Our extended family returned yesterday from SmarTour’s 18-day China and the Yangtze River trip. It was fabulous. I cannot tell you how much we recommend it! There were six of us (as I put it, my son and all of his living ancestors: his two parents and three grandparents) ranging in age from 17 to 68. The tour was made up of a total of 44 people, 8 teens from 12 to 17, and 36 adults up to one marvelous 86-year-old lady. The local guides were all wonderful — informative and helpful.
Here is some advice for other families (including members with accessibility issues) thinking of taking this amazing journey.
River Cruise and Beyond
In fact, the only recommendation we have for friends and acquaintances is that the beds on the Yangtze River cruise boat are harder than carpeted floors! You could try what I did, which was to fold up the bed cover, and put it under me (there were plenty of blankets, and the boat is fully air conditioned if you’re either too hot or too cold). The next day when my bed was made up, the maid had folded one of the heavy winter duvets and included it between the mattress and the bottom sheet. That night, I was somewhat more comfortable! Barring that, I suggest bringing a blow-up air mattress. Needless to say, you’ll want to abandon it after the cruise.
The “China and the Yangtze River” tour included day trips to The Forbidden City and Summer Palace and Great Wall and Ming Tombs, and they are all highly recommended. The optional Old Beijing tour isn’t part of what we did, but based on the description it sounds like it would be worthwhile; the hutongs sounded intriguing, but we didn’t have time to see them. The Temple of Heaven was beautiful and a must see. I would leave off the optional opera performance and Peking Duck Dinner; the food was okay, but the performance was a disappointment to us. (Our guide did a good job of “building it down,” but it’s an acquired taste).
When we arrived in Xi’an, the banquet and show were much better and more enjoyable. We got a bit dressed up, and really enjoyed ourselves, but others went in shorts or jeans and were okay, too
In general, you should dress for the expected weather conditions. The Chinese dress fairly casually; I read the other day that there is a new fad for wearing pajamas out in public! I took one “basic black” dress and wore it with hose and flat black walking shoes. I dressed it up with jewelry. I also took some casual pants, jeans and one pair of shorts. My mother took several dresses, because she prefers them to pants when it’s hot, and put a light jacket over them to dress them up when need be. The guys each took one long sleeve shirt and a tie, and wore them with their regular slacks. We never used the exercise clothes we took, but we did use bathing suits. If you forget something, shopping is really cheap.
Take US$100 per person in US$1 bills! Bargain for everything, even in department stores. I can only remember a few times when someone said, “price is set,” and even then they might have bargained if you looked like you would walk away without it. Try 5 yuan ($.60) for a pack of postcards, or 2 packs for $1. (Make sure you open them and look at every one first – the vendors are very good at switching!)
In Guilin, at the stop at the end of the Li River cruise, we paid $5 for the first T-shirt, and 20 yuan ($2.40) for the last one we bought, and since the merchandise mostly repeats, if vendors don’t want to come down in price, keep walking! Our favorite T-shirt said “mayo chien” — “I have no money” — in Chinese characters –- the Chinese would never believe this about an American tourist!) The guides will always tell you if something is a good price, as long as you don’t ask where anyone else can hear you. They will get in trouble if they talk down the “must see” stuff in front of the sellers. By the way, you will also need small bills for tipping the drivers and local guides.
To The Disabled – Go For It!
Our tour group included people of many different ages (12-86) and physical abilities. At least one person used a cane, and others on the boat were in wheelchairs. As far as I know, everyone took part in every tour; some of us just took our time getting there!
I was one of the less able for our group (if you look at the pictures, you’ll see me in a neck brace and sling), but I was never made to feel like I was holding anyone up. The China guide did make sure that we got rooms on the main deck, which is where the dining room and gangway are located. Still, we went up and down stairs to get up to the observation deck.
Going from the shore to the ship will be fairly easy even for the handicapped, for all of the Yangtze River docking facilities. There are ship’s crew to help you and hold your hand every stop of the way, should you need it. The part that may be difficult is getting from the road on the riverbank down to the shore. In several places there are long flights of stairs, but there is a railing, and they are not slippery (although we had very light rain a couple of times). At Wanxian, the steps were so steep there were “porters” offering to carry us up. We declined the help, but then I had family to help me instead.
There were three places off the river where we actually had more trouble than the Yangtze River dock areas. One was the Great Wall, which we were unable to explore as much as we wished because the steps are both steep and uneven. My father, husband, and son took off like a small herd of mountain goats; my mother, father-in-law, and I explored the lower area. It was still worth the trip!
The second site was the Reed Flute Cave, in Guilin, which was both steep and slippery, and not worth the visit to my mind. If you really love drippy caves, you might go along, but the narrative wasn’t very good, and it was just the “must see” filler before the Li River cruise. Stay in the bus with a good book, or else wander the stalls at the entrance.
The other difficult access that I would not have missed was getting onto the boat on the Li River to see the karst formations, later the same day. We saw Chinese families carrying elderly family members in wheelchairs across the wooden boards that connected boats. Again, we just took it slow, and had someone hold our hand to provide extra support.
Bottom line: Go for it!
Remember that the Yangtze River part is only five to six days out of the whole tour. The worst that can happen is that you decide not to participate in some single activity. For example, there was a spot on the Daning River where people climbed or jumped out of the small boat to collect “memory stones”. Several of us stayed in the boat — others handed us stones so we could bring home the memory, too.
My mother had recently had knee surgery, so we both took the opportunity for acupuncture and massage when we were on the boat; they helped tired and strained muscles considerably. We also learned some tai chi from the ship’s doctor.
P.S. You may notice that by the end of the tour, I’m not wearing the neck brace and sling. The acupuncture and massage really worked!
MORRIS FAMILY’S MUST DOs
— Bring at least US$100 in one dollar bills; we ran out and hence had to stop shopping early!
— Bring plenty of film or Smartmedia (for your digital cameras); we ended up buying BOTH!
— Bring toilet paper, packets of tissues, napkins and antibacterial wet wipes. The Chinese all seem to carry their own. Toilet paper is almost never provided in public toilets, and running water can be scarce, too.
— Look for disabled toilets — they are often Western thrones instead of slit trenches.
— Never ever buy from the first vendor in the market (nor the last). Listen to what other people are paying and then offer less. Always be prepared to walk away without the item.
— Make the vendor open the package, and look at every part for flaws. Also make sure that what you bought is what goes into the bag. (I bought a set of silk pj’s for my sister, but brought home a set for a 6-year-old).
–Have a wonderful trip. We did!
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