Academic Trips & Language Classes
Despite what everyone says, Chinese is not an impossible language -- 20% of this planet speaks it, for Pete's sake! You can pick up some survival phrases while also exploring the city at the China Culture Center, Room 101, Kent Center, Anjialou, Liangmaqiao Lu 29 (tel. 10/6432-9341). The CCC, as it is colloquially known about town, also hosts classes and lectures on Chinese culture, martial arts, history, and traditional Chinese medicine, and does day trips around town.
Local boutique travel service VariArts (tel. 010/8532-4808) organizes tailor-made special-interest trips. They can arrange everything from a stay on an organic farm in Beijing to a special rickshaw tour through the city's hutong with an expert from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center serving as your personal guide.
Escorted General-Interest Tours
Escorted tours are structured group tours with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation. Almost all include a visit to Beijing, but very few tackle Beijing alone, or in any depth. For that you'll need to ask the companies below to organize an independent tour for you (but you'd be better off just to jump on a plane and be completely at liberty once you arrive).
Again, due to the distorted nature of the Chinese tourism industry, escorted tours do not usually represent savings, but rather a significant increase in costs over what you can arrange for yourself. Foreign tour companies are for now required to work with state-owned ground handlers, although some book as much as they can directly or work discreetly with private operators they trust. But even as markets become more open, most arrangements will continue to be made with the official state operators, if only for convenience. Read the brochures skeptically (one man's "scenic splendor" is another's "heavily polluted"), and carefully read the advice in this section.
As with package tours, the arrangements within China itself are managed by a handful of local companies, whose cupidity often induces them to lead both you and your tour company astray. Various costs, which should be in the tour fee, can appear as extras; itineraries are altered to suit the pocket of the local operator; and there are all sorts of shenanigans to separate the hapless tourist from extra cash at every turn, usually at whatever point the tour staff appear to be most helpful. (The driver has bottles of water for sale on the bus each day? You're paying three times the shop price.)
Evaluating Tours -- When choosing a tour company for China, you must, of course, consider cost, what's included, the itinerary, the likely age and interests of other tour group members, physical ability required, and the payment and cancellation policies, as you would for any other destination. But you should also investigate:
Shopping Stops -- These are the bane of any tour in China, designed to line the pockets of tour guides, drivers, and sometimes the ground-handling company itself. A stop at the Great Wall may be limited to only an hour so as to allow an hour at a cloisonné factory. The better foreign tour operators design their own itineraries and have instituted strict contractual controls to keep these stops to a minimum, but they are often unable to do away with them altogether, and tour guides will introduce extra stops whenever they think they can get away with it. Other companies, particularly those companies that do not specialize in China, just take the package from the Chinese ground handler, put it together with flights, and pass it on uncritically. At shopping stops, you should never ask or accept your tour guide's advice on what is the "right price." You are shopping in the wrong place to start with, where prices will often be 10 to 15 times higher than they should be. Your driver gets a tip, and your guide gets 40% of sales. The "discount" card you are given marks you for yet higher initial prices and tells the seller to which guide commission is owed. So ask your tour company how many of these stops are included, and simply sit out those you cannot avoid.
Tipping -- There is no tipping in mainland China. If your tour company advises you to bring payments for guides and drivers, costs that should be included in your total tour cost are being passed on to you through the back door. Ask what the company's tipping policy is and add that sum to the tour price to make true comparisons. Some tour guides are making as much as 400 times what an ordinary factory worker or shop assistant makes, mostly through kickbacks from sights, restaurants, and shops, all at your expense, and from misguided tipping. Some tour operators say that if they cut out the shopping stops, then they have to find other ways to cover the tour guides' income or there'll be no tour guide. Shopping-free trips are nearly always accompanied by a higher price or a higher tip recommendation (which is the same thing). The guides are doing so well that now, in many cases, rather than receive a salary from the ground-handling company, they have to pay for the privilege of fleecing you. The best tour companies know how China works, make what arrangements they find unavoidable, and leave you out of it. A middle path is to put a small sum from each tour member into a central kitty and disburse tips as needed, but only for truly exceptional service and at a proper local scale which short-time visitors from developed nations are incapable of assessing. Foreign tour leaders can be tipped according to the customs of their country of origin, and most companies issue guidelines for this.
Guides -- Mainland guides rarely know what they are talking about, although they won't miss a beat while answering your questions. What they will have on the tip of their tongue is an impressive array of unverifiable statistics, amusing little stories of dubious authenticity, and a detailed knowledge of the official history of a place which may bear only the faintest resemblance to the truth. Their main concerns are to tell foreigners what they want to hear, and to impress them with the greatness of China. So you may be told that the Great Wall can be seen from outer space (silly), that China has 5,000 years of culture (what does this actually mean?), and that one million people worked on building the Forbidden City (it was only 100,000 on last year's trip). Guides are shortchanged by China's shoddy and politically distorted education system, and also tend to put the potential profit from the relationship first.
Ask your tour company if it will be sending a guide and/or tour manager from home to accompany the trip and to supplement local guides. This is worth paying more for, as this person's presence ensures a smoother trip and more authoritative information.
Between them, the following tour companies (a tiny selection of what's available) serve just about all budgets and interests. The companies are from Australia, Canada, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but many have representatives around the globe. Plus you can often just buy the ground portion of the trip and fly in from wherever you like.
- Abercrombie and Kent (U.S.): Top-of-the-range small group tours, with the very best accommodations and transport. tel. 800/554-7016; fax 630/954-3324; www.abercrombiekent.com. tel. 0845/618-2200; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk. tel. 1300/851-800; www.abercrombiekent.com.au (Australia). tel. 0800/441-638 (New Zealand).
- Academic Travel Abroad (U.S.): Tours in China for the Smithsonian (educational, cultural) and National Geographic Expeditions (natural history, soft adventure). tel. 877/338-8687; fax 202/633-6088; www.smithsonianjourneys.org.; tel. 888/966-8687; www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.
- Adventure Center (U.S.): Small group tours aimed at those who are usually independent travelers; one tour includes the Eastern Qing Tombs and walking on several stretches of the Great Wall. tel. 800/228-8747 or 800/227-8747; www.adventurecenter.com.
- China Focus (U.S.): Larger groups at budget prices, but with additional costs to cover extras. tel. 800/868-7244 or 415/788-8660; fax 415/788-8665; www.chinafocustravel.com.
- Exploritas (U.S.): Educational tours for seniors. tel. 800/454-5768 or 877/426-8056; www.exploritas.org.
- Gecko's Adventures (Australia): Down-to-earth budget tours for small group tours of 20- to 40-year-olds, using smaller guesthouses, local restaurants, and public transport. tel. 03/8601-4444; fax 03/8601-4422; www.geckosadventures.com.
- Intrepid Travel (Australia): Slightly more adventurous tours with small groups, following itineraries that are a deft mix of popular destinations and the less-visited. One trip includes 4 days of trekking on the Great Wall. tel. 1300/364-512 (in Australia), 3/9473-2626 (outside Australia); fax 03/9419-4426; www.intrepidtravel.com.
- Laurus Travel (Canada): Small group tours from a Vancouver-based China-only specialist, run by a former CITS guide. tel. 877/507-1177 or 604/438-7718; fax 694/438-7715; www.laurustravel.com.
- Monkey Business (China): Beijing-based outfit specializing in organizing onward travel on the Trans-Siberian express. tel. 010/6591-6519; fax 010/6591-6517; www.monkeyshrine.com.
- Pacific Delight (U.S.): A large variety of mainstream trips for a wide range of group sizes, with endless permutations for different time scales and budgets. Watch for extra costs. tel. 800/221-7179; www.pacificdelighttours.com.
- Peregrine Adventures (Australia): Sister company of Gecko's Adventures , Peregrine offers small group trips with good quality centrally located accommodations; trips include visits to private houses and smaller restaurants frequented by local people and, possibly, walks and bike rides. tel. 03/8601-4444; fax 03/8601-4422; www.peregrineadventures.com. tel. 800/227-8747 (U.S.).
- R. Crusoe & Son (U.S.): Small group tours include extras such as a visit to areas of the Forbidden City usually closed to the public. tel. 800/585-8555; fax 312/980-8100; www.rcrusoe.com.
- Ritz Tours (U.S.): Groups range in size from 10 to 40 people, and ages range widely; parents often bring children. Ritz is the foremost U.S. tour operator to China in terms of volume. tel. 800/900-2446; www.ritztours.com.
- Steppes East (U.K.): Tours organized to very high standards. Its itineraries are merely suggestions that can be adapted to your specifications. tel. 01285/880980; fax 01285/885888; www.steppeseast.co.uk.
- VariArts (China): Beijing-based boutique tour company offering tailor-made tours. All tours incorporate sustainable travel practices. tel. 010/8532-4808; fax 010/8532-4809; www.variarts.com.
- WildChina (China): Founder Mei Zhang started this company for many reasons, one of them being that she wanted to explore China's lesser known paths and still have a good cup of coffee in the morning! Beijing-based Wild China offers highly specialized tours that focus on sustainable travel. tel. 888/902-8808; fax 010/6465-6602; www.wildchina.com.
For more information on escorted general-interest tours, including questions to ask before booking your trip, see www.frommers.com/planning.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.