I had always dreamt of visiting. I recall, when we bought our first house I was so in awe of Chinese culture that I couldn’t wait to use Chinese fabrics, art, decoration and faux Chinese objects throughout the house, dreaming of they day I’d have a chance to experience this culture first hand.But then our love our of wildlife photography took over, and wildlife became the main focus of our holidays, taking us to destinations like Ecuador, Galapagos, Kenya and Antarctica.Ali had never fancied China – he wasn’t repulsed or put off by it, he just was not as driven to visit as I was and he saw value in visiting many other destinations on our do list first, as did I.Then one late autumn evening we found ourselves armed with travel brochures, searching for a cheap Christmas holiday destination. We excitedly booked a 2 week trip to China with a popular group tour operator, only to wake the next morning and instantly regret our decision. We’d made a rash decision based on cost alone, and realised we really did not want to spend two weeks touring one of the world’s most intriguing destinations with a bunch of young and eager students – we were too old for that and worked far too hard to earn our leave to share it with people. After a frank and honest call on our way to work, and less than 6 hours after making the booking, we’d decided to cancel and go it alone in China – no students, no backpackers, no tour operators. We’d decided to travel alone, doing what we wanted, when we wanted. I ran home that evening eager to research the vast country and compile a trip of a lifetime.
It took weeks to plan and research. We purchased a ginormous white board especially for the occasion and spent every night annotating a hand drawn map of China, plotting routes, calculating costs and prioritising activities we wanted to do and places we wanted to go. This has since become a staple of all holiday planning.
We were convinced we’d made the right decision – even after forfeiting our deposit on the previous trip. The more we researched the country and devoured books and maps, we became more inspired about the opportunities we’d have to take a path relatively untraveled and tailor the holiday to meet our needs, desires and interests. We were daunted – I will not deny that! We were visiting a huge and complex country, travelling to places with incredible poverty and power in equal measure. We pencilled in destinations where no one spoke English, when no signage would be in English, places where British tourists rarely visit. To help prepare for the trip we started to learn basic mandarin – hoping to pick up enough of the language to ask for drinks, discern between meat, fish and veg, offer basic greetings and adhere to their cultural norms.
It might sound like an obvious thing to say – but China is HUGE! We’d decided to set ourselves an ambitious itinerary for the three weeks we had. We wanted to take in a mixture of key cities, countryside, local cultures and wildlife. In the end we decided on the following itinerary:
International flights from London Heathrow to Beijing
Beijing for 5 nights
Overnight train from Beijing to Xian
Xian for three nights
Overnight train from Xian to Chengdu
Five nights in Chengdu – including one road trip to spend a night on Emei Shan
A flight from Chengdu to Harbin for the ice festival
Four nights in Harbin
A flight from Harbin to Hong King (via Shanghai)
Three nights in Hong Kong
International flights to London Heathrow
All accommodation, rail and air travel was booked over the internet and tickets delivered to Chinese address where we’d be lodging. There was a certain amount of organisation required to ensure that you could confirm your Chinese accommodation address at the time of booking air and rail tickets, and we were required to reconfirm bookings at several times during our trip -but we found our local hosts and hostesses were all too happy to hold our tickets in anticipation of our arrival and assist us with and confirmations required mid trip.
It’s worth highlighting that this entire trip did not cost much more than the cheaper trip we’d originally with Intrepid travel – proving that a bargain might not always be as it seems, and that it really is worth tailoring your holiday yourself. For this additional spend, we got to spend a week longer in China, stay in the upgraded accommodation we wanted, and visit more far flung places of the country.
The moral of the story – follow your heart!
Our China trip log will continue within this blog.
Photos and further information about our trip are also available in our photobook of China.