China has been an amazing experience. Never have we been anywhere so foreign. In Europe the alphabet was always recognizable and we could usually figure out words here and there or at least get close to pronouncing them. In China we only had hope of recognizing/pronouncing anything if they took mercy and put up English signage. The food, the utensils, the smells, the beds, the toilets, pretty much everything that wasn’t invented in “the western world” is different here. Maybe I’ll do more posts later on some of that!
The other big difference for us was that we joined a group tour with Sarah’s mother and aunt. Overseas Adventure Travel took care of planning every detail of our travels for 3 weeks through thousands of miles and several cities. This is one of those tours where you load onto a bus to go everywhere, follow the sign around big tour attractions and never put a thought into what you’re going to do next, where you’re going to eat or what hotel to stay in.
This was a new experience for us and one that we really enjoyed. I think the biggest reasons for our positive experience were a great trip leader and some truly excellent travel companions. Our trip leader was a guy named Joe and we could not have asked for a better person to help out with anything and everything, arrange all our activities, keep us informed about itineraries and whatever else goes on behind the scenes of corralling 16 adults around a country. We were truly impressed.
Our travel companions were a great bunch of people who were intelligent, fun, passionate about travel, and excited to be experiencing and seeing new things.
Obviously a bad trip leader, or just one you don’t like, could easily take a trip from great to terrible. Obviously the tour company tries to prevent that. However no one is working to protect you from bad travel companions. We consider ourselves very lucky that we weren’t stuck with people who were negative, needy, or otherwise equipped to drag a group down and take away from the experience.
Also, while we had a wonderful time and enjoyed the obvious benefits of arranged travel there are definite downsides.
The first is all the “factory tours”. We were pretty excited about some of these on the itinerary, but at the first one we realized that “factory tour” is often a euphemism for “show room with a small demo”. We felt that we spent far too much time shopping that could have been spent exploring amazing new places.
Second is lack of free time and flexibility. See something cool on a hill you’d like to go to? Heard about a restaurant you want to try? A performance you’d like to catch, a museum you want to wander through? Unless it’s on the group’s itinerary or there is scheduled free time you’re out of luck. Given that our travel methods up to this point had been almost completely spontaneous this felt very restrictive to us.
Staying on the beaten path… OAT makes an effort to get its tours off the beaten path a little bit, but there’s only so much you can do with 16 adults and a bunch of must-see attractions on the itinerary. I’m sure it’s difficult to make reservations for 18 people anywhere (16 customers, a trip leader and a local guide) but surely we don’t have to always eat at the same places as other tour buses? Why take us to the opera performance staged in a hotel for tourists and then tell us that if locals were to go see one it would be in a tea house or small restaurant? On that subject why take us to the most touristy tea house imaginable and never to a real one?
Overall we had an incredible experience, and we would repeat it. However I think that the only reason we would book another tour like this would be if we were traveling somewhere we were not comfortable going on our own, which is a pretty short list. Also, I’m betting there are tours that have fewer shopping “opportunities”, and maybe use public transit instead of private buses. We would probably look for one of those.