If you’re got a couple of weeks vacation in October, how about coming along with me for a sightseeing and food romp through China? From October 17-30, I’m taking a small group of keen foodies and travellers on a 14-day culinary adventure from Shanghai to Xian, Sichuan, Chengdu and finishing up in Beijing. It’s being organised in conjunction with Peregrine Tours, a respected tour company that specialises in small, good-value adventure holidays.
Peregrine has hooked me up with a local Chinese guide who will steer us through the local joints and overcome any language barriers, so we’ll be able to combine our efforts to give you the best East-meets-West perspectives on Chinese cuisine. The group is also limited to 16 people, which guarantees that we’ll have a intimate experience that’s way better than those dreaded tours on hulking white tourist buses.
We start off in Shanghai and visit the Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, check out local markets and eateries (I can’t wait to eat Xiao Long Bao soup dumpling in the city that made them famous), and soak up some the city’s most best sites and activities. Next it’s off via train to the canals of Suzhou, then we fly to Chengdu to see the wild pandas and other attractions, and next followed by another flight to Xian so we can gawk at the 2,000-year-old Terracotta Warriors. Finally we finish up in Beijing to do all of the famed sites: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace (and maybe we can sneak in some Olympic sites too). Some of my favourite ways to get immersed into a country’s food culture is to take a cooking class, so we’ll be doing two of them: one in Xian and another in Beijing.
For full details, check out Peregrine’s page on the China Culinary Tour. Or to save you from needing another click, here’s the blow-by-blow breakdown of the two weeks of adventure and all-out chopstick gluttony. The cost is $2770 (US dollars), which should seem quite reasonable to those of you who’ve done similar group tours. Peregrine has chosen the hotels, which look comfortable and clean, while I’m focusing my plans on the food, travel and activities. If you come, I guarantee it’s going to be a trip to remember:
DAY BY DAY ITINERARY
Day 1 / Arrive into Shanghai
On arrival in Shanghai you are transferred to your hotel. In the evening you meet your tour leader and the other group members for a pre-tour briefing. This is generally followed by an optional group dinner at a local restaurant for Shanghai Cuisine-Xiao Nan Guo.
Day 2 / Shanghai
After breakfast we walk to the famous Yuyuan Gardens and Bazaar, a fascinating highlight of the city and worth exploring for its tranquil Chinese garden and wonderful food stalls. We then continue to the famous Bund or waterfront area, where dozens of imposing European colonial buildings, remnants of the concession era, line the promenade.
Here you can take an optional boat tour along the Huangpu River or visit the Towers at Pudong to enjoy a birds eye view of the Bund and Huangpu New District. This evening we visit the local food market before enjoying a dinner of traditional Shanghai Dim Sum at Ding Tai Feng.
Day 3 / Suzhou
After breakfast this morning we transfer to the railway station and board the day train for a 40 minute journey to Suzhou, famous for its canals and silk industry. However, its most famous assets are its magnificent landscaped gardens, which are all works of art. This afternoon we enjoy a leisurely bike ride to explore the impressive ‘Humble Administrators’ Garden’ & Silk Museum. The remainder of the afternoon is free for you to visit the Old quarter of the city- San Tang Street or the smaller, yet intricate ‘Garden of the Master of the Nets’. This evening we enjoy food famous to the area – Sweet & Sour Crispy Mandarin Fish at Song He Restaurant.
Day 4 / Suzhou to Chengdu
Half an hour from Suzhou, past the famous Baodai Bridge, is the medieval water village of Tongli, which evokes the feeling of being transported back in time to a bygone era. It has retained much of its original character, so much so that it is often used as an outdoor film set. On our morning trip there, we get to walk on narrow streets alongside quaint canals and visit another classical Chinese Garden.
We return to Shanghai and catch an afternoon flight to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province. Sichuan is known for its hot, spicy dishes, considered by the Chinese as the best cuisine within China. In such a food-loving country, that is no mean achievement. We transfer to our hotel and enjoy some free time to explore the city. There is a large statue of Chairman Mao in the middle of the city and the tranquil Renmin Park is well worth a visit, with its beautiful gardens and interesting teahouses. This evening we can enjoy a traditional Sichuan Hotpot (dinner is optional and not included in the tour price).
Day 5 / Leshan
On a day trip, we travel to Leshan, where we see the world’s largest Buddha, carved into the hillside near the confluence of the Dadu and Min Rivers. A seated figure (as opposed to the ‘standing’ or ‘reclining’ Buddha images found elsewhere), it is a staggering 71 metres high. It is over 1000 years old and took almost 100 years to build. It is not only impressive at close quarters, but can be viewed on a boat from a distance in order to gain a different perspective. We return to Shanghai this evening to enjoy a traditional Sichuan dinner and optional Opera with Face-changing and fire spitting show.
Day 6 / Chengdu
This morning we visit the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base situated near the city. The giant panda is one of the world’s most endangered species and has become an icon for conservation movements everywhere. It is still found in parts of the Sichuan province, but is very difficult to spot in the wild.
In the afternoon we enjoy a local cooking class and create a typical Sichuan feast! After an early dinner, we are transferred to the train station to catch the local train to Xian. Food on the train is limited so we recommend you purchase some snacks for the journey.
Day 7 / Xian
The capital of Shaanxi Province and the largest city in northwest China, Xian is a wonderful place to explore. Food options are excellent here, ranging from delicious Muslim fare to great little dumplings in Chinese cafes. Widely regarded as the first capital of a united China in 221 BC, the city is rich in history. On arrival in Xian, we are transferred to our hotel. The afternoon is at leisure to make our own discoveries. Xian has a wonderful Muslim Quarter and time can easily be spent wandering the narrow streets where we find quaint shops, lively markets, groups of white-bearded men in skull caps sipping tea in cafes, and the Great Mosque, one of the most important in China. We enjoy an appetizing dinner tonight sampling some of the local Muslim fare.
Day 8 / Xian
A half-day tour to the renowned Terracotta Warriors introduces us to these entombed statues, considered one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th Century. Over 6000 of them were individually sculpted from clay, each having a different costume, height, and even facial expression. They are standing in battle formation, facing east in order to protect the tomb of China’s first emperor, the great Qin Shihuang. Peasants digging a well only discovered the underground vault, which was home to this army for two millennia, in 1974. In the afternoon we drive back to the hotel to freshen up before venturing out to a local restaurant notable for their dumpling banquet, the De Fachang Restaurant.
Day 9 / Xian to Beijing
Our morning is free to explore the local temples and markets. Later in the afternoon, we join in a local cooking class to learn about Northwest Chinese cuisine. Under instruction from the senior chef, we cook a mouth-watering three course meal and then enjoy the fruits of our labour. Following dinner, we are transferred to Xian train station for the onward train journey to Beijing. Travelling in ‘soft-class’, four-berth compartments. The 12-hour trip is a great opportunity for our group to get to know each other.
Day 10 / Beijing
On arrival in Beijing we are transferred to our hotel to check in and freshen up. We then walk through the Hutongs, an ancient city alley or lane typical in Beijing, to the imposing Tiananmen Square. Beijing offers endless opportunities for exploration. The enormous Forbidden City, built more than 500 years ago and off limits to commoners for almost all that time, is a truly amazing place. Its size might surprise you (it is huge!), but what makes it fascinating is that every square metre is interesting, ranging from intricately carved walkways to colourful, painted ceilings. Tonight we enjoy dinner at a famous local Dim Sum Restaurant at Jin Ding Xuan for Guangdong dim Sum.
Day 11 / Beijing
After breakfast we transfer by taxi to the Temple of Heaven which is located conveniently close to our hotel. It is a fine example of extraordinary workmanship and a photographers delight. We then take a morning walk in the adjoining gardens and visit ancient buildings and engage with the locals by playing Taiji or learning to write calligraphy using cold water to write on the ground. In the afternoon we transfer by subway to the Hutong Club where we are introduced to the basics of Chinese tea and tea brewing in a fun and interactive way. Dinner is prepared for us by the local experienced chefs.
Day 12 / The Great Wall at Simatai
This morning we drive for about 3.5 hours to Simatai. It’s a largely unrestored and, as such, more authentic section of the Great Wall, not crowded with hordes of other tourists. Being perched on this incredible engineering feat and surveying the spectacular surrounding countryside is an unforgettable experience. Be sure to wear good comfortable walking shoes for the hike. Alternatively, you can choose to use the cable car lift to the top of the wall. Lunch is at a local restaurant before we drive back to Beijing where the afternoon is at leisure. Our hotel is located in the south of the city and a walk in any direction will unveil all sorts of wonderful surprises. There are good shopping opportunities at the various markets around the city, such as the centrally located Dashilan Market. Wang Fu Jing Avenue is the famous shopping area where you can sample some local food at the food market….perhaps even scorpion! In the evening, you have the chance to enjoy a performance of the unique Beijing Opera or the spectacular acrobats (optional).
Day 13 / Beijing
We visit the remarkable Summer Palace today, built for the Qing emperors for their summer escape in ancient times. We have the entire morning to wander and marvel at this ancient palace. In the afternoon, we have free time to visit some local markets such as Pan Jia Yuan Old Flea Market, the Silk Market or the Pearl Market. Tonight we enjoy a farewell dinner with our new friends. We save the best for last as we dine in the famous Quan Jv De Restaurant for succulent Peking Roast Duck!
Day 14 / Beijing – Tour ends