We arrived at Beijing airport and were picked up by our tour guide and taken to our hotel. This was really handy as we were shattered after our flight and navigating around Beijing on our own would not have been easy!! The hotel was lovely, our room was massive compared to the cupboard room we were just in, it even had a PC in it! ( I was extremely impressed by the PC in the room, I suspect Grant thought I was a bit TOO impressed by it, but considering that we couldn't even find a internet cafe in Moscow and we had a lot of PC stuff we had to do, I was excited about it!) We tried to stay awake to get used to the new time difference, but didn't do that well and passed out for a couple of hours before dragging ourselves out of bed and heading out for a walk around the area (we managed round the block) and then having a drink in the hotel bar while trying to work out if any of the other Westerners (a term we've become very used to!) were also on our tour.
The next morning was the official start to our tour and we met up early with the rest of the group for our induction. The group consisted of 22 of us, ranging from ages 22 to about 60, couples, single travelers and families and all English speaking but from all over the place. People came from England, Scotland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, America, South Africa and South Korea. We found it a bit slow to get talking to people to start with, especially as we'd only really talked to each other for the past few weeks and being in a couple meant you didn't really need to talk to other people. It was obvious who was travelling on their own as they were the people making the effort to get to know each other, but within a few days everyone was getting on really well with everyone else and becoming good friends.
After our induction we got on a coach and headed to Tiananmen square which is a massive square in the centre of Beijing and the gateway to the forbidden city. The square was rammed although our guide told us it was pretty quiet compared to normal! Being Westerners we stuck out like a sore thumb, so much so that all the Chinese people wanted photos with us! A couple of girls in the group had blonde hair and you would have thought they were celebrities the amount of people who wanted photos with them, it was hilarious, the locals were all giggly and shy when talking to us (or rather pointing at the camera and us rather than talking!)
After the square we went into the forbidden city, which is a collection of temples and gardens used by the Ancient Chinese Emperors. Although the forbidden city was interesting, after a while one temple tends to look the same as the next one so Grant and I spent most of the time people watching which was much more fun!!
The next stop was a Hutong village near a large lake. A Hutong village is a really old village where all of the houses (large huts!) are made out of the local rock and are separated by little alleyways rather than roads. We all got into little rickshaws and went for a ride around the lake. This area we really liked, it was very chilled and interesting and looked more like true China than the tourist stuff we had seen so far. We rode past quite a few funky looking cafes and bars and made a mental note that if we had time we'd come back here again.
Final stop was a Peking duck dinner followed by an acrobat show. The dinner was nice, although sad to say not as nice as the takeaway we get at home! Maybe because it was one of those restaurants that mass produced food for coach loads of tourists, or maybe just because it was different to what we were used to! The acrobat show was actually pretty impressive and better that what we were expecting, the final act was to have 8 motorbikes going round in a fairly small metal cage, not sure I would have been up for doing it!!
On the second day (yes I'm only up to the second day! That's what you get for being on a tour!) we were up early and heading to the great wall of China. It was a good job it was early as it was already pretty hot outside and little did we know that we had a hell of a climb ahead of us! We only walked along the wall for about 1.5k, but it was all up pretty steep stairs and we were a bit of a mess when we got to the top! We got some pretty cool photos tho and can now say we've walked along the great wall of China!!
Lunch was at a random enamel factory with another mass produced restaurant attached, and after lunch they showed you round the factory and encouraged you to buy stuff (we found a lot of that on this tour, we had no interest in buying anything, or had the space to carry it, so we normally just wandered around on our own away from the sales people) and then we went onto a Kung Fu show.
After the show was 'free time' so Grant and I got a group of us together and headed back to the Hutong area for dinner and drinks. It was a lovely area and you actually forgot you were in a busy city for a while. It was nice that some others had joined us as well and gave us a chance to get to know them better. We went to a lovely restaurant with one couple Carol and Paul, before meeting up with some of the others for drinks. It was a real laugh.
The next day we were moving onto Xian so after a quick stop in the silk market shopping centre to practice our bargaining skills, we boarded a overnight train. The train was pretty cool, there were 4 people per cabin and we were sharing with another couple in our group, Tony and Jenny. The cabins were tiny, with 2 sets of bunk beds, but were comfortable and clean. I'm not really sure the locals (or the older members of our group) knew what hit them as some of the group had planned a party at the train bar, which unfortunately didn't exist, so the party ended up being in one of the tiny cabins. At one point we had 15 people crammed in, it was hilarious. Was a really good night. We went to bed about 1.30am but some of the others just carried on thru the night!
About 8am we arrived in Xian. After a quick 30min stop at our hotel we headed out for the first activity of the day, bike riding on the city wall.
Grant and I thought we'd make it a bit more interesting by doing a tandem bike, which is actually a lot harder than it looks! Was pretty funny tho. Or at least it was until we realized that the city wall was 13k long and we had to bike it all!!
After lunch we headed to the terracotta army heritage site (surprise surprise via another factory shop). There is a pretty mad story behind the army. Basically a mental emperor believed that he would need protectors in the after life and so decided he needed to build thousands and thousands of life size terracotta warriors and built a massive underground bunker to stand them all in. He then didn't want anyone to find them so filled in the bunker and covered them all up. He then killed everyone that knew about them so they remained hidden until some farmers found them about 50 years ago while digging a well. So far they've uncovered about 1000 of them but xrays tell them there's thousands more. Looking at them, they are all different shapes and sizes with all different faces so must have been modelled on real people, it was quite mad to see.
Then it was 'free time' so after a chill in the hotel a group of us headed out for dinner at a lovely (and cheap) restaurant.
Being on a tour really meant you could relax, you didn't have to think about anything or plan anything, as everything was planned for you. You didn't have to carry your stuff anywhere apart from on and off the bus or train, you didn't have to queue for tickets, or work out how to explain where you wanted to go. It did feel like you were being herded around sometimes, especially when they kept taking you to 'tourist' shops to buy crap, but the benefits outweighed the bad bits I think.
Day 3 in Xian was panda day!! We'd booked to go to a panda sanctuary when we booked the tour back in then UK, but just before we came we were told it was closed for mating season, luckily while we were in Xian it opened again so we were able to go.
The sanctuary was more like as zoo, but the pandas were in pretty big enclosures and seemed happy enough. A couple of them came out of their homes and did some wandering round and did some photo ops for us. I've got a great photo of a panda sitting about a meter underneath where I was standing looking up at me and smiling. I wanted to get in and give them a cuddle, but that probably wouldn't have been the best idea!!
After the Pandas we went to see an ancient pagoda (wild goose pagoda) where you could walk up and take pictures of the city, then it was lunch and then the first week of the tour was over. For the first week there had been 22 of us, but it was 4 different tour groups added together, and for the second week the 4 groups were doing different routes. There was only 3 of us doing our route so it was going to be pretty different! The 4 groups said goodbye after lunch and those of us left had a 'free afternoon' before meeting up for dinner at our favourite cheap restaurant....