For all its beauty, mystery, and excitement, China is one heck of an intimidating mass of land. The country itself is huge and diverse; the languages aren’t even remotely familiar for most Westerners, and China’s self-described “smaller cities” boast several million people. So where does a traveler begin? Dozens of tour companies have made a nice bundle on this intimidation, selling organized tours to curious-but-overwhelmed travelers. At first glance, a potential traveler might be tempted to do the same. After all, China doesn’t have the compact size of Japan, or the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia. Here, KSR gives you the low-down on traveling China, with a group or with oneself.
If you have a two-week time frame and a mile-long list of Chinese must-sees, a tour will allow you the luxury of enjoying the moment without worrying about sold-out trains, odd museum hours, and researching each new hotel. A traveler who knows exactly what they want to do on the trip may feel relieved when the details of accomodation and transportation are arranged.
If your schedule is more flexible, a solo trip allows you the luxury of staying as long or as briefly as you like in each new spot. Lone travelers are free to change their timetable if something unexpected comes their way; a kite festival, a rafting trip, or a volunteer spot in a panda sanctuary. A traveler who is prone to falling in love with new places (especially cities off the beaten path) will benefit from this kind of malleable timetable.
When it comes to building an efficient schedule, you can’t beat the convenience of a private tour bus and guide. With a tour group, you can hit all the sights on your must-see list without the fuss of ticket queues and city buses. Many companies offer various tours that cater more specifically to a traveler’s interests. Athletes can hike, bike, rock-climb and kayak, while history buffs can sign on to a tour of temples and monuments.
Solo travelers have to work a bit harder to find their way around, and information in guidebooks can be subject to change.
Without the guided tour, however, the traveler can spend as much time as they like seeing the landmarks of China that really speak to them.
Travelers who stick with a group might not like every part of their tour, or want more time at some stops (like the buffet) and less time at others (like the demonstration of 17th century pottery). If your idea of travel involves people-watching and unstructured exploring on bicycle or foot, then a tour itinerary might cramp your style.
A lot of lone travelers enjoy tour groups, as if offers them the company of fellow adventurers with varying backgrounds and similar interests. Because you will travel with the same group throughout the journey, there aren’t as many sad goodbyes and tedious introductions (what’s your name? where are you from? have you tried wontons yet?). You can get to know your fellow travelers, and you can also take advantage of your guide, who will serve as a teacher, translator, and insider on Chinese life.
Solo travelers can find good company in hostels, which often draw livelier and more diverse crowds (though some dubious characters will inevitably crop up). However, between these meetings come some lonely patches when you’re between hostels, or in a quiet hotel. Chinese people are kind, helpful, curious and friendly, but most speak no English at all, especially in smaller cities. Travelers might meet earnest Chinese students who are looking to practice their English. These folks are usually charming and harmless, but solo travelers are more susceptible to tourist scams or overcharging.
Again, those on a tight time frame might not want the added stress of tracking train station addresses, checking the schedules, making a reservation with a language barrier, etc. Chinese trains and buses are reliable and comfy enough that an organized traveler can move from city to city with ease. Many big-city bus and train stations have one ticket booth with an English-speaking attendant. If you have the time and patience to make these arrangements yourself, the flexibility can be freeing. If you know ahead of time that you’ll be sticking to a plan, then the ease of a tour means that travel details are out of sight, out of mind.
The same applies to getting around a Chinese city. Most urban areas have great, reliable buses and subways. City types who don’t mind wandering and getting a little lost might enjoy going at their own pace. Travelers who want simply to go from point A to point B might benefit from a tour group, to avoid the stress of navigating new places.
With a tour group, you are guaranteed the opportunities to try a wide range of Chinese dishes. Some groups will shepherd their tourists to western-friendly hotel restuarants, where the food is more bland and gentler to the western palette. Others will get to try fresh and authentic dim sum, duck, soups, and famous regional dishes. A group has the asset of the omnipotent guide, who can help travelers with dietary issues and allergies.
The solo traveler has to use the luck of the draw with their eating. Adventurous foodies will love the challenge and reward of navigating food stalls, communicating from the phrasebook, and eating exotic new dishes without knowing all the contents. Some may be alarmed by the cultural barriers and recess to the safety of grocery store dinners or familiar sights like Subway or McDonalds. If you’re one who doesn’t mind taking a gamble on your supper, solo travel can open the door to hole-in-the-wall gems, amazing new flavours, and the local culture of dining.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com