Travelling to China(21 Posts)
Has anyone been to China recently and if so is it possible to do it all yourselves, or better to go with a specific tour? We want to go to Chengdu then Xian and Beijing, probably travelling between each by train. We have 2 children who will be 8 and 10.
I went a couple of years ago and did a tour and I was really glad I did - I'm not a massively experienced traveler and I think I'd have had a panic on my own! We did Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Hong Kong.
That said, my mum who is an extremely experienced traveler is going back to China for the second time and she's still doing most of it with a tour company. She couldn't find one tour company that did the exact trip she wanted (she's determined to do the Tiger Leaping Gorge this year!) so she's mixing and matching tour groups.
The biggest challenge is getting around as English is not widely spoken outside of hotels, so if you have any Cantonese or Mandarin then that would help. Getting a taxi from A to B the hotel staff would write our destination on a hotel business card that we'd then have to show the taxi driver.
If you have a clear itinerary and know where you're staying and which trains etc you're getting then you can probably do it alone with the help of hotel staff for transport directions!
Its a lovely country, one of the best holidays I've ever had!
I loved my holiday to China but couldn't have done it alone - as again English not widely spoken and you can't really just guess the written word ifykwim. Have you looked at tours? do company's like explore do family ones to China where other kids would be there.
That's what I'm worried about, it's not just a different language it's a whole different character set, so even looking at train numbers and times will be hard. My husband seems to think it's do-able though. Did you find that a lot of signs are in the english character set as well, or is it all just Chinese.
We want to do more days at the Chengdu panda centre than most tours allow, then do the terracotta army and then on to Beijing for the wall and palaces.
Can I ask which tour companies you've used?
From memory... Nothing outside of Beijing was in anything other than Chinese characters. Even in Beijing it was pretty limited but I went before the Olympics it might be better now. Can you do the Pandas on your own and then pick up a tour for the rest?
I can't for the life of me remember the tour company name... Sorry!
We did Beijing on our own some years ago and had no trouble, as most main signs are in English and you can make yourself understood most places with a combination of them speaking a little English and you making a bit of effort with a phrase book. We took the train from
Hong Kong with no problems.
We went a good few years ago now but after the olympics , signing was mostly in Chinese , we got lost on underground when doing a few things by ourselves out with the tour we where on.
The tour company we used was china highlights and they where very good , lil the tour guide we had in Beijing was fantastic and really good with kids.
They can and do Taylor make the trip to your requirements including hotels , places, flights etc .
They do have a web page so give them a look.
Place names are normally written in pinyin and characters so locating the correct train is not a problem. Arabic numbers are used for train numbers and times. A decent guide book will have tourist attractions written in characters and you just need to show that to the taxi driver. Getting to the panda place in chengdu and out to the terracotta warriors is relatively straightforward.
Xian also has lots of other great attractions - wall, goose pagoda, drum tower, Uighur market - but ime a shortage of taxis which can be a problem.
I have only flown to chengdu, so not sure about trains, but the xian-Beijing train route is popular with tourists and should not be too tricky.
We had an agent book everything but did most of our trip independently and it was absolutely fine. I did learn some characters and extremely basic Mandarin which helped. But then we went to some less touristy areas, we wouldn't really have needed it everywhere.
Lots of people will book what's called a bespoke private tour where you can have as much or as little support as you like. We used Bamboo travel and they were great.
I know very seasoned travellers who use tours (or hire their own guides) in China. I don't know anyone who has done it on their own.
Oh yes meant to add that as Shanghai says the Xi'an trains are very used to tourists. The one we got from Shanghai to Tunxi for Huangshan, not so much, but a bit of miming and careful monitoring of the characters on each station and we were fine. The restaurant car (20 hour journey) was quite an experience though. The waitress had a really strong accent and thought that shouting would help when I didn't understand her saying 'twelve'
I visited Beijing last year with DD17. We didn't go on a tour, we just booked our own flights and hotel. Once at the hotel we used the hotel concierge to book a car and driver for certain days and on one day we had a guide as well (when we went to the Great Wall). It meant we could do what we wanted when we wanted. It worked well for us.
I regard myself as a pretty seasoned and competent traveller, but even I felt happier going to China as part of an organised tour. We were there in 2009 to see the total eclipse, and the tour catered brilliantly for that.
The downsides were - some of the other fellow passengers who I didnt get on with. That said, I'm still Facebook freinds with a few of them.
Upsides - local tour guides able to answer questions, and make amendments to scheduled visits - eg we wanted to take the Maglev train to Shanghai airport. Best of all, someone with local knowledge took us to where we were eating each night. None of that wandering the streets, peering in the windows of restuarants, looking at menu boards outside, wondering of the locals ate here or not, asking what that strange sounding food item actually was.....
I suspect the DIY approach is only feasible in Beijing, where it is quite Westernised and lots of people speak English. The manager of our hotel was Australian and all the front desk staff spoke English.
DH and I went to Beijing on our own in 2008 after the Olympics. People really don't speak a lot of English if any...we visited Beijing Zoo by hailing a taxi and pointing at a photo of it in our guidebook! We caught a couple of buses and an illegal taxi to visit the Great Wall at Badaling which was pretty touristy and had bears in a pen being thrown junk good to eat. We also visited a section of the wall further away on another day which was much better.
If you're going with children I really would recommend taking a tour rather than going it alone.
I'd also advise to be careful where you eat as in Beijing the food hygiene is not up to UK standards, I had a few days of feeling like I might suddenly have the runs and I have travelled around quite a bit and DH is Cantonese so it wasn't the change in cuisine!
The people are very friendly and eager to help. I had a lot of people in Beijing asking to take my photo as I had blonde hair and a lot of people staring and taking sneaky photos. I'm not sure how much of this was due to having blonde hair or being in a mixed race couple, but it was all good natured and not at all threatening.
I'm sure you will have an amazing time, it's a real once on a lifetime trip!
DP and I went independently in 2006 - train up from Vietnam to Guilin for the River Li, Shanghai (to pick up visas for Mongolia), a 3 gorges cruise, Xian and Beijing, then got the Tran Sib up out through Mongolia to Siberia. We mostly took trains but got one internal flight (very cheap, and saved a whole heap of time). It was all booked 'on the fly' as we travelled and we managed everything we wanted to. However, I think you would get more out of it if you went with a tour, or at least had a specialist firm making bookings for you. For example, when we did the 3 gorges cruise, we were on a Chinese boat not a Western one, so we never knew where the stops were or how long the boat was going to be stopped for (cue some sprints back up the gangplank at the last moment!).
As vegetarians, the food was also a challenge without a guide or translator.
However, doing it ourselves gave us the flexibility to go where we wanted for as long as we wanted (...no being forced round the Terracotta Warriors at speed by a person waving a flag...). And it cost peanuts.
So swings and roundabouts - how confident are you? Do you want to spend part of your holiday queuing for train tickets and weeping because your taxi driver can't understand where you want to go?!
And as chips said, get used to being a novelty and having people want to have their photo taken with you - normally while laughing at you!
I spent 6 months backpacking independently around China 20 years ago. It was the hardest trip I have ever done but brilliant from start to finish. It depends how much time you have, how brave you are and how hardy your kids are.
I got to some very off the beaten track places but it was hard work. The endless queues, the never ending curiosity of the locals and some of the most revolting toilets I have ever seen.
By the end of it I was fluent in food, sleep and transport mandarin.
The children will be objects of great curiosity, they may get fed up being touched by strangers. Mine found Vietnam and Thailand pretty overwhelming and China is much worse. I would recommend you do it organised as if you are stressed it will be hideous for you all.
I'm offering a different view to most here. it depends on how confident you are travelling independently, but going to the places you suggest is definitely doable without a tour. you can book train tickets and hotels online in advance (http://www.seat61.com/China.htm#.U2lEE7jTUXA has info about trains). The cities you mention are very touristy, and you can book onto day tours to visit the great wall, pandas, terracotta army etc via your hotel or tourist bureaus. if you have a lonely planet or rough guide you will have enough information to get about including the Chinese names for tourist places. I haven't been for a few years but found a lot of taxi drivers didn't speak English but all could read Chinese. there are more people learning English in China than English speakers in the world, and always found people offering to help when I looked/was confused or lost.
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I went 11 years ago with my 4 year DD and elderly mother. Flew into Shanghai, had day train trips from there, train to Bejing, train to Xian, and back to Shanghai.
No Chinese abilities or guidebook! Managed fine. Did everything on the day by day basis, no booking, no tours. Great month.
But..western children are a novelty (at least then) and my little one did feel overwhelmed sometimes. Sometimes was hard to find her playmates, resorted to a few trips to a well-known fast food joint to find other children!
Food can be v variable and sometimes it's a guess what you'll get served, mostly lovely though.
And long distances between sites and both my companions were weary of leg at the end of most days.
Also toilet facilities still live on in our nightmares.....
Definitely recommend though, country and people v welcoming and interesting.
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