How to prepare an individual adventure trip through the Middle Kingdom
Sometimes I get this feeling. This desire, this longing for adventure. And that yen to try out my rusty Mandarin skills once again. These moments, I take the travel guide book from the shelf, leaf through it and the craving gets sky high: China it shall be. This huge country too many people only associate with overpopulated megacities and environmental pollution, but which actually offers so many natural wonders within practically all climate and vegetation zones of the world! So, China it is!
This time I choose a five-day round trip through Hunan province in China’s very center. The national park of Zhangjiajie, the beautiful old town of Fenghuang – places that most people outside of China haven’t even heard of. Gems undiscovered by Western tourists, me being literally the only foreigner around there. That sounds promising, that sounds like adventure.
If you plan for a similar adventure within China, this article is meant to provide assistance, to support you with your planning and to give you an idea what expects you in the Middle Kingdom.
If you want to get to know what the people in China’s hinterland are like, read here.
Preparation – is it all Chinese to you?
I have found the online portal ctrip (www.ctrip.com) to be a very reliable and helpful wizard when preparing a trip to and through China. This website is available in English and other major languages and supports with the booking of flights, hotels and train connections what should cover the vast majority of the topics you have to organize. From my experience, the hotels offered via ctrip are of decent quality and very reasonably priced, although some of them only target Chinese tourists. In case you want to stay somewhere even cheaper, you might also have a look at the backpacker’s all-time favourite www.hostelworld.com for budget accommodation in the most interesting tourist destinations.
Unfortunately, there’s no possibility to book or reserve bus tickets via ctrip and I also don’t know about any other English-speaking website that provides information on bus schedules. Personally, I was very lucky to have a Chinese-speaking colleague that screened the “Chinese” part of the internet to help me out. A reliable source information is also always the most recent edition of “Lonely Planet China” for connections of major interest. Usually you don’t need to book bus tickets ahead, as especially main routes are served in a high frequency. You can buy them directly at a counter on the bus station, but at least a little knowledge of Mandarin would be very helpful.
Generally speaking, I have to declare that on the one hand China is a gigantic and multifaceted country that offers its visitors such many unforgettable impressions. On the other hand, however, beyond the big cities and major tourist destinations it is still not designed for international tourism. Not at all. If you don’t have basic knowledge of Mandarin (at least HSK level 2 is advisable imho), then it might get quite challenging. Eventually everything should also work out by communicating with hands, feet, dictionaries or mobile phone apps (for my part, I use Pleco or KTdict), but that’s often rather hard work than relaxing vacation.
Tourists who don’t care so much about individual travel planning and rather want everything to be perfectly organized for them, can of course – authentically Chinese – participate in a guided group tour to explore China without being responsible for communication and organization. I don’t have personal experience with this, but friends and colleagues have told me a lot of positive things about such tours. For sure, you will most probably pay a premium compared to an individually organized tour, but ransom yourself from stress and hassle. And if the tour is good in the end – who could blame you for that? But now, finally, let’s finish the prologue and enter the adventure “China all by myself”!
Travelling China by plane – „Please fasten your seatbelt”
After all, I’m in China again. Due to a business meeting in Shenzhen on the day before the start of my trip, I booked a flight from here on a late Friday evening to Changde. Shenzhen to Changde – the routing delivers what it had promised and I’m the only foreigner on board. As I arrive late at the gate, my first challenge would be to find some space for my backpack in the overhead compartment. Unbelievable what some Chinese passengers carry with them when flying!
Indeed, domestic flights in China are a real experience. Compared to other industry nations all over the world, flying has only recently become affordable to bigger masses in China. That’s why you sometimes still encounter incidents like the one with the old guy that hit on the idea to fetch his luggage out of the overhead bins to be able to exit the plane faster – only that he had this idea thirty seconds before touchdown. In these situations, I feel a deep sympathy for the poor stewardesses…
Eventually we reach the airport of Changde – without any collateral damage. It is surprisingly small and only consists of two luggage belts. Somehow understandable, we’re only talking about a small town of just 5.7 million inhabitants, after all. An half an hour taxi ride later I am being welcomed by a large banner spanning the entrance door of my hotel saying “Guests are welcome”. They’d better be… However, as I walk into the lobby the receptionists behind the counter become quite hectic. Nervously, they are searching for the one colleague that can speak a least bit of English, at all. Yes, the Changde INTERNATIONAL Hotel really lives up to its name. I try to accommodate the poor fellows with my bits and pieces of Mandarin and am eventually shown to my room – on the VIP floor! As it is right and proper, hah! Now I can relax a little bit, before tomorrow at the crack of dawn I will leave for Zhangjiajie. Changde is just the springboard to this China survival tour.
Continuation of the journey via bus and train – How to get my tickets?
As I had not made any reservation and want to make sure that I will still get a ticket for the 9 o’clock departure, I arrive at the bus station already at half past seven. Luckily, there’s still one available! With this ticket, I pass the security check and enter into a large waiting hall. Here I provide myself with milk tea and pastries from a small shop in the corner – the ultimate height of breakfast pleasure in China (in my humble opinion, at least).
Once again, I am reminded of the astonishing efficiency of Chinese bus and train stations. All passengers have to wait in the hall until their bus or train will have arrived. Guards will inform them and only then passengers will be able to pass the turnstiles to get to the platforms. This I find very foresighted. Otherwise, masses would be flocking to their platforms way before departure, blocking entries and exits and causing chaos. I know from Germany that similar concepts with security checks at the entry gates to a train station have been in discussion for quite some time, however, the prevailing old infrastructure poses to be a limiting factor to these plans. Lucky China: Most of its bigger infrastructural projects (like airports, train and bus stations) have only been built during the last twenty to twenty-five years, which allowed them to build everything completely from scratch without inherited infrastructural waste in their way.
At the next two stages on my trip that are to be travelled by bus, buying a ticket proves just as easy and cheap as the first time. There are always seats available and I never have to pay more than 50 RMB. Generally, it can be the same with trains. However, once I was only able to get a standing ticket for the 2.5 hours ride from Zhangjiajie to Jishou. If you want to play it safe, you should make use of reservation options via ctrip and collect your tickets by showing your passport and reservation number at the counter in due time before departure – works perfect, after the Zhangjiajie experience I always reserved seats for train connections.
On these trips by bus and train through the inner country of China, it is not uncommon that I would be the only Western face among all the Chinese. That makes you quite an attraction to the people here, that much is clear. But you will as well be able to observe some things I would describe as “interesting”, if I want to put it in a neutral way. Explaining what I mean, however, provides enough material for a separate article. If you’re interested, then please follow-up with the second part of my guideline to China for individual tourists.
How do you prepare for “expeditions” to and throughout China? What have you experienced and encountered here? Do you agree to my statements or do you have additional recommendations for travelers planning to go to China? Have you done a tour with an organization you would like to recommend or advise others against? Please let me know about all that and more, so that I can update this article for future readers. Thank you for any kind of feedback!