Only one month to go!
Last Saturday Flight Centre held another of their Travel Expos at Darling Harbour. Unable to resist, we caught the train down to the city for a look-see. We picked up some free maps of Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin, along with brochures for Macau. The $1500 fare to Paris via Shanghai with China Eastern Airlines was back, along with some good JAL deals to Asia as well. Very tempting and we could have waited to purchase our airfares instead of going with Cathay Pacific. Oh well...
Of greater temptation was 20% off Geckos Adventures tours. Geckos are a "small group, backpacker style" travel company that promise a local experience. Their Inland China 17 day tour goes from Hong Kong to Beijing via Yangshuo, a Yangtze cruise, Chengdu and Xian. The sights, the price and the dates were good. The question was, would it be more enjoyable than travelling independently? We had to decide by today to take advantage of the deal.
All week we have struggled with the question. The pluses for the tour were that we would probably see a number of places that we otherwise may not visit and that all the transport would be arranged for us. The minuses were that we would lose the freedom to make our own choices and that the accommodation and transport would be basic, generally twin share rather than dorm, hard sleeper trains.
I don't mean it sound like we must have 5 star luxury. Most of our hotels in Europe were basic 2 star affairs, nothing flash, but clean and functional (and preferably with free internet access!). But we are both private people and after a full day of being immersed in the local culture like to have our own quiet space, a hot shower and a decent toilet, preferably in our own room. We've done shared facilities many times, camped out in a thin tent, slept in cars, slept on too soft foam mattresses or none at all. Does it make for a better holiday? Happier memories? No matter what the diehard backpackers say, I believe the answer is no. And I want to enjoy my holiday.
Thinking back over our holidays, those that we enjoyed most of all were not the holidays where we rushed around packing everything in by travelling far each day, but those where we took our time, wandered, got lost, found ourselves again. Would we lose that on a tour?
We made our decision. Go it alone. Maybe we won't visit as many towns. Maybe we will struggle with the language, be unable to book some flights, stay longer in a place than expected or visit another town we never planned to see. But we'll have an experiences, hopefully good ones.
Normally we laugh at people who stay only in posh hotel chains, travel everywhere in taxis and use concierge services rather than researching for themselves. However, I fear that we will end up doing the same in China. All I have read suggests that the level of service in many Chinese run hotels is very poor. Normally, we rely on guest reviews to indicate whether a hotel is good or not, but this option is not available for many of the locations in China. Local expectations don't always match those of the west. Small room, no problem, but cold showers after a long dirty day, rather not!
So we will stay, at least some of the time, in foreign run hotels. They are often cheap compared with their Australian counterparts, so what's wrong with a little luxury at the end of the day? We are also hoping that they will have English speaking travel desks where we can book some local tours to places that would otherwise be difficult to reach, and to help us buy train and plane tickets sometimes. Okay, so we pay a premium, but again, does A$5 or A$10 really hurt that much, once in a while, if it means we can spend more time enjoying ourselves rather than struggling with language or trying to find a ticket office signposted by a language we can't read?
We'll get booked on some crap tours, but by the sounds of it the same thing might happen with Geckos. Again, Chinese and Western expectations are often different. My mother-in-law likes the "ethnic" song and dance shows and included meals.
Taxis are normal means of transport in many Asian countries, especially those lacking decent public transport systems. Buses are difficult enough to use at the best of times, but in our experience a packed local bus with stops announced in a language you can't understand, or not announced at all, is not much fun and risking getting lost. I'm hoping that long distance travel can be done in soft-sleeper, preferably 2 person deluxe, or on the odd occasion by plane.
We'll book the first few nights in Hong Kong and Beijing and make the rest up as we go along. And if it all gets to much, maybe we can escape back to Hong Kong a bit earlier than expected. It should be fun!