In our super fast modern world still more and more people long for traveling. But far long are those times when people packed their car with food and beer and drove to the closest sea and lied on the beach all day (actually my mother still does it just without the beer) or payed for all inclusive hotel and did nothing but ate and lied at swimming pool because from beach is too far away to the pool bar (well yes, some people also still do it). But most of the people tend to be more travelers than just tourists. Ideally independent traveler. Is it possible to travel independently in a country such as China?
Asian continent is very popular among independent travelers. Especially countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia etc. Local people usually speak English so it make it relatively easy to travel. China is a bit different. Actually is a lot different…
The first obstacle to be independent traveler in China is bureaucracy. Yes, after the Great wall it’s the second most famous thing in China. Most countries need visa. Usually you will get one entry tourist visa. To get the visa you must make detailed and exact plan of your journey which includes all places you want to visit, all hotels where you will stay (reservation confirmations are required) and of course return flight tickets. Then statement of your account with enough money on it etc. As you can see whole this procedure makes the journey looks like less independent than it was planned but no worries. You can actually change your plains during your travel, nobody really cares unless you get in some troubles which would require police or state office assistance. Only one thing is crucial – don’t miss your flight and leave the country on time!
The second obstacle is language. You might thing it can’t be so difficult. Beijing, Shanghai, Great wall – everywhere there people must be able to speak English, it’s so touristic. I don’t want to ruin your dreams from very beginning but if you decide to travel independently make sure your telephone has a good translator. There is a slightly higher chance that you will find some English speaking people in big cities but definitely don’t rely on it. Even big hotels called ”international” often don’t have any English speaking staff ( or very badly English speaking…). In my opinion language is the biggest complication if you want to be independent traveler in China.
The third obstacle is transportation. Transportation in China can be very convenient but it also can be a nightmare for inexperienced traveler. This really wants a good planning. You have basically three choices:
Almost every bigger Chinese city has the airport. There are thousands of flights every day. Surprisingly the flight tickets are often very cheap. Disadvantage is that most of the flights are usually delayed. If you will choose flying within China I recommend to book flights on Chinese websites (which are, of course, written in Chinese).
Second option is to use railway. China has incredible network of high speed railway and still builds new. You can get almost everywhere by train. High speed trains are very comfortable but it has one disadvantage – as this kind of transportation is very popular the seats are often sold out. Again it needs good planning and purchase the tickets as soon as possible.
The third option is bus. Buses are good for short distances otherwise (if you are not real adventure seeker) I wouldn’t recommend it. Unlike airports and train stations which are very easy to use, bus stations are the right opposite. Hundreds of buses leaving more or less on time, no time tables and if there are some, you don’t understand it anyway because it’s all in Chinese. It can be quite confusing to get to the right bus and if you can’t speak Chinese it’s very easy to miss your bus or end up in the wrong one…
And what about car?
The most comfortable and most independent transportation tool in China is car. I guess most of you can drive but most of you don’t have Chinese driving license so forget it directly. In case you have a Chinese driving license you can rent a car in rental company. There are usually few at the airports and main train stations. The procedure is the same as everywhere else in the world BUT you must have Chinese credit card or international credit card which this particular rental company accepts (not all companies accept international cards).
ONE MORE THING
There is another thing I should mention here. Even if you will beat all these obstacles you still will be part of tour groups. Why? Simply because it’s almost impossible to be alone in China. Like it or not it’s just a fact. Tourism in China is very commercial issue. Everywhere you go you must pay entrance fee – historical sites, national parks etc. And even if you buy entrance ticket it doesn’t mean that you are allow to go everywhere you want. Especially in national parks you simply MUST follow the paths together with hundreds of other visitors.
Chinese people love traveling. They always travel in groups. But they usually visit only main tourist attractions of particular area and that’s it. They don’t go beyond and I think they don’t event want to. So if you want to do something very independent like visit local people in remote villages for example, you will need somebody to show you, some local tour guide or tour agency to take you which little bit destroys the idea of independent traveling. And you will need to explain it in Chinese and they probably won’t understand you. They will look at you like you are crazy. Why do you want to do it? Why don’t you go where all the other people go? Ah so complicated!
Is it possible or not? Independent traveling in China without any previous experience is real challenge but it’s not impossible. Don’t be afraid. Chinese people are very friendly and if you will get into troubles they will always want to help you.
Just one little tip: Pack a lot of patience with you 🙂