I can speak basic Mandarin, and never thought that I would go on a China tour, until I visited China to climb Mount Huangshan. Upon arrival, I realised that no matter how comprehensive my travel guidebook was, it was simply not possible to climb Mount Huangshan on my own. Getting there from the other city that I was in, Hangzhou, involved taking several buses, and a private car of a stranger, (thank goodness in my case, she was a kind lady), which was a bit of a hassle.
When are tours in China useful?
They are useful when it comes to getting to hard-to-reach places, such as Jiu Zhai Gou, a beautiful nature reserve in the Sichuan Province, and the nature reserve with Avatar-looking mountains, Zhang Jia Jie, located in the Hunan Province of China. Getting there involves flying or taking a bus or buses for several hours in order to get to the destination. A China tour could have all the transportation arrangements made for you, once you arrive in a major city like Chengdu.
For sights in major cities with a good public transport network, I would recommend getting around yourself.
I must caveat that China tours are in a league of their own as compared to European walking tours. Here are five things to be prepared for when signing up for China tours:
1. Be prepared to be brought to emporiums or shops, and be asked to buy things like jade, or silk cloths. Alternatively, you may be brought to a tea demonstration
Essentially, you may be brought to do activities that could be unrelated to what you have signed up for. Buying things while on a tour seems to be an intrinsic trait of the Chinese. While on the tour to climb Mount Huangshan, we were brought to a tea demonstration, and an emporium, where demonstrations were done to show how fragrant the tea was, and how soft a silk cloth was. Looking back, it was actually quite an interesting experience, given that almost 70% of the tour group left the emporium with a purchase.
2. Do some research – sign up for a tour with good reviews
It is absolutely essential to sign up for tours with good reviews – in other words, do your research thoroughly. This ensures that the tour that you are going on is not too pushy, and will actually give you what you want, and bring you to the destinations that you have requested for. Always make sure this is clearly spelt out before signing on the dotted line, or making payment. If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is.
3. Some Chinese tour guide have a no-nonsense attitude
If you expect a Chinese tour guide to be smiling and understanding towards you, this may not be the case all the time. Be prepared that some tour guides are a straight-talking no-nonsense bunch and can border on being rather stern and fierce. Take note especially if you’re going on a tour with other Chinese people. I’m guessing it works both ways – the clientele can be demanding and hard to handle, so one would have to be firm, if not the tour would never make progress.
4. Be prepared that some tours would upsell you a discounted accommodation rate towards the evening.
This happened to the tour group I was with while in Mount Huangshan. The tour guide tried to upsell several fancier hotels, at discounted rates. If you’re not too hard up for a fancy hotel, I suggest that you go with a reservation with a more affordable hotel, and later on agree to a fancier hotel if the price suits you.
5. Balance between price and comfort
I recalled going on a SGD92/USD66 2D1N trip to Mount Huangshan, and it was the toughest experience that I had faced. First, the group was really big. There were about 40 people in the group, all with different walking speeds, needs and wants. The tour guides were really stern and told us upfront that it had a no-wait policy. They said that if you are not at certain meeting points at specific times, they would proceed without you. On second thought, I could have gone on a slightly more legit tour with a smaller group, and pay a little more for better accommodation on the top of the mountain.
The Travelling Squid’s Take
China tours do help you get to faraway locations, which are less accessible as compared to attractions in major cities. That said, do prepare yourself mentally for some of the quirks that come with these tours. I personally found these oddities quite hilarious at times. Remember to read up on the reviews of the tours before making that deposit! Good luck!