China with Chamber of Commerce

By Erik Illi
This item appears on page 47 of the October 2018 issue.

Erik Illi at the Summer Palace in Beijing.
I was not interested in visiting China until a very affordable opportunity presented itself through my hometown chamber of commerce. As a veteran of a couple of these 10-day trips, I now can attest that they're a great way to see the cultural highlights of China at low cost.

This opportunity started back in 2008, when the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) set up an agreement with a wholesaler, sponsoring trips to China to raise funds for chambers all over the country. Up to 10,000 people now take this trip each spring and fall.

On my first trip, in April 2010, it cost a mere $2,000 for a 10-day trip that hit the majority of the places I wanted to see, starting in Beijing with Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs plus lunch with a local family.

We then flew to Shanghai to see the Bund and Yu Garden and ride the maglev (magnetic levitation) train, one of the world's fastest, at 268 mph, followed by visits to nearby Suzhou and Hangzhou, which included a couple of boat tours.

Along the way, we were taken to a tea plantation and a variety of factories that processed silk, jade, cloisonné and freshwater pearls. Among optional events I attended were shows featuring kung fu, acrobatics and traditional dances.

This trip was well worth the price. Flights to and from China (on Delta Air Lines or Hainan Airlines) were included, as were in-country flights.

Besides soldiers, the Terracotta Army includes horses, chariots and nonmilitary personnel like acrobats and musicians — Xi'an, China. Photo by Erik Illi

Our guides were good, taking us in groups of 25 on buses with seating for almost twice as many. All meals were included, and we usually stayed in 4- or 5-star accommodations.

On my second visit to China, in 2016, I saw the same sights in Beijing and Shanghai but took a side trip to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Army, the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and the massive Xi'an City Wall. (For perspective, on average, the Xi'an City Wall is two to three times wider than the Great Wall and 10 feet taller. It is over 8½ miles around.)

The cost of that trip was about $500 more than that of the previous trip, mainly due to the flight to Xi'an.

In addition to seeing new sights, I found this trip interesting because I witnessed firsthand the rapid changes that were taking place in China. For example, we saw more than a hundred new high-rise apartments along the 30-kilometer maglev train route that weren't there six years earlier. Unfortunately, we also experienced more traffic congestion and smog on the second trip.

There were cultural changes as well. For instance, our guides had become a lot more open. While our 2010 guide was actually in the Chinese army and toed the party line, our 2016 guide talked more freely about his country. Some political topics were still taboo, but he clearly felt the freedom to share more personal views.

In summary, I would highly recommend these chamber of commerce trips as a great introduction to China.

Many chambers are not picky about who joins their trips, so if your local chamber doesn't offer this type of tour, you can likely find a seat on the chamber of commerce tour of another town.

ERIK ILLI
Kalispell, MT