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Forums » General & Multi-Country » Independent travel?

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virgil

Independent travel?

by virgil »

I've always traveled independently---not a fan of being herded here and there. But in looking at a trip to either China or Japan, my wife is getting nervous about the thought of doing it alone. She feels the language gulf will be too wide and that we won't understand what we're seeing. Does anyone have tips or tricks for traveling independently in place that are this foreign? Some Asia seems more difficult than Europe and South America did to us. Thanks!

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RE: Independent travel?

by billiv »

Japan is very easy for the non-Japanese speaking visitor as long as you are not out in a small village somewhere.  In the cities, public transport signage and announcements are made in Japanese and English and usually Chinese and sometimes Korean, too.  Many restaurants have English (sort of) menus, and there are, of course, often photos of the dishes in the menus or plastic mock-ups of dishes in the restaurant window. 

We did very well with our English/Japanese/English phrasebook and dictionary and some pointing, with a drawn picture now and then.  Twice we had storekeepers shut down their shops when we asked directions to some sight or museum--they walked us to where we needed to go.  A good guidebook (we used paper, though there are now great electronic ones, too) gave us all the information we needed about the various sights.

China I'm not as certain of--while most of it isn't 3rd World any more, I don't think it has the same organization and up-to-date tourist friendly infrastructure that Japan has.  Though I could be wrong about that.

So you don't have to have a tour group or a guide.  It's up to you.

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RE: Independent travel?

by ChinaExpat »

I've been traveling in China fairly extensively for the past 10 years and I now know maybe 5 words in Mandarin - in other words, most of China is very doable on your own as long as you speak English. I had the same concerns as your wife when I first traveled to China nearly 10 years ago but after deciding to do independent travel, I happily found it to be much easier than I thought it would be. English signage was much more prevalent than I thought it would be and in the most visited tourist areas (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xi'an, Guilin/Yangshuo, Lijiang, Dali, Kunming, Pingyao, to name a few), a fair amount of English is spoken, especially in the hotels that cater to international travelers.

It does take a little up front planning similar to what is described above for Japan, however there are many travel sites which are excellent sources of information (start off by Googling China attractions, or Beijing attractions, Xi'an attractions, etc. and go from there). When in China you do need to have the names of places you want to visit written out in Chinese. Hotel staff will do this for you and the Chinese names of most sites/attractions can also be printed out from many China travel websites before you leave home. When traveling about, you always want to have the name and phone number of hotels you stay at, in Chinese, with you. Be aware that hotel names in Chinese are almost never a direct translation from the English name so you can't use Google translator for this. Over the years I have had several taxi drivers in China call my hotel to get directions when needed -even when they didn't speak any English, so having the phone number of the hotel with me has been invaluable.

In some places it may make sense to arrange going with a day tour or to arrange a private car/driver and tour guide if needed and these can easily be arranged over the internet before you leave home or after you've arrived at a destination, so you needn't be tied to a strict schedule for your whole stay in China. I've found the planning for a trip like this to be a big part of the enjoyment.

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