Organised trip or do-it-yourself China
Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
632Trip End Dec 31, 2011
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I think it is the fear factor.
And intro pieces like this from CN Travler ensure those tour agencies get their customers. And forking out US$5K+ per person for a dozen days:
Some places are perfect for the independent traveler. And some, well, aren't. For our series "Iconic Itineraries," we've picked destinations that are must-sees but whose tourism infrastructures are so geared to groups that having an authentic experience can seem next to impossible. Not to worry. Working with the world's leading travel specialists, we've created step-by-step trips that let you see the best each place has to offer-but on your terms. Each of our highly detailed itineraries has been vetted and perfected by a Condé Nast Traveler editor, and each can be bought as is with just one phone call or customized at will. So here are:
How do a traveler's best-laid plans get foiled in China? Let me count the ways. First, there's the rise of the country's enormous and newly traveling middle class, which has caused many previously charming spots to become overrun with domestic tourists and overbuilt for the mass market. Second, things in China change overnight-structures go up, neighborhoods are bulldozed, the government rewrites the rules-which means it's tough to get accurate logistical information or trustworthy opinions as to what is worth doing and what's been spoiled; guidebooks are out-of-date as soon as they're published; and advice from anyone who has not been to the specific destinations on your list within the past few months is not reliable. Third, there's the pollution, which wrecks views and curtails your enjoyment of the big cities that the typical China itinerary is heavy on. Fourth, the Chinese tourism infrastructure inflicts a government-dictated mass-market agenda that is not very appealing to the sophisticated traveler. Get within its clutches-as happens on the average tour, including private ones-and you will waste considerable time at ho-hum places, navigating them in a way that is not optimal, with detours for forced shopping, meals at generic tourist restaurants, and layers of middlemen extracting as much money as possible from you along the way.
Sound dreadful? But wait, there's more. Say you're an independent traveler with limited time who wants to experience a smart combo of China's highlights as well as its off-the-beaten-path gems. Since a car is vital and foreigners are rarely allowed to rent one, most travel planners will set you up with a private car and driver, plus an English-speaking guide, in each of the destinations on your itinerary. These guides will make or-if you've chosen the wrong travel planner-break your trip. Normally, guides in China are trained to lead you to what the government has determined will interest you, as opposed to what will actually interest you. They are conditioned to be highly inflexible and to pad their pitifully small paychecks with kickbacks from stores (thus the forced shopping) and with gratuities from you (which is why it is not uncommon to feel emotionally manipulated by them). So where do you find a China travel planner with up-to-date information, reliable taste, special access, and flexible, customer-friendly guides who understand what is pleasing to the eye and authentic rather than a tourist trap, and how do you avoid lines and crowds and pick the restaurants, shops, and activities that are worthwhile?
China specialist Gerald Hatherly of Abercrombie & Kent (see "Wendy Perrin's 130 Top Travel Specialists") has lived in Hong Kong for 22 years (he started with A&K in 1986 as a China tour leader) and spends 150 days a year traveling throughout the country. He speaks, reads, and writes Mandarin fluently and handpicks the guides he uses. His trips are flexible-A&K itineraries can be changed on the spot-and because the company has offices in Beijing and Shanghai, it can exercise a level of quality control over your itinerary that U.S.-based travel planners can't. (Beware U.S.-based tour operators who say they have "local offices" but don't really: They contract your trip out to second-party travel agencies in China, which in turn use other local agencies, thus foisting on you a string of miscommunicating middlemen. Beware, too, of U.S. tour operators who promise one-on-one experiences with locals in their homes-dumpling cooking lessons, for instance-since such preplanned interactions often turn out to be halfhearted and less a cultural exchange than an awkward financial transaction.) There are other great China tour operators-Imperial Tours and Geographic Expeditions, for instance-but these solve the problem of guide quality control by sending a tour escort with you throughout your trip (in addition to the local guides and drivers). Having this extra person accompany you from start to finish may guarantee that you get the itinerary and service you deserve, but it can also make a trip prohibitively expensive. Gerald's tours represent, to my mind, an optimal combination of great experience and cost-efficiency. I've taken cheaper trips through lesser tour companies, and, believe me, when you factor in how much I had to spend to rectify the countless problems that ensued, in the end they weren't any cheaper.
Besides getting the best guides, it's important to go at the right time of year-from late April through the end of May or from September through the end of October, with the exception of the first few days of May and the first week of October (national holidays when millions of Chinese travel domestically). Key also is to limit the amount of time you're stuck in traffic in grimy industrial cities. For this reason, I have (at the risk of incurring hate mail from China scholars everywhere) eliminated Xi'an-an imperial capital that's home to the terra-cotta warriors, and a staple of group tours. If your goal is to understand ancient Chinese history, I encourage you to include Xi'an-and I advise you how best to do so at cntraveler.com/iconictrips. But if your goal is to be charmed by China, your time is better spent elsewhere. For the same reason, I have eliminated another group-tour staple: a Yangtze River cruise. Instead, I recommend Yunnan Province, in southwestern China, near Tibet. It's closer to the pastoral, blue-skied China of your romantic imagination, and the people and landscapes are less spoiled by tourism than in the rural locales on most organized tours (including Guilin and Yangshuo).
I've tried my best to make recommendations that will not be obsolete a few months from now, but given that this is China, it's an impossible task. So, should Gerald make suggestions that contradict mine, follow his. He's there; he knows. Finally, since guides are not as necessary in the big cities as they are in rural areas, if your trip is limited to Beijing or Shanghai and you don't want a guide, my advice is to hire an English-speaking driver through your hotel's concierge and to stay at a highly rated property that caters to Western business travelers, because these typically have the best concierge desks and English-speaking drivers.