I see a lot and I do a lot when I am in China because I plan a lot!!! I travel solo, I am a female aged over 65, I speak only a tiny amount of Chinese, I am not afraid to ask for help, I am endlessly curious, I travel on a fairly tight budget, I go to China each year as a Visiting International Professor, and I think I was Chinese in a previous lifetime.
In 2018, I experienced 10 “ancient towns,” 3 new major cities and 2 familiar ones, 9400 kilometers of high-speed trains, and I don’t know how many hotels. Everything was GREAT, but that’s because I can be flexible when I’m not right. 🙂
Here is my #kcbarker Chinadventure Planning System, using the 10 ancient towns as an example.
- Ancient cities and water towns are everywhere in China. Wherever I am going, I research what is nearby – Shanghai has dozens on the outskirts, Beijing is famous for the hutongs inside the city, tourism in Yunnan and Fujian is centered on some spectacular ancient towns. I start with the usual resources: Lonely Planet and Google maps.
- To make the most of my time, I use Viator. First I check ALL the tours available in a place, like Xi’an or Kunming. I read them and make a list of the most common attractions and tours, the most intriguing, and anything with the word “traditional” or “ancient” in it. Then I look for a tour that includes most of the ones on my list. Many times I have made special requests when I couldn’t find the exact tour I wanted.
- Typically I book a day tour inside the city that includes some time in the featured ancient town – like Ciqikou in Chongqing. I can always go back if I want to see more.
- Sometimes, though, a town merits more time – like days spent in Dali or Pingyao. I will book a hotel and plan to stay a few days – 2 days touring and at least 1 day relaxing. I look for hotels in or near the gates of walled towns – where cars are not allowed, because I may walk from the gate dragging my own luggage while searching for my address, sometimes in the dark. (I use Booking.com because it is so easy to make changes and cancellations, so easy to communicate directly with hotels to make requests, e.g, for a pickup at the stations, so easy to book without a deposit which is a hassle to refund on many sites.)
- Typically I also book a day tour outside the city, to see the surrounding countryside and to see rural and remote villages – like Xizhou and Shuhe in Yunnan. If I hadn’t done that, I would have missed MianShan near Pingyao, the Three Pagodas of Dali, and endless miles of ordinary Chinese farms and industries – all the day-to-day life in China. You cannot know China if all you see is the cities.
- Finally, I try very hard to include both a food excursion and a cultural event. Most places have foodies, like Lost Plate Food Tours in several cities, sharing local eating adventures; and many cities are now developing spectacular evening shows – like Pingyao Impressions that I write about in the Pingyao photoblog. It is such a delightful way to learn local history, priorities, and values. Much more moving than museums – but those are good too, especially for high-quality souvenirs in the museum gift shops. I book food and/or cultural events on the evening of my rest day. Again, I book through Viator because I have a car to transport me in the dark city night, and an interpreter to help me understand what I’m hearing. Brilliant!
- Always I book a private tour – with a talented and certified professional guide who speaks English, and who arrives with a clean, new car and a very safe driver. I have never had a worry! It is a little like booking a good friend for a day – we can chat life in China and Oman, we can alter the plans when I am tired, we can share delicious lunches at the places only they know, we can bypass long lineups and take shortcuts. Viator vets and chooses brilliant guides and reliable vehicles only!
- FYI, typically the lunch is not included in the tour price and I sometimes consider it a tip because we order a feast. But actual tips are also really appreciated.
- Sometimes I book the wrong things – like a stunning view of Kunming that required a climb of 900 steps. I thought there was a cable car – and there was, just for riding down only. One reason I use Viator is that I can change the plan when I discover my mistake. I should have admitted my limitations when I was booking because I had that option!
- Viator makes it so easy to just book, pay, and save itineraries to my phone. It is important to know the name, address and phone # of your hotel before you book because that is a necessary detail when booking. Look through the booking options and choices for the best prices.
- While it says you should print your voucher, I never did. It is critical to have your own internet access, be sure to download one or more VPNs before you leave home, and be sure to get a China SIM card at the airport when you arrive.
- It is an equally great idea to have a WeChat account because then you can communicate directly with your guide before, during and after your tour. My guides have become invaluable resources to me. Always, a day or so before my tour, a guide got in touch by either email or WeChat; and if I was in transit, I found a message waiting at my hotel. It is SO RELAXING when you have confidence in your plans.
- Train travel is usually how I get around in China, and I’ve shared my advice here: China at 300 kms/hr: Train Travel Tips so you Relax and Enjoy the View. Next year I will use the slower green trains and see more of the countryside; the highspeed trains can zip across mountainous China because of the miles and miles of tunnels. I can recommend the green express train from Shanghai to Tibet.
- Finally, a reminder to myself: good walking shoes and a camera backup. There is nothing sadder than missing great photo ops because a battery went dead. Anything else, I can buy on the fly. They sell EVERYTHING in China.
When I say I plan a lot, I don’t do it all before I go. I do a lot along the way because I build in some downtime and flex time, and some days I just need a haircut more than a museum.