A very successful 69 day private tour to discover a lot of China
Elie M

Elie M

Beigium

Reviewed on November 19 2019

The context and planning of the trip

Our intention was to have a Chinese travel agency organize a “private tour” for the two of us in order to discover China in a relaxed way (no mad rushing from one place to the next one). After consulting a number of Web sites, we sent a mail to China Discovery stating our requirements about one year before our expected departure date. The next day, we got an answer from Mr. Wonder Wang, who would be our travel consultant for the proposed trip.

After no more than 7 or 8 e-mail exchanges (during about 10 days), we refined and adjusted the itinerary and received a full proposal, including a quote, which we decided to accept.

The trip would include a number of “free” days (as requested) and would have a total duration (not including flights to Beijing and from Shanghai) of 69 days (32 stages), starting September 4th, 2019. We frequently heard from our various guides that such a duration was very exceptional: most trips they were involved with lasted between 21 and 30 days.

The responsiveness of Wonder, his ability to understand and fulfill our requirements and his ability to suggest various alternatives during the planning phase were perfect.

Changes before and during the trip

Since we started planning more than one year in advance, a number of adjustments had to be made to the itinerary due to changes in plane or train schedules or to the availability of hotels, etc. Here again, Wonder’s proposals were entirely reasonable and well thought out and we accepted them readily.

One item could only be resolved after our arrival in China: Jiuzhaigou National Park was closed during two years after a major earthquake and it was not known when it would reopen. Our visit to the Park was scheduled for October the 4th and we were glad to hear from Wonder a few weeks before that the Park would reopen on or around October 1st ! Even during the trip, a few changes had to be made and, again, we accepted Wonder’s proposals without qualms. When one of our 10 internal flights was cancelled due to bad weather, Wonder managed within a couple of hours to whip up an alternate solution to have us driven back the 450 km from Jiuzhaigou to Chengdu by a “long distance driver” (a somewhat fearsome experience over mostly narrow and winding mountain roads during a light drizzle).

About the trip itself

• Itinerary (1): the choice of places to visit was based mostly on what we read in travel guides and on China Discovery’s own Web site. Even though some of the descriptions verged on the hyperbolic, almost everything lived up to our expectations with two main exceptions: o The stay in a yurt in Inner Mongolia was marred by lousy weather (cold and foggy) and sub-par food (a rarity in China !), which is obviously nobody’s fault.

• The “cruise” along the Yangtse river was disappointing. It is advertised as a 4-day, 3-nights cruise, but the first day starts at 6 p.m. (dinner not included) and the 4th day ends at 8 a.m. just after an early breakfast: it would be fairer to advertise a 2-days, 3-nights cruise ! Besides, we found the scenery during the first full day to be rather dull and rainy weather didn’t help to make the cruise more enjoyable.

• Itinerary (2): the overall organization was perfect: everything ran smoothly and we never had to worry about what would happen next, when we would get the necessary train or plane tickets, how we would be handed over from one guide to the next one. Our travel consultant Wonder provided us with a list of guides with their phone numbers for every stage of the trip. We had to call a few of them mostly when we arrived in large train stations with several exits.

• Accommodations: the choice of hotels and (twice) hostels corresponded perfectly to what we requested and expected. When reading reviews on TripAdvisor, one is often surprised that foreign tourists expect everything to be exactly the same as in similarly named hotels in the USA or in Europe, thus forfeiting the pleasure of discovering the specificities of traveling abroad… China is different: one should get used to it (or stay at home).

We appreciated the fact that the somewhat laborious check-in process was greatly facilitated by the systematic presence of our guide (the same is true for checking-in for trains or flights).

• Trains: we had a total of 9 train rides, which allowed us to experience "hard sleeper class" and "soft sleeper class" in conventional trains and first class in high speed “bullet” trains. It is worth mentioning that not all train stations show their schedules in English… some clever pattern matching between the ticket and what is shown on the departure board may be needed to find the boarding gate (yes: there are boarding gates in train stations !) and the platform.

One thing we were completely unprepared for (and which should have been mentioned explicitly during the preparation) is the (for us unheard of) high level of security one has to go through when entering a train station (and sometimes inside the station when traveling to a “sensitive” destination or during a “sensitive” period such as before and during the National Holiday week). The rules which apply to cabin luggage in airplanes apply to all luggage in trains. This led to the confiscation of a knife, of a small bottle of (Chinese) medicinal alcohol and several arguments with security officers to be allowed to keep an innocent pair of scissors.

• Planes: besides the one trip which was cancelled (see above), everything else ran (or rather: flew) smoothly. One should be aware, however, of the rather strictly enforced weight limit on checked luggage (20 kg) and of the almost total disregard for the weight of cabin luggage (nominally limited to 5 kg, but very seldom checked in our experience). All luggage goes through an X-ray machine when entering the airport, checked luggage is X-rayed a second time right at the check-in counter and, in case of doubt, one is invited to open the suspect piece of luggage and have it go through yet another X-ray machine. Security is no laughing matter in China !

• Guides: all of our 21 different guides were sufficiently to very knowledgeable about the region and the places they were guiding us in. Some spoke almost perfect English, some were initially quite hard to understand. It seems that, in China, the teaching of the English language to future guides is far from optimal. Those guides who spoke better English had all made the effort to watch English language programs (series, films, news) on TV or on the Internet. We feel that all guides should be encouraged to do so.

• Drivers: out of our 21 drivers, all were technically excellent, but only 2 drove according to Western standards, i.e.: following the rule of law. The vast majority drove on a spectrum extending from dangerous to reckless, but so does apparently everybody else in China…

• Meals: besides breakfast, always included with the accommodation, many lunches were included in the itinerary. We specifically requested from all our guides to eat local food in local restaurants (and thus avoid the touristy places serving mostly sweet-and-sour pork). We found the food excellent and plentiful, if sometimes a bit too spicy despite our explicit requests…

One issue which we would like to be addressed once and for all is the issue of having the guide (and possibly also the driver) eat with us. Meals are an important moment to promote bonding between the tourists and their guides, which makes for a much nicer relationship during the days we spend together.

We’ve learned that guides have a different budget for their customers’ meals and for themselves and the drivers. They tend thus to help us order and then disappear somewhere else to have their own lunch.

We’ve had to insist (not always successfully) to have them share our (overly copious) meals by indicating that we would pay a complement if over budget. We recommend to provide an option for the sharing of meals (at least with the guides) during the preparation phase of the trip.

• Tipping: This turned out to be an annoying issue during the whole trip. No guide and no driver ever asked for a tip, but China Discovery provided explicit suggestions for tipping.

We are used, when tipping, to give a certain percentage of the amount spent to reward performance. Since we don’t know what the daily salary is for a guide and for a driver, we don’t know if the suggested tip is, in fact, a necessary part of the base salary or, really, a gratification on top of a decent base salary for the quality of services rendered.

In our opinion, not all guides and not all drivers provided especially outstanding services, but we didn’t want to penalize them by withholding part of their base salaries, hence we felt we had to tip everybody.

We recommend that the price quotation for a trip includes full salaries for guides and drivers, in order for tipping to truly represent a supplement as a reward for noteworthy services.

Conclusion

We had a great trip, we saw a lot of interesting and beautiful places, we learned a lot about China and about Chinese culture and customs. As expected and planned for, this was a discovery trip rather than a mere holiday.

We gratefully acknowledge the essential contributions of China Discovery and, more specifically, of our travel consultant Mr. Wonder Wang, to the resounding success of our 10-week journey through China. We came back tired, but very happy !

Date of Experience: November 9, 2019
Trip Type: Traveled as Families
Tour Customized by: Wonder

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