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AWARDS: Currently 26 SATW Western Chapter Awards for years 2001-2011; Two Lowell Thomas Awards: 2008 Silver Newpaper Best Foreign Article and 1995 Gold Magazine Best Foreign aritcle.
CHINA FOCUS: CHEAP TOUR, PRICELESS SIGHTS
by Yvonne Horn, San Francisco Chronicle
Too good to be true? Or good and true?
For years, I'd heard about a San Francisco tour operator's incredibly inexpensive journeys. Online discussion groups applauded them, columns in this newspaper spoke highly of China Focus. But how could it possibly be that one could go on an 11-day tour of China for such a ridiculous price?
Then came the day when I thought, "I'll do it," choosing Historic China from a list of 16 itineraries of varying lengths. Billed as the company's signature tour, it was described as "superb for first-time visitors to China." That was me.
Fearing that the $999 price tag meant I'd be embarking on an off-to-China nightmare - one of a herd getting on and off a gigantic bus, hurry-up stops at attractions, lengthy stops at state-run shopping emporiums, dirty toilets, iffy hotels, probably get sick - the opportunity to see such sights as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City at a non-wallet-crushing price prevailed.
I signed on.
The departure date I chose was at the cusp of entry to the spring season. Prices rise and fall a bit according to the season, inching up as weather turns warmer. Air China is the company's carrier. Sixteen hours after we left San Francisco, I wandered into Shanghai's arrival hall with midnight just around the corner, fingers crossed that the promised tour representative would be on hand. He was, introducing himself as Ford Bee, the guide who would be with us throughout the tour.
Just the 10 of us
Bad dream No. 1 was eliminated with Ford's report that there would be but 10 of us on the tour. A second hit the dust with our arrival at Central View Suites, just off Shanghai's famous, neon-bedazzled shopping street, Nanjing Road.
My scrupulously clean, two-room suite featured crisply contemporary decor with tasteful Chinese touches, its bathroom equipped with an enormous, glass-surrounded shower able to shoots jets of water at every conceivable place one might wish, with terry-cloth robe and slippers waiting. Hotels of even better, or only slightly lower, standards welcomed us throughout the trip.
Well, there was that one overnight on the sleeper train - a four-person "deluxe" compartment with "soft" beds and a door that could be locked - that I chalked up as a cultural experience (and finally appreciated after taking a look at the non-deluxe, non-door cubicles).
The itinerary would include three days in Shanghai, the first day "completely on your own"; a visit to Suzhou, described as China's Venice; a climb to the summit of Tai Shan, China's most sacred Daoist mountain; a visit to the Confucius family mansion and the forest where he is buried; on to Beijing and the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and sites of the 2008 Olympics; a rickshaw ride into an hutong, an area of historic courtyard residences; with a half-day visit to the Great Wall tucked in. While headquartered in Shanghai and Beijing, local guides would join us.
The anticipated "biggies" listed on the itinerary, such as the Great Wall, were, of course, highlights. But there were unexpected cultural delights.
The Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe took our breath away with gravity-defying stunts that culminated with five motorcyclists zooming around inside a gigantic mesh ball like fireflies caught in a jar. The "foot" massage, a completely clothed, head-to-toe going over, made me wish I'd learned the Chinese words for "Ouch! Take it easy!" In the delightfully named Master of the Nets garden in Suzhou, we learned that the enormous rock formations Chinese are inordinately fond of placing in their gardens are pieces of limestone cemented together with a mixture of sticky rice, flour, tung oil and water.
The Beijing hutong visit allowed us to enter a private home to talk with its owner. In Tai'an, with time allotted to be on our own, I strolled around the city park to watch men "walking" their birds (hanging their bamboo cages on the trees) and a group of women practicing the marching steps to a drum and scarf-waving routine. At lunch in Tai'an, we found ourselves casually seated like so many party crashers on the sidelines of an elaborate wedding - complete with a bubble machine, fireworks and an overly exuberant master of ceremonies who cheered the proceedings along as if they were a TV game show.
More sights to delight: bell-tinkling bicyclists pedaling effortlessly through traffic-clogged streets, emerging from stoplights like swarms of fish. A circle of retirees singing lustily together - "Good exercise for the lungs," our tour guide explained. All underscored that the real charm of visiting someplace new lies in the glimpses it reveals of ordinary life.
No unsavory surprises
With the exception of the first "completely yours to explore" day in Shanghai - where I teamed up with two others to share taxis and see sights not listed on the tour - all meals were included. For lunch and dinner, our comfortable 20-seat van delivered us to "tour-bus" restaurants, those with parking and table space designed to accommodate hordes descending from gigantic buses. Even so, our group found the food delicious. Fresh and varied stir-fried or steamed dishes appeared one after the other until the large lazy Susan centering the table was filled, with the appearance of sliced watermelon indicating that the parade was finished.
There was no danger of unwittingly tucking into mystery meat. On my return from China I spoke with Jack Lee, owner and founder of China Focus, now entering its 18th year, who told me, "We know Americans don't want to eat 'strange' food. We supervise what is served - no MSG, minimum of salty soy sauce, little grease - and check to make certain everything is hygienic."
The same careful oversight extends to hotels and guides. "China changes very quickly," Lee said. "We rely on feedback from our guests. If something is not quite right, we request that improvement be made. If that doesn't happen, they're out. We keep up with what's going on." The proof of such care is that 90 percent of the company's travelers, according to Lee, are either repeats or come via word of mouth.
Yes, as with all group travel, there were things I'd change. The early dinner hour was one, scheduled at the end of a long day of touring with no opportunity to return to the hotel to spruce up. But even that had a plus side: As the big buses came rolling in, we'd be on our way out with a cigarette-smoke-free meal under our belts.
Then there was the shopping. Restaurant choices at lunch were more often than not chosen to be conveniently adjacent to such emporiums as the No. 1 Silk Store, or the similarly named jade, carpet or pearl outlet, with plentiful time to browse and buy. Again there was a plus side, even for a non-shopper like me: All included an educational component, invariably well presented, describing the history of the product and how it was made. I felt free to gawk at the merchandise with no pressure to buy, although I wished the group would hurry up. One shopping stop I thoroughly enjoyed was the people's market in Beijing. The array of stuff! The theatrics of the bargaining process!
A little more than $999
I asked the company owner how it is possible to provide such an extensive menu of bargain basement, quality journeys. "High volume," was Lee's answer. "Because we fill thousands of seats each year, Air China gives us extremely special rates. Hotels give us steep discounts because of the enormous number of rooms we can fill. Advertising is word of mouth. And, unlike most of this country's some 2,000 tour operators who include China in their itineraries, we only go to China."
Now for my bottom line: Add to the $999 tour fare a $350 single supplement (I never share); $375 in international and domestic taxes; $150 for a China visa ; $70 suggested for tips (collected at the beginning of the trip by our national guide and distributed to drivers, porters and guides along the way, and including his tip). Economy seating on Air China is built into the price.
Careful attention to the operator's detailed Web site is a must. Deadlines, discounts and penalties are carefully laid out and you are expected to pay attention. Not doing so can bring quite a surprise in the final price. There is no hand-holding, although questions are quickly and completely answered.
Note that the economic downturn has resulted in smaller-than-usual group sizes, hence our group of 10. Although China Focus will take as few as six, itinerary signups in better times can be as large as 40 or so. In the latter case, the group is divided.
When I polled my companions at the end of the trip, all expressed amazement at the quality of the trip and the travel value it represented. All would travel with this operator again, with several already eyeing itineraries. As for me, cut down on the shopping and give me a chance to spruce up before dinner and you'll find me perusing those itineraries, too.
China Focus was the operator for my $999 trip: 870 Market St., Suite 1215, San Francisco. (415) 788-8660. www.chinafocustravel.com.
Other budget, all-China, U.S. tour operators to check out: