A cruise ship visit to Tianjin, China is a special treat that requires advance planning. Reading the cruise ship literature and doing online research is the first step. It is important to note that American citizens will need a visitor visa in order to visit China. Usually cruise ship websites provide the link to the appropriate website.
Websites that focus on the “Top 10 places to visit” include a comprehensive overview. Sorting through this information may be cumbersome, but it will enable you to create your personal priority list and help you decide what you want to book. If your “must see” list does not conform with a preexisting tour package, you may need to consider a private tour.
What I learned:
Cruise ships offer comprehensive shore excursions that guarantee that you will not miss the ship’s departure. Individuals are also free to make their own travel plans that include adequate time to return to the ship. In Options For Multiple Days in Port, I discuss a variety of things that should be considered before choosing a tour package.
Whatever choice is made, I highly recommend confirming all multi-day shore excursions before leaving home.
Regardless of the type of tour, all cruise passengers should keep in mind that the bus from the Tianjin port to Beijing takes approximately 3 hours while the bullet train is less than an hour. The type of transportation provided will have an impact on your touring time. Oftentimes, the type of transportation is part of a tour package.
I have yet to talk with a shore excursion representative in the US or on board a ship who can answer all of my questions accurately and/or completely. These individuals can speak English fluently, but their background information is limited. Thus, it is important to do a significant amount of research.
Choosing a foreign private touring company can be more challenging when English is not the primary language. It is always recommended to ask for all travel details in writing.
Planning a multiple day port excursion requires faith that all will go as anticipated. This is especially true in a country where most of the people do not speak English fluently. Despite this potential communication obstacle, most people are able to work around any issues that develop. Our time in Tianjin/Beijing hit above our anticipated mark.
Prior to leaving the US, we chose to use Celebrity Cruises to book our 2night/3 day extended Best of Beijing Excursion. We felt that it was the right choice for this particular location. We made one small error. We did not anticipate that all of the multi-day excursions would be sold out before embarkation. Payment for the multiple day excursions was non-refundable.
Fortuitously, a few spots opened up. We were lucky.
On the first day, it took hours longer than anticipated to disembark from the ship. The Chinese government was extensively screening the first tour groups. Our groups’ time to disembark came roughly 2 hours after the designated time. When we eventually disembarked, we passed through security easily. It is hard to say how long the people traveling on their own had to wait. Private tours usually are given the least priority to disembark unless the passengers have significant status with the cruise line.
Since we arrived in Beijing several hours late, we were forced to skip our first destination. We were fortunate that this stop was added to our last day and was not totally dropped from our posted itinerary. When our bus returned to the port late, we did not have any issues. The ship was waiting. We were allowed access. Had we been traveling privately, it is not known if we would have been allowed onboard after the designated time.
Traveling in a group limits the food options since everyone is served the same food. However, before a restaurant is included in a tour, it undergoes a vetting process. The quality of the food and overall experience can vary from one destination to the next. Oftentimes passengers are not provided the name of the dining facility in advance. Thus, one must rely on the tour operators’ recommendations. The quality of the experience can fluctuate.
Special dietary requests may or may not be honored. We requested “no pork”. Sometimes we were provided an alternative, other times not.
During the 3 day Best of Beijing Excursion, the food and beverages were tasty. Some meals were better than others. The food tended to be similar with only minor changes in presentation.
I drank a fair amount of Beijing beer and relied on seeing watermelon as our twice daily dessert. Food was always served family style. It was a bit disconcerting that in some restaurants the serving spoons were not put on the table. People were forced to use their own utensils or extra forks to take food off the serving dish.
Communication with the wait staff was challenging since only a handful spoke English. Some restaurants provided signs or menus that listed ingredients while others chose to offer no information. If our tour guide was not nearby, we had to wait until he returned with an explanation.
Our hotel was on par with any 4-5 star accommodations in the West. It was a sleek modern building with an impressive foyer and common areas. This information was provided in the tour description.
Until that stay, I had never seen a western hotel with an actual 13th floor. While the 14th floor always was that “superstitious floor”, it was never marked as such.
The oversized bathroom was clean and luxurious.
The standard room was spacious and well lit. Even though WiFi was included, our ability to communicate by email was a slow and tedious process.
The 3-day itinerary provided an excellent overview of the main tourist areas in Beijing. The days were totally filled with organized activities with almost no time for independent shopping. Those who wanted to shop left the group prematurely or were disappointed. The tour included a visit to a jade factory store that was part of a lunch stop. The showroom was enormous with a wide range of items- inexpensive to museum quality. We were able to watch a handful of workers carve jade pieces.
Our Beijing adventure took us to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven, views of the Olympic Park, a Chinese Kung Fu Show, and a Hutong tour by Traditional Rickshaw.
We had the opportunity to visit a Chinese courtyard style residence. The occupant used our tour guide as his interpreter. Disappointingly, there were no opportunities to converse with any locals.
We were also treated to traditional Chinese foot massage and Chinese meals. The masseuses could not speak English. It was challenging to communicate. Water was not provided at the conclusion of the massage. I recommend bringing a water bottle and finding a way to say “no” if something hurts.
The days were full. The start time was at 7:30 am and the drop off at the hotel was after 9:00 pm. A few passengers went back to the hotel early. Sometimes the allotted time at a site was decreased due to transportation delays, the massive crowds, or the fact that so many things were scheduled in one day. For example, the time at The Great Wall was 2 hours. Had we been given more time, I would have liked to have walked further.
Usually, I feel comfortable wandering around to take pictures from multiple angles or to read posted signs and maps. The masses of people were so intimidating and the pace was so quick that I rarely stepped too far away from the group. One of our fellow travelers became temporarily lost due to the large crowds. My comfort level was minimal.
Pollution was a significant issue. It was common to see people wearing masks. Our group was lucky since a windstorm had blown some of the smog away a couple of days before our arrival. Nevertheless, I felt very gritty after a full day of touring. By end of our stay in Shanghai, my throat was starting to burn.
Due to the size of our group, it was not possible to hear everything that our guide was saying and the English signage was extremely limited. In retrospect, I should have paid for more guidebooks that described the particulars from a Chinese perspective.
Celebrity Cruises did not have any onsite personnel stationed at the hotel or any of our tour buses. Until we returned to the ship, the local tour guides were our only contact people.
To get the most out of a foreign place, it is necessary to adapt. I learned via observation and compared the new information to what I had previously gathered via research and previous experiences. If you choose to visit Beijing, you will observe how China is in the midst of a major modernization program. The process involves knocking down whole Beijing neighborhoods and relocating the displaced people to far away places. In the wake of the building explosion, groves of trees and an abundance of bushes are being planted everywhere.
The “old” ways and traditions are rapidly being discarded. Almost everyone is attached to a cell phone. Young and old are dressed in western attire, while just a small number of older folks cling to their traditional garb. The once closed society is now aware of the rest of the world. Despite the governments attempts to limit social media and certain sites, the younger generations are fully connected via the Internet and have found ways to pass through the government’s firewalls. Top Western brands permeate every inch of the affluent shopping districts.
Under the surface, traces of earlier time remain. Most toilets require squatting, Toilet paper is not always available. It is wise to bring a packet of kleenex. Plumbing does not permit the flushing of toilet paper. Signs request that it be discarded in a nearby bin. Yes, in an open bin.
Retirement is reached early. At the present time, men stop working at 60 while women who work in the public-sector can retire at 55. Women factor workers can cease working at 50. Our early morning visits to public parks revealed how this generation enjoys their retirement.
Until you greet your tour guide, step into your hotel room or eat your meals, you cannot be 100% certain that you will be entirely happy with your choices. However, planning ahead and doing research will reduce the likelihood of major disappointments while enjoying multiple days in Tianjin and Beijing, China.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.