The thought of taking off to a far-flung land, with a foreign language and no fixed plans, on your own, is intimidating for many. But it’s something quite different that instils me with fear: the idea of having every last hotel and ticket booked in advance takes away any trace of adventure for me. Being told where to go, and for how long, is the stuff of nightmares. Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, but as a massive advocate of solo travel, and of chucking plans out of the window whenever possible, the obvious way to step out of my travel comfort zone and live dangerously would be to book… an organised tour.
And where better to give it a go than in China? This country is so vast that even limiting yourself to seeing only the most awe-inspiring sights requires a strict itinerary. Then there’s the Great Wall (ahem) that is the language barrier -- while it’s reasonably easy to memorise a few key words and phrases in Mandarin or Cantonese, the written characters will remain unfathomable for most Western visitors. So, with a bargainous Top 20 deal (what else?) in hand from Round the World Experts, I embarked on Gecko’s Adventures’ 17-day Inland China tour.
Kicking off with a blind date-esque rendezvous in a hotel lobby in Hong Kong, it was with joy and mostly relief with which I met our small and imperfectly formed group of seven -- a complete mixture of ages, nationalities, fitness levels and tastes. But it figures that what we would share was a love for travel and a fascination with China, and with that I slowly got to know an interesting, open-minded and incredibly funny group of strangers, accompanied by an enthusiastic and super-knowledgeable Chinese tour leader.
First up was Yangshuo in the south, accessed by rickety bus from the city of Guilin. Proving the perfect foil for the crowds and mayhem of our journey from Hong Kong, we cycled out into the countryside. The scenery here is the picture-perfect China of postcards -- gentle paths weaving among paddy fields, with glimpses of the wide, slow-moving Li River and a dramatic backdrop of domed karst mountains. With even the most hardened city-dwellers now feeling a little more Zen, we returned to our clean, comfortable and air-conditioned hotel.
Accommodation throughout the trip was consistently good and a mixture of impressive 3-star hotels and guesthouses, however, potential travellers beware -- this was very much an adventure tour, requiring you to get stuck into carrying your bag through crowded streets, jostling onto local buses, metros and, most importantly, trains. Travelling by train is often the best way to cover long distances, allowing you to sit back and appreciate the ever-changing scenery. And with four overnight journeys included, the sleeper train was to become a highlight of this trip. Stockpiling snacks (the more exciting and unidentifiable the better), noodles and a beer or three, we boarded our first train bound for Chengdu, in what turned out to be a swift education on Chinese culture.
Aysha will continue her Fast East odyssey soon -- if, in the meantime, you're hankering after your own adventure in China, click here.