice paper. 

We ate dinner in the restaurant there both nights, as the food was quite good and reasonably priced. Two dishes, one meat and one vegetable, plus two beers cost $18.

On to Xi’an

Steve and I left Pingyao and headed for Taiyuan, where we were to catch an overnight train to Xi’an. On the way, we visited the Wang Family Compound, a huge complex of buildings begun in 1762 that housed 17 generations of the Wang family. 

This particular compound was occupied by the Japanese in 1937. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, the complex housed many families, including some belonging to the Red Guard. For this reason, the buildings were not destroyed and retain much of their original carvings and ornate design.

We did not have time for dinner before our train trip, so I asked our guide to stop at a supermarket. It was large, crowded and very much like those in the States, with a deli, packaged food, produce, meat, etc. I bought a bottle of wine, five pieces of fruit, two small cakes, three bottles of water and a package of instant noodles for Steve for a total of 68 yuan, about $11.

There were four types of seats we could book on the Chinese overnight train: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The hard sleeper tickets entitle one to a berth in a 60-bed open carriage. Soft sleepers (our choice) are four to a compartment, with two lower bunks and two upper bunks. A comforter and pillow were piled on each bunk. 

At the end of the car were a washroom and a hot-water dispenser. We both found the train to be a comfortable and interesting journey. 

Steve used the hot water to fix his noodles, and I ate fruit and drank wine. The bunk was reasonably comfortable, and there is nothing like the rhythm of a train to put one to sleep. 

The other wonderful part about Chinese trains is that they are on time (unlike our domestic flights).

Our very personable guide, Eric, met us at the train station in Xi’an the next morning. We visited the city wall, then the Great Mosque, one of four grand mosques in China. It was strange to see a mosque with Chinese architecture. 

The Yide Hotel in Pingyao.

The Muslim quarter had a large bazaar with shops and food stalls. After checking into our hotel, I left Steve to rest and ventured back out to the bazaar, which offered a wealth of photo opportunities. 

We also visited the Wild Goose Pagoda and watched the Tang Dynasty Show that evening. We opted out of the “banquet” before the show and had an excellent dinner with Eric in a restaurant he recommended. 

In Xi’an we stayed at the Citadines Central in a studio apartment, which had a comfortable bedroom separated by a sliding partition from a small living room with a sofa and kitchenette. 

The next day we visited the famous terracotta warriors museum, the main reason we had traveled to Xi’an. The figures are truly remarkable, and the museum is worth a visit.

Rice terraces

That afternoon we flew from Xi’an to Guilin, a flight of less than two hours. This one left on time. 

Guilin, in the south of China, has a subtropical climate. There were two sites I wanted to visit in this area: the Longji rice terraces in Longsheng county and the Li River. 

Our guide for Guilin met us at the airport there. The next morning we set out with the guide and driver to visit the famous terraces, about 1½-2 hours from Guilin. 

There are now two villages that have roads leading to the rice terraces. Ping’an village was the only access point until 2012, when the government built a good road from Zhuang village as well. We chose to go to this village because it was less touristy, although there was a steep climb up to the village.

The rice terraces are a photographer’s dream. Narrow strips of terrace snake around the contours of the hills, showing the different colors of the rice plants, from green to bright yellow. Depending on the time of year, one may see the fields flooded with water (in the spring) or bright green (in the summer) or gold and harvested (in the fall). 

Many farmers no longer wish to cultivate rice this way because it is very labor intensive. However, because of the terraces’ popularity with visitors, the government offers a stipend to those farmers willing to carry on the old ways. 

In Guilin we stayed at the Jing Guan Ming Lou Museum Hotel. The hotel had beautiful artwork throughout, including in the rooms. I was especially happy to see a small terrace on our floor where I was able to hang out to dry the clothes I had washed. 

Across the street from the hotel was a lovely park built around a lake. In the evening, people gathered in one of the pavilions to play music. We enjoyed the impromptu concert.

The Li River

Our Li River cruise was both wonderful and disappointing at the same time. I had expected a small boat propelled by a single oarsman. Instead, we were on a large vessel with perhaps 100 other passengers. Our guide explained that we could see much more from the larger ship, and perhaps she was correct, but a little of the romance was gone. 

View of the Longji rice terraces in Longsheng.

There were seats inside, where the buffet lunch was to be served, and also a top viewing deck. I did not wait for the ship to pull away from the pier before ascending to the deck and staking out a position in the front, against the rail. Soon there was a crowd behind me, jockeying for position. I didn’t move for an hour.

The Li River cuts a winding channel through fantastic karst hills. The scenes are iconic, offering views depicted in several millennia of Chinese paintings. 

In the summer, the sky has a chance of being clear, but the heat can be stifling. In September, when we were there, the heat was not too bad, but the sky was rather murky. Our guide told us this was fog, not smog, but it was not a particularly picturesque sky. 

The journey downstream lasted five hours. We left from Guilin and stopped in Yangzhou.

Yangzhou was heavily touristed, with shops lining the streets leading from the pier. I snapped a photo of a fisherman with cormorants on his pole, and he yelled at me, “No! No!” Apparently, he was there to have his picture taken with customers for a fee. 

I did do some shopping and bargaining, even to the point of being followed down the street by the saleslady until she came down to the price I wanted to pay.

In Yangzhou I had asked China Odyssey to book us at the Tea Cozy, a new inn built in the old style. It was a mile or two out of town along a country road. We had a glorious view of the karst hills from our balcony and ate dinner at the restaurant there. 

We decided not to go to the famous light show on the Li River. (The cost was 300 yuan apiece.) Instead, we took a walk down the lane and discovered groups of young people rafting down the river, water buffalo standing in the canals, and ordinary people bicycling home from work.


Early the next morning our guide and driver took us to Fuli Ancient Town before our flight from Guilin to Hangzhou. Fuli is known for its handmade fans, and we visited a small factory where two women showed us how they made the fans, some of which measured five feet across. 

The flight took just under two hours, but it left one hour late (not too bad).

Our hotel in Hangzhou, the New Century Hotel Xiaoshan, had a fancy restaurant as well as a Brazilian buffet at $50 per person, but we didn’t want to spend that much, and we had not gone to China to eat Brazilian food! So we opted for Italian. :) We went across the street to Fizz Pizza and tried a Chinese version of the Italian favorite. It was actually quite good.

Hangzhou was on our itinerary because we were to take an express bus from there to the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) range, but I found the city interesting in its own right. 

We visited a beautiful park, West Lake, and took a short boat ride on the lake. There were still a few lotuses in bloom; they must have been spectacular in the summer! 

We also went to a tea museum, where we learned that tea was once so valuable it was traded to Tibet for horses. Of course, they tried to sell us tea, but I had already bought some in Beijing, so I declined. They were not pushy.

Yet another temple was supposed to be on the agenda, but when we told our guide we were tired of temples, she suggested the pharmacy museum instead. It was an excellent choice. 

The pharmacy is still in operation, selling traditional Chinese medicines. The interior of the building was beautiful, with intricate carvings. Upstairs was the museum, with plants and herbs used to make traditional medicines.

Our guide took us to the bus station, where we waited for our express bus to Huangshan City. The bus trip took three hours, with one rest stop. 

The seats were comfortable, but there was no washroom on the bus. Otherwise, it resembled most large tour buses. 

It was confusing trying to figure out which bus to take, and our guide had to ask several drivers before she found the right one. I guess without a guide I would just keep showing my tickets and looking confused.

Yellow Mountains

Our next guide, Peter, met us at the bus station in Huangshan City. From there we drove to Hongcun, a model of an ancient village with a beautiful lake. The lakeshore was lined with student artists painting the scene. Part of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed there. 

In Huangshan City we stayed at the Xinan Country Villa Hotel. The room at our hotel was lovely but unusual. The wall between the bedroom and bathroom was clear glass! There was a curtain in the bathtub that could be drawn across the window for privacy. 

Unfortunately, the restaurant at the hotel had terrible service. We waited almost an hour for our meal.

In order to get to the Yellow Mountains, we drove first by car for about an hour, which got us within about 45 minutes of the park. At that point we had to take a bus to the cable car stop. 

We ascended one of the mountain peaks by cable car, and it was a long way up! The ride lasted 20 minutes. You can walk the whole way up as well.

Once up on the mountain, there was a 10-kilometer hike to our hotel. This was not a trail like we were used to. The path was paved and consisted of many, many steps up and down, up and down. 

The area, a tourist site for over 1,000 years, is depicted in numerous ancient Chinese paintings. The name, “Yellow Mountain” does not refer to the color of the granite peaks but, rather, pays homage to the Yellow Emperor, the mythical ancestor of the Han Chinese.

We were extremely lucky with the weather there. It was warm and sunny, with bright blue sky. Many visitors stay an entire week and never see the views, as it rains over 200 days a year in the area, and much of the time it is very foggy. This area is famous for its view, looking down on the clouds.

All of the food, drinks and linens for the hotels are ferried up the mountain by porters. Hiking up and down the miles of steps with our backpacks (we had left our suitcases at the hotel in Huangshan City), I was very thankful that I exercise faithfully. It was hard work. 

I had brought a folding cane to use as a hiking stick, and, of course, I had all my photo equipment, including my tripod. 

As we hiked to our hotel, located on a mountain peak, we passed the hotel where the VIPs stay to the tune of $1,200 a night. While I wouldn’t want to pay $1,200 a night, it would have been nice to find someplace better than our hotel, the Huangshan Paiyunlou. It was supposed to be a 3-star hotel, but one-star was more like it. 

Apparently, the hotels at the top are all run by the government, and they are not very nice. Our room was small and ugly, with dirty carpet and a stained headboard. But we hadn’t traveled all that way to stay in our room.

There are two major sights, besides all the fantastic rock formations, that everyone wants to see there: sunset and sunrise. The viewing areas are small, so it is important to get there early. 

We headed out — and up and up and up — a good hour before sunset. We were able to get a good viewpoint, and I set up my tripod. 

Sunrise was a different matter. We thought we should leave by 5 a.m. for the 6:10 sunrise. Once again we trudged up and up, only to find a crowd already there. Most of my pictures are of other people’s iPads being held up to capture the sight. We should have left the hotel at 4:30 a.m.


That night we were scheduled for another overnight train trip, from Huangshan City to Suzhou, located about an hour outside of Shanghai. If I had realized when I made the travel arrangements that there were high-speed trains from Huangshan City to Shanghai, I would have chosen that option instead. However, although the train was a slow one that stopped frequently, we did get a good night’s sleep on the 12-hour trip to Suzhou. 

The lighted tunnel on our tram ride in Shanghai.

Suzhou is a city on the Grand Canal, which was dug 1,500 years ago from Beijing to Hangzhou. It is the oldest and longest canal in the world, according to our guide. 

Suzhou is known for its beautiful gardens, built on the grounds of the private homes of wealthy officials after they retired. We visited the Lingering Garden, then went for a boat ride on the canal. 

After that boat ride, we visited Tongli, another town on the canal system, for another boat ride on the canals. This trip, too, was interesting though somewhat redundant. I would have preferred to have visited another garden instead and would recommend that to other travelers. 


From there we were driven into Shanghai. What a world of difference! We were transported from old-fashioned canal towns to the almost futuristic architecture of Shanghai, from small villages to a city of over 23 million. I couldn’t help but gawk through the car windows at the fantastic high-rise buildings.

Our hotel, the Greenland Jiulong Hotel, was in a central location, and our room was lovely. The only problem was that WiFi was available only in the lobby. This was unusual, as many of our hotels had WiFi in the rooms. We were not allowed to just sit in the lobby bar to use the WiFi, so we had to perch on a couple of benches by the front door whenever we wanted to check our email.

A number of restaurants and shops were within walking distance, and we enjoyed our meal at Bi Feng Tang on Sichuan Street. This is a chain in Shanghai that has good food at reasonable prices. We had a good meal, with beer, for about $16. 

The breakfast at the hotel the next morning was excellent. I particularly liked the “Ma Fens.” It took me a minute to realize they meant “muffins.”

Our very short stay in Shanghai didn’t do the city justice. We did manage to crowd in a lot of sightseeing in a short amount of time, though. 

We visited the Bund, the French section, a tearoom, a pearl store, a silk museum and shop, and the 103rd floor of the World Financial Center for a fantastic view of the Bund. We even took the tram under the river to see the wild light show in the tunnel. It was pricey (CNY50, or $8) but fun.

Steve had wanted, in particular, to ride the high-speed train, so we booked tickets from Shanghai back to Beijing. The train took only five hours to go the 1,200 kilometers. Unfortunately, we had the worst-possible seats, located in the first row of our car, across the aisle from each other. There were no windows in the first row! 

I decided to check out the dining car and found the last seat there. Steve joined me, leaving our luggage on the racks and crossing our fingers. We spent most of the rest of the trip in the dining car, nursing a beer and munching on crackers. After it got completely dark and there was no longer a view, we returned to our ticketed seats.

When I complained to our travel agent about the seats, she told me that they are issued automatically and that it is not possible to choose where to sit. It was the luck of the draw, and ours was bad luck. 

In the future, if I find myself in that situation, I will immediately go to the dining car and stake out my spot. 

We arrived in Beijing about 8 p.m. and took the subway back to our hotel, the same hotel at which we started our trip. 

China Odyssey Tours was very thorough. They sent me names and phone numbers for all of the guides before we arrived in the different locations. The guides all were very personable and knowledgeable and spoke good English. 

The agency was willing to customize the tour to my preferences, including the hotels and modes of transportation that I specifically chose. Although the $3,750 per person we paid was more than a group tour might have cost, I think it was a good price for 20 days of travel. I definitely recommend them.