I'm in that happy/stressful state of existence again where I am attempting to plan a holiday. We have decided to visit China and Japan (again) early next year. The cheapest fare that we were able to find is with Cathay Pacific, flying Sydney to Tokyo via Hong Kong. The Cathay Pacific website is great and allows you to book multiple stops online, something which is badly missing from Qantas.
That's the easy part! Now we need to plan the land side of the journey. Hong Kong should be fine, as English is widely spoken and the infrastructure modern. Likewise, we have visited Japan three times previously without difficulty. China is the unknown; we don't speak Mandarin and the infrastructure is seemingly geared to locals who take what that can get, competing against a billion other Chinese.
Do we join a tour or go it alone? I have piles of tour brochures on the floor besides the bed alongside Lonely Planets and other guidebooks. Independent travel is generally (and significantly) cheaper than tours. For less than the price of an Intrepid or Geckos tour staying in lower quality accommodation we could be sleeping in 4 star hotels. My understanding is that many of these hotels have tour desks which can assist us in purchasing train and local tour tickets, which would otherwise be part of an organised tour. Many also have internet access, also aiding in bookings and planning while on the road.
In our previous travels around Europe and Japan, we were quite happy to sleep in two star accommodation. A clean bed and bathroom and a bit of privacy was all we asked for (oh, and cheap internet access!). After all, we were spending most of the day exploring! Most places we stayed were better than "just a place to sleep" and were often quite charming as well. Good research helps there. Occasionally it was nice to spend a night or two in somewhere a bit posher, where the room was nicely decorated or there was a decent view. You feel that you are insulated from the world outside, where everyone speaks a different language, you can turn on BBC World Service on the TV and hear English.
That insulation is, I believe, often a negative. The whole point of travel is to immerse yourself in another culture. But travel is tiring both physically and mentally and sometimes you need a chance to refresh. That's what I am thinking about China. The cities are, by all accounts, loud, pushy, polluted and packed. I find such situations stressful, so it would be nice to have somewhere to escape to at the end of the day. Travel is also about enjoyment and hopefully less stressful than everyday life!
However, there are other sources of stress while travelling. I constructed an independent itinerary and it appears that we would be spending many single nights in a city or on trains. As we discovered while on a seven country trip around Europe such a pace can be very tiring. If you are only spending a single night in any one place and leaving early the next day then it's like you don't get a chance to relax and make yourself comfortable. You bother unpacking or washing clothes, because you know they won't be dry. All the time is spent on the go.
Combine this with the need to plan daily itineraries, book tours and the reserve seats/beds on trains, all while not speaking or reading the local language and it could be quite stressful. If we are going to try to see as much as possible in a land as big as China, then perhaps it makes sense to let someone else worry about the little organisational tasks. That's the attraction of the Intrepid or Geckos tours. You still get a chance to travel like a local, but hopefully the barriers are smaller.
My friend Pascale is currently travelling independently in China and it appears that it was quite stressful around Shanghai, Beijing and Xian (the big cities). I think she found the South to be more relaxing, visiting the panda research and a monastery. We've found that a quiet temple or beautiful park is often an antidote to the weariness of travel. I am hoping to walk up one of the famous Chinese mountains to admire the scenery and escape the cities.
Perhaps we will combine a tour with some independent travel, or wait until we reach Hong Kong, which will hopefully have cheaper priced tours. We have a few months to decide!