The first time I went to China, I fired my guide—an officious, dull, English-speaking graduate provided by the government-owned China Travel Service (CTS), at one time one of only three outfitters for foreign visitors. Our differences were extreme: I wanted to see authentic Shanghai (the longtang, the markets); she wanted to show me why China was so much better than America (she carried Mao's "Little Red Book" in her little red handbag). I wanted to better understand politics, Tiananmen, and one-child families; she wanted to show me acrobatic shows staged in English. Instead, I hooked up with the friend of a friend, a Chinese artist who took me dancing one night, in an industrial area in northeast Shanghai.
Down ill-lit streets in an iron-roof hall we found a group of middle-aged factory workers in carefully pressed trousers and cheap but polished shoes, the women in round-toe heels and nylon skirts. There were seats around the edge and a mirror ball turning overhead. They danced and danced—the fox-trot, the waltz—with seductive dignity and grace, women with women, men with men, women with men, changing partners, and, when the lights went off, stealing a quiet kiss. This felt like private China in cinematic Technicolor. I had fallen for a country that was infinitely complex and, at times, frustratingly elusive— removed from the crowds of flag-followers, foreign and domestic, who swamped the hotel buffets and national sites. The next day, however, I was in a fix, unable to impose myself on the artist any longer. I didn't speak Chinese so back to little Mao I went.
This was in the late nineties, when foreign tour outfitters weren't allowed to operate. I'd arrived with high expectations of service, knowledge, and expertise, which, at that time, simply didn't exist. But the situation is now changing, as private Chinese companies provide much greater competition to the monopoly previously held by a handful of state-owned agencies, like CTS. In addition, since 1999 foreign outfitters have been permitted to work with local partners, and this final stipulation has almost dissolved as the commitment for China's WTO entry has allowed some large, wholly owned foreign agencies to set up shop.
Now, in 2005, you can "do China" beyond the big three (Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong) and have a satisfying experience. In fact, you can expect a good deal more—and feel safe, challenged, and inspired, whether traveling alone, in a group, or with kids. You can pretty much do it all—from biking through backcountry along the Great Wall to strolling the hidden gardens of Suzhou; from cruising the Yangtze to playing with pandas—as long as you accept that China is not a country you can go at on your own.
Don't expect seamless sophistication or the ability to access private China as you might, say, Italy or France. It's rare that a hotel breaks out of the three-star mold—rooms all look the same, showers are generally poor, and the concierge desk doesn't always know your language. Chinese breakfast buffets are, well, Chinese, and they seldom serve coffee. The second-rung cities are appalling examples of the industrial age as construed by blind urban planners, while established tourist destinations—such as the Three Gorges—are heavily beaten paths shared with phenomenal numbers of domestic visitors. You'll also undergo moments that are nothing less than unsanitary. Yet for the true traveler, journeys into China's hinterland are awesome, poetic, and richly rewarding. With that in mind, departures tried and tested some seven countrywide outfitters who purport to understand the country's particular difficulties. Not all of them made the cut.
We learned that you must always insist on the services of a bilingual Western guide; that way, you can avoid the inevitable commission-based visits to souvenir shops and restaurants. One company's local guides took us to stops on empty highways outside Xi'an, claiming they wouldn't get paid unless we visited just one more factory selling mini terra-cotta warriors (a common complaint). We also learned that an act as simple as getting an airport transfer requires assistance in a country where English is not widely spoken, where signage means nothing, and where car service translates to a dirty van. Another essential: Your outfitter has to work with the best internal airlines, which vary by region.
We journeyed to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, only to pick up dysentery before stepping out into the wilds. But Absolute Asia, the highly regarded outfitter that we consider an expert on Tibet, did a fantastic job of getting our writer the right medical care as quickly as possible. It had worked closely with us to produce the custom itinerary we wanted, and falling sick in China, like getting ill in India, is just one of those things you can't control—which is another excellent reason for traveling with pros.
OUTSTANDING OUTFITTERS: WHO TO CALL
Beyond American Express Platinum Travel Service, we can wholeheartedly recommend the following three companies. Each offers a variety of programs, has different specialities, and can tailor itineraries to most needs. But what really makes them stand out is their laudable understanding of the demanding American, their ability to deal with the complexities of travel in China's outback (not only the hotels but also bad roads and tedious officialdom), and their conspicuous talent for bringing to life the country's immense history and fast-changing culture. This is when good guides are invaluable and China, in all its glory, becomes one of the most memorable experiences of your life.
Abercrombie & Kent The itineraries that come out of the Hong Kong-based office of this global tour operator are created by the extremely knowledgeable Gerald Hatherly, a Chinese-speaking Canadian whose clients have included Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Hal Prince. A&K does soft adventure with an experienced sense of those little luxuries we won't do without—air-conditioned vehicles, private guides, the best rooms and berths. We especially like the detailed approach to one-off experiences, from lessons in calligraphy to access to private members' clubs. Itineraries range from a two-week "Highlights of China" tour incorporating Shanghai, the terra-cotta army at Xi'an, the Yangtze, and the Great Wall to a month-long journey along the Silk Road. Note that A&K also has an office in Beijing, while a third is scheduled to open in Shanghai by the end of the year. www.abercrombiekent.com; 800-323-7308
Butterfield & Robinson "Slow down and see the world" is how George Butterfield—who founded B&R in 1966 with his wife, Martha—describes his mission. The keen prepara- tion and attention to detail that this high-end Canadian firm devotes to a trip is flawless, such as finding the absolutely right people in the right place. (In Beijing, for example, request Norman Chang, their unbelievably terrific guide.) And while überluxe bike trips may be what B&R is best known for, its range and expertise is both deep and broad. www.butterfield.com; 800-678-1147
Imperial Tours When Nancy Kim started Imperial Tours six years ago with her husband, Guy Rubin, she used her mother—an ineffably chic and well-traveled woman—as her reference point for the ideal but demanding customer. "She went with us everywhere," Kim says. "I wanted her reaction—and sometimes she would say, 'Dear, that's a very "interesting" restaurant, but I don't think so.' " To this day, there are certain, sometimes even popular, destinations that Imperial believes are just too uncomfortable for many Americans. "If we aren't happy with the accommodations, we simply don't believe our customers will be either," Rubin explains. That the company is operated and owned by Kim and Rubin imparts an exquisite immediacy that's just impossible to duplicate. The fact that it is based in China but run by Westerners is equally appealing. www.imperialtours.net; 888-888-1970
GETTING TO—AND AROUND—CHINA
Cathay Pacific Airways (800-233-2742) flies direct only to Hong Kong from New York JFK, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—with the most glamorous first-class cabin going. Continental Airlines' (800-525-0280) new daily flight from Newark, NJ, to Beijing is the only nonstop service between New York and mainland China operated by a U.S. airline. It takes almost 14 hours. The airline also flies to Hong Kong from Newark. United Airlines (800-864-8331) flies direct from San Francisco and Chicago to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Air China (800-982-8802) has a direct New York JFK-to-Beijing service, featuring a new-look first- and business-class cabin. The airline also flies to Beijing from Los Angeles and San Francisco. China Southern Airlines (888-338-8988) flies direct from Los Angeles to Guangzhou four times a week.
WITH A STOPOVER
Korean Air (800-438-5000) flies via Seoul from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and L.A. to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Virgin Atlantic (800-862-8621) flies via London to Hong Kong and Shanghai from nine U.S. airports, while British Airways (800-247-9297) offers flights from 19 U.S. locations, plus service to Beijing. Thai Airways (800-426-5204) flies New York to Bangkok (17 hours), connecting to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and four other cities.
BY PRIVATE PLANE
"When a customer asks about private jets, I explain that availability is extremely limited and then steel myself for their surprise at the price," says one outfitter, who recently organized a trip on a
from Hong Kong to Shanghai, Beijing, and Xi'an at a cost of $57,500. And while it's possible to fly your own jet into China, you'll need at least two weeks to secure the necessary landing rights.
FLIGHTS WITHIN CHINA
We recommend all domestic ticketing be done by your tour outfitter.
For application procedures, visit www.china-embassy.org.
Cruising the Yangtze
GETTING IT RIGHT
Cruising through the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River is one of the most popular trips in China—and among the most fraught. One problem is that downstream journeys begin in Chongqing, a sprawling gray metropolis of 30 million people, and end in the smaller, slightly leafier city of Yichang (upstream trips reverse this order). You're obliged to spend several hours in both places before boarding the boat or catching a flight out—and neither merits a visit on its own. In Chongqing, you will likely be taken for a tourists-only hot-pot dinner and a foot massage; in Yichang, you'll be escorted to a dreary state-run museum of river artifacts and a gift shop where you'll get a hard sell on jade and bronzes of questionable provenance.
But the trip is worth it for travelers with an ecological bent, if only to see this majestic stretch of water before the 2009 completion of the Three Gorges Dam changes it forever. Three main boat lines make the three- or four-day journey. Picking one depends on your level of interest in the river itself and the importance of things like balconies and wine lists. Victoria Cruises (www.victoriacruises.com) has the largest fleet, with several newly built, all-balcony vessels. But since travelers aren't guaranteed a newer ship and older models are truly subpar, a better choice is Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com). No boat on the Yangtze is up to ocean-liner standards, but Viking's fleet comes close. Every room includes a balcony and, according to our frequent cruising expert, the food is "200 percent better than the other ships." Where Viking disappoints is in its shore excursions—and for those eager to see more than just a riverbank gliding monotonously by, the only option is Orient Royal Cruise (www.orientroyalcruise.com). The boats in this line, which Abercrombie & Kent books for its customers, are too small to have balconies, and the Chinese buffet is squarely mediocre. Orient's strength is in its sampan journey up Shennong Stream. The local Tujia boatmen offer a glimpse of river life that's on the brink of extinction.