|Subject: RE: China - when? how? where?|
I think you've made a GREAT choice for your next holiday and I'm really looking forward to welcoming you to Hong Kong when you get here!
The following are quickly scribbled notes. I'm off on my own holiday tomorrow and am overloaded with last minute work but - will write again when I return and give you more suggestions (including some good reading).
It's hard to take any away but much will depend on how you work out your routing and how long you have. I'd suggest you add Yunnan Province to the list under consideration. We loved Kunming and environs and Lijiang/Dali areas are beautiful and historic (altho I don't yet know the effects of the latest earthquake).
Spring and fall are certainly best because the heat and the rains of summer (June through Sept in the south) can be extreme.
There is really no need for anything other than making sure you are up to date on polio and tetanus if you are sticking to cities. If you expect to be going trekking - then it might be a good idea to get malaria, typhoid, & Japanese encephalitis but ... check out the Centre for Disease Control site for more info: http://www.cdc.gov/travel/eastasia.htm We just went through a series of 5 shots and some pills for our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia but .. have never gotten anything for our visits into China.
As pretty well anywhere in the world now - you do need to be wary of pickpockets and petty theft and just ensure that your money is zipped up close to you and keep your belongings secure but we have never had any cause to be unduly worried on our visits to China and (as you'll see below) we tend to go into non-tourist parts of town. I gather there is a common scam at some railway or bus stations (espec. in souther China) where a group of young men swarm around you and while they are diverting your attention - someone else is digging into your backpack. But - we haven't encountered this yet. The heavily touristed areas (especially Guilin and Xi'ian) have a lot of young children who beg on the streets and some of them have light fingers. They are, at first, hard to resist until you see the parents in the background pushing them at you - then you realize what a scam it all is. I remember having a particularly tough experience where my son had to literally peel one child off of my leg - then I followed his advice and didn't look them in the eyes and learned to say a very loud NO and walk on.
As to group vs independent travel - I think Sally has the right idea. With a combination of pre-trip research and onsite reading you don't need a guide in every place and IMHO you can learn so much more about a city and its culture by walking around the backstreets by yourself. We find that early morning was a wonderful time to just wander and drink in the feel of the streets as people wake up and begin their business. Even in the backstreets you will find people who either speak enough English to direct you or can use sign language to set you off in the right direction! The Chinese LOVE to practice their English and many go out of their way to be helpful.
Neither my husband nor I speak Mandarin and we have not had any problem travelling independently throughout the country (by train, plane, and bus). Granted, when my 20 yr. old son (who speaks Mandarin) travels with us, it is a little easier - but I don't find it intimidating looking for help (as long as we aren't in a hurry!). It's helpful to take a card from your hotel with the name and address in Chinese so that you can ask someone to direct you back there in case you get lost. We've also found it's helpful to have two good maps of each major city we visit (one that we can read - purchased before we leave home and a Chinese one purchased when you get there) and then you can compare the two and use the Chinese one to get directions from people if you need it.
We did get CTS (China Travel Services) tourguides in Xi'ian and Guilin and one was excellent (offered great information, answered lots of questions, gave us options as to what we saw, and whether we wanted to go to the state-owned shops) and the other was not as good (had a set 'script', couldn't answer any additional questions, insisted on sticking to the itinerary). I'd be happy to give you the name and address of the former one.
Cheers for now, Judy in Hong Kong