Recommendation 1: If you go to China for the first time, do not go on your own. And not because of safety concerns (the country is very safe), but because of a huge and deep cultural differences.
The second reason for taking that tour was that it was crazy cheap. No, it was even cheaper than that. It included 11 nights in 4-5 star hotels, three intra-country flights between different cities, all breakfasts and lunches, guided tours every day, admission to all sites, and several other goodies. And the price of all this was under $1250 per person. My initial reaction was that you get what you pay for, and first of all I independently researched all of our hotels. The reviews were definitely positive, and this essentially sealed the deal. After all, what can we lose? The hotels, breakfasts, all flights and transportation are guaranteed, but if we don’t like something else, we will simply leave the tour for a couple of hours and explore on our own. It turned out, however, that it was not so simple.
Our tour started in Beijing, and the first site, as one can guess, was Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. I say “one can guess” because it seems that EVERY tour in China starts from this place (that’s how it is done in an authoritarian country!). The square is huge, surrounded by several monumental buildings linked to the Communist Party of China, but by itself is pretty boring. The adjacent Forbidden City is a vast complex of old Emperor’s palaces. It is interesting enough, but those who saw, say, the complex of King’s palaces in Bangkok, would not be very impressed. Plus most of the palaces are closed for the public and can be observed only from outside. But the worst thing was the crowds of tourists.
It seemed that all 1.5 billion of Chinese decided to visit the Forbidden City on that particular day, not even mentioning a few hundred thousands of foreigners! In this situation the main goal was not to enjoy the scenery but not to lose your group and not to get creamed by the crowd. At some moment I tripped, fell and broke my camera, so that all subsequent photos were made by my smartphone (sorry for the quality of these pictures).
In my long and eventful life I saw tons of pictures of the wall in books, posters, TV and online, and somehow there was never a single person there ! It is a mystery how the photographers managed to accomplish this.
Recommendation 3: The Great Chinese Wall should not be missed, but try to go to a remote and least touristy section (if such still exists).
The next city on our itinerary was Xian. The first thing that our guide cheerfully told us was: “You know, Xian is not a very big city. It has only about 9 million people”. (A nice small city with population of London and Paris combined?? Only in China…). In fact, nobody knew about Xian until recently. But some years ago a local farmer was digging on his lot and hit some strange things with his shovel. He called archeologists and … Xian was put on the world tourist map. Now people come here in droves to see Terracotta Warriors, one of the main tourist attractions of China. It is not one, two, or a hundred sculptures, it is a complete army buried underground:
In addition to Terracotta Warriors, there are two more interesting things to do in Xian. The first is a bike ride on the City Wall. This wall surrounds the older part of the city and is about 9 miles long. You can rent a bike there and make the whole loop with stops and site seeing in under 2 hours. Great exercise, interesting experience, lots of fun.
The second attraction is the Muslim Quarter. Surprisingly, there is such thing in Xian! And it is much more interesting than what most tourist guidebooks are recommending (and where your guides will probably take you). It is hard to properly describe it here but trust me: it is something that must be experienced.
Recommendation 4: If you are in Xian, go to see Terracotta Warriors (a must), make a bike ride on the city wall, and spend an evening in the city center near Bell Tower and in the Muslim Quarter. Two nights and one full day in the city should be enough. Do NOT allow your guide to drag you to Xian Historic Museum or to various stores for stupid foreign tourists.
After Xian we flew to Guilin. This is an area of extreme natural beauty, particularly because of thousands of unique cone-shape hills. Most of the tourists take a boat tour on Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo. The views from the boat are great even when it is cloudy (as it was during our tour), but in good weather they are simply fantastic. Alas, there are too many boats (we are in China after all !), but even this cannot spoil the impression.