One of the best things about choosing a small group tour rather than independent travel is that the tour company takes care of the logistics.
After years of independent travel, years of sorting out our own travel arrangements from transport to accommodation to excursions, to finding the best places and the best deals, to knowing whether or not you can trust the taxi driver or if it’s safe to be out after dark, it is such a relief to surrender it all.
It’s not like giving up all autonomy. On Intrepid’s China Experience tour there is plenty of free time, but the major things are sorted.
And in China that is especially appreciated. China is fascinating but it is not easy.
Picture this: Peter, our local leader, makes sure to get us to the railway station in plenty of time. The station is enormous and the English signage is minimal but Peter knows where to pick up our tickets (which are entirely in Chinese, of course). He tells us exactly when to have them available for checking, he knows which gate and which platform, and he knows our carriage and berth numbers. And he can understand the announcements coming over the PA system.
Just as well, because I doubt any one of the eight of us would know when it’s our train that’s being announced.
Independent travel in China is not impossible, but it is difficult due to the language barrier. There’s not much English spoken, and even less written. Peter is brilliant at taking care of all the logistics to do with transportation, accommodation, and liaison with local guides, but I think I love him the most for his translation services. We’re a pretty well-travelled bunch, and some of the group have been to China previously, but we’re constantly asking for translation in every kind of situation. He is infinitely patient and capable. I can’t imagine being in China without someone who speaks the language.
Two of my sisters, both very experienced travellers, spent two weeks in China and reported that it was challenging. Their Airbnb host was very helpful, giving them all kinds of information about where to go and how to get there. With this help they figured out the Beijing metro easily enough. The thing was they would get to their destination and have no clue which exit to take. So they’d try them all, searching around for the particular place they’d come to see. Some days they never did find what they were looking for.
So my husband and I decided that when we were ready to go to China we’d take a tour. In the end my husband was unable to go and so there I was alone with seven new friends and Peter. What luck.
Peter had all kinds of information about things to see and do, like the acrobat show in Beijing and the Chinese Opera in Chengdu. And places to eat! On our first night together he takes us to a small family-owned restaurant hidden away in the hutongs of Beijing. We would never have found it on our own, likewise the hotpot restaurant in Chengdu.
Another place we probably wouldn’t have found was the entrance to the 400 plus stairs up to the best view of the Li River in Yangshuo. This boundless flow of detailed information from someone who knows takes a lot of the stress out of travelling.
Meanwhile, back at the station, we dump our luggage in a huge pile. We take turns guarding the luggage and exploring the station for snacks for the upcoming overnight trip. It’s one of the advantages of travelling with a group. We work as a team to stay safe and to have each other’s backs. If I don’t know my way back to the hotel there will be someone who does. And there is always someone to go exploring with, like Gary and I choosing to go together on the gondola up to the top of the Great Wall instead of hiking up with the others, and like the night Bhakti and Thea and I headed off deeper into the walking streets in Chengdu.
That was the same night one of our group got sick. Peter disappeared with her and her partner to get them the help they needed and the rest of us sat on the curb and waited. We waited a while, but it didn’t matter. We knew we could trust Peter, and we never questioned that the group would stick together. When you’re travelling with a small group you get to know one another and a loyal traveller bond forms. We stick together no matter what.
Being with a group really brought me out of myself. When travelling alone I tend to be quite shy, and when travelling with my husband we tend to keep to ourselves a bit too much. With the group in China I was interacting with people most of the time. We laughed a lot, and shared stories, and photos, and complaints, and joys. We oohed and aahed over the pandas, cringed together over the snakes and wriggling live scorpions on sticks in the Beijing snack street, and marvelled and laughed at the enormous soup bowls and ladles Belinda and Bhakti were served on the train.
Being with a group, and having Peter’s recommendations meant I did things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise done. I doubt I’d have cycled the city walls in Xi’an, but everyone else was doing it so I wasn’t going to be left out. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me. There’s nothing like stepping out of your comfort zone to feel alive!
Peter recommended the Three Kingdoms Live-Action Show. For one thing I’d probably never have heard of it otherwise, and for another I had someone to go with since Thea wanted to go too. It is without doubt one of the best live performances I’ve seen anywhere ever, and I’ll never forget it. The same applies to the performance on the Li River in Yangshuo.
Some of my best times and strongest memories of China are because of having an awesome guide, and travelling with small a group of really good people. Give it a go; you’ll see why I highly recommend it!
Ready to have the time of your life in China? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours there.