by Rick Green
When it comes to visiting China, most people I have spoken to have only visited Beijing, the Great Wall, Xi'an, and Shanghai. Some may have cruised the Yangtze, visited the water cities of Hangzhou or Suzhou, seen the karst landscape of Guilin, or included Hong Kong because it's a nearby world city. The rest of the third largest country in the world, however, is a blank, unless some disaster brings the spotlight of international media upon an otherwise dark corner. This is a shame because China is a diverse, multi-cultural country, yet North Americans' view of it is surprisingly uniform in its limited perspective.
Same Old, Same Old
One reason for this skewed view is how our media shapes our views by focusing on China's symbolic images. This has been so successful, few would conceive of visiting the Middle Kingdom without strolling through the Forbidden City, climbing the Great Wall, and viewing the Terracotta Warriors. However, if you saw none of these UNESCO World Heritage sites, it isn't like you never visited the country or had nothing to talk about with those that have. By not limiting yourself to China's east coast, you will actually come away with a better understanding of the country as a whole.
China is also in the midst of a cultural revolution that has been brought about by its meteoric economic rise. The latter is quite obvious in the prosperous eastern metropolises with their glittering skyscraper skylines, traffic jams, and iconic architectural monuments to the international spectacles of the Olympics and the World Exposition. The social change, however, is only something you'll see by meeting everyday people. It won't be apparent from passively gazing at brief visits to tarted up historic sites or mechanical ethnic cultural performances. In fact, on the typical 48-seat bus tour, there is little room for interacting with Chinese outside of them being in a service role or as part of a business transaction—trying to sell you something.
Another reason Western tourists largely confine themselves to China's east coast is because local travel operators view travel services as a commodity. As with anything in China, the path to plentiful profits is to develop a template, cut costs to a bare minimum, and sell in volume. This is attractive to people looking for a cheap trip that requires little effort, but does it offer value? Is having a generic, spectator experience with 47 other people, following a bullhorn-toting, flag-waving chaperone in waves of similar groups something you think worthy of your time and money? Of going all the way to the other side of the world for?
I remember speaking to my dentist one time. She is Chinese, but was going to visit China for the first time with her elderly father. She was interested in our Adventurocity Southwest China trip, but felt she needed to take the standard China bus tour because her father had mobility limitations. The results were rather predictable. Passengers are herded around to the same sites—those with easy accessibility, ample bus parking, plentiful toilets, complimentary meals for drivers and guides, and gift incentives or kickbacks on souvenir purchases. The fabled Chinese cuisine is not to be found. My dentist didn't like the food in Beijing, but she didn't have malatang or chuanr. Cheaply filling bellies is the goal. Visits to jade, pearl, porcelain, or silk factories are always on the itinerary because it's a way for guides to supplement their meagre pay. Think you will be able to enjoy the nightlife within a short walk from your hotel? Not if it's located in the city outskirts.
Why take a trip...?
There is another way and it doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, the less you devote to Western comforts, the better. It leaves more money to spend on travel. Going independently, however, is raw and real, which demands you be flexible, patient, open-minded, and resourceful in order to overcome the inevitable difficulties. This is China, after all! When things go wrong—and they will—take it in stride. Instead, find the humour in your situation. A negative can turn into an unexpected positive with the right approach.
Knowing the local language certainly helps, but isn't essential. You can communicate a lot without even speaking. You may come across a student wanting to practice their English. In exchange, you can ask them to show you around their hometown, while you pay any expenses. Be clear that you don't just want to visit places that all tourists go to; you want to see everyday life. Travel somewhere you haven't heard of, where there aren't tourists, that is all you will get. Not only is it a great opportunity to have a non-commercial conversation with a local, you can correct them of the myths they have about your country. It can be an excellent antidote to stereotypes and prejudices.
The main advantage of travelling through China on your own is that the choice to see something or stop somewhere is yours. Don't like it? You can quickly move on without having to wait for a large group to get back on a bus. Want to stay longer? No problem. Having a more open itinerary leaves room for serendipity. And when opportunities do present themselves, be willing to change your plans to try something new. Unplanned experiences are often the most memorable. One must, of course, be cautious of scams. Being paranoid, irritated, or angry, however, will ensure positive experiences won't come your way. Your attitude is everything. What you give out is what you receive.
Adventurocity offers unique small-group trips to China that have been designed by Rick Green and Brian K. Smith, based on their personal travels. Looking for the convenience of a guided tour with the experience of independent travel? Book your trip today with Adventurocity.