As you may already know if you have been following my blog for a while I have a personal interest in China even though I have never been there. Tara, who I got to know on Twitter, works for a company that organises private day trips in a number of destinations including China. She has been lucky enough to visit many times. Working in the travel industry does have its perks!
Wanting to know more about the country where my father was born I recently took the opportunity to pick Tara’s brains a little. From a visit to the Cloud 9 Bar in Shanghai or trying Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven to tasting delicious dumplings in Northern China – it all sounds amazing and now, of course, I’m longing to go there even more.
Interview with Tara about her experiences in China
Kat: How long have you worked in the travel industry and what is your role?
Tara: For nearly 25 years, first as a guide, then in the operations department of busy tour operators, then in planning, contracting and marketing – so I have a lot of experience in providing great holiday experiences!
Kat: Do you have to visit interesting destinations as part of your job?
Tara: I have to visit all our destinations regularly to see exactly what is on offer and to choose the highlights that I think will be right for my clients.
Kat: One of the countries you visit is China, is that your favourite destination?
Tara: Definitely, China is my favourite – it’s so different to the West in every way.
Kat: What do you like most about China?
Tara: It’s such a big country and is so varied – you have a giant futuristic metropolis like Shanghai and a few miles away a quaint little water town with ancient houses, traditional red lanterns and cobbled streets – it’s mind-bending how the two belong to the same civilisation! It keeps changing constantly – if you haven’t visited for more than a year it’s like going to a new country.
Kat: Is there anything you don’t like?
Tara: I’m a big animal lover so the casual attitude to animal welfare there is something I would like to see improve.
Kat: Have you come across any interesting or unusual customs there?
Tara: I love the idea of Ancestors’ Tomb Sweeping Day! The family makes an excursion to the grave with flowers, fake money that they burn, incense and a picnic – what a wonderful celebration of life! The old tradition is to prepare for death and to have a coffin ready for when you die. In the big cities the tradition has died but if you go to the small villages and if you get invited into a home you can see a coffin neatly waiting in the attic.
Kat: Do you enjoy the local cuisine and do you have a favourite dish or restaurant?
Tara: My very favourite thing in China is ginger tea – I know you can make it anywhere but they use a special kind of sugar and somehow it tastes completely different.
In the north during the winter I love eating dumplings, especially if they are made in front of you and you choose the fillings.
Chengdu is a great place for spicy food – I love spicy aubergine.
In Shanghai I like smelly tofu from the street vendors – you have to keep your nose closed but the taste is delicious.
The rice noodles are delicious in Guilin.
But the most rewarding meal I had was at the Bamboo Temple in Kunming made by Buddhist monks. It was vegetarian spinach cooked in a slow stew with lots of spices and plain boiled rice, we paid around RMB 5 – I recommend it to anyone visiting Kunming!
Kat: Chinese food is very popular in England. How does the food from a typical Chinese take-away or restaurant in England compare to the food you will find in China?
Tara: Food in China is cooked with lots more spices and uses a wider variety of meat – chicken feet and chicken necks are considered great delicacies – there is not much that they don’t eat, since food shortages have marked much of China’s history, and vegetarianism is almost unheard of outside the big cities. But even in China you can be served the same bland food as you get here if you stick with restaurants that cater to tourists – you need to be adventurous and venture into places where the locals go. These local places might look a bit scruffy, busy, no menu even and the service will certainly not be in English – but the food will be fresh, tasty, filling and excellent value!
Kat: What is the one thing that every visitor should make sure they see or do?
Tara: The Great Wall, it’s magnificent. Choose one of the remoter sections like Jinshaling or Simitai where there are fewer people – sometimes you can have the whole place to yourself. But there is so much in China that there are lots of must-sees – go to the 798 Art District in Beijing or try Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven. Visit the Cloud 9 bar on the 88th floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Shanghai for a 360 degree view. Cycle along the top of the City Wall in Xian, take a cookery class in Yangshuo, go wine tasting in Shandong…
Kat: What is your experience of the local people?
Tara: People all over the world are the same – if you are cheerful and polite and respectful they will usually be the same. You don’t necessarily need to speak the same language – I once had a ‘conversation’ with an older gentleman whose son translated for each of us on his mobile – that was fun!
Kat: What is the best time of year to visit with regards to the weather?
Tara: Any time except summer when it’s really hot and quite uncomfortable. Winter is good as it’s often cheaper and you can get clear, bright, crisp days that are fantastic for photography.
Kat: What is the local public transport like and is it easy to use?
Tara: Certainly in the big cities they have excellent bus and train networks with maps and so on in English, and the major train lines between the cities are also fantastic – the new Beijing-Shanghai route is super-fast and very good value for money – much better than flying!
Kat: Do you have a favourite memory of China?
Tara: I have been to China nearly 30 times and have lots of great memories. Getting locked out of my hotel on a fire escape stairwell when I was taking a photograph of the rooftops of the Forbidden City certainly is one of my favourite memories!
My thanks to Tara for a fascinating interview
and to Ready, Click and Go for providing these lovely photographs.
Follow Tara on Twitter @PrivateDayTrips
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I second the advice about not going in the summer. We did one summer weekend and it was so hot and H.U.M.I.D. that the humidity was all I could think of as we walked around, hahaha. (I live in a tropical country but oh boy, Shanghai in the summer is something else). But the food was really good. 🙂
That’s good to know. Can’t wait to try the food there but goodness knows when I’ll be able to go. Not this year sadly.
I agree with the comments about hong kong – it is an awesome city with such variety. It’s possible to jungle trek, island hop, shop, sunbathe, sightsee and enjoy a fine dining experience all in the same day (if you’ve got the energy!)
As for the rest of china, I’d love to go too but am put off a bit by visas. Can anyone recommend tips on how to get one easily?
That’s good to know about Hong Kong. It’s on my list! Afraid I can’t help re visas I’ll see if I can find anything out.
The Chinese visa form is very daunting at 4 pages but just fill it n as best you can! You need to send in your passport, a photo, and copies of your itinerary in China and flight tickets as well. Tourists apply for the (L) visa which takes around 4 working days to come through, it’s more complicated for a business visa but there are companies who will check and send in your form for you to make life easier.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit China 6 times (some of the trips were mostly work). There is so much to see. There are still so many places I would like to go in China. Hope you plan a long trip when you go.
Oh I do envy you! At the moment my visit to China is just a dream but I’m hoping I will be able to make it a reality at some point over the next few years.
I’ve only been to Hong Kong, though I hear China China is no comparison.
Everyone encouraged me to not waste my time in Hong Kong–just another big city, they said. But Hong Kong was incredible. Great hikes, interesting markets, picturesque day-trips. It was also quite a fun city to dine in–ie: dim sum for breakfast with grumpy old people reading their morning papers.
As a writer, you can probably appreciate my final point, four days in HK produced twice as many stories as fourteen days in Thailand or Vietnam or Bali. It’s a city that offers so many unique experiences that you want to capture them all in some form.
From what you say I’d really love Hong Kong! I do hope I can visit on my way to Shanghai, when I finally get to go!
Aah, brought back fond memories. Hope you get to Shanghai soon Kat 🙂
Sorry to say it is really not possible at the moment but I’m sure I will go there one day. There’s a lot of Asia I’d like to explore and I have an old school friend in Hong Kong I’d love to visit too.
The food sounds spectacular. I just discovered ginger tea a few months back and it finally gave my excess ginger a purpose. Still looking forward to a trip to China and to see the Wall.
Hi Noah. I really do long to go myself and one of the many reasons is to try real Chinese food! Have you a trip planned?