Independent travel in China

Old Jun 11th, 2006, 05:49 PM
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Independent travel in China

I've been working with Warrior Tours to arrange a largely independent China tour with some guides sprinkled in. Plus they are arranging all the internal flights (five of them). You may remember my previous questions, but now I'm getting closer to having some specifics nailed down (even though it's not until next May!)


Here's the plan:

May 13: Arrive in Beijing, taxi to hotel.

May 14: Beijing
Full free day on your own.

May 15 (Tue): Beijing
Our guide will pick you up at the lobby of your hotel in the morning.
Visit the Badaling Great Wall. Transfer back to your own booked hotel after lunch. (L)

May 16 (Wed): Beijing
Full day is free on your own.

May 17(Thu): Beijing - Xian
You will take a morning flight to Xian and transfer to your own booked hotel by yourselves. We will only book the flight tickets for you.

May 18 (Fri): Xian
Our guide will pick you up at the lobby of your hotel. Visit the Terracotta
Warriors and Horses Museum. Transfer back to your hotel after lunch.
(L)

May 19 (Sat): Xian - Lhasa
You will go to the airport to take the flight to Lhasa by yourselves. Our
guide will pick you up at the airport in Lhasa and transfer you to your
own booked hotel.

May 20 (Sun): Lhasa
Visit the Potala Palace, the Sera Monastery, the Norbulingka Park
and a Tibetan family. (L)

May 21 (Mon): Lhasa
Visit the Drepung Monastery, the Jokhang Temple, the thriving bazaar of the Barkhor Street, the Tibetan Traditional Hospital and the Carpet Factory (I'm going to tell them to skip the carpet factory). Dinner is served at your hotel. (L)

May 22 (Tue): Lhasa - Kunming - Lijiang
See off your flight to Kunming. You will catch your flight to Lijiang
and transfer to your own booked hotel by yourselves.

May 23-24: Lijiang
Two days are free on your own. (We're planning a trip to Jade Dragon Mountain for the cable car ride and a day wandering the town. Is it easy to arrange a trip to the mountain?)

May 25 (Fri): Lijiang - Kunming - Guilin
You will fly to Kunming and catch the flight to Guilin and transfer to your
own booked hotel by yourselves. We will only arrage the flights for you.

May 26 (Sat): Guilin - Longsheng - Guilin
Our guide will pick you up at the lobby of your hotel. Take car to Longsheng
to visit the Longji Terraced Fields and the Zhuang Minority villages and
the Suspension Bridge. Transfer back to Guilin. (L)

May 27(Sun): Guilin - Yangshuo
Enduring memories are created today as you cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo. Upon arrival in Yangshuo, a short bicycle trip to the countryside will then be arranged. You will visit a local villager's
home to experience the farmer's lifestyle there. Alternatively, you can take our electric car instead of taking bicycles. Stay overnight in Yangshuo. Hotel accommodation is on your side. (Tips: Since the lunch on the Li River cruise can not meet your expectation, TCG suggests that you have enough breakfast at the hotel today.) (L)

May 28(Mon): Yangshuo
Full day is free on your own.

May 29(Tue): Yangshuo - Guilin - Shanghai
Our guide will pick you up at the lobby of your hotel and transfer you back to Guilin. You will fly to Shanghai and transfer to your own booked hotel by yourselves. We will only arrange the flight. Our service ends.

(Then we have two days in Shanghai on our own before flying home - or maybe Hong Kong - still haven't decided for sure.)

The quote is $1776 per person. We'll then need to arrange hotels and the intercontinental flights ourselves.
What do you all think? Good itinerary? Reasonable price?

Thanks,
Karen
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Old Jun 11th, 2006, 07:21 PM
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oh my god karen here we go again...haha

looks like a lot to me, but let the china experts answer you more clearly..

i see one huge omission...you must visit the summer palace while in beijing....i think it is best done on your own...just wander around...we hired a car from the hotel to take us to the gate and wait a couple of hours for us...not expensive as i remember...

the zoo and pandas are worthless in beijing---don't waste your time if anyone suggests it...

a trip in the lanes (i forget the name), houngs??-- the old living areas of the city are well worth your time...not many are left...there are tri-shaw rides or we walked it...quite interesting..--in beijing...

i don't think there will be a centre point silom for you....or a TV to break...how is the dear daughter by the way...still taking naps?? haha

the trip looks great...i am sure you will like it...

put bali on the top of your list...it is perfect for YOU...

bob

hope you will come on oct 7!!!! lots coming so far...

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Old Jun 11th, 2006, 09:35 PM
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I am having a hard time understanding what that $1,700+ pay for. The 5 domestic flights, even at full fare, would cost <$1,000. The Great Wall trip and that around Guilin/Yangshuo can be arranged easily by yourself, relatively cheaply. The only tricky part is the Tibet portion. Still, I think they're asking way too much for this, as most of the time an agent can book airfare at significant discount (i.e. 50-60% off).

I say you look for other agents that specialize in Tibet travel to get you set up there, and then have them add the other plane tickets. The rest, do it on your own.
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 05:38 AM
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I have just returned from china saturday night and can offer some information. it is very hard to compare flight prices but as a guideline, i will tell you what i paid (did not go to lhasa or xian and had only 3 flights vs your 5):

flight from beijing to lijiang (through kunming). a flight from lijiang (through kunming) to guilin. return from guilin to beijing. this series of flights cost just under 4000 RMB per person. it was arranged by my friend who lives in beijing and is very astute with money. she travels constantly and used the booking agent that she uses for all her trips. this was the cash price...booked about 5 days in advance.

i don't really have a good judgement on whether this is a fair price or not. i tend to think that your price is quite high. much of the answer lies in how comfortable you are arranging and negotiating things for yourself. for example, we were initially quoted RMB 350 for the taxi between yangshou and guilin (should cost no more than 200 RMB)...this transfer is included in your price. the more things included, the less window of opportunity for overcharging and the more you can let your guard down. on the other hand, i think that the tours that are included in your package can be easily and cheaply arranged yourself locally with little or no notice. you will also have the flexibility to arrange a better experience (for example, the "standard" trip down the li from guilin to yangshou has little appeal to me - touring the li can be done better and cheaper than with the large guilin based "luxury" boats). and i do believe that tour operators all use the same local guides so i would not expect the quality of your tours to be any different from a locally arranged tour (if arranged intelligently). none of the tours listed are anything exotic that 100s of travel shops (and touts/drivers) don't offer at each location.

i will try to do a trip report for beijing, great wall, lijiang and yangshou that may be helpful to you.
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 06:41 AM
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Forgive me - but this trip is about as manic as it gets. Like the only reason for going to Xian is the warriors. The only reason for going to Yangshou is a river cruise. And you are going all the way to Lhasa for 2 days?

Why the hurry?

I won't comment on the price. Could be good or bad; But for the sake of words having meaning - what you propose is not "independent" travel - it's pre-booked and pre-arranged non-group travel. Not quite the same thing.

Enjoy.



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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 06:46 AM
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Thanks for the great advice. Here's my dilemma - I don't mind booking things independently, but I'm worried about being able to make arrangements at the last minute. Since our time is limited and we have to keep moving (I envy the backpackers with a couple of months or more!), I'm hesitant not to have things arranged in advance, especially the flights. I'm certainly willing to go direct to guides and arrange for them independently, but would prefer to do it in advance - and would very much prefer to go with someone recommended. I'm thinking of trying Jerry in Beijing for the trip to the Great Wall. I don't want a robotic guide - want someone interesting and fun. As for Tibet, the agency said we had to go with a guide while there. I've heard that before (and also heard that it's not quite true - so I'm not sure the scoop on that).
I've almost been tempted to go with a group tour after all - in China they actually seem cheaper, whereas that wasn't the case for Thailand. Maybe it's because I'm going through a tour company rather than individuals.
Can we easily arrange a driver/guide to the Longshi rice terraces? How did you arrange the boat in Guilin that wasn't one of the big tourist ones. In Laos, we just got one guy to take us up the Mekong an hour for $25 (although I realize the Li trip is much longer).
More than anything else, the reason I'm avoiding a group tour is because I can't find the itinerary I want - once I decide where I want to go, I'm pretty stubborn about it. It's hard to let go of Lijiang! Or Lhasa! Or the Longji rice terraces! And I don't want a Yangtze cruise. If I had 6 weeks, I'd do it like a backpacker - but I've got three tight weeks with no room to spare (because of work), and I'm doing as much as seems possible.

(And Bob, the Summer Palace is in our plans - it's on one of the Beijing on-our-own days. And while there isn't a Centre Point - I've found Beijing New World Apartments that look pretty good! Julie's fine - still "finding herself" - thinking about either joining the Peace Corps or teaching English abroad - and yes, still sleeping late and napping!).

Walkinaround - YES, would love a trip report from you! Please! Give us all the details.


Would also love any other comments - there aren't quite as many independent China travelers on this board as Southeast Asia - so if you're out there, we'd love to hear from you!
Thanks
Karen
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 07:11 AM
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Nothing wrong to have things organized, and nothing wrong to pack things in. Just saying that you're paying a lot for not that much. I think you should look for other tour operators for quotes, and/or bargain down the price a bit.
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 07:20 AM
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Fuzzy - perhaps you didn't look closely at my itinerary. We have two independent days in Beijing, two half days independent in Xian, two independent days in Lijiang, a full day independent in Yangshuo, and two days independent in Shanghai. We are arranging all our hotels and most transfers on our own. We do have guides for the places where I don't see (know of) any other option: the Great Wall, the terracotta warriors, Tibet, the Li River cruise (which, thanks to walkinaround's post, I may now opt out of and arrange on our own), and the trip to the rice terraces. That sounds pretty independent to me. I'm not sure how, for instance, we'd get to the rice terraces without having someone take us! And I never said the only reason for going to Xian is to see the warriors. We plan to visit the Muslim Quarter, the ancient wall, the Bell Tower, and the Goose Pagoda - just not with a tour guide. In Yangshuo, we plan to rent bikes to ride in the countryside (not with a tour group), and we also plan to spend a full day just soaking up Yangshuo and seeing what else we can get into. So, no, it's not just about the river trip - and I don't believe I said it was. I just didn't give all the details of what we're doing on our own time because I was seeking input on the price of what they're arranging. But if you're interested, I can certainly lay it all out (or at least as much as I have given that it's still almost a year away)!!
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 07:23 AM
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Yes, rkkwan, I do think I'll get a couple of other quotes. And maybe I'll get a separate quote just on the airfare. I would like to have that booked in advance. The other stuff, if I can definitely do it there, I'll do that. Would LOVE to hear driver/guide recommendations. Especially for Longsheng and the Great Wall (and also a recommendation on which section).
tks,
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 09:05 AM
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Hi Karen --

I'm in the midst of planning a trip more or less simliar to yours -- also need to include Xi'an, the Li cruise, time in Yangshuo, several days in Lijiang, plus of course Beijing. And like you, I've got some real time constraints.

I eventually decided that less is more. Instead of 2 days in Lijiang, I'll spend 5, and get to know it. And I'll save Xian and Guilin for another trip. (Which isn't to say this is a solution for you or anyone else -- just something that makes sense for my needs.)
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 09:19 AM
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i think we are getting too hung up on semantics regarding independent travel vs. tour. who cares what you call it? the excursions that the OP mentions are the same excursions that 1000's of "independent" visitors to china might organise locally.

regarding the li river, we arrived in guilin airport and took a public bus to yangshou - no interest in staying in guilin. taxi from yangshou back to the airport was RMB 200. from yangshou, we arranged a boat trip through charm travel (i have the info at home). when we arrived off the bus in yangshou, the man at charm gave us a friendly welcome to yangshou and gave us directions to our hotel without trying to sell anything. the next day when asking about cruise options from yangshou, he told us that a boat directly from yangshou would be quite expensive and phoned around to get us the cheapest price. he then suggested a trip upstream leaving from xing ping instead of yangshou. the price was 70 RMB for a small boat (including transport to xingping on the public bus --escorted to and from the bus and all fares paid by the company). this also included the fare of a boat taxi that took us to the main boat. i am aware that you can probably do this whole thing for about 50 RMB if you take the bus yourself and strongly negotiate with the boat operators in xing ping. this requires a bit of stomach as buses in these areas always try to overcharge foreigners and bus destinations are displayed only in chinese characters.

when we arrived in yangshou, we were met right off the bus by a friendly woman from the local travel coordinator...actually, just a cafe owner. another couple joined shortly and we were off on the boat for a trip of approximately 2.5 - 3 hours up to yangdi. the boat was very narrow and the top retractable. very nice views all around. the "proper" boat from guilin to yangshou is much larger affair similar to those dinner or tour cruise boats in european cities. this cruise is much longer in duration than mine but i heard from many sources that it gets old after a while (you are surrounded by karsts in yangshou...so the cruise is not your only chance to see these spectacular features). the best scenery is located between xing ping and yangdi.

yangshou had a poor first impression for us. west street (most people's first stop) reminded me of the many places in thailand that are set up only to cater to western backpacker tourists. it was nighttime and the western oriented discos were in full swing. the town soon grew on us as leaving west street gives you a much more local feel...and west street itself is less annoying during the day.

we stayed at paradisa aka paradise (name changed). it is the largest hotel and built as a luxury resort (but clearly showing its age and suffering from poor maintenance - eg dirty pool and a bit rough overall). it's not that i don't recommend it, at about 400 RMB for the "deluxe" room, it is not a bad value for money. and it is well located.

the wall...

i have never been to badaling but i have not heard good things about it. i talked to a woman on the plane and she said that it was shoulder to shoulder tourists, the whole thing was repaved and piped music was playing along the length. this confirms many accounts that i have read.

instead, we hired a car from beijing to take us to jinshanling (pardon any misspellings). the driver then drove to simatai where he waited for us to complete the approx 4 hour walk. he then drove us back to beijing. the cost was 800 RMB for a proper comfortable car with no BS souvenir or overpriced kickback lunch stops (excluding tarriff to walk the wall). this was arranged through my friend's regular driver who does not speak english.

on this stretch of the wall we saw probably less than 20-25 other tourists during the 4 hours (although, it is not free of touts in the form of "guides" or souvenir sellers).
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 12:02 PM
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Yes, I am thinking about Jinshanling rather than Badaling. Also considering Mutianyu. Was the 4-hour hike very strenuous? We're not so young (but not ancient either). I'll be 50 when we go (ouch) and my sister 58.
Your Yangshuo boat trip sounds more to our liking than the big touristy boats coming from Guilin.
I really want to see the Longji rice terraces. Was thinking about staying in Guilin since it will be a shorter drive from there. But maybe we should just spend the full time in Yangshuo and book the trip to Longji from there. Do you remember seeing that as a possibility?
Thanks!
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 02:18 PM
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as for the strain level of the jinshaling to sematai walk. it was not easy but not too difficult either. i'm certainly not an athlete but did not find it overly challenging. i did it in light-weight hiking boots (as opposed to proper stiff hiking boots). it is certainly more challenging than a gentle walk but at no time did i feel that that terrain is dangerous. it was actually easier than i felt it would be from the descriptions that i read. i'm not sure of our exact timing but 3.5 hours is a very conservative estimate and we stopped for many photos, a long lunch break, and no matter your pace, i can't see it taking more than 4 hours.

a maximum age of 58 should not be an issue in itself. but i would not attempt this if i were out of shape, or had absolutely no mountain walking experience. there is no getting around the fact that this stretch of the wall is built in the mountains. if you would not be comfortable doing this type of walking at home, it would not be wise to stretch your skill/fitness/comfort level in mainland china.

however, if you are comfortable with moderate walks/hikes of this distance, there is no reason to be afraid of this one.

yes, i did see trips to longshan/longji from yangshuo. i saw many shops advertising 1 or 2 day trips.

i would recommend "Charm Yangshuo Tour" in yangshuo. email is [email protected]. phone is 0773-8814355. i booked my river boat and airport car from him and found him trustworthy and fair. he is also very laid back and does not pressure at all (unlike many). i did not go to longji so i cannot comment from experience. jamie should be able to answer if one day is enough to visit longji from yangshuo or if it is too little time to really enjoy it.
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Old Jun 12th, 2006, 05:12 PM
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walkinaround - how did you arrange your trip to the Great Wall? I've seen a guide named Jerry referred to here. Did you use him or someone else?
Thanks for all the great info!
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Old Jun 13th, 2006, 04:31 PM
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no, it was not jerry. we used the driver that my chinese friend in BJ uses all the time so she trusts him. he does not speak english but we did not care because we didn't want a guide or personality. we knew how to tell him to stop for a toilet if necessary or to eat if we had wanted (we didn't). that's all that mattered to us. we knew he would meet us as arranged. never pay a guide/driver until he returns you home!!!

i don't think you need a guide for this stretch of the wall. really, you can just read about it beforehand and enjoy the fantastic views on the walk. there isn't much to point out or that requires explanation (other than what you can read about). i would much rather enjoy it alone but that's just my preference.
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Old Jun 13th, 2006, 05:22 PM
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Yes, I agree - would rather just enjoy the Wall on our own. A driver sounds like our best bet (without a guide).

As an update to my original post, I got a response from wacts.com with what sounds like a better deal. Even though some of this may be a tad high, it's closer to what I had in mind:

Flights

Beijing - Xian, US$294 for 2 passengers inclusive airport tax and fuel fee
Xian - Lhasa, US$446 for 2 passengers inclusive airport tax and fuel fee
Lhasa - Kunming, US$526 for 2 passengers inclusive airport tax and fuel fee
Kunming - Lijiang - roundtirp, US$328 for 2 passengers inclusive airport tax and fuel fee
Kunming - Guilin, US$242 for 2 passengers inclusive airport tax and fuel fee
Guilin - Shanghai, US$358 for 2 passengers inclusive airport tax and fuel fee
(That's about $1100 per person for all internal flights.)

Tibet Permit
If you purchase the Lhasa flight tickets through our agency, we can arrange for you to acquire the Tibet Permit through the Tibet Tourism Bureau. The cost is US$30 per person for the Tibet Permit. For the Tibet Permit application, we need the passengers' scan copy of Passport and scan copy of China Visa.

You can e-mail the scan copies to [email protected]. It normally takes 4 to 6 days to get the approval for the Tibet Permit Paper from Tibet Tourism Bureau.

Guide in Tibet: local excellent licensed English-speaking tour guide
US$114 for 2 passengers for 2 days' tour. Touring with a guide will save you much time, and make your travel more enjoyable, but not a must to take a tour guide.

Private driver: Guilin - Longji rice terraces US$140 for 2 passengers inclusive all fees

We have a lot of guest house and budget hotels in each cities, we can help you book those hotels at around US$25 per night for a private room with private shower facility.
end of message

We may still do some of these arrangements once we get there rather than in advance, but it's good to know we can set up as much or little as we want - and do it more cheaply than the original quote.

Thought others might find the info from wacts.com helpful.

Thanks all! I'll keep plugging away at this. I love the suggestion for the Li River cruise - that's definitely more our style than the big boat cruise.
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Old Jun 14th, 2006, 12:52 AM
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the car to the rice fields sounds very expensive at about RMB 1200.

i also checked the wacts site that you referenced and they are charging US38 for an airport/hotel transfer in BJ. we did four airport/city centre transfer during our holiday and none cost more than 100 RMB including the toll - some with very bad traffic. That's less than US12. Our destination was about 4 subway stops east of tiananmen square (i think that people's typical central BJ hotel would be no further than this). This was with our regular driver using the meter (no discount - just the standard legal meter rate that any taxi would use). Also, meter rates have very recently increased in BJ and this was with the new rate. according to my BJ friend, the meter is the way to go to the airport...any other offer is usually to trick someone who doesn't know what the official rate cost should be.

i know it's annoying for people to be constantly telling you what you should pay for things but if you do decide to use these services at least you should know what the going rate in china is for these things. luxury international hotels often charge in US dollar but everything else should charge in RMB. many chinese business people obviously favour westerners "thinking" in their own currencies. as i'm sure you know from your other asian travels, what sounds reasonable in USD can be triple or more the going local rate for foreigners (meaning, including the overpayment that all foreigners will experience when negotiating rates locally). the airport rate is a good example, as any foreigner can hop in a cab and pay a fraction of what this US focused company is charging.
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Old Jun 14th, 2006, 02:22 AM
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At first sight the domestic air fares look a bit on the high side too. We took only two internal flights, of about 1 and 2 hours respectively. The inclusive fares for two (2) pax were:
Beijing-Dalian US$190 ($95 pp)
Dalian-Shanghai US$270 ($135 pp)
These flights were booked in advance by our Australian travel agent. Obviously we could have done better had we bought locally.

It can be difficult for foreigners to appreciate how much a sum like RMB1200 (US$150) will buy in China, so many will happily cough up that amount for a hotel room on the basis that it's maybe half what they'd pay at home. Not a bargain! RMB1200 is probably more than the hotel receptionist earns in a month. Naturally, canny local operators trade on this, so just remember that almost all prices are negotiable.
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Old Jun 14th, 2006, 05:04 AM
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The airfare is the only thing I feel strongly about booking in advance - and it's because we won't be in each place very long and I don't want to get delayed a day or two and have it throw off our itinerary. (I know flights can be cancelled, but I'd still rather do everything I can from my side to have them booked - it will give me greater peace of mine - which is worth some premium.) So I don't see any alternative to paying the price they're asking. As for transfers, yes, I had not planned on using any of the transfers from wacts - had already decided metered taxis is the way to go. Not sure yet about the guide in Tibet or the trip to Longji.
And don't hesitate to tell me how much things should cost! I have no way of knowing and that's exactly why I use this board - I'm doing my homework so that by the time I go I'll actually be somewhat educated.

Neil - I hear what you're saying about hotels. We don't plan on spending more than $40 or $50 a night - sometimes less - except maybe in Beijing or Shanghai. And even there, probably not more than $80. We don't need luxury anyway - a clean room, hot shower, good location, and preferably a comfortable bed suit us just fine. In fact, I much prefer the atmosphere of a small, cozy guesthouse to a 5 star hotel that could be anywhere in the world! Thanks again! I'll be back with more questions as time goes on. (Will check our your Lijiang report, walkinaround, after work!)
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Old Jun 14th, 2006, 05:49 AM
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All those airfare prices are full-fare. In general, people pay 40-50% of that fare if you buy in China.

The exception is to Tibet. I don't know if the discount as just as high, and you also need to get the permit. Flights from cities other than Chengdu are also infrequent. So, I think it may make sense to book the Tibet part. The rest, you're paying a lot for little reason.
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