Tuesday, October 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:53 PM

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China: Doing it on your own

Like everything else in China, travel is booming.

Fears of SARS and bird flu aside, more Americans than ever — 1.8 million — visited China last year, now the sixth most popular foreign destination for U.S. travelers.

By 2020, the World Tourism Organization predicts China will be the world's most popular destination, replacing France, and attracting 130 million visitors annually.

Most visitors still opt for a group tour covering the big four: Shanghai, Xi'an, Beijing and the Yangtze River. China is a relatively cheap destination, and many of these packages guarantee efficient and hassle-free trips at bargain prices.

But what about those who like to strike out on their own and relish finding the kinds of personal connections and surprises that come with traveling independently?

When China began opening up to outsiders in the late 1980s, most Americans went either of two ways: on a package tour or backpacker style, where traveling independently meant enduring long, bumpy bus rides on bad roads, pushing through crowds at train stations and staying in dank hotels with communal showers and squat toilets.

But things are changing. With the approach of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China is embracing tourism.

What does this mean for middle-of-the-road travelers who don't necessarily need luxury hotels, private guides and pre-planned itineraries, but also aren't into sleeping in hostels or surviving on power bars and peanut butter?

"It's the No. 1 question I'm asked. 'Can you do it independently?' " said Dave Bruels, owner of Interlake China Tours in Seattle. Bruels plans customized trips for his clients and teaches classes on China travel at local community colleges. He's been traveling there since 1989 and recently returned from his 44th trip. "They want to know if they can do it like they do Europe, and of course, they can't."

For starters, there's the language barrier. Even though many young Chinese are learning English, Bruels points out the hassles involved in accomplishing the simplest of tasks such as buying a bus or train ticket.

He also poses good questions: Do you really want to spend precious vacation time sitting inside a travel agent's office, for instance, or wandering around lost in a strange city where all the signs are in Chinese?

My own answer, of course, is "yes." And so, after months of planning, I'll be leaving tomorrow and reporting back to you on what China is like for the independent traveler.

I'm by no means an expert. Although I've been to Hong Kong twice and taken day trips to nearby Guangzhou, I've not spent time on the mainland, so I have the same kinds of questions anyone might.

How much of a problem will language be? How about changing money or buying an airline, bus or train ticket? Will I be able to tell the difference between sliced donkey and sliced beef on the menu? What about guides? Will I need them? Tour companies and travel agents can arrange them in advance from the U.S. at a price, but can I do better finding them on my own?

I'm sure there will be hassles. That's OK. Travel isn't always comfortable. Some my most memorable experiences have come about through making mistakes rather than playing it safe.

Independent travel isn't for everyone of course. For some, a mix of styles might make the most sense. Trip-planners such as Bruels and others can put together customized private tours for two or more with pre-arranged hotels, private guides and drivers for an average $150-$200 per person, per day.

Other ideas include combining an inexpensive package tour of the major sites with a week of independent traveling, or combining some independent travel with a small-group trip planned around an activity such as biking, cooking or hiking.

Beijing-based Wild China, founded by Harvard MBA graduate and Yunnan province native Zhang Mei (www.wildchina.com), organizes dozens of trips for two or more people who want to spend a week trekking or visiting ethnic villages in remote areas. Locally, REI offers a 15-day cycling and hiking tour for about $175 per day, and Global Exchange, a San Francisco human-rights organization, sponsors tours in the $200-a-day range that focus on social and environmental issues.

Whatever way you decide to go, there are lots of resources to help you plan.

Bruels teaches a three-hour class called the "Ins and Outs of Travel in China" at local community colleges. The next classes are Dec. 6 at North Seattle Community College (206-527-3705, www.learnatnorth.org) and Dec. 10 at the University of Washington Experimental College (206-543-4375, http://depts.washington.edu/asuwxpcl).

Here are a few resources I found helpful:


China is changing so rapidly that guidebook information becomes quickly outdated, but the books can be handy for itinerary planning and getting a handle on logistics.

Frommer's 843-page China guide ($24.99) breaks down the various regions in an easy-to-read format. It's lacking in historical details, but I appreciated its candid take on how China's tourism boom is changing the kind of travel experience some might expect. It rightly warns of an "imaginary picture-book China overly promoted by an industry determined to shuttle tour groups around a limited shortlist of famous sites."

Lonely Planet's 2005 guide ($29.99) is excellent for its historical overview, the nitty-gritty details of getting around, including bus timetables and distances between towns, and its quirky cultural insights. There's a pithy explanation of why Chinese men spit in public and a dictionary with a handy list of Chinese sayings.

I found the best maps, street plans and capsule overviews on subjects like the history of tea in the China Eyewitness Guide ($30).

On the Web

The Internet was the most up-to-date source of information and inspiration.

Early in my research I stumbled on www.yangers.com, a comprehensive Web site for exploring Yangshuo, a town on the Li River that first developed as a backpacker alternative to more touristed Guilin.

Put together by Australian expat Alf Exposito and his Chinese wife, Ming Fang, the site's many listings of places to stay, things to do and practical advice is one example of how some parts of China are becoming more user-friendly for independent travelers.

I used the site to book a lovely $30 room in a small new hotel, and I've exchanged several e-mails with Alf, whom I'm looking forward to meeting.

Two other useful sites were www.chinabackpacker.com and www.passplanet.com. Repeat travelers write articles written with an insider's perspective, often sharing new discoveries after finding their old favorites ruined by an influx of tourists.

Late nights spent in front of my computer at home Googling for information on various destinations brought me in touch with people in China who offered help.

This is how I connected with a university professor in Shanghai who used to be a travel agent and a young woman who lives near Yangshuo and earns money working as a guide.

The Internet also made it easy to find and book hotels. Searching online one evening for articles about Shanghai, I found the charming 12-room Old House Inn designed by Shanghainese architect Wu Haiqing in a 1920s building once owned by a textile entrepreneur.

Follow along online

There's no substitute for real-time information from real people.

Besides talking to colleagues who had been to China recently, I found good advice and opinions on Lonely Planet http://thorntree.lonelyplanet.com; www.virtualtourist.com and www.tripadvisor.com, useful for candid feedback on hotels.

The clerk at the Yummy House Bakery in Seattle's International District was happy to help me practice a few words of Chinese, and the agents at Ocean Pacific Travel were kind enough to confirm what I'd heard about the advantages of waiting until I get to China to buy discounted airline tickets.

I'll be writing more about China in the paper in the coming weeks, and starting Wednesday, I'll be posting Web dispatches and answering your questions online at www.seattletimes.com/travel.

In the meantime, it's never to early to start planning your own trip. China is a country of 1.3 billion crammed into a space slightly smaller than the United States. Don't underestimate the logistics of going it alone or the difficulty in narrowing down the choices. But don't be deterred.

China may not be Europe, but independent travel — the kind many Americans felt was possible for only wealthy travelers or backpackers in Europe 25 or 30 years ago — is becoming easier every day.

Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month in the Travel section. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com