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Maison de la Chine

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Is anyone familiar with the Parisien tour operator Maison de La Chine? We are contemplating a three week trip leaving from Paris.The trip covers Bejing, Xian, Shanghai, Datong, Chengde, Wataishan, Pingyao, Guilin, and perhaps some other cities. Does this seem like a reasonable itinerary? Travel is by bus, train, and some day boat trips.

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    It's important to understand that almost all tour operators in China, and especially smaller ones, use the same few local companies to make their ground arrangements. Some do a little tailoring in superficial attempt to make their tours unique, but many do not. The overall content of the tours at any one destination varies very little (and this is one of several problems with tours). You could buy the same trip from the ground handlers yourself, and often be only in a group of two, for a lower price. The foreign company simply organises the international travel and packages that up with the ground arrangements, adds its admin costs and a profit margin, and that's that. The main benefit of this is having someone to complain to if something goes wrong, and the ability to apply Western trading law if the worst comes to the worst.

    > We are contemplating a three week trip leaving from Paris.The trip covers Bejing, Xian, Shanghai, Datong, Chengde, Wataishan, Pingyao, Guilin, and perhaps some other cities. Does this seem like a reasonable itinerary?

    It's difficult to say without knowing the number of days, but presuming the order is not as given (which would mean a lot of zigzagging about) there's nothing too unusual here, although fewer tours take the Beijing-Datong-Wutai Shan-Pingyao-Xi'an route than take most others.

    To judge the quality of this (or any other tour company for China trips) you should find out:

    Is the tour to be accompanied all the way by a foreign tour manager? This is something worth paying more for as it makes it more likely your tour will be as advertised.

    What is the tipping advice? If you are being told you have to pay so much per person per day to the guide, and so much per person per day to the driver, and so much per bag to bellhops, then you are being cheated and you should look elsewhere. There is no tipping in China save that foisted on hapless foreign tour groups. At the very best you should calculate the total in 'tips' and add it to the tour price to find the real price of the tour.

    Ask how many shopping 'opportunities' are included in your tour. The best answer is 'none', because these 'opportunities' are simply a way of fleecing you. Some tours have only one or two of these, and some have one or two a day. On the advice of the guides you pay several multiples more than you should for souvenirs, and they get a kick-back. You should never shop where guides take you, and you should never accept their advice on price. Typically China tours move at a relentless rate, partly to prevent you from having any chance to shop by yourself and discover real prices without payment to the guides.

    See if there's any free time. You want that so you can shop by yourself, and dine by yourself. Food on these tours is often also poor, unimaginative, and repetitive, preventing you from learning that eating out is one of the greatest delights of a China trip, and that real Chinese food, in its infinite regional variety, barely resembles the muck sold in most Chinese restaurants overseas at all. Restaurant selection on tours is often simply according to which restaurants pay ground handlers or guides the biggest kick-back, and the food is dumbed down accordingly.

    If you get the wrong answers from Maison de la Chine, look elsewhere.

    Peter N-H

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    Thank you for your response. I will follow up with Maison de la Chine on the points you mention. We have several friends who have traveled through this agency and they were very satisfied. If we decide not to go with this tour operator, do you have any suggestions on how we might organize a comparable trip. Usually we travel on our own, but China trip seems a bit overwhelming to organize, and we like the opportunity to meet other travels as well. Thank you. EmmeP

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    It's important to remember that most people who come back raving about one tour company to China haven't actually experienced any others, although some (and that's sometimes seen in postings here, too) will assert that although they tried no other methods of travel, theirs was the best. Most (not all) tours have very rapid itineraries with the group members given no free time at all. As a result, the tour group members never find out about real Chinese food, real prices for shopping, that tips left in non-tour-group restaurants are simply handed back in bewilderment and so on. Getting answers to the questions suggested will tell you something about the honesty of your company, and whether you'll just be on a standard pell-mell Chinese tour rather than something put together by people who do know and understand China and the problems with its tour industry, and who have structured a trip accordingly, with some supervision of their own. There are few of these, but they do exist. Inevitably, they are apparently more expensive, but when hidden costs (time wasted, money, and food and shopping issues) are discounted, may not in reality be a great deal more.

    It should be pointed out, too, that if your guides are Chinese there is no chance whatsoever of getting a frank and accurate account of Chinese history. Partly guides' education has consisted of nothing but carefully controlled versions of history, partly tourism training consists of teaching guides the 'right' things to tell foreigners, and partly national pride plays a role in which the truth comes well down the list of priorities, even when it is known. The tourism industry is part of the whole propaganda effort: production is up, the minorities are happy (they sing and dance), and everything's been getting better and better under the wise guidance of the Party since 1949. It's toned down now compared to what it used to be, but only so it isn't instantly rejected.

    For some reason it seems to be common for even experienced travellers to be intimidated by the prospect of travel in China, and the idea that it is impossible to travel there independently is certainly one put about by the Chinese tourism industry. However, tens of thousands of people with no Mandarin at all travel independently there at all levels every year, so if that's your preferred method of travel you certainly shouldn't write it off. Especially with the kind of well-worn destinations you mention (Datong, Wu Tai Shan, a little less well-worn but still visited commonly enough) there are no difficulties for independent travellers with a little gumption.

    Planning is an issue, however. An insistence on working out an itinerary to the last second and booking it in advance rarely works out entirely as planned. China is ideally tackled simply by showing up and then making it up as you go along, working around a list of destinations in order of priority. This is the way to paying half or less of the prices for rooms and transport typically seen on-line. Independent travel is cheaper than even the cheapest organised tour.

    For those planning to stay in foreign-run hotels (not possible in Datong, Wu Tai Shan, Pingyao unless there have been some recent openings) then the best rates are found on the hotels' own websites and rooms can be booked in advance. But for all Chinese-run hotels the best policy is to show up at the counter and bargain. No one ever pays the rack rates shown on the web sites, and few pay anything near it. 50% or even 70% less is not uncommon. 30% off normal. 10% off taken as read, and often offered even before you ask. Domestic rail fares are fixed, but if you try buying on-line before arrival in China you may pay as much as 70% more than you need to. A couple of weeks before flying you'll find domestic air tickets available at prices similar to those you can get over the counter at agencies in China, but only at Chinese sites such as Ctrip, eLong, yoeee, qunar, etc. Expedia etc. don't have a clue, and in fact don't even know that most domestic flights exist. I've seen Expedia ask for a price six times higher than available domestically for the same route.

    In the end this comes down to what you're comfortable with, and what you want. For all those who view this as just great fun, there are others who would do nothing but fret over every detail. Anyone with no Mandarin can get anywhere they like in the bigger cities with just a little forethought and simply tricks like getting the concierge to write the destination down to show to the cab driver, taking a hotel card to show to another when you want to return. But some just want to land in China and not have to think about anything at all. That's the main benefit of taking an organised tour, along with covering a little more ground in the same time, although often including ground you wish you weren't covering (such as, in some of the worst cases, being bussed from one hotel far from the centre to another simply to have a poor quality lunch with some product demonstration or other going on at the same time).

    In the end it's what you feel comfortable with that matters, but if you do want to take a tour, do put a lot of detailed examination into your choice, do ask a lot of questions, do NOT pick the cheapest, and do consider organising your own flights and just joining a tour for the land portion. Do include some days not on the tour (arrive early or depart late) especially if you choose a tour company that gives you no free days.

    Peter N-H

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