A semi-independent tour of China

Over the last 20 years, China has built up its infrastructure so that it is quite reasonable for individual travelers to tour on their own. Still, there is some risk and one can have some trepidation in undertaking this adventure, especially outside of the big cities. There is an alternative to using a group tour or doing it on your own, however, and that is having a China-based travel agent make all the arrangements.

Typical street in Shanghai with the Oriental Pearl Tower in the background. Photos: Joseph

My wife and I toured China in September ’04 using a travel agent referenced in a brief mention a number of years ago in ITN. Our trip had been scheduled for the same time the previous year but was canceled because of the SARS scare. When we informed Tom Chiu of Fujian CYTS Tours Corp. (#407, 10th Building, Tian Yuan Shan Zhuang, Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China; cell phone +86-13805062654, fax +86-591-83517112 or e-mail fjnorthbay@hotmail.com or tom@ sanbogroup.com) that we wanted to cancel that trip, he refunded our deposit, less a Western Union service charge of $20. Thus we knew we were in good hands.

Tom answered all of our questions and gave us the confidence to bank-wire our deposit and final payment. (We certainly would have felt more comfortable using a credit card, but at that time he didn’t accept them because of his company’s regulations.)

The total cost for Tom’s services on our 15-night trip was $1,839 per person, not including international airfare (we used frequent-flyer miles) nor some other expenses as detailed later. It did include 4-star hotels, all tours, transfers, domestic flights and meals but not airport taxes for domestic flights and not gratuities.

Side street in Shanghai one evening.

We had our own local guide and driver in each city we visited. While we’re sure that there are a lot of people who like group tours, we enjoy the flexibility of traveling independently. Our itinerary was set by me and implemented by Tom.

Beginning in Beijing, our itinerary included Xi’an, Guilin, Chongqing (to start our 3-day cruise on the Yangtze River), Suzhou, Hangzhou and finally Shanghai, where, after two full days, we boarded our flight home.

For group tour travelers, we highly recommend using a China-based agency. The price is surely not more — probably even less — than that of participating in a 20- to 30-member group tour. There is some flexibility in making changes, and you get the one-on-one experience of your own tour guide and driver.

And yet, as independent travelers, we really didn’t like it. This doesn’t reflect on Tom; it has to do with our own personalities. In our experience, the following is what we would do differently.

We would not include any prepaid meals. The Chinese government and, by extension, the guides, must take visitors to “designated tourist restaurants,” and we paid for the meals for both our guide and driver in our total. It seems that they want to ensure your meal is safe, bland and close to the sights that you visit and that it provides some local flavor.

Li River with a limestone peak — Guilin.

My wife and I disliked most of the meals that we were served (we are vegetarians and this made it extra difficult). Yes, most people didn’t speak English and it would have been harder to order with just a phrase book, but the cities we visited had many, many places to eat for the mildly adventurous.

Another regulation that all the guides follow is to take all their customers to “factories,” which are, of course, sales outlets. If the prices weren’t marked up to pay the guides’ commissions, I could live with this. We had to insist — and the guides had to call their office for permission — to get out of some of these visits.

By specifying all of the places that we wanted to see, the guides were reluctant to deviate from their schedule. To add places to see and/or schedule some free time was a problem for them.

For the truly independent traveler, all you really need is transportation: travel to/from the airport; internal air reservations, and transportation to all the sights and maybe to some restaurants. I think Tom would arrange this.

What I do know is that China, while probably not up to the standards of some of the other countries that we have visited, is still doable independently. My wife and I wish we had followed our instincts.


Encino, CA