Chris and I visited China in November, 2006. It was the first time we'd ever travelled so far from home. As I write this blog post almost 14 years after the trip, I realize how much we've learned about travel since we went to China.
Though internet travel websites existed in 2006, I was unsure of how to prepare for such a big trip to such an unknown country. I ended up going to the local travel agency specializing in trips to China and just picked a package that suited our timelines and budget. I really had no idea what to look for in the trip or what I really wanted to see when I was there. I didn't even know how entry visas worked and so I simply handed over our passports the to the travel agent, trusting her to take care of it for us.
Our travel agent had put together a full tour for us, ensuring that we would have a tour guide taking us everywhere including transport to the hotel on the first night. Upon arrival in Shanghai we could not find our tour guide. After walking around at the airport looking for him for over an hour in a bit of a panic, we tried to figure out what hotel we should be going to. However it was difficult to determine the name and location from the itinerary and we couldn't figure out how to use the phone to call the phone number listed. Today, I would never go somewhere without having a clear plan, but back then we were still learning. Fortunately we did end up finding our guide - it turned out he had written our names in Chinese on the paper he was holding making it very difficult for us to connect.
On our first night in Shanghai we were treated to a lovely river cruise along the Pearl River, where we were able to take in the amazing city light show and views of the famous Pearl tower.
We figured out very quickly that our tour guide's goal was to bring us to stores where we would make purchases so that he would earn a commission. I guess we didn't buy enough stuff as he quickly turned us over to his junior associate. And we were lucky he did! She was a great guide that showed us many parts of the city and shared stories about life in Shanghai. One of the days she hired a driver to take us to Hangzhou and once we arrived we were met by a local guide. So Chris and I were being toured around Hangzhou by our main tour guide, our driver, and our local guide. Many people were pointing at me and our guide explained that it's because they thought I was Britney Spears. I imagine that my blonde hair and the tour guide entourage could make it seem like that. I ended up posing for a lot of photos that day.
Our next stop was Beijing. When we arrived at the Beijing airport, we found our next tour guide right away (Phew!). I had been quite sick from food poisoning that morning so we ended up going straight to the hotel to relax.
The next morning we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and ended our day with some delicious Peking duck.
We were also able to visit the old alley ways of the city and take a side trip to climb the Great Wall at Badaling. One night our tour guide took us to one of her favourite restaurants and Chris even tried ox hoof soup.
After spending several days in Beijing we were back at the airport to fly to Hong Kong. Hong Kong was the only leg of our trip where we had not booked any tour guides. After 2 weeks in mainland China following our tour guide's schedule and eating foods we couldn't name, being in Hong Kong felt like a welcome change. We were able to navigate the subway using our Octopus cards, get travel advice from ex-pats living in the mid levels, visit the bars in Lan Kwai Fong, travel to "The Peak", and get on the ferry to Lamma Island.
Being in Hong Kong by ourselves showed us that we could navigate a city we'd never been to before without tour guides and where I started learning how to better prepare for trips. It opened up a new world for us that we've been loving ever since.