I have always been a keen proponent of independent travel throughout my years in China, the reasons for which are two-fold.
On a personal level, I love the freedom to choose my own route, schedule, mode of transport, accommodation, where to explore, or whether to simply kick back and relax.
From a pragmatic viewpoint, there are some industry practices in China that foreign tourist regard as objectional.
At this early stage, I want to make clear that enjoyable, well organised Chinese tour groups do exist, and that it’s not my intention to cause any disrepute. I will share personal experiences, both positive and negative, as chimed by my Chinese lady.
Also, cultural backgrounds, attitudes and consumer expectations can differ greatly between Chinese and overseas tour groups, so what is acceptable to one group may not go down well with others. There’s definitely the matter of culture and perspective, with neither being right or wrong in an absolute sense.
The Good, Bad and plain Ugly
By far my most positive experience was a small independent tour in the tropical Chinese city of Sanya, a favourite getaway from the drab winter climate in Chongqing, as much as I enjoy living here.
We found a tour office along the beach in Sanya Bay, where our group decided on a day tour to ‘Five Finger Mountain,’ or ‘Wuzhishan五指山,’ an hour and a bit’s drive into the mountainous centre of Hainan Island.
Despite my initial misgivings, the tour was amazing. Our guides were friendly and punctual. They clearly knew the area very well, even taking us to some off-track rock pools that everyone loved climbing up, a surprise addition that fitted into the schedule nicely.
Lunch was at a rural farmhouse (农家乐Nong-jia-le) with stunning terrace views under warm blue skies. Our guide joined us, warmly chatted away with us in Chinese, and attentively saw that everyone had what they liked and needed.
As long as the tour operator picks a reputable owner, tourists can enjoy great and plentiful country food within a reasonable budget for the guides. I have never had any objection to this.
Whilst dusk settled in, our guides dropped us at Dadaonghai beach大东海 after smoothly taking in all the attractions on time.
A more recent positive experience was in Yangshuo last August on a morning trip to Xingping Old Town, where we cruised up and down the Lijiang River on powered rafts to view the scenery depicted on the 20 yuan note.
Please do read more through the link above.
Each Coin Has Two Faces
I want to avoid any melodramas, so you won’t find the examples below either disastrous or hilariously farcical. They do, however, embody the two potential shortcomings of incompetency and hidden expense.
There are two worst experiences I am going to describe briefly, and you’ll understand how my statement holds up in the face of contradiction.
Once in Xian西安, I paid for a three day tour of Huashan华山, one of China’s five most sacred mountains.
Early the following morning, I checked out and waited at the hotel reception where I originally booked. A middle aged lady soon led us to a mini-bus, and told us to wait for departure.
We waited, then waited some more.
The tempature began to rise, and the air become ever more unpleasant as running coaches belched fumes in our direction.
Eventually, the driver jumped in and the tour began, so it seemed.
I knew something was amiss once we pulled up outside some inane museum. We asked the guide whether this stop was on the Huashan tourist trail, and the answer was a definite negative.
The lady at reception had unthinkingly put us on a multi-stop tour of the Terracotta Warriors! A place we had already seen, and our thinking was to visit Huashan, then continue on elsewhere.
In fairness, the hotel refunded us apologetically on our unexpected return, but we declined the offer to take the next tour, and in fact decided against visiting Huashan that time round.
This was the first worst experience, on the grounds our trip didn’t even materialise!
Hitting the Wall
In fact, the second worst experience wasn’t so bad in the sense we failed to complete the trip or anything, but rather a series of annoyances that left a bitter taste.
I’m going to keep this as brief as possible.
On an independent visit to the Forbidden City in central Beijing one year, we accepted a handout from touts wandering throught the attraction’s great expanse.
We decided on a full day trip to the touristy Badaling section of the Great Wall, starting with the daily flag raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square at sunrise.
However, this didn’t quite materialise in the way we expected. A minivan doing the rounds picked us up around 5am, then stopped to wait for more passengers at some unfamiliar location.
The light of dawn appeared on the horizon, as the driver manically switched between his watch and answering the phone. Once the critical juncture arrived, he ushered us to the tour coach, and away we went.
Our coach pulled up on a side road of Tiananmen Sqaure just as the soldiers were marching the flag across the road, blocking the view of some unfortunate onlookers opposite to us. We didn’t alight as we thought we would, but rather departed again as the flag neared the top of the pole.
I’ll happily admit that Badaling was fine, so I’ll skip directly to the main points of contention, solely from my point of view.
Impracticalities of large groups – Once all the tour members had boarded the tour coach, there must have been around 50 people in total. The downside is that you interact very little with the guides, but rather passively listen as they talk down microphones on the coach at high volume, or yell through portable loudspeakers as you herd through tourist attractions.
The content of these monologues do include some useful information and advice, I normally start yearning for peace and quiet within a few minutes, plus the freedom to go out and explore myself.
Communication wasn’t an issue for me, especially as I travelled with my Chinese wife to be. Incidentally, although my Chinese was already quite good at the time, the heavy nasalised Beijing accent of the tour guides really threw me, and I actually still find Sichuanese far easier to understand, even now!
However, the point I want to drive home is that foreign tourists new to China and travelling by themselves could find this a complete nightmare. The only English our tour guides spoke that day was ‘Please,’ and so the experience would have been extremely stressful were we not able to understand instructions, or not know what was happening.
Total expenditure is another great contention. The principle of ‘Too good to be true’ will definitely apply whenever you see unusually low tour prices. The idea is that tourists pay little for the tour itself, while the tour operator expects to profit from coersive and furtively scheduled shopping trips.
Understandably, these shopping centres are out of town complexes away from public transport. Tourists are expected to purchase over-priced souvenirs of dubious quality, from which the tour operators rake in commissions of over 50 percent.
Having zero interest in the products on display, we ended up paying the guide a minimum extra cash fee, or perhaps a ransom, then waited an hour for the coach to open up again.
Neither was the shopping over by the time we returned to Beijing. The final stop was a majestic looking branch of Tongrentang同仁堂, a famous store that sells Chinese medicines.
We sat through a lecture about the curative features of various products, after which they gave us full roam of the store, or the choice to go home.
The original pamphlet stated the price included both pick up and return to the hotel, but the latter turned into directions on public transport, the guide on hand to kindly tell us where to go.
My Recommended Option For You
For the longterm resident like myself, there’s no great loss if a tour falls short of expectations. There will always be another opportunity to travel within China, and once we step through the door and place down our bags, the normality of everyday life resumes.
However, most overseas visitors have limited time and opportunity to travel China, so you shouldn’t risk spoiling an amazing experience by taking chances on a tour agency you aren’t familiar with.
At the same time, an experienced and reputable agency can great enhance your travel experience by handling all the logistics, allowing you to enjoy your adventure to the fullest without the hassle of booking accommodation, transport, tickets, guides, restaurants, on top of the diffulties in communication and securing favourable rates.
In a new series of travel posts, I’m going to team with a brand name tour company with over twenty years experience catering specially to the needs of foreign tourists in China. I will join the tours myself and bring you all the action in a series of diary style posts, similar to my recent trips to Yangshuo and Xishuangbanna.
You can now view over thirty small group tours here through my website menu, or the link below.
Here are just some of the benefits you can enjoy when you travel with us.
Tour Type: These are small group tours with guaranteed departures. With an average group size of 14 people, our groups provide travelers a perfect combination of intimacy, flexibility and low prices.
No Shopping: We guarantee 100% no stops at the commission based tourist shops or factory stores. You will enjoy an authentic tour and have the best experience.
Sightseeing: The highlight attractions in each city have been included in the itinerary. We leave no regrets to each of our guests.
Guide & Driver: The professional English-speaking guide and experienced driver will serve you in each local city. We guarantee the vehicles used on trips are all air-conditioned and always clean and comfortable.
Hotels: Comfortable accommodation will enhance your enjoyment of the whole holiday. We mainly select brand hotels with good locations. Breakfast is of both western and Asian dishes.
Meals: We steer clear of tourist eateries and arrange a la carte meals in major cities. We choose the restaurants for you and you choose the favorite dishes for yourself. We also leave some of the meals open to you so that you can try local flavors as you like with our guide’s assistance.
Free Bottled Water: We provide two free bottles of mineral or purified water per person per day to our guests during the trip.
China Visa: Once you confirm the tour with us, we will provide a free invitation letter or any other necessary documents to help you obtain the visa.
No Hidden Charge : We keep promise that we offer you a truly inclusive tour price. Our policy of no hidden charge and guaranteed price assure you a most enjoyable China trip.
Stay tuned for this exciting development on my website!