China & Japan: tour guides or not?

Old Nov 26th, 2003, 01:09 PM
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China & Japan: tour guides or not?

My wife and I are planning to visit China and Japan for about three weeks and are trying to decide if we should try to find guides or if we'd be fine on our own. We'd rather not travel in a group. Issues are mostly getting from place to place, getting into museums and sites, etc. for those who don't speak Japanese or Chinese.

When my wife visited China about 20 years ago, being part of a tour group seemed essential, due to lack of English-speaking Chinese, difficulty booking, etc.

We're big on museums and the outdoors, and can easily spend two days in the Louvre or many hours hiking in a national park, if that matters for an answer.

If using guides is recommended, are we better off booking here or once we get there?
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Old Nov 30th, 2003, 04:36 AM
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Seems no-one has replied as yet. I can only say that I have been living in Shanghai for two months and I would have to say that you will need a guide outside the big cities as English is not that common, even in shops. We have a driver who doesn't speak a word, so we communicate with mime, my taxi cards with bi-lingual addresses or have a go-between. In Shanghai the taxi drivers don't speak English either, so you must be prepared and have your destinations written down in Chinese, which your hotel desk clerks will be happy to do for you, but spontaneity is out! I feel that Japan will be ahead in the language stakes. good luck.
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Old Nov 30th, 2003, 02:04 PM
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Every year tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of visitors get themselves around China without either a word of Mandarin or a guide.

Unless you happen to want to travel at one of the few peak seasons, then acquiring travel tickets is easy, and getting into museums and sites is easy all year round. Travelling within cities is easily accomplished by metro or taxi, and all you need is the Chinese characters for your destination, which any decent guide book will give you.

Using guides is not recommended because they rarely know what they are talking about, and frequently employ a range of techniques to separate you from extra money. You're much better to take background reading with you.

The China of 20 years ago is ancient history--your wife is in for a big shock. It will be like visiting a different country, not the same country for a second time.

Peter N-H
http://members.axion.net/~pnh/China.html
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Old Nov 30th, 2003, 02:10 PM
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Oh, and on Japan, I've never used a tour guide there on any of a dozen or so visits there, and I've found no difficulty in getting around, as almost everything is written in 'romaji' (the Latin alphabet) in addition to the kanji (from Chinese characters) and the two Japanese phonetic alphabets. While English is little spoken, there's a far greater willingness to try than in China, and very many Japanese understand simple phrases or ideas when in context, and are happy to help--if you stand and look puzzled, very often someone will come and volunteer their assistance.

Japanese is harder than Chinese to learn properly, but it's easier to pronounce, and half a dozen expressions (particularly "Where is..?") will go a long way.

Peter N-H
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Old Dec 1st, 2003, 05:23 PM
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To make communication with Japanese a little easier, here are some tips:

Try young, professional looking Japanese. They are the ones who study English conversation to boost their career.

Speak word-by-word, separate each word rather than speak slowly.

When writing, use print letters.

Stand at a corner as if you are lost. Often someone will offer his help.

With these in mind, you should not have communication troubles in Japan.
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Old Dec 2nd, 2003, 10:37 AM
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I agree with the other posters that Japan is easier to do on your own than China. That is because Japan is more "Westernized", "modernized", whatever you would like to call it , than China is. However, the average person in either China or Japan - as a matter of courtesy - would be equally helpful to you, provided you could communicate your needs and wants! Lo!

That generalization said, whether you personally would need a guide or not is really up to your own personal comfort level.

As a Chinese speaker and as someone who can read "characters", I can find my way easily around both China and Japan.

But when in Thailand or some other SE Asian country, I very much appreciate being with someone who can speak the local language. Once, in Thailand, a colleague helped me buy the most delicious mangoes and negotiated a great price for me. Simple things like that, but things that add immeasurably to one's remembrances of a trip.

In Asia, a lot of things that a local guide can do for you has nothing to do with that person's knowledge of the history, architecture, etc. of an area. It has more to do with knowledge of the local culture and how things are done or not done in that part of the world. A local person can facilitate things for you and make things go more smoothly.

As for how much of the particular country's history and culture the guide knows, it ranges all over the map. I have visited parts of SE Asia where I THINK I know more about their history and the architecture than the local guide, nevertheless, his/her talks are always interesting, even if I don't always agree with the interpretation.

So, IMHO, even if you have read a lot of scholarly books but don't speak the language, you should probably have a local guide, especially in China.

If you are planning to travel on local transportation, a local guide can make those arrangements for you.

And, if you need to use a restroom, a local person should be able to point one out to you. China is not "international" in its approach to a lot of things. The restrooms are not always marked with the universal symbols of a man or a woman. Sometimes they are marked with the Chinese characters for "man" or "woman" - which isn't of too much help for non-Chinese who don't read Chinese characters!

Small things. Simple things. But think about them, and think about your own comfort level.

Havea great trip!
easytraveler
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Old Dec 7th, 2003, 05:44 PM
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Thanks for the replies. Japan seems fine on our own, especially as we're only going to Tokyo and Kyoto.

For China, I'm concerned about the logistics of getting from place to place, etc. We'd also like to have things arranged in advance - hotels, flights/trains from city to city, etc. We're not looking for information from a guide, but don't want to waste time arranging things when in China (even if pre-arranging will cost a bit more).

Any suggestions for how to make these arrangements in advance? Any recommended agencies, web sites, even individual guide outfits? CITS?
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Old Dec 21st, 2003, 09:36 PM
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As a Chinese, I would suggest you go to Beijing and check with any one of three leading travel agencies. They are China Travel Service, International Travel Service and Youth Travel Service. In order to get deeper discount on airfare or hotels etc, many Chinese plan their domestic trip with them these days too.

I visited Japan in late December last year. I was guided by two volunteers arranged by Japanese Tourist Office for one day trip each in Kyoto and Nara. One guide was a college student and the other one was a retired English teacher. The latter one can speak English fluently. I enjoyed both of their accompany.
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Old Dec 21st, 2003, 09:53 PM
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If you absolutely must book ahead then the organisations mentioned above are likely the only ones with offices in your area, and they are the ones which most other travel companies are using to handle their ground arrangements. If you wish to book everything in advance for travel around several Chinese destinations then you have very little choice, as these are the only organisations with national networks. But all three of them have a long history of immense rapacity especially towards foreign visitors to China, who will be extensively overcharged and generally misled, forced into endless shopping 'opportunities', etc. All should be avoided if at all possible.

At the very least, if you must book ahead (and it really is unnecessary to do this), then just arrange for your accommodation, and transport tickets, with airport pick-ups and drop-offs if you really feel you need them. You'll be overcharged at every turn, but you'll have the security of knowing that everything's pre-arranged, if that's what you need. Generally onward flight and rail tickets are delivered to your hotel in each town. Getting yourself around the sights most Chinese cities is fairly easy, as there are countless taxis whose drivers just need to be shown the characters for your destination.

Peter N-H
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Old Dec 22nd, 2003, 05:44 PM
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I just found out that someone I know is working in Beijing. He has a CITS agent that his company uses regularly, and said last year he booked a vacation for visiting family members, including hotels, transport & guides. All were pleased. He believes he can arrange a "no shopping" vacation.

As an aside, he agreed with the notion that the hotel star rating system borders on the meaningless, and the age of the hotel is more important.
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Old Dec 24th, 2003, 05:56 AM
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We visited China in November and had flight and hotel arranged. Other than that, we took taxis around and got to do and see everything we wanted. We had a guidebook with very simple phrases in Chinese characters and that's all we needed. I would not hire a guide as the information they provide is not accurate (from what I've read and experienced). You're better off with a reliable guidebook.
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