DIY travel – planning a month-long adventure in China

By Larry and Carol Crabill
This article appears on page 20 of the February 2016 issue.
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Stone bridge over South Lake in Hongcun.

If you are adventurous and want to immerse yourself in a country’s culture and cuisine, DIY travel may be for you. Having the freedom to spontaneously linger or detour is a huge benefit of this type of adventure. 

The planning requires devoting a significant amount of time to research, especially for a longer trip. The advent of Internet and travel forums has made the process simpler. 

My wife, Carol, and I have done DIY travel over the years to a number of countries in Asia and most of Europe. Planning our latest trip — 30 days in China — was more complicated, mostly due to travel logistics and determining how to get from one place to another. China is a huge country, and though its infrastructure is improving, it is still not one to which Westerners are accustomed. 

The most difficult part of the planning was prioritizing what we wanted to see while keeping in mind a realistic transportation time line and practical routing. China has an unbelievable number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but we tried to keep the pace of our trip slow, spending three nights, when possible, at a single hotel and using it as a home base. 

Beginning in Beijing

Using frequent-flyer miles, we flew into Beijing in October 2014 and stayed at the Mao’er 28 Hutong Courtyard Hotel (email Angela directly at maoer28@hotmail.com), a traditional, alleyway courtyard guest house in the downtown Dongcheng District. The 4-room B&B was affordable and fabulous and was within walking distance of the Drum Tower, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Many good restaurants also were close. 

The owner was very helpful with directions and even helped us buy an inexpensive cell phone to use during our trip. A Chinese cell phone is a must for communicating with drivers, guides and hotels. 

Our Air China flight direct from Houston to Beijing arrived at 5 a.m. We had breakfast at the B&B, then met a guide to do a tour of the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple. We walked a bit and, with our guide’s help, used public transportation to get around. 

The Temple of Heaven was amazing! The temple grounds are a huge public park (2.7 square kilometers) with a variety of unusual exercise equipment for adults. In some areas, people gathered to sing songs, line dance, do tai chi, twirl objects or play cards or board games. Smiles and happy people surrounded us. 

The Lama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and school, was an interesting 17th-century site. 

We had an early dinner, then it was bedtime. 

Notable sites

We had arranged a driver online for the next day’s early drive to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. After the 1½-hour drive, we took the lift rather than the cable car up to the Wall. It was nearly deserted; I think we saw four or five other people. 

Our visit to the Wall was phenomenal — beyond our expectations. It truly is one of the world’s great wonders. 

Terra-cotta warriors, Xi’an.

We expected air pollution and orange alerts during our three days in Beijing. I guess we were lucky, as we enjoyed three sunny 70-degree days, with just a drizzle on our last day. 

We asked our driver to drop us off at the Summer Palace, surrounded by a large, wooded park with lakes, on the way back to the city. It was a Sunday, so it was very crowded. 

For our third day, we hired a guide for a walking tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The atmosphere of Tiananmen, with its heavy security, was quite different than that of the sites we had visited earlier. The Forbidden City, built in the early 15th century, is a huge complex. It is very beautiful, and one could spend an entire day there. 

Three days was just about the right amount of time for us in Beijing, as we are not museum enthusiasts. Public transportation, including affordable taxis and the subway, were very good, but do your homework and avoid unlicensed “black taxis.” 

Trains, terra-cotta and a trek

We caught an early bullet train from Beijing’s West Station to Pingyao (3½ hours). The train stations and trains were very modern and efficient, even better than in Western Europe. 

Pingyao is a well-preserved walled city and another UNESCO site, from the 14th century. We saw only Chinese visitors there, no Westerners, as this is well off the beaten path, with no airport nearby. We wandered the town and spent the night at the Pingyao Cheng Jia Guesthouse (No. 125 Bei Da Street)

The next day we took a bullet train from Jiexiu Station to Xi’an (3 hours), home of the terra-cotta warriors. We had arranged for a driver/guide to pick us up at the train station and show us the ancient terra-cotta statues as well as the Muslim Quarter of the city before dropping us at the airport for our flight to Guilin. This was a change from our original plan, due to a flight-schedule change, but it worked out for the better. 

After a quick overnight at the Guilin Riverside Hostel (No. 6 Zhu Mu Xiang), we took a minibus to Dazhai (3½ hours). From the village of Dazhai, it was an exhausting hour-long walk up the rice terraces to Tiantou Village, but it was well worth the effort to get there. We hired Yao women as porters to carry our bags up the mountain — very strong ladies! 

We stayed at Tian Ranju Inn (tianranju.info), a very rustic place, but what a view! We planned our visit to coincide with the rice harvest, done by hand, which was interesting to watch. The golden, terraced rice fields were beautiful and what many people associate with rural China. 

The next day we trekked down the mountain to catch a minibus to Yangshuo.

Dramatic landscapes

The river and karst landscape in Yangshuo were gorgeous. We spent 2½ days there wandering the beautiful city, biking and relaxing. Our accommodations were at the Outside Inn (www.yangshuo-outside.com) on the city’s outskirts. Owned by an Aussie, it was a great place to stay, with a good restaurant and bike rentals. 

We biked in the country along the river and limestone peaks, crossing the river by bridge and then returning on a bamboo raft over the currents with a local who used a pole to push us along. 

This was a very laid-back, casual place to spend three relaxing days, and the people were friendly.

From Guilin, we flew to Kunming to visit the famous Dongchuan Red Land. It was gorgeous, but the day was totally overcast and misty. Carol, a photographer, was very disappointed, as the mountain/valley views with dark-red earth were magnificent but difficult to photograph in those conditions. 

We purposely planned four days in Dali, our next stop, to relax at a slower pace. Old Dali is very popular with Western independent travelers, but we stayed in New Dali. It was less crowded and not so noisy at night. 

Our accommodations at the Jade Emu Guesthouse (jade-emu.com) were a short walk from Old Dali’s gates. The Jade is owned by another Aussie and his Chinese wife, and great Western food was offered at their on-site restaurant — a welcomed change. Our room even had a large bathtub. 

We were able to speak English there and share stories with other guests. This is one reason we enjoy guest houses. 

Carol went on a horseback ride to a tea plantation while I had a massage. 

Giant Buddha carved into the mountainside in Leshan.

These four days recharged our batteries, which was a good thing, as the next day was a tiring travel day to the Tibetan Plateau. Then it was time for our long-awaited visit to Shangri-La, previously known as Zhongdian, situated at an altitude of about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) in the Meili Snow Mountain range. It was absolutely gorgeous, with clean, crisp air. This was a difficult place to get to but worth the effort. 

We splurged and stayed two nights at the wonderful Songtsam Retreat, next door to the temple there. The temple and monastery are not old, by Chinese standards, but they are worth a short visit. Unfortunately, 50% of Shangri-La’s Old Town was destroyed by fire in January 2014.

A minor misstep

Another stop on our itinerary was Chengdu, where we spent 3½ days at the Buddha Zen Hotel (www.buddhazenhotel.com), another splurge. This hotel is very popular with Chinese visitors but not with many Westerners. We wandered the upscale shopping areas and stopped at Starbucks. Big-name high-end retail stores were numerous. 

For a day trip by bus to Luocheng and Leshan, April, a lively university student, served as our translator. We started at the wrong bus station, but April’s father rescued us and drove us to the right station. Having missed our bus, we reversed our itinerary, which turned out to be a big mistake, as we ended up missing the last bus back! Sometimes, things don’t go as planned with DIY travel. 

We visited the 71-meter-tall (233 feet) Leshan Giant Buddha on a water tour. The light and viewpoint were perfect for seeing this giant Buddha, carved into the mountain in 713. 

Unfortunately, Carol and I felt that the ancient town of Luocheng was not worth the terribly bumpy bus ride to get there. Again, sometimes things aren’t as expected! 

Back in Chengdu, we did some shopping for tea in a couple of the city’s many tea houses and also went to the opera, which was like a variety show — fun and entertaining, with a well-done hand-shadow show.

Village visit

We caught an evening flight to Huangshan for an overnight, then a driver picked us up in the morning to take us to the World Heritage Site of the Huizhou Villages. 

We stayed at Huqinlou Guesthouse (No. 6 Nanhu, Hongcun Town), with only two rooms, overlooking South Lake — a very rustic, picture-perfect place. (This house and the nearby bridge can be seen in most tour company photos of Hongcun and South Lake.) 

Strolling through the ancient village in the rain, which we hardly noticed with the mild temperatures, we bought a carved-stone teapot from a local artist and watched him work in his shop. 

The next day we visited the villages, some dating to 960. There were many Chinese tour groups there but no Westerners. Local students were sketching and painting on site. The lush green foliage and fall colors were striking against the old structures. 

We walked in the mist up a steep hill at Mukeng Village. It was almost mystical, albeit tiring and wet. 

We laughed with the Chinese tourists who were just as crazy as we were, walking up the steep hills through a bamboo forest in the rain. 

Catching a late bullet train from Huangshan City, we continued on to Suzhou. 

Suzhou and Shanghai

Suzhou is known for its canals, bridges and classical gardens. Staying two nights at the Garden Hotel (gardenhotelsuzhou.com), a nice 4-star hotel on a canal, we visited three gardens, all different in style. 

The Humble Administrator’s Garden dates to 1513; others date to the 11th century. Most of the gardens were built by scholars and were designed to mimic the natural serenity of rocks, hills and rivers. Carol took wonderful photos there.

Shanghai was next on our itinerary. Splurging again, we spent our last two nights in China at the Anting Villa Hotel (antingvillahotel.com), a British-style hotel that was roomy and luxurious. (Our room even had a bathtub.) 

We found the Xintiandi district to be a unique boutique shopping area and an unending source of take-home gift options. Locally made items from throughout China were available there. Had we known, we could have done all our shopping there and saved hauling our purchases across China! 

A few notes

Early October to November was a great time of year to visit southern and western China. The weather was perfect, and the crowds weren’t bad.

We found the Chinese people to be warm and quite helpful and friendly. Communications weren’t much of an issue (especially when we were accompanied by a guide). Drivers generally didn’t speak English. We had an iTranslator app for our iPhone, and it worked very well when we had data coverage (50% of the time in rural areas, there was no coverage). Our cheap Chinese cell phone did come in handy many times. 

ATMs were abundant in larger cities, and credit cards were accepted at larger hotels only. Cash is king in China, so plan accordingly. 

Do your homework on “dynamic conversion” charges if you use a credit card, and try to find a card that does not charge a currency-conversion fee.

People were continually wanting to take “selfies” with us. 

At no time did we ever feel threatened or uncomfortable in crowds or even walking in cities in the evenings. We felt safe, but you should always be alert, just as you should be anywhere else in the world.

Accommodations

We stayed in 3-star to 5-star accommodations, using online forums and eLong (elong.net) as resources. We made several bookings through eLong, a China-based travel agency that we found useful, with good customer service. 

In hostels, we had private rooms with private bathrooms. All were clean and offered Wi-Fi. The service was generally very good. 

View of the Longji rice terraces near Langshuo.

Prices were unbelievably low in rural areas, and we experienced no unpleasant surprises.

Getting around

We used China DIY Travel (Beijing, China; china-diy-travel.com) for purchasing bullet train tickets for routes that were in high demand. They were excellent. The other tickets we bought at the stations or from agents. From the US, you cannot buy train tickets more than 20 days in advance, so China DIY Travel was very helpful, as we got all the tickets as requested. 

For air, I used Travelzen, based in Hong Kong, but this site no longer offers booking information in English. Ctrip (ctrip.com) and eLong can be used as alternatives, but they charge extra fees, as I recall. 

We learned that the Chinese tend to be last-minute travelers, so the better deals on air usually show up one to two months ahead of departure. The government sets the base rates, but the carriers are free to discount as much as they want in order to fill aircraft. 

We took five internal flights, and the average cost was under $100 per person per flight. Always get direct flights, if you can, with mid- to late-afternoon departures. Our five flights arrived 15 to 20 minutes early, on average, with one flight being 10 minutes late.

Cuisine

The cuisine was diversified and very different from one province to another. This was certainly a part of the adventure. We really liked the soup and the noodle dishes. 

In Sichuan, you must be careful not to order something that will burn your lips. We had a rabbit-and-chili-oil meal that was over-the-top hot! 

We thoroughly enjoyed trying new dishes and spices. Fresh fruits and vegetables were served in unique combinations, and there were few dairy items. 

Costs

We used frequent-flyer miles for our international flights. All of the remaining costs came to roughly $6,000 for the both of us. We even went significantly over budget for our meals. I priced a similar itinerary with two Chinese tour companies, and their private-tour quotes were two to three times more. Plus they told us that we wouldn’t want to see, or that they couldn’t arrange travel to, many of the places we ended up visiting.

We are in our mid/late 60s, so we can say from experience that DIY travel is not just for youngsters (though good mobility is helpful). There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in local culture and cuisine.

DIY travel may be for you!

We are happy to answer questions (c/o ITN), though we cannot design itineraries.    

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Stone bridge over South Lake in Hongcun.

If you are adventurous and want to immerse yourself in a country’s culture and cuisine, DIY travel may be for you. Having the freedom to spontaneously linger or detour is a huge benefit of this type of adventure. 

The planning requires devoting a significant amount of time to research, especially for a longer trip. The advent of Internet and travel forums has made the process simpler. 

My wife, Carol, and I have done DIY travel over the years to a number of countries in Asia and most of Europe. Planning our latest trip — 30 days in China — was more complicated, mostly due to travel logistics and determining how to get from one place to another. China is a huge country, and though its infrastructure is improving, it is still not one to which Westerners are accustomed. 

The most difficult part of the planning was prioritizing what we wanted to see while keeping in mind a realistic transportation time line and practical routing. China has an unbelievable number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but we tried to keep the pace of our trip slow, spending three nights, when possible, at a single hotel and using it as a home base. 

Beginning in Beijing

Using frequent-flyer miles, we flew into Beijing in October 2014 and stayed at the Mao’er 28 Hutong Courtyard Hotel (email Angela directly at maoer28@hotmail.com), a traditional, alleyway courtyard guest house in the downtown Dongcheng District. The 4-room B&B was affordable and fabulous and was within walking distance of the Drum Tower, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Many good restaurants also were close. 

The owner was very helpful with directions and even helped us buy an inexpensive cell phone to use during our trip. A Chinese cell phone is a must for communicating with drivers, guides and hotels. 

Our Air China flight direct from Houston to Beijing arrived at 5 a.m. We had breakfast at the B&B, then met a guide to do a tour of the Temple of Heaven and the Lama Temple. We walked a bit and, with our guide’s help, used public transportation to get around. 

The Temple of Heaven was amazing! The temple grounds are a huge public park (2.7 square kilometers) with a variety of unusual exercise equipment for adults. In some areas, people gathered to sing songs, line dance, do tai chi, twirl objects or play cards or board games. Smiles and happy people surrounded us. 

The Lama Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and school, was an interesting 17th-century site. 

We had an early dinner, then it was bedtime. 

Notable sites

We had arranged a driver online for the next day’s early drive to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. After the 1½-hour drive, we took the lift rather than the cable car up to the Wall. It was nearly deserted; I think we saw four or five other people. 

Our visit to the Wall was phenomenal — beyond our expectations. It truly is one of the world’s great wonders. 

Terra-cotta warriors, Xi’an.

We expected air pollution and orange alerts during our three days in Beijing. I guess we were lucky, as we enjoyed three sunny 70-degree days, with just a drizzle on our last day. 

We asked our driver to drop us off at the Summer Palace, surrounded by a large, wooded park with lakes, on the way back to the city. It was a Sunday, so it was very crowded. 

For our third day, we hired a guide for a walking tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The atmosphere of Tiananmen, with its heavy security, was quite different than that of the sites we had visited earlier. The Forbidden City, built in the early 15th century, is a huge complex. It is very beautiful, and one could spend an entire day there. 

Three days was just about the right amount of time for us in Beijing, as we are not museum enthusiasts. Public transportation, including affordable taxis and the subway, were very good, but do your homework and avoid unlicensed “black taxis.” 

Trains, terra-cotta and a trek

We caught an early bullet train from Beijing’s West Station to Pingyao (3½ hours). The train stations and trains were very modern and efficient, even better than in Western Europe. 

Pingyao is a well-preserved walled city and another UNESCO site, from the 14th century. We saw only Chinese visitors there, no Westerners, as this is well off the beaten path, with no airport nearby. We wandered the town and spent the night at the Pingyao Cheng Jia Guesthouse (No. 125 Bei Da Street)

The next day we took a bullet train from Jiexiu Station to Xi’an (3 hours), home of the terra-cotta warriors. We had arranged for a driver/guide to pick us up at the train station and show us the ancient terra-cotta statues as well as the Muslim Quarter of the city before dropping us at the airport for our flight to Guilin. This was a change from our original plan, due to a flight-schedule change, but it worked out for the better. 

After a quick overnight at the Guilin Riverside Hostel (No. 6 Zhu Mu Xiang), we took a minibus to Dazhai (3½ hours). From the village of Dazhai, it was an exhausting hour-long walk up the rice terraces to Tiantou Village, but it was well worth the effort to get there. We hired Yao women as porters to carry our bags up the mountain — very strong ladies! 

We stayed at Tian Ranju Inn (tianranju.info), a very rustic place, but what a view! We planned our visit to coincide with the rice harvest, done by hand, which was interesting to watch. The golden, terraced rice fields were beautiful and what many people associate with rural China. 

The next day we trekked down the mountain to catch a minibus to Yangshuo.

Dramatic landscapes

The river and karst landscape in Yangshuo were gorgeous. We spent 2½ days there wandering the beautiful city, biking and relaxing. Our accommodations were at the Outside Inn (www.yangshuo-outside.com) on the city’s outskirts. Owned by an Aussie, it was a great place to stay, with a good restaurant and bike rentals. 

We biked in the country along the river and limestone peaks, crossing the river by bridge and then returning on a bamboo raft over the currents with a local who used a pole to push us along. 

This was a very laid-back, casual place to spend three relaxing days, and the people were friendly.

From Guilin, we flew to Kunming to visit the famous Dongchuan Red Land. It was gorgeous, but the day was totally overcast and misty. Carol, a photographer, was very disappointed, as the mountain/valley views with dark-red earth were magnificent but difficult to photograph in those conditions. 

We purposely planned four days in Dali, our next stop, to relax at a slower pace. Old Dali is very popular with Western independent travelers, but we stayed in New Dali. It was less crowded and not so noisy at night. 

Our accommodations at the Jade Emu Guesthouse (jade-emu.com) were a short walk from Old Dali’s gates. The Jade is owned by another Aussie and his Chinese wife, and great Western food was offered at their on-site restaurant — a welcomed change. Our room even had a large bathtub. 

We were able to speak English there and share stories with other guests. This is one reason we enjoy guest houses. 

Carol went on a horseback ride to a tea plantation while I had a massage. 

Giant Buddha carved into the mountainside in Leshan.

These four days recharged our batteries, which was a good thing, as the next day was a tiring travel day to the Tibetan Plateau. Then it was time for our long-awaited visit to Shangri-La, previously known as Zhongdian, situated at an altitude of about 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) in the Meili Snow Mountain range. It was absolutely gorgeous, with clean, crisp air. This was a difficult place to get to but worth the effort. 

We splurged and stayed two nights at the wonderful Songtsam Retreat, next door to the temple there. The temple and monastery are not old, by Chinese standards, but they are worth a short visit. Unfortunately, 50% of Shangri-La’s Old Town was destroyed by fire in January 2014.

A minor misstep

Another stop on our itinerary was Chengdu, where we spent 3½ days at the Buddha Zen Hotel (www.buddhazenhotel.com), another splurge. This hotel is very popular with Chinese visitors but not with many Westerners. We wandered the upscale shopping areas and stopped at Starbucks. Big-name high-end retail stores were numerous. 

For a day trip by bus to Luocheng and Leshan, April, a lively university student, served as our translator. We started at the wrong bus station, but April’s father rescued us and drove us to the right station. Having missed our bus, we reversed our itinerary, which turned out to be a big mistake, as we ended up missing the last bus back! Sometimes, things don’t go as planned with DIY travel. 

We visited the 71-meter-tall (233 feet) Leshan Giant Buddha on a water tour. The light and viewpoint were perfect for seeing this giant Buddha, carved into the mountain in 713. 

Unfortunately, Carol and I felt that the ancient town of Luocheng was not worth the terribly bumpy bus ride to get there. Again, sometimes things aren’t as expected! 

Back in Chengdu, we did some shopping for tea in a couple of the city’s many tea houses and also went to the opera, which was like a variety show — fun and entertaining, with a well-done hand-shadow show.

Village visit

We caught an evening flight to Huangshan for an overnight, then a driver picked us up in the morning to take us to the World Heritage Site of the Huizhou Villages. 

We stayed at Huqinlou Guesthouse (No. 6 Nanhu, Hongcun Town), with only two rooms, overlooking South Lake — a very rustic, picture-perfect place. (This house and the nearby bridge can be seen in most tour company photos of Hongcun and South Lake.) 

Strolling through the ancient village in the rain, which we hardly noticed with the mild temperatures, we bought a carved-stone teapot from a local artist and watched him work in his shop. 

The next day we visited the villages, some dating to 960. There were many Chinese tour groups there but no Westerners. Local students were sketching and painting on site. The lush green foliage and fall colors were striking against the old structures. 

We walked in the mist up a steep hill at Mukeng Village. It was almost mystical, albeit tiring and wet. 

We laughed with the Chinese tourists who were just as crazy as we were, walking up the steep hills through a bamboo forest in the rain. 

Catching a late bullet train from Huangshan City, we continued on to Suzhou. 

Suzhou and Shanghai

Suzhou is known for its canals, bridges and classical gardens. Staying two nights at the Garden Hotel (gardenhotelsuzhou.com), a nice 4-star hotel on a canal, we visited three gardens, all different in style. 

The Humble Administrator’s Garden dates to 1513; others date to the 11th century. Most of the gardens were built by scholars and were designed to mimic the natural serenity of rocks, hills and rivers. Carol took wonderful photos there.

Shanghai was next on our itinerary. Splurging again, we spent our last two nights in China at the Anting Villa Hotel (antingvillahotel.com), a British-style hotel that was roomy and luxurious. (Our room even had a bathtub.) 

We found the Xintiandi district to be a unique boutique shopping area and an unending source of take-home gift options. Locally made items from throughout China were available there. Had we known, we could have done all our shopping there and saved hauling our purchases across China! 

A few notes

Early October to November was a great time of year to visit southern and western China. The weather was perfect, and the crowds weren’t bad.

We found the Chinese people to be warm and quite helpful and friendly. Communications weren’t much of an issue (especially when we were accompanied by a guide). Drivers generally didn’t speak English. We had an iTranslator app for our iPhone, and it worked very well when we had data coverage (50% of the time in rural areas, there was no coverage). Our cheap Chinese cell phone did come in handy many times. 

ATMs were abundant in larger cities, and credit cards were accepted at larger hotels only. Cash is king in China, so plan accordingly. 

Do your homework on “dynamic conversion” charges if you use a credit card, and try to find a card that does not charge a currency-conversion fee.

People were continually wanting to take “selfies” with us. 

At no time did we ever feel threatened or uncomfortable in crowds or even walking in cities in the evenings. We felt safe, but you should always be alert, just as you should be anywhere else in the world.

Accommodations

We stayed in 3-star to 5-star accommodations, using online forums and eLong (elong.net) as resources. We made several bookings through eLong, a China-based travel agency that we found useful, with good customer service. 

In hostels, we had private rooms with private bathrooms. All were clean and offered Wi-Fi. The service was generally very good. 

View of the Longji rice terraces near Langshuo.

Prices were unbelievably low in rural areas, and we experienced no unpleasant surprises.

Getting around

We used China DIY Travel (Beijing, China; china-diy-travel.com) for purchasing bullet train tickets for routes that were in high demand. They were excellent. The other tickets we bought at the stations or from agents. From the US, you cannot buy train tickets more than 20 days in advance, so China DIY Travel was very helpful, as we got all the tickets as requested. 

For air, I used Travelzen, based in Hong Kong, but this site no longer offers booking information in English. Ctrip (ctrip.com) and eLong can be used as alternatives, but they charge extra fees, as I recall. 

We learned that the Chinese tend to be last-minute travelers, so the better deals on air usually show up one to two months ahead of departure. The government sets the base rates, but the carriers are free to discount as much as they want in order to fill aircraft. 

We took five internal flights, and the average cost was under $100 per person per flight. Always get direct flights, if you can, with mid- to late-afternoon departures. Our five flights arrived 15 to 20 minutes early, on average, with one flight being 10 minutes late.

Cuisine

The cuisine was diversified and very different from one province to another. This was certainly a part of the adventure. We really liked the soup and the noodle dishes. 

In Sichuan, you must be careful not to order something that will burn your lips. We had a rabbit-and-chili-oil meal that was over-the-top hot! 

We thoroughly enjoyed trying new dishes and spices. Fresh fruits and vegetables were served in unique combinations, and there were few dairy items. 

Costs

We used frequent-flyer miles for our international flights. All of the remaining costs came to roughly $6,000 for the both of us. We even went significantly over budget for our meals. I priced a similar itinerary with two Chinese tour companies, and their private-tour quotes were two to three times more. Plus they told us that we wouldn’t want to see, or that they couldn’t arrange travel to, many of the places we ended up visiting.

We are in our mid/late 60s, so we can say from experience that DIY travel is not just for youngsters (though good mobility is helpful). There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in local culture and cuisine.

DIY travel may be for you!

We are happy to answer questions (c/o ITN), though we cannot design itineraries.