China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

China Explored, Part I: Travel By Groupon

I’ve always dreamed about visiting China and seeing the Great Wall someday but it seemed like a bucket list destination that was just too far out of reach. That all changed when I saw an amazing travel deal on Groupon offering a 10-day guided tour of China for $649. If you’re not familiar with Groupon, it’s essentially an online marketplace where you buy vouchers to redeem for activities, goods, and services. Groupon vouchers are usually available at a fraction of the usual cost for the purchase, making the service a great way to try new things. For example, when we lived in Texas I purchased a Groupon voucher for a beekeeping course for two with a local farm. The voucher was $79 and had to be used within 90 days of purchase, but had I bought the course without the voucher I would have paid $200.

From our 3-hour beekeeping course in November of 2016.

Since I use Groupon pretty frequently to try things I wouldn’t normally jump to spend money on, I didn’t think the fact that I booked this trip using Groupon was even worth mentioning. That is, until I started mentioning it to people who seemed surprised and eager to hear more. I also learned about a little thing I can only describe as “Groupon shame.” Our trip to Iceland back in December was also made possible through a Groupon deal and now that I’ve got two trips under my belt I’ve had several questions about how to book travel through Groupon. I’m working on a follow-up post that includes everything you need to know and how you can travel cheaply using Groupon that I will share later. For now, I want to tell you that there is nothing shameful or inauthentic about booking a discounted vacation package through Groupon (so long as you read and understand the fine print), and I hope to show you this as I guide you through our 10-day itinerary.

High rise homes in Beijing viewed from the airplane.

Our Groupon travel package was for a 10-Day guided tour of China with stops in Beijing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, including hotels and roundtrip nonstop flights. The package was offered by the company Rewards Travel China and also included transportation, 13 meals, and several day tours. The price was a bargain at only $649 per person, especially considering that the airfare and transportation between cities alone is over $600 when priced separately. So what’s the catch? A series of mandatory visits to government-owned showrooms featuring popular Chinese exports where visitors sit through tours and heavy sales pitches. That may be a dealbreaker for some but we considered the value and opportunity to visit a place we never thought we’d have the chance to see and decided to book our tickets.

Government owned jade factory and showroom. More on day 4.

So off we went! Day 1 and 2 were essentially travel days. We had a direct flight that left San Jose, CA at 1:30 pm and arrived in Beijing just under 13 hours later, which would be around 6:00 pm on the following evening, China time. We quickly spotted our guide with Rewards Travel China after we landed and he helped us through the security checkpoints and assisted with obtaining our travel visa. Prior to departure, Rewards Travel China applied for a group visa on our behalf- all we had to do was scan a copy of our passports and fill out a simple form. We waited for more travelers from the tour group to arrive, then loaded up into one of those giant charter buses that seat about 60 people and headed off to the hotel.

Checking in at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing.

I’ll admit I always thought traveling with a huge group of tourists in those big charter buses seemed kind of lame but it’s actually quite practical. You get to meet other travelers (we made some great new friends in our group), there’s always someone nearby who won’t mind taking your picture, and the massive carpooling is definitely better for the environment- especially in China where the air pollution is so terrible (I’ve been home for over a week and am still coughing from exposure to air pollution as I type this). They also sold water and Chinese beer on these buses for super cheap- so that’s also a plus!

Bus beer.

Our hotel in Beijing was very nice, 5-stars to be exact, and offered a massive breakfast buffet spread across 3 large dining rooms every morning. Not a bad place to call home for the next three nights.

View from our room in the morning.
Part of the buffet.

Our first real chance to explore Beijing came on what was technically day 3 of our itinerary. This was a free day but we decided to purchase the optional full-day excursion ($65/person) that included a trip to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square with a provided lunch. These are all popular attractions in Beijing and places I would want to visit on our free day anyway, so booking the excursion was the most convenient option.

Our hotel.

Our first stop was to the Summer Palace. We saw an interesting snack shack on our walk to the gates from the bus. In addition to honey covered fruit kabobs there was a variety of dried, fried, and barbequed critters, including scorpions, starfish, spiders, snakes, and beetles. Though our guide pointed out that finding critters on a stick is pretty common in Beijing, it seemed more like a novelty and less like an everyday food so we decided not to try any.

Outside the Summer Palace.

The Summer Palace was stunningly beautiful, even in the winter, and rich with history. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this lavish royal retreat is filled with grand pavilions, colorfully painted halls, decorative statues, vast lakes and gardens, and an iconic bridge with 17 arches.

Frozen Kunming Lake below the Tower of Buddhist Incense.

During winter, Kunming Lake freezes over and people take to the ice on skates and sleds. I’ve visited several indoor and outdoor rinks but ice skating on a frozen natural body of water is one of my bucket list items, so I was tempted to head back to Kunming and give it a try.

The gardens in the Summer Palace are a popular meeting space for singing and dancing. We were treated to the sounds and sights of locals practicing Tai Chi and singing traditional songs.

Singing group.

Something I noticed on our first day out was the lack of foreign tourists. Since we were visiting popular tourist attractions in Beijing, I expected to see many tour groups filled with Americans and foreigners from other countries. Surprisingly, all of the people and tourists we saw were Chinese. In fact, I did not see any Americans or foreign-looking folks outside of our own tour group for the entire trip. Not a single one. This probably explains why many of the Chinese people we encountered tended to stare when we walked by and many whipped out phones to take pictures of us. On several occasions, we were asked to pose for pictures with Chinese people who admitted they had never seen Americans in person before.

We stopped for a quick lunch with rice, veggies, noodles, soup, tea, and beer before heading off for more sightseeing. All of our meals were served family style where dishes were placed on a large lazy susan at the center of the table.

Our next stop was Tiananmen Square, one of the largest city squares in the world and a place of deep cultural and political significance. I couldn’t help but feel a bit solemn as we walked through the area, knowing its dark history. In 1989, students who protested in support of democracy, were met in Tiananmen Square with gunfire and massacred by the Chinese Army.

Tiananmen Square.

The official death toll from the tragic incident is unknown. Following the attack, the Chinese government suppressed media coverage, discussion, and investigation efforts, ultimately reporting the casualties ranged from 100-200 civilians. However, files that were more recently declassified from the U.S. and British governments revealed an estimated death toll of over 10,000 people. There are no memorials to be found in Tiananmen Square, and in fact, those who appear to be mourning publicly without government approval can be arrested.

Bridge from Tiananmen Square to Tiananmen.

Next we moved on to Tiananmen, also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. The gate with it’s imperial-style architecture is featured on the National Emblem of the People’s Republic of China.

At the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

The Forbidden City was our final stop and had much more upbeat vibes. For nearly 500 years, this huge complex sitting on over 180 acres served as the home of China’s emperors and was the center for political proceedings.

The Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City.

Worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Forbidden City holds the worldwide record for the most ancient, preserved wooden structures. Building rooftops are covered with intricate patterns while their interiors and exteriors are adorned with bright, detailed paintings.

During our tour I learned that the Forbidden City took 14 years to build and it required the hard work of approximately 1 million laborers. The entire complex is surrounded by a moat and 32-foot wall. As the largest imperial palace in the world, it attracts between 14 million and 16 million visitors every year.

Frozen moat around the Forbidden City walls.
Rocks in the Imperial Garden.

Another new experience was using a public squat toilet. All of the hotels had regular old toilet bowls and it was business as usual. However, most public restrooms in China have squat style toilets and are strictly BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I kept a small baggie of TP in my pocket (except one day when I made the mistake of leaving it on the bus and had to borrow from a friend) and antibacterial wipes for hand-washing afterwards. The plumbing systems aren’t equipped to handle wads of toilet paper, thus a small trash bin is provided. Most of the public restrooms we visited had multiple squat toilets and usually one or more western-style toilet bowls. Typically the western toilet stalls had a line, so I ended up using the squatters. If the stalls are occupied, the protocol is to line up outside of whichever individual stall you want, vs. forming one single line and taking the stall that opens up first. If you stand back and wait, you’ll definitely miss your turn.

It had been a long day of sightseeing and new experiences but we still weren’t done. We went back to the hotel for a quick dinner on our own, then hit the town again to go see a Shaolin kung fu performance. We walked to a restaurant across from our hotel and managed to order by pointing at the items we wanted on the menu. A little embarrassment but ultimately a success!

The food at dinner was really good, though it didn’t seem too different from American Chinese food in my humble opinion. Of course there was no “General Tso’s chicken” but most places we visited served a variety of rice, noodle, and steamed bun options.

Kung fu performance.

The show was pretty spectacular and featured insanely talented artists who told the story of Chun Yi, a boy who went to a monastery to become a buddhist monk and faced many challenges before becoming a kung fu master and reaching enlightenment. My jaw dropped at the sight of children who did front and backflips landing directly on their bare heads. After landing the flip they balanced for a moment then continued to flip from feet to head over and over again, hands never touching the floor. I should have grabbed my phone to take a picture but I think I was in too much shock.

That’s a wrap on days 1-3. Initially I was concerned that since we were participating in a guided tour, we would have little time to do things on our own. However, at each place we visited we were allowed a specified amount of free time (usually between 45 mins and 2 hours) to explore and roam around independently. For me this was a pretty good compromise.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading along so far and I hope you’ll stay tuned for my next post detailing days 3-6 when we climbed the Great Wall of China, walked in the beautiful Lingering Garden, sat through a sales spiel in a silk factory, and fell awestruck by the giant Lingshan Grand Buddha. Thanks for reading!

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

An Icelandic Adventure: Part II

Our third full day in Iceland would be a long one. We woke up early to head out for a tour of the Golden Circle, a route that travels approximately 190 miles in southern Iceland, covering some of the country’s most scenic natural landmarks and attractions. But first, breakfast!

Our hotel offered complimentary breakfast every morning and I have to admit it was one of the best free breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen. My plate was a little boring but there was fresh fruit, fish, meats and cheeses, yogurt, cereal, pastries, eggs, bread, cereal, and a waffle bar. Everything was very fresh and paired with coffee, provided the fuel we needed to start the day.

First stop: Friðheimar grehouse.

The first stop on our tour was Friðheimar, a geothermal greenhouse where organic tomatoes are grown year-round. Agriculture can be tricky in Iceland because of the climate and shortened daylight hours during fall and winter. From May through August, Iceland’s sun doesn’t sleep and daylight persists for 24 hours a day. However, for the remainder of the year Iceland is under much darker skies with only 3-5 hours of light each day.

Visitors can dine on all things tomato right inside the greenhouse.

At Friðheimar, plants are grown using geothermal water and light is sufficiently provided through green electricity produced by hydro and geothermal power plants. A restaurant is also onsite serving up a variety of tomato dishes, drinks, and even desserts. We weren’t feeling very hungry since we had just eaten at the hotel, but looking back I really wish I would have tried the homemade tomato ice cream à la Friðheimar or maybe a tomato beer. Next time!

Friðheimar also specializes in breeding Icelandic show and riding horses. We were able to meet a few of these beautiful animals who didn’t seem bothered by the snow or cold one bit.

Next we were off to the Haukadalur valley, an area with a lot of geothermal activity. Here we saw Geysir, Iceland’s most famous, though mostly dormant geyser. Although she’s been inactive for several years, Geysir is truly the mother of all geysers as she was the first ever to be recorded in earth’s history and all other geysers discovered after her have carried her name. 

These days the crowds tend to form around Strokkur, one of Iceland’s most popular and reliable natural geysers. Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes blasting its boiling water upwards of 49–66 ft on average.

Thar she blows!

The Haukadalur valley has over 40 more geothermal features including smaller pots of boiling mud, hot springs, and steam vents. The landscape in the area is also stunningly scenic, rich with colorful grasses and algae.

You might recognize this photo of Haukadalur from my last post. It’s one of my favorites from the trip.

I had purchased ice cleats for our trip just in case we needed them and was glad to have them when I started sliding around on the slippery walkways. Once I had the cleats on my boots I felt very confident trotting along through the ice and snow. After exploring the valley for a bit longer we ventured into the nearby visitor center where we had lunch- nice hot soup and cold Icelandic white ale.

I was really excited to visit our next stop on the tour, Gullfoss or golden falls.  This massive and powerful waterfall sits on the Hvítá river and is fed by the Langjökull glacier, Iceland’s second largest. It was so windy we had a hard time walking and an even harder time trying to hold the camera still for a picture. Nevertheless, I managed to snap a few without getting blown away by the wind or sacrificing my phone to the falls.

View from the upper observation deck.

Before Gullfoss became a nature reserve, the land belonged to a sheep farmer. Over the years foreign investors sought to use the waterfall for generating electricity.  The farmer’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir fought to preserve the falls, hiring an attorney and even making the journey to Reykjavik barefooted for court proceedings. Though the court did not rule in her favor, plans to exploit the falls ultimately fell through and Sigríður’s efforts helped bring awareness to the importance of preserving Iceland’s natural beauty.

View from the lower observation deck.

The last stop on our tour of the Golden Circle was Þingvellir National Park, a site that is truly one-of-a-kind. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, runs through the park. This is the only location on earth where visitors can snorkel or dive between two tectonic plates. I’m definitely adding that activity to my list for our next visit! It’s also the only location where the ridge sits above sea level, allowing visitors to walk along the crest on land.

The rift valley from above.

In addition to the beauty and geological significance of this site, it’s also culturally and historically rich as the birthplace of the Althing, Iceland’s national parliament and the oldest parliament in the world. Þingvellir was also Iceland’s first national park, founded in 1930, and was designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 2004. Any Game of Thrones fans out there? The park was used as a filming location in season 4 and you may recognize the rugged terrain from the iconic battle between Brienne of Tarth and The Hound.

I made an eerie discovery about Þingvellir after we returned home. I took some photographs of what I thought was just a pretty pond with a small waterfall. I did a little research to see if such a beautiful feature in the park had a name. I learned the site is known as the Drowning Pool and it’s where at least 18 women were legally drowned by Vikings for behavior considered immoral, such as adultery. I also learned that a small memorial plaque listing the names of the women is posted somewhere near the site, but I didn’t see it during my visit. And, although you won’t find any informational signs revealing the grim details, there are several more historical execution sites which exist in the park. As tourists, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of a place, and in some cases, fail to fully understand its history.

Drowning Pool.

Back to our adventure…after a long day out on the Golden Circle we were feeling pretty famished and decided we needed to head back to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for some of those amazing hot dogs we had on the food walk tour. How could we not? We started off modestly ordering one each but then went back for seconds not feeling any shame.

Still dreaming of those hot dogs…

We also went back to Apotek for dessert and tried their Christmas special- spice crumble topped with a scoop of vanilla sorbet, a caramelized white chocolate mousse with apple filling atop a gingerbread cookie, dulce de leche sauce, raspberry and lime gel, fresh fruit, chocolate pearls. It was divine! They had a case full of adorable little pastries that they use for their desserts and I wanted to take them all home with me.

I’ll have one of each, please!

Since it was our last night in Iceland we decided to spend it exploring more of downtown Reykjavik, which was within walking distance of our hotel. One thing we absolutely loved about Iceland was the abundance of art. Art was literally everywhere and we probably looked a little silly taking photographs of beautiful, artful things that are probably just normal sights to Icelanders.

Another delightful and artful sight in downtown Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall. The design for this contemporary, steel-frame building that sits on the atlantic ocean was inspired by the basalt landscapes of Iceland. Harpa’s walls are adorned with geometrical glass panels, which after dark, are illuminated by led lighting and dance in every color imaginable.

Water feature in front of Harpa.

Everything also felt extra magical because of the Christmas season. The Christmas holiday is very important in Iceland and nearly every business and home we saw was decorated in some way. Our local guide explained that Icelanders enjoy having the extra light and cheer during December when the days are shorter. Even tombstones in cemeteries are often lit up with christmas lights in remembrance of lost loved ones.

There was no shortage of beautiful lights or Santas. The Icelandic Santas of folklore are known as the Yule Lads and there are thirteen of them. They’re also technically trolls and a bit mischievous, playing pranks on children, then leaving gifts for those who have been good and rotting potatoes for those who have misbehaved. We spotted a few of the Yule Lads hanging around on buildings while we were strolling downtown.

I wish we would have had more time to wander along the charming streets in search of the other Yule Lads. I wish we would have made it back to Cafe Loki one more time for another helping of that delicious rye bread ice cream.

I definitely wouldn’t have minded another visit to the Blue Lagoon or a trip to some of Iceland’s more remote hot springs. But, unfortunately our Icelandic adventure was coming to an end. The next morning as we begrudgingly headed off to the airport we saw the snow that had enchanted us over the past few days had melted away. It was almost reminiscent of when the clock struck midnight and Cinderella watched as the magic disappeared. Sigh. Overall it was a lovely trip and we left already planning for our return. For now, it’s back to California to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. As always, thanks for reading and may your holidays be blessed!