NEW YORK, Feb. 21 – – This afternoon two dear friends from Tel Aviv, my Cuban wife and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a dance performance at New York’s City Center, “Havana Rakatan.” My wife, often times, can be very dubious about “artists” from present day Cuba as so many have been outright duds. But this troupe, part of City Center’s Latin dance festival, proved that the small island in the Caribbean often produces over-the-top brilliant performers and artists, and these musicians and dancers were utterly supreme. So much so that often during the Saturday matinee, the audience gainfully applauded with standing ovations. At the end of the show, the audience screamed and yelled in appreciation almost as though the Beatles or the Rolling Stones has just performed one of their top hits.
This “Havana Rakatan” performance left me constantly tapping my feet and air drumming my hands and fingers on my wife’s hands and arms – I was at the ready to jump up in my seat and start a mambo or a cha cha as the music progressed through a series of fast-paced numbers with brilliant choreography coupled with the brilliant musicians. The dancers, most of which must have had ballet backgrounds (so it seemed by their smooth and seamless movements, leg stretches and ability to fly effortlessly) were gorgeous, both in movement and in dress; again kudos to the costume designers and dressers.
The female vocalist, very reminiscent, of Celia Cruz, was also at the top of her game, and from the program notes, has a very promising career as a singer, composer, arranger and choral director.
By all means if you enjoy Cuban music and heritage and are searching for something to do on a Sunday afternoon or evening, snap up a ticket for Sunday’s last performances at City Center. It’s well worth the time and effort and you’ll come away with a huge smile and tapping hands and feet.
As an inveterate and very persnickety traveler, I always prefer to travel as an individual – well, of course, preferably with my wife – and take advantage of special airline deals and respective buying power to get the best price at hotels or other affiliated holiday subsidiaries. The idea of taking a package tour with a group of 25 unknowns seemed much too perverse and burdensome and didn’t even qualify for the bottom of our travel bucket list.
Too many times while escorting airline media trips these past years, I had to encounter and kowtow to people that that were prima donnas, trouble makers or just royal pains who never participated in part or all the trip where they were “guests.” Or they pompously sat on their laurels saying they knew best and/or proposed new alternatives from a structured program they had already accepted. What bores!
So recently when we looked at the opportunity to travel in China with a tour company called China Spree on a two week package tour with a group of travelers, my wife and I found ourselves seriously questioning our judgement about traveling with an unknown group of individuals.After a lot of hedging, we finally decided the itinerary and the potential value-for-money were too good to refuse, and we decided to take the risk and try something we had never dared in all the years we’ve been traveling together. We would give it “a go.” We finalized the arrangements through Seattle-based China Spree and packed up for the unknown – the group, not the country.
I have to admit that prior to our departure from New York, China Spree was very helpful and sent us a booklet containing very useful information about the itinerary, a list of participants – no one even remotely known to either of us – the hotels and contact information along the way, plus a plethora of items such as “essential to pack,” “expect the unexpected,” and useful phrases (Diet Coke, supermarket, toilet, headache and even cardiac pacemaker). OMG! Some of it was actually quite alarming, but also entertaining.
Day One and we departed on our own to the first joining city – Beijing. What were we in for? I couldn’t sleep on the flight to Beijing thinking all the while, “What have I done? What will the hotels be like?”
Beijing International Airport is huge (rumored to be at some time in the future, the biggest airport in the world), but quite manageable, and once out of Chinese immigration and customs and a visit to an ATM for some local currency, Yuan or RMB, we caught a taxi to our hotel. By the way, taxis in Beijing are comparatively cheap when weighed against traditional big cities in Europe or the USA.
Our first destination was the five-star Marriott Beijing City Wall, and at first glance as we pulled up, the place seemed like a barn taking up one gigantic city block. Despite having never been to this hotel, it did seem to be well located in the center of the city. The city of Beijing is huge and spread out, even more so than Los Angeles with at least five times the population.
Walking into the hotel’s lobby kind of late morning, we were surprised to see how elegant a hotel it was. We checked in and went up to the room to unpack our bags and enjoy a soothing shower and a much-needed nap. The rooms were overwhelmingly comfortable with all the right amenities and so, we were able to adequately rest and recuperate after the long flight.By late afternoon, we thought we’d better go down to the lobby and check for a China Spree representative or other members of the tour. Relief as we turned the corner from the elevators into the main reception area and spotted a young Chinese woman holding a red (what else) China Spree flag and chatting with several couples.
Contact!! At last! We joined the conversation and introduced ourselves to our tour leader, Ming Li, a petit Chinese lady in her late twenties who spoke English and who would turn out to be the absolute star of our two-week trek. We learned she would accompany us for the entire journey and, luckily, she had once been to the USA and her English was near perfect.
With Ming leading our group, we figured we had a really good chance to understand any and everything that would be happening in the next 13 days. Ming explained our two-week itinerary and advised us of the various things we needed to know about the next few days in Beijing. The first evening would be at leisure and the next morning we were to assemble in a designated hotel conference room for introductions, enabling everyone to become acquainted and then we would review the entire journey.
That first evening was blissfully relaxing, permitting a calm and quiet overnight’s rest after a wonderful dinner. Then it was on to the next morning’s session meeting all the players. The morning meeting could not have been more helpful. Certain people already knew one another as they had come over to China in small groups, and others just melded in with the rest. There were people from all over the USA and Canada and everyone seemed to be pretty well traveled and experienced. And there even was one couple from Norfolk, Virginia, who were honeymooning on this tour and, being they were the loveliest couple, we were all thrilled to be a part of their newlywed adventure. Everyone seem to coddle them in the nicest way, paving theirs and our own soon-to-be adventures in China.
Over the next two days In Beijing, we hit all the highlights – Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the sites and the grounds used for the 2008 Olympiad, the Summer Palace, and on our own, we visited the pandas at the Beijing Zoo. One can never get enough of the pandas – they are God’s perfection of cute and cuddly, but slightly too big and too rare and endangered to be permitted to keep as a household pet. And there’s not too many places where one can buy an endless supply of bamboo to fulfill the panda’s needs.
Pandas are a wonderful image of China; I just wish the Chinese zookeepers would clean the glass on some of the panda viewing sites.
Beijing is well worth at least week of exploring; we didn’t have that much time in the Chinese capital.
Next stop, the City of Xian, and one of the most incredible underground attractions in the world, only discovered forty years ago – the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses.
These 6,000 plus life-size and life-like men and animals, all sculpted from stone, were entombed as ever-lasting guardians of the first emperor of China. They remained so for some two millennia until their discovery by local farmers drilling for water. Since their discovery, the caves have been the subject of scientific study and continuous excavation, with the likelihood of more undiscovered caverns and their treasure in the same region.
Xian also is the location of the Wild Goose Pagoda which dates back over 1,300 years. It is a photographer’s dream as it is a seven-story structure with so much background to explore and shoot. We also explored the Muslim Quarter of Xian and the seventh century Great Mosque, the center for the local Muslim community that are descendants of the merchants and travelers that plied along the ancient Silk Road that connected China with Europe.
After two days in Xian, we then flew south to the City of Guilin located on the Li River and site of some of the most magical and unusual topography on the planet. The area is spotted with seemingly hundreds of two thousand foot, limestone, conical mini-mountains, and when they’re surrounded by mist or fog, they take on an enchanting aura making you really believe that the wicked witch of the west or Harry Potter will come barreling out of the mist for a quick fly-by.
The Li River tour, a four hour boat ride meandering past the mystical pinnacles, is the region’s ‘must do’ and is well worth the effort, no matter the cost, weather or time of the year. During this cruise, a photographer can easily fill up an eight gb sim card shooting endless landscapes featuring bamboo groves, small riverside villages, boats and barges of all sizes and shapes, with or without fisherman, and a wide variety of animals from water buffalo to cormorants.
Guilin’s second natural attraction is the Reed Flute Cave. An attraction for the last 1,200 years, the caves have long been outfitted with muted lights of blues, reds, oranges and greens, and throughout the one hour walk through the caverns with the gigantic stalactites and stalagmites looming up or peering down, it seems like a moving son et lumiere light festival, particularly designed to garner the ooohs and aaahs of the visitors. It’s also a great test for the still photographers that weren’t smart enough to bring along a tripod.
Before departing the Guilin region, we visited a part of the country encompassing one of China’s most famous scenic landscapes, the Long Sheng Dragon Spine Rice Terraces. Here, rice growers, over the centuries, have sculpted and shaped 2,000 feet peaks with step-like terraces for growing their prized agricultural possession. In the Spring when the terraces are water bound, the terraces seem to resemble shiny, wavy ladders; and at other parts of the year when the rice ripens, the peaks seemingly turn into colorful rippling waves. On the hillsides adjacent to the terraces, the locals live and flourish in their centuries-old villages with narrow paths of stones built into hillsides, barely wide enough to permit mules or hand carts or wagons to carry their possessions as well as the valuable rice production. Again for both professional and amateur photographers, this Southwest area of the country offers up a treasure trove of the most spectacular visuals one could ever imagine.
From Guilin, we flew northeast to the metropolis of Shanghai. Whereas Beijing is the Washington, D.C. of China, Shanghai is China’s New York, the business and communications center of China. For my point of view, Shanghai’s overt capitalism and business enterprise puts New York and London to shame. Maybe Tokyo comes close, but Shanghai, with it’s 25 million inhabitants, is a vibrant, starry-bright fixture that is captivating and makes one wish for, at least, a one month’s stay.
In a 14 month gap between two visits to Shanghai in 2012 and 2013, the amount of building and expansion was overwhelming, notwithstanding the modernization and refurbishment of selected old and new shopping malls, residential areas and, of course, Pudong, the area of tall buildings and skyscrapers that at night, are electrified neon panoramas of commercial splendor. Shanghai, in the evening hours, takes the first prize electric light cake of any city I’m aware of; overall it’s grander than Tokyo’s Ginza and more colorful that the Eiffel Tower at Christmas, which I do love. Even the older, art deco area directly across river from Pudong, The Bund, radiates brilliance in reflective glory from the glittering neon originating from the sides of flashing buildings across the river.
For the length and breadth of shopping experiences, it’s tough to beat Shanghai. Of course, for the average western tourist, one doesn’t want to spend tons of money in the up-scale malls and shops that only feature imports from the USA and Europe; one could go broke very quickly because of the high import taxes. But there are plenty of Chinese home-grown products – excluding the fake market merchandise – that is very worthwhile. Silk goods – linens and clothing are well worth the price, as well as pearls and other jewelry, porcelain, table ware (dishes, cups, bowls, etc), furniture if you have the space and time for carriage – and traditional drawings and paintings.
One must always beware of the junk dealers and fake marketeers all over the country, in every city and town; they sell rip-off items and fakes that fall apart, break or stop working after two minutes. It doesn’t take a genius to spot these people or their ridiculous shops.Finally a word on package tours. I went into this experience dreading the “if it’s Tuesday, it must be Beijing” syndrome, but in the case of China Spree, it was an inspiring experience, and one that I will be forever grateful. And the most amazing part of the journey were China Spree’s preparations, information and presentation before and during the two week journey. And by some kind of fantastic luck. there was China’s Spree’s ability to put together a well knitted, experienced group that all melded together so well. There were no prima-donnas, black widows or bizarre personalities – and believe me, I’ve seen plenty of them. It may have been pure luck, or to my thinking to China Spree’s credit, their professional expertise and experience in creating a workable and doable itinerary with professional and extremely sociable and well-seasoned guides that made the trip a 1,000 percent value.
In addition to our national tour guide, Ming Li, who remained with our group throughout the two weeks, China Spree also provided an additional local guide in each of cities visited. Each guide was an expert, a veritable walking encyclopedia, on their particular environ, and all spoke excellent English and had the most pleasing personalities. We were well looked after, indeed!
The final take away which has turned out to be so valuable is the lasting friendships that were created during this China sojourn. We keep in touch with many of our new friends, and e-mails, Facebook messages and even videos, abound.
China Spree tour information with itineraries and pricing may be found at its web site at http://www.chinespree.com, or by calling toll-free, 855 556-68678. China Spree and its sister company, World Spree, http://www.worldspree.com, also are now offering tours beyond China to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India and Nepal.
NOTE: I HAVE ONLY BARELY TOUCHED THE SURFACE OF THE SIGHTSEEING ASPECTS OF TOURING CHINA. THERE ARE A MULTITUDE OF IN-DEPTH BOOKS AND VOLUMINOUS TOURIST GUIDE BOOKS AVAILABLE GIVING IN-DEPTH INFORMATION AND HISTORY ABOUT ALL THE ABOVE DESTINATIONS AND MORE.
Please visit Grand Luxury Travel at
Please visit LA Times, Tuesday, Nov. 27, travel section site to view a selection of my holiday photos of New York City.
Captions gratefully written by Catharine Hamm, Travel Editor, Los Angeles Times.