Helen Wong of Helen Wong’s Tours is one of the pioneers of group travel to China. She has opened thousands of Australians’ eyes to the wonder and mystery of one of the world’s fastest emerging tourist destinations. Holidays for Couples caught up with Helen and asked her to share her vast knowledge of the country and its people, with a few handy hints for making the best of a visit to China thrown in!
When did you take your first trip to China?
I’ll never forget my first visit to China. It was in the mid 1970s when the People’s Republic was a bit of a mystery and the major centres such as Beijing and Shanghai had just opened up to the outside world after decades of isolation. From the very first moment I set foot in that vast country I was awestruck by its beauty and charmed by its culture, and the countless welcoming smiles of the locals. Few foreigners had seen China. Nor had China seen many tourists. I was a pioneer travelling into the unknown, and I am happy to say my passion for the country has never been stronger.
Any tips for travelling in China?
Always keep an open mind when travelling through China and listen closely to what locals have to say about the past and present. Be watchful and make sure to smile – it’s something I have always done and it allows you to grow closer to those who want to share their knowledge with you.
How has China changed in the past decade?
China has seen dramatic changes over the past ten years, to the extent that Shanghai is virtually unrecognisable due to the development there, in particular on the Pudong side of the Huangpu River. Gone are the regimented Chairman Mao uniforms, replaced by designer labels. And push bikes are a thing of the past for most, replaced by cars with badges including Mercedes Benz and BMW. New fly-overs and expanded underground rail networks are a part of today’s modern China. However, the rapid development has not affected the culture and historical values of this ancient country.
What is the hottest travel destination on your books for Australians?
China has always been a fascinating destination for Australians and, understandably, the number of visitors continues to grow. There’s little doubt the major hubs of Shanghai and Beijing are huge draw cards, not only for their history but for the dramatic changes which have taken place in the past ten years. Both cities complement historical and cultural charms with contemporary design and outlook.
And your suggested bucket list for China?
Apart from Shanghai and Beijing, the major hot spots for Australians are Xian, obviously for the Terracotta Warriors, the Yangtze River for the leisurely cruises through the dramatic Three Gorges as well as the gigantic Three Gorges Dam, and Guilin for its breathtaking landscape of limestone peaks and caves.There is also much natural beauty in the southern province of Yunnan with such ancient towns as Lijiang, a haven with its narrow cobblestone lanes, eateriesand stores. There are countless attractions in this vast country, far too many to see in one journey. Among them – Chengdu for its panda breeding research base, spectacular Jiuzhaigou, and the Silk Route, in particular such centres as Turpan, Dunhuang, Jiayugan, Xiahe (Little Tibet) and Kashgar for the medieval Sunday markets.
Is there a destination you find you go back to time and again?
There’s little doubt Shanghai is a destination I would go back to time and again, merely to see what changes have taken place in this exciting city. Blink and you could miss something – new attractions, new hotels, new restaurants, a larger Pudong. Change has also been swift in Beijing with a new city emerging without detracting from the main attractions like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and the restored sections of the Great Wall on the city’s outskirts.
Can you share with us three must-know addresses in China?
Three on the Bund is a favourite restaurant of mine in Shanghai, along with Ya Shanghai in the ever-popular Xintiandi neighbourhood of the city. As for shopping, Xiushui Silk Market in Beijing is a must.
Please tell us a little bit about Helen Wong’s Tours…
Established in 1987, Helen Wong’s Tours virtually pioneered group travel from Australia to China and has expanded beyond the People’s Republic to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Apart from organising group and special
group tours, we also tailors guided travel for independent travellers. In the pioneering days I found there was a genuine market in Australia for travel to a country which was considered a mystery by most. Early tours were basic with few destinations compared with today’s much broader programs and luxury accommodation under international branding.
How would you define the philosophy behind Helen Wong’s Tours?
Always deliver and not just promise.