PHOTO: An extensive tour of the Forbidden City is featured in Beijing.
G Adventures is known for exotic tour programs that explore little known or visited parts of the world. So it is no surprise that Hidden China & Inner Mongolia, a 12-day program introduced this year, focuses on exploring areas of northwest China not often seen by foreign visitors. Destinations visited include Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Datong, Pingyao and Xian, with tour participants flying in and out of Beijing.
G Adventures’ Hidden China itinerary combines major attractions — the Great Wall, Xian’s Terracotta Warriors and Beijing — with lesser-known experiences, such as exploring village life in Inner Mongolia, the Yungang Buddha Caves and the nearly 3,000-year-old city of Pingyao. Included in the tour price are a Great Wall excursion and entrance; Inner Mongolia city tour; traditional Mongolian ger stay; Yungang Grottoes visit (Datong); Hanging Monastery visit; local family visit with Chinese painting lesson (Pingyao); Terracotta Warriors excursion, including local lunch with a farmer’s family (Xian); Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City tour (Beijing).
The tour has a maximum capacity of 16 and an average of 12 participants, who must be 18 or older. Children 12 years or older can join the tour if accompanied by a parent or guardian. G Adventures describes the travel style as “classic” and the service level as “basic.” The fitness level required for this trip is classified as 2 (with 5 being highest).
Guides: A G Adventures guide, called a chief experience officer or CEO, accompanies the tour from arrival at the first hotel to departure from the last. A local guide joins the group at each location. Howard, the CEO for this tour, had a good command of English, but most of the local guides had varying levels of fluency and some of their accents were challenging. On the other hand, all guides were earnest and helpful, willing to discuss local culture and history, as well as suggest good places to shop and to eat. The private van drivers did not speak English.
Accommodations: The tour includes seven nights in hotels, one night in a traditional ger and three nights on sleeper trains. The hotels selected cater to a mostly Chinese clientele. The Chongwenmen Hotel in Beijing (first and last nights) was clean though a bit worn around the edges. Wi-Fi access was available only in the lobby, and there was a breakfast buffet.
Overnight train travel is in sleeper coaches with four berths per cabin when “soft sleepers” are booked, and six berths per cabin when the tickets are for “hard sleepers.” Space for luggage in the cabins is limited, so sleeping with one’s feet propped up on a suitcase becomes a matter of necessity. Bedding was fresh (if the train was at the start of its run) or used (if boarded in the middle of a route). The “soft sleeper” cars had a Western-style toilet as well as a Chinese-style, but the “hard sleeper” had only the Chinese-style. Toilets were locked when trains were near or stopped at stations. Passengers bring their own towels, toilet paper and bottled water.
PHOTO: Participants overnight in a traditional ger in Mongolia.
One night is spent in a ger, a traditional “tent” used by Mongolia nomads. But instead of the round, window-less, portable wool felt “tents,” the tourist-version is somewhat larger, has windows but no opening at the top, and is a permanent structure affixed to a low concrete platform. As many as four tour participants sleep side-by-side under duvets on top of a rug on the floor. The toilet was a hole in the floor of a three-sided adobe-brick stall.
The best accommodations, on this trip, were in Pingyao in a typical Chinese merchant’s house from the 19th century. Each room there has a shower, a washbasin and a Western-style toilet as well as Wi-Fi access. The bed is a wooden platform topped with a thin, densely packed mattress.
Dining: Eleven breakfasts, one lunch and one dinner are included in the tour price. Breakfasts are mostly hotel buffets. The included lunch and dinner are pre-ordered and served family-style. The remaining meals, which aren’t included in the tour price, involve going as a group to a restaurant suggested by one of the guides, ordering a multitude of dishes to share and then splitting the tab according to how many were dining.
The restaurants recommended by the guides on this trip were generally small, seating fewer than 50 (and usually less). In most cases, the menus had photographs to assist with ordering (all menus were in Mandarin). Some of the meals were takeout from shops on the way to the station to eat on the overnight train. G Adventures suggests bringing $200-$260 for meals that are not included.
Transportation: Most transportation to sites outside cities is by 15-passenger van. Not all of the vans on this trip had air-conditioning, though the tour was in July with temperatures in the 90s. Hand luggage and suitcases usually competed for space onboard. Train travel was in a sleeper coach, except for the Xian to Beijing route. In Beijing, travel around town was by subway.
Pricing: The cost of this value trip is $1,499 per person without air. G Adventures does not charge a single supplement for those traveling alone. Solo travelers are roomed with another tour participant of the same sex. But single guests can have their own rooms (with the exception of the night spent in a ger) for an additional $349 (for 2015 departures).
Itinerary: Tour participants arrive in Beijing on the first day and are transferred to the Chongwenmen Hotel. During orientation, documentation for the required medical and emergency transfer insurance is collected.
On day two (Beijing), participants take a two-hour van ride to visit the Great Wall, including a climb up 1,000 steps and then have time to wander along the top of wall. In the evening there is an optional Chinese acrobatic show.
On day three (Beijing), the chief experience officer leads the group on a short subway ride to Tiananmen Square and then offers an extensive walking tour that includes the Forbidden City. In the late afternoon, the group heads to the train station carrying dinner purchased from convenience stores or fast food restaurants. The night is spent onboard the train.
On day four (Inner Mongolia), the train arrives at Baotuo at 7 a.m., and the group is met by a private van for transfer to a fast food restaurant for breakfast. The long drive into Inner Mongolia is broken by two stops to visit selected attractions. Dinner and overnight are spent in a tourist ger in Inner Mongolia.
On day five (Datong), the group is transported by van to tour a Buddhist temple in Bai Ting Miao. That’s followed by a four-hour daytime train ride to Datong, where the hotel is across the street from the train station.
On day six (Datong), a morning van ride through the countryside takes the group to the Hanging Monastery for a tour. In the afternoon, there is a two-hour van ride to Yungang Grottoes to see the thousands of Buddha statues.
PHOTO: The tour visits the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian.
On day seven (Pingyao), the group grabs bagged breakfasts and heads to the train station for the 7 a.m. departure. Eight hours later the tour arrives in Pingyao and both baggage and tour participants ride a “golf cart” transport to the hotel within the old city walls. A local guide gives a walking tour of the city.
On day eight (Pingyao), the group is offered a Western- or Chinese-style breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the morning activity, a calligraphy demonstration in one of Pingyao’s historic houses. The remainder of the day is “on your own” in this UNESCO World Heritage city. In the evening, tour participants can go to an optional variety show.
On day nine (Pingyao), following breakfast, time in Pingyao is once again “on your own.” After the noon checkout, a day room is retained both to store luggage and to allow a place for rest or a shower. Purchased snacks are carried onboard the train for a 7:30 p.m. overnight sleeper to Xian.
On day 10 (Xian), after a 7:30 a.m. arrival, the group walks a few blocks from the station to a private van. While the rooms are readied, participants have breakfast at the hotel before heading off again in the van for the ride to the The Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses, where two hours are allotted to cover the extensive site. On the itinerary, the included lunch is in a nearby farmer’s house.
On day 11 (Beijing), the group leaves Xian at 8:30 a.m. to head to the train station for the six-hour ride to Beijing, and checks back into the Chongwenmen Hotel for the final night of the tour. On day 12, there is free time in Beijing until the group leaves for the airport on individual schedules.
For more information or to book, visit www.gadventures.com.