Solo travel in the People's Republic of China has earned a reputation as the world's most frustrating travel experience. Don't go solo if it's your first trip, the travel experts say. Or if you don't speak Chinese. Or if you are not of Chinese extraction. Or if it's October, when the pleasant weather attracts the most tour groups and the annual Guangzhou Trade Fair draws foreign businessmen.
Having received this advice, and armed with the Berlitz Chinese-English cassette, I set out last October for seven weeks in China, confident that with patience and charm I could handle whatever the People's Republic had to offer.
I found it every bit as maddening as they said. There were a missed train and outrageous prices and hotel staff barging into my room at all hours.
But the reward was seeing a China seldom seen by tour groups: The young engineer I met on the train to Beijing, who took me to his home and insisted on guiding me around his city. The sharp young trader from the Shenzhen special economic zone, whom I met at the Guangzhou Trade Fair and who invited me to dinner with his Guangzhou and Hong Kong friends. (We drank a toast "to more money.") The young woman I met roller-skating in Guangzhou's Cultural Park, who took me to her work place. The two giggling Chinese homosexuals who playfully accosted me as I strolled a busy street at midnight. (They asked me the time, and when I stopped to check my watch, they gently pinched my arms and legs.)
Seeing China is temptingly affordable. While those on tours can pay more than $100 a day, solo travelers can easily live for a week on $100 to $200 (the higher figure includes western-style accommodations). As a result, "there are more Americans traveling in China this year, and more traveling on their own, than ever before," says Dewey Pendergrass, consul at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
I spent my seven weeks traveling counterclockwise around China -- from Guangzhou to Beijing to Datong, south again to Xi'an and Changsha and then back to Guangzhou. Halfway into the trip, I broke away from the world's oldest bureaucracy for an 11-day dash with a newfound friend into the far different world of Inner Mongolia.
The first obstacle a traveler is likely to face is getting a visa. Visas for solo travel in China are available in this country, but the process takes several weeks. Instead, many travelers enter China through Hong Kong, where visas are readily available. Seemingly every money-changer in Kowloon sells visas, as does the official China Travel Service, which can provide one in 24 hours.
Once you have your visa, entering China is surprisingly easy. A local train from Kowloon takes you to the border for about $2; from there, a three-hour train ride puts you in downtown Guangzhou (formerly Canton) for about $3. (Plane and boat connections are also possible from Hong Kong to several other Chinese cities, but most travelers go first to Guangzhou because it is the closest and most convenient.)
Your train ride to Guangzhou -- through a lush land of rich, green rice fields -- is likely to be your introduction to the Chinese price system. The Chinese government has institutionalized the notion that tourists never get things for the same price as locals. Instead, they have concocted a multistage price system, under which Chinese citizens pay the least, then "overseas Chinese" (including Chinese-Americans). "Foreign guests," at the top of the pyramid, find an extra 75 percent tacked onto their train tickets and room bills.
This, according to one western diplomat, "is what frustrates most people -- knowing they are paying twice what everyone else is."
"I don't mind paying extra for hotel rooms," said one 20-year-old Australian in Beijing, "because I'm getting something extra -- a hot shower, for example. But if I'm on the train, why should I pay 75 percent extra for exactly the same thing?"
Travelers who wish to keep their sanity should keep in mind that even with the surcharge, prices are ridiculously low by American standards. For example, my 1,445-mile, 36-hour train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing cost about $33 U.S. -- and that included a bunk or "hard sleeper."
While the Chinese people were very friendly, many of the solo travelers I encountered found the hotel staffs to be rude. In fact, we found that relations between staff and guests in Chinese hotels often bordered on civil war. A walk up five flights of stairs at a Beijing hotel found staff yelling at guests on three floors.
One Canadian found a way to deal with staff hostility. His first request for teacups (standard accessories in Chinese hotels) was ignored by the staff at his hotel. His second request was met with yells. The Canadian yelled back -- while smiling. He got his cups.
Travelers also have the option of insulating themselves from such discomforts. In historic Xi'an, the smooth-as-silk staff of the Golden Flower Hotel would do many a first-class American hotel proud. When I was there, double rooms at the Golden Flower started at $120 a night (U.S. dollars only, please) -- about five months' wages for a well-paid Chinese professional.
Although hotels like the Golden Flower were out of my budget range, and although I arrived in Guangzhou at the height of the trade fair, I never had a problem finding a room. (After all, the Chinese are not going to make "foreign guests" stumble around looking for a room in the middle of the night.)
Having arrived in Asia from the overtouristed sands of Hawaii's Waikiki Beach, I expected to find tourists everywhere and the Chinese jaded from the constant stream of foreigners. But I found that even one block from a major tourist area, I was met with open-mouthed stares. And in the "masses" restaurants (as opposed to hotel diners), I was flooded with offers of drinks and cigarettes from my neighbors, and sometimes even discovered that my bill had been paid. (Not that the bill comes to much in these places: 50 cents buys a hearty three-course meal, $1 gets you a feast.) But if you eat in the local restaurants, take your own fork: Some of the masses restaurants do not wash their chopsticks between customers.
It seems every traveler to China has a tale to tell about reservations. "You are told you have them," said one diplomat. "Then when you get there, they've never heard of you." He cited one case of travelers arriving on Hainan Island off the south China coast to discover their air reservations back to the mainland were nonexistent. "Then it's a long, long boat and train trip back to your destination."
I traveled by train from China's southern border with Hong Kong to the northern border with Mongolia. And it was in the far north that Debbie -- my new friend -- and I escaped the complex pleasures of the world's most populous country to explore the remote back roads of Inner Mongolia by long-distance bus.
"Mah," said the Mongol sitting next to me. Debbie and I scurried for our respective windows. Sure enough, there on the frozen Inner Mongolian steppe a herd of horses stampeded away from the road.
On this day, herds of magnificent horses, sheep, goats, two-humped Mongolian camels and cattle regularly crossed our path, enjoying the freedom of an unfenced plain. Golden brown grass stretched to the horizon, broken only by small white patches of thin ice. The backdrop was a soft turquoise sky.
It was November, when the trickle of tourists in Inner Mongolia dries up completely, and during our 11 days of travel the only foreigners we met were two Japanese.
Inner Mongolia -- officially known as the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China -- incorporates a huge section of northern China, bordering both Mongolia and the USSR. The pleasures of Inner Mongolia are the simple ones of seeing a beautiful land and a vanishing culture: These Mongols are slowly abandoning their centuries-old nomadic ways as they adjust to sedentary life.
Quite by accident, Debbie and I chose an illegal destination for bus travelers: Abagnar Qi, officially reachable by tourists only via air and only from the regional capital of Hohhot. Unaware of the rules, we just got on a bus in Hohhot and headed for Abagnar Qi, 325 miles to the northeast. But anyone wishing to explore Inner Mongolia by bus can chose from several "open" cities.
Chinese long-distance buses -- which have huge windows of clear glass and afford 360-degree views -- are an experience. Every seat is always filled as the bus leaves its first station; peasants who flag the bus down along the road sit on their luggage in the aisle. Distances traveled -- sometimes as little as 125 miles a day -- are laughable by western standards, but Chinese buses lurch around tight turns in dirt roads no western bus driver would consider attempting. When there is no bridge across a stream, the bus splashes through the water.
Our bus trips usually began at 7:30 a.m. We would eat a breakfast of cake, smoked fish, oranges and hot tea as we rolled out of town. Our neighbors would smoke, spit seeds on the floor or stare at us. Sometime during each ride, the bus would stop in a small town for a 45-minute meal break. Our rides all ended between 12:30 and 3 p.m. (Chinese buses do not travel at night), leaving the afternoon free for sipping tea, relaxing next to a glowing coal stove in a brick-floored hotel room or strolling through town.
Hotels in the small towns -- with their dormitory-style rooms and coal-burning stoves -- usually cost around 10 yuan (about $3) for two people. Food was even more reasonable. We feasted one night at the restaurant across the street from the only hotel in Abagnar Qi that accepts foreigners. Soup with chicken and vegetables, a fried pork cutlet with onions, deliciously greasy meat dumplings, a huge plate of bean sprouts cooked in Mongolian sauce and rice came to 7.30 yuan -- less than a dollar for each of us.
Inner Mongolia gets extremely cold, but we found clothes incredibly cheap to buy. I bought a fox-fur hat for 20 yuan ($5.40), a blanketlike, windproof People's Liberation Army-style topcoat for the same price and a down jacket for 90 yuan ($25). When wrapped in these, I was usually warm. Debbie bought a traditional ankle-length Mongol outfit of thickly insulated turquoise cotton and a gold silk sash for 49 yuan ($13).
When we reached Abagnar Qi -- a town of perhaps 50,000 people with paved streets, a few government-issue "department" stores and a beautiful Buddhist temple -- we arranged with the China Travel Service to spend a night in a yurt. This traditional teepeelike dwelling of the Mongols is made of animal skins stretched around a framework of wooden poles. (Many tourists take two- and three-day guided "grasslands tours," which include a night in a yurt.)
The jeep dropped us at "our" yurt, eight miles outside Abagnar Qi, on a cold day when wind streaked over the steppes. The yurt was owned by a Mongol family who lived next door in a two-bedroom, concrete-block house. Inside the yurt were thick cream-colored carpets, a glowing coal stove, chests decorated with carvings of horsemen and a silver-colored bust of Genghis Khan. Sky-blue silk draped the warrior's statue; a small red incense burner sat before it. Our hostess, an attractive 25-year-old, brought out hot buttered Mongol tea, cold pickled vegetables and a five-gallon pot of noodles and beef, which she ladled up in great steaming portions.
After 10 days in Inner Mongolia, we reached the sleepy border town of Erenhot, where the Trans-Siberian Railroad crosses into and out of Mongolia. It was time to head south, back to civilization -- and hot showers.
Chinese trains are among the most unique in the world. Attendants roam the aisles, pouring hot cups of tea, selling cookies and Coca-Cola or swabbing the floor with a dirty mop. One sells Styrofoam lunch boxes of rice and meat; an hour later, another attendant carefully collects the empty boxes, opens the window -- and throws them out. Loudspeakers blare music and dialogue; passengers eat, drink, spit melon seed shells on the floor, play cards. Four passengers on my train to Beijing emerged with a working knowledge of blackjack.
Buying tickets in small towns was simple, but in large cities purchasing a ticket from the train station resembled hand-to-hand combat. Station clerks refused to sell tickets even one day in advance. If you go to the station to buy your ticket, you can be sure of two things: No matter which line you first get in, when you get to the ticket window they will insist that only a different window can serve you; and at least one window for which you are in line will close for half an hour. Meanwhile, another window will apparently be dispensing tickets to all comers. When you finally get to the front of the line, you will have to compete with four or five line-jumpers who can only get their tickets by pushing you out of the way. You are as likely to find that the time you spent waiting before closed windows has brought you too close to departure time for a ticket to be issued.
What to do? Says one American citizen born in Xi'an, "In the end, the only solution is a heaping dose of tolerance. That, and patience." Good advice for China in general, veteran travelers agree.
But in the final analysis, say returning travelers, the best advice is simply to accept the fact that you will be frustrated. As one Canadian discovered, "The frustrations are part of the experience of seeing China. China is frustrating. If you didn't get frustrated, you didn't see China."
Brooks Roberts Fudenberg, a Washington writer, is currently traveling around the world.
CHINA WAYS & MEANS
If you're tempted to try traveling solo in China, a good guidebook is a must. I took two books -- Fodor's "People's Republic of China" and Lonely Planet Publications' indispensable "China: A Travel Survival Kit." Despite its tendency to dwell on the negative, the Lonely Planet guide's attention to detail and step-by-step directions (which tell you which bus to take and where to get it) have earned it the nickname "The Green Bible." VISAS: Visas are available in this country through any China consulate.
Travelers must first obtain approval from Beijing by writing the China International Travel Service Head Office, FIT Division, Chongwenmen Hotel, Room 1302, Beijing, China, or telex (716) 22404 CITSHCN. Give your name and address (in block letters), age, sex, profession, reason for visit and proposed arrival and departure dates. Expect a reply in two to three weeks. If your request is approved, you will receive a typed letter and two visa application forms.
Then you must deposit 40 Chinese yuan (about $10.80) in the travel service's Beijing bank account. The travel service will provide you with the account number. Deposits may be made through the Bank of China office at 410 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 935-3101.
Finally, you can apply for a visa at any of the five China consulates in the United States, located in Washington, New York, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. You may apply in person or by mail. You must provide:
the receipt from the Bank of China deposit;
the typed letter and the two visa application forms from the travel service headquarters in Beijing;
two recent photographs;
a $7 visa fee (cash or company checks only, personal checks not accepted);
a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
Applications take about a week to process, according to the travel service. They may be hand-carried or mailed to any of the following offices: Embassy of China, 2300 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, 328-2517; Consulate General of the PRC, 520 12th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10036, (212) 330-7409; or to the Chinese consulates at P.O. Box 53210, Houston, Texas 77052, (713) 524-4311; 1450 Laguna St., San Francisco, Calif. 94115, (415) 563-4857; or 104 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60603, (312) 346-0287. GETTING THERE:United Airlines flies directly to Beijing from Washington, with stops in New York and Tokyo. The APEX round-trip fare, which must be booked 21 days in advance, is $1,709. (It is cheaper to fly from the West Coast and book your flight to the coast from Washington separately.) Many travelers enter China through Hong Kong, because visas are readily available there. United, Northwest and Cathay Pacific are among the carriers who fly to Hong Kong from the West Coast.
WHEN TO GO: In China, the weather is tolerable somewhere virtually year-round. But October/September and April/May are the peak periods because the weather is lovely across the nation. Avoid the north in winter and the south in summer.
CLOTHING: Don't worry too much about clothing before you leave. You can pick up whatever you need, at bargain prices, in Hong Kong. Or once in China, you can wrap yourself in a windproof People's Liberation Army-style topcoat for $7 or in a down jacket, which costs between $10 and $25.
HEALTH: China requires no vaccinations or immunizations for tourists. But the Traveler's Medical Service of Washington recommends that travelers be immunized against hepatitis A, polio and tetanus-diphtheria.
The Traveler's Medical Service (as do the Chinese themselves) recommends against drinking water that has not been boiled; hotels and trains provide boiled water. The medical service also advises against eating fresh fruits or vegetables "that you can't peel yourself."
INFORMATION: China International Travel Service, 60 E. 42nd St., Room 3126, New York, N.Y. 10165, (212) 867-0271.
Brooks Roberts Fudenberg