The Summer Palace in Beijing had "Hall for Listening to Orioles."
The Forbidden City featured the "Hill of Accumulated Elegance."
And the Master of the Nets Garden had a pleasant room, the former library, called "The Hall of 10,000 Volumes."
At last we came to Shanghai, population 19 million, one of the world's largest cities. Our hotel, the Pullman Skyway, was about 50 times nicer than I'd expected. So was the Shanghai Museum, a world-class repository for historic ceramics and bronzes. The Bund, the pedestrian promenade lining the historical riverside, just reopened March 28 after three years of remodeling, so it seemed like everyone in town was out walking.
Of course, in China, everyone is everywhere. Every minute, you feel the presence of its 1.3 billion people — throbbing, busy, pressing in, rushing forward. The energy is palpable. The scale is intimidating. China feels like it's all new roads and skyscrapers that sheer will and money are fueling. Every day, the people live with the stress of so much new, and all those people, and so many people in a hurry, and a rigid society being bent 12 ways from Sunday.
One illustration ? A boat ride on West Lake in Hangzhou. West Lake has inspired millennia of lovers and looks just like a Chinese painting in spring — slightly misty, like a watercolor, the willows weeping with their delicate fronds.
A relaxing boat ride? Not exactly. Chinese tourists packed the boat like sardines, elbowing out of the way anyone who might have a spot on the rail they wanted, gabbing loudly and talking on cell phones. Yet squeezed together, I had a chance to meet some Chinese people out for the ride. My guide translated two interesting questions from a Chinese woman: Do all American women wear engagement rings? And is our hair color natural? Usually yes, I said. And not always.
I looked up. There was a crowd around me, hanging on every word the guide translated. China may have been strange to me. But not as strange as I was to it.
Anyway, it turns out my biggest fears about China were not realized. The pollution didn't choke me. Nobody spied on me that I know of. The sights were amazing. The toilets weren't that bad. The 12-hour time difference took only 11 days to adjust to when I got home.
And the cheap China tour turned out to be the best $999 I ever spent.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: Look for a tour that includes airfare from the United States. Operators can usually get cheaper airfare than you can. Airfare alone in June on a Delta nonstop round-trip from Detroit to Shanghai is about $1,800.
LODGING: In China, the star rating system doesn't mean much. Instead, ask about the age of the hotel and if it allows smokers, because smoky rooms are a problem. "China is good at building hotels but not good at maintaining them," says Wilson Wu, president of China Spree tours in Blaine, Wash. Also, ask about the breakfast. When you get a list of hotels from your tour company, check their locations and reputations online. In slow seasons, you may be upgraded, but don't expect that in high summer season.
ITINERARY: Make sure the tour hits your highlights, but it's good to have at least one or two free days to slow down the hectic pace and let you go off on your own.
TOURS: Try China Spree (www.chinaspree.com, 866-652-5656), Ritz Tours (www.ritztours.com, 888-345-7489) or China Focus (www.chinafocustravel.com, 800-868-7244).
MONEY: One dollar equals 6.8 Chinese yuan. Change money at hotels. Some ATMs in China accept Western debit and credit cards.
VISA: A tourist visa is required. It is $130 plus any service fee charged by your tour provider, visa expeditor or Chinese consulate.