China Travel Tips

Reflections on Travel in China

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

English Speaking Guides in China

I teach a class in China at Guide Schools and with Travel Services on occasions when I am working there each year. One of the things that some guides tell me is that communications with foreigners is sometimes difficult with all the accents and many who use slang words that they do not understand. It is considered to be impolite to ask foreigners to repeat something or to tell them that they do not understand them. It is a cultural requirement to give a positive answer to inquiries or questions so sometimes the communications lacks some mutual understanding. Chinese usually learn British English and by time they graduate from the University can speak about 7to 8 thousand words. Americans normally use about 12 thousand words in normal conversation and many slang words, double meanings etc. etc. And yes, we do have a very strong accent. Chinese guides must deal with British, American, Australian, Canadian and many people who speak English as a second language. Speaking slowly, using formal English and avoiding slang will help greatly with communications. I often watch the eyes of a new Chinese friend to see if they are understanding me and if I get that bewildered blank look, know I must rephrase myself until I get a positive reaction to my statement or question. Some Chinese friends speak perfect English and I sometimes catch myself falling back into my American slang but not for long. The book above is a great help when going to China. If you can not find it in book stores, I keep about 50 copies on hand at $25 each post paid. Contact me at: More Photos at

Monday, December 21, 2009

Guides and Shopping

Shopping with Guides in China often gets a bad reputation. Guides can obtain commissions sometimes from shop keepers who give them a kick back for bringing you to their shops. This can only happen IF YOU LET THEM! Be firm when you meet your guide and tell them you do not want to spend your valuable time shopping when you came to see the sites of China. If you are looking for some specific items to buy; your guide may be your best source of information and recommendation. Last trip I wanted a specific kind of rug in the Muslim area. My Muslim guide took me to the best place and I negotiated a fair price. The guide may have received a small commission but it is what I wanted in a rug and it was o.k. with me. When I plan a tour for clients, there are places to visit for bargains or factory outlets where you can see the products being made which is very interesting. You DO NOT HAVE TO BUY anything of course. When planning a tour, advise your tour consultant if you are not interested in any shopping or may be looking for specific items. There is a saying in China "If you like; Buy it" Because you may not see it again anywhere. I passed up a Jade piece last year that I loved and came back this year and of course it was gone. Art pieces are usually one of a kind. For more shopping tips, email me and I will give you some advice. Tours To China is my only destination with over 20 years experience in travel through out China.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Guides In China

With my 25 years experience in China, I believe Guides are one of the most important elements in visiting China. Guides must be certified by the government, usually go to Guide Schools at a University, and know their areas better than the people who live there. I often feel that clients think that guides and private cars with drivers are expensive but they are no more expensive than renting a car in the U.S.
Guides often receive a low salary and expect tips which are usually about $15 to $25 per day depending on the size of the city. Drivers about 1/2 that unless they are required to drive long distances each day. They are invaluable when learning about the culture. Above sitting in a tree is Wangdok, a Tibetan guide living in Shangrila who is a wealth of information on Tibetan history and culture. Ekbar above is Muslim and grew up in Kashgar. He is totally into Muslim history and knows the desert area around Kashgar inside and out. I have had countless guides over the years and could have not gathered the amount of information I have accumulated without them. Guides are the key to visiting China even though on rare occasions you might find a guide who does not measure up to your expectations. Silk Road Tours, Tours to Tibet and Tours to China other destinations is my only business...check us out at

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Taking a Breather While Touring

Being on a tour of China can be wearing sometimes without taking a day off here or there. I usually work 16 to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week almost like touring when I am there. I have learned to take a day off and spend it with friends or just relax spending time at the many tea houses, restaurants or with my many Chinese friends. You will find you can melt into the culture by taking some time on your own just walking around checking into one place or another. Chinese people are very friendly and many can speak English these days so you will find new friends almost everywhere. It is the personal meeting of the local people that can be very rewarding and Chinese people love to visit and drink tea, play cards etc. Especially during the hot summers a mid day stop at a tea house can be very interesting and an opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture either with your guide or the chance meeting of Chinese people who speak English and tourists from other countries. I will be writing more Tips on Travel to China in the coming weeks as well as more interesting stories about my 54th trip this fall and my plans for next year. Check my web site at for new packaged tours that we added this year which can give you some ideas for a custom tour designed just for you too. Tours to China and Tibet are our only destinations and we like to think that 25 years and over 50+ trips gives us many personal insights on Tours to China and the Silk Road. Click on the photos for full screen viewing!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visiting a Home in Zharu Valley

This past fall we visited a family in Zharu Valley which is quite near Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan province. Deep in the mountains, this Valley is closed to the public and has 23 families living in it. Only 15 people per day are allowed to visit this valley. In 1975 these families lived on a cliff high above the valley with no water or electricity. With government help they moved down to the valley floor and since then now live in modern Tibetan style houses complete with electricity, t.v. and the internet. The woman pictured above has never been out of the valley in her lifetime. Her daughter went to the University in Chengdu but also chooses to stay in the valley most of the year only going out in the winter time to visit friends in Chengdu. Mom after seeing t.v. and the internet says, "It looks too busy out there"! and chooses to stay in the valley but enjoys her electric cooking after cooking over a wood fire for so many years. She cooked some boiled potatoes for me over a wood fire in her old home near by and poured some tea and their local wine as hospitality is always wonderful visiting a local family. When you go to China you will want to experience the culture as much as the sites. Tours to China is my business; but Chinese culture is my passion.

Lunch at a Muslim Home in Turpan

One of the things I enjoy most in China is having lunch or dinner in a local family's home. This can usually only be done during a private tour and it is an experience that let us see what daily life is like. Above we visited a Muslim home in Turpan. The people were grape growers and friends of our guide. As you can see by the photo above we had home made noodles, my favorite, with lamb and several other dishes. It is impolite to eat everything on your plate as it causes a loss of face by the host in that they did not prepare enough food for us. That is a Chinese custom too; but it was difficult not to eat everything in sight as it is so good. They gave us boxes of their grapes also to snack on during our trip. For snacks they brought out many of their dried fruits that they sell along with a cooling tea during the hot day. Notice we eat out of doors during the summer time as most families do. This family had three generations living under one roof thus a very large table. We ate at noon as we are use to but in this area lunch for the locals is common at 2:30 and dinner not until 9:30 on weekends because of the desert heat. The best time to visit Turpan is in late August and month of September during grape harvest and the weather is best too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Visiting Local People in China

One of the most rewarding experiences in China is meeting the local people. It is common to visit people in their homes especially in the countryside. No door bells so your guide can just shout out or inquire to people if it is o.k. to visit. Chinese people are very hospitable and will invite you in for tea while they continue to do their work and you can talk to them through your guide. Above is a photo of a farm family I visited a few years ago and was invited to stay for dinner as her husband was retiring that day from teaching school in the village and would be bringing home special food to celebrate. I stayed and enjoyed myself with her whole family. The other photo is a man I met who was slicing bamboo strips for his wife to sell in the market for people who made baskets. It was his way of contributing to the family. I was only the second white person he ever had seen. Of course I had to ask who was the first. "a naked lady on a stage in Chengdu in 1941" was his answer. I guess I must have been a disappointment to him! I have visited over 100 families in their homes in the 21 years that I have travelled throughout China and I count those experiences as some of the best I have ever had during that time. Tours to China is my business but my passion is Chinese culture and people.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Ancient City of Kashgar

National Geographic magazine last year had an article on Urumqi and Kashgar on the Silk Road. Located in China just across the boarder from Pakistan and Afghanistan in Western China, this area is historically famous as part of the Great Silk Road. The magazine reported about tearing down one of the Old Muslim Sections of Kashgar. There are actually 5 large Muslim neighborhoods of homes in Kashgar. Above pictured is one of them located very close to the central area which I visited this past September. Kashgar is a wonderful place to visit not only for the Great Saturday/Sunday markets which is is best known for but for the wonderful Muslim culture. We can still see much of the old mixed in with the new. Donkey carts delivering fresh produce to the neighborhoods can still be seen as well as the home factories making all kinds of wonderful hand made products. Above pictured with me is Ekber a local Muslim Guide who posses a great deal of cultural information and history of his home city. We are standing in the Square in front of the large Mosque. Yes the markets are interesting for bargains, but don't overlook the rich cultural history of this area and the food is not to be missed as well. For more information see my web site at We added two new tours between Urumqi and Kashgar to include Hotan and the Takilmahan desert.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Best times to Travel in China

As a China only Tour Operator, clients often ask me when are the best times to travel in China. There are several answers. For weather...probably September and October or April. Summers are hot and humid with the rainy season being June through August but a great time to visit the high mountain areas such as LiJiang,Dali and Shangrila or other mountain areas. High season for costs is April/May and September/October. Low season is November through March. If you want to go to the high mountain areas July, August & September is best as October it can snow already. For the Silk Road and desert areas the best is actually August and September. October gets cold and snow can occur at the higher elevations. There are two holiday periods of 5 days in a row in which Chinese people like to travel and that is May 1 to 5 and October 1 to 5 and a few days surrounding each period. Much is crowded and prices are higher during those periods. This year, 2010, there is the Shanghai International Expo from June through October in which hotel prices will be very high and space will be limited but just in Shanghai. If weather is not a factor for you, December is a great month as hotels are empty, prices are low and sights are not crowded at all. Of course December 25th through January 1st is a different matter with the holidays for foreign visitors. For more information on travel times to China, just send me an email at

Monday, November 16, 2009

Recommended Reading Materials for China

When planning a trip to China you should read as much as you can. China is a large country the size of the U.S. and one can not see all of the country in just one visit. So plan on going to areas in which you have the most interests in the amount of time that you have available. Two to three weeks is about average. Travel books are often outdated the day they are printed as China changes so quickly; but they give you a good idea about what to see in the country. The Lonely Planet Series on China is excellent for detailed information but again some information is out dated too. Fromers is another one. A DVD called "Wild China" by the BBC is excellent with 6 hours of beautiful scenery in the remote areas of China. Rent the tape "The Last Emperor" which will give you some great insights to the Forbidden City in Beijing before you go. Read blogs like mine here and there are many more on the internet giving you up to date information on travel in China. "Encountering the Chinese - A Guide for Americans" is another must read book. If you can not find it in the book stores, I always have copies on hand that I ship post paid for $25. Contact me at if you would like a copy. The better prepared you are for a visit to China the more you will enjoy your trip. I went for my first visit in 1989 and have made 50+ more since then. I never fail to come home without new stories and adventures to talk about...thus my blog with now over 300 stories and tips on visiting China. Tours to China is my business; but my real passion is the culture and the country.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Requirements to Visit Tibet

Tibet has become more popular in the last few years probably due to the new train that goes there or the publicity it has received. Please be aware that a special permit is needed to visit Tibet and your Chinese Visa does not cover it. The permit can be obtained while in China but it is better to apply before you leave your country. Your tour operator can apply for you in advance as part of your tour. A clear copy of your passport photo page is required along with information as to your employment. You may be denied in some cases if you are a journalist or employed by what the government feels is a sensitive position. Tibet is at 10,000 feet above sea level and most people feel the altitude since you feel it instantly after getting off a pressurized plane. A local remedy in Lhasa is a mixture of brown sugar and ginger made into a tea with hot water. Upon arrival you normally will rest for several hours to adjust to the altitude. If you are taking the train, the train is pressurized as well. For more information on Travel in and to Tibet contact us at and visit our web site at
25 YEARS EXPERIENCE OF Customized personal Tours to China and Tibet.   Update:  2013
It now requires a minimum of 5 people in a group from the same country to enter Tibet with a permit.  Less than 5 people will be denied a permit.  (my wife and hiking buddy were denied in 2012 because there were only the tour of them.  They hiked Sichuan province then were it was even better and no tourists in the mountains with Tibetan people living there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hiking & Climbing at Mt. Hua

As a Tour Operator to China only, people often ask me about walking, hiking and climbing in China. Chinese people hardly ever go hiking as we know it but do go for walks and some might call it hiking or climbing as well. One of those areas is Mt. Hua outside of Xian about 2 hours by car. It is one of the four famous mountains in China but easy to get to and a great thrill to hike, walk or climb whatever you want to call it. My wife and I were there this year. You take a cable car up onto the mountain and from there either hike or walk up stairs built into the face of the cliffs and peaks to little tea houses, restaurants and picnic areas all along the peaks. For those who want a real thrill adventure, google Huashan and see the trail on the other side of the tallest peak leading to the very high Tea House. I have traveled through China over 50+ times for the past 25 years seeing everything there is to see and do in order to plan trips for my clients to their interests. You might check out my web site at and have me plan a tour to china just for you. Click on the photos for full screen viewing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jiuzhaigou National Park

The most beautiful National Park in China has to be Juizhaigou in north Sichuan Province. I was there 16 years ago when it took 12 hours by car over rough narrow roads and only a hand full of hotels were there. Today there is a full service airport with many flights per day from Chengdu to this fabulous remote National Park. Blue Turquoise ponds and streams with many fantastic waterfalls all with wooden walk ways through out the very large park. The Eco friendly green buses carry you through out the park with many stops to get on or off the bus or you can walk on wooden stairs and walk ways. This area only was open to the outside world in 1975 and allows only 5000 people per day into the park. Many first class hotels and facilities are now available including a 5 star Sheraton Hotel close to the entrance of the park. It is the most pristine park I have ever been in and the whole day I did not see one scrap of paper anywhere. Tours to China is my business and we can fit a park visit into any itinerary for private individual tours or Custom Group tours to your interests and needs. Click on the photos for full screen viewing!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pottery Find in Remote Village

On our way from Shangrila to LiJiang, our driver knew of a family that made pottery that he thought we might be interested in. They live in a small remote village that was very difficult to find. Eight generations of this family have been making pottery for centuries the same way. Above the father and son were working in a room with only light from a single window. Another son was working in another room. Two grandsons were blending clay in the basement. The remarkable part is that they do not use a spinning wheel but turn a wooden platform around by hand while forming the clay with the other hand. I asked why they didn't use an electric or foot operated wheel. They replied that it has been made the same way for centuries that way so they do not change. The samples above are blackened with a by product of the process and is the only color they use. They only sell it out of their home to the surrounding villages and often have standing orders. We of course bought some pieces and brought them home with us more for decoration than to use. During my 50+ trips of travel throughout China looking for new places to send my clients, I often find very unique places like this to experience the cultures in China. Tours to China is my business and I hope I can do a tour for you too. Check us out on our web site at  Click on the photos for full Screen!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dunhuang on the Silk Road

Another place which is a must visit on the Silk Road is the city of Dunhuang. A very small town in the desert but that is where the famous Mogao Buddhist Caves are located. More than 700 caves of very well preserved frescos, and art are kept behind doors leading to the caves. You must go with a local guide who takes you into the caves and explains the details taking about 2.5 hours. It is recognized as the best preserved caves and art in all of China. No photos are allowed but there is a wonderful book store on the site. There is a new railroad station now and takes about 12 hours from Turpan overnight on a sleeper. I prefer to drive back to Urumqi for a good night's sleep and fly to Dunhuang the next morning arriving about the same time the train does. There are good hotels in the city but the 4 star Dunhuang Shan Zhuang hotel on the edge of the city overlooking the great Sand Dunes is in the desert traditional style. There is a wonderful stage show in the evening at the city theater called the Dunhuang Goddess shown above. It is not included in Group Tours but you can usually get tickets for the evening performance on your own or on our private tours, we generally schedule it for our clients. Check our web site for 2010 as we have many new package tours this year that can give you ideas about planning a private tour of your own. Quality Tours to China is our business since 1992

Shangrila - Tibetan Culture Visited

Many people try to squeeze too much into their Tours to China including Tibet. For those who want to visit some convenient Tibetan culture there is Shangrila conveniently located near Kunming and LiJiang. I hadn't been there for a few years so this trip included it in my trip and was very surprised to see that it had expanded greatly. Once a quiet little village it now has 5 star hotels and a modern town next to their Old Town. Above you can see that each night in the City Square is a dance and time for socializing with the locals. At 10,000 feet it has the feel of Lhasa complete with a nearby Monastery that has greatly expanded also since I had been there last. It is just a short flight away from Kunming and there is a fantastic road excursion to LiJiang through the mountains and overlooking the upper Yangtze River. Stopping along the way you can visit remote villages and even the new rare Golden Monkey Preserve that just opened this year. If you do not have the time to visit Lhasa, then Shangrila is a great place to visit some Tibetan culture. Tours to China is my business and we can create a special itinerary just for you. Visit us at and look over our packaged tours too. Click on the photos for full screen!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Belzik Caves at Turpan

Another site at Turpan which escaped the Mongols invasion are the Belzik Caves a short way from Turpan up a remote valley. It is difficult to take photos of the caves which were dug into the side of the cliffs. Caves are fairly well preserved and have doors on each cave to keep the remains clean and safe. An explorer, Stein, a British citizen in the early 1900's with 300 camels removed many of the murals, Buddhist statues and art from these caves and are now in museums in Europe today. Much remains to be seen yet including the Buddhist Monks residences along the river below the cliffs. The above photos were taken from the cave entrances of the river and cliffs across from the caves.

Turpan's Grape Valley

Another great site at Turpan, second lowest place on earth in the desert is Grape Valley. This area is known for the sweetest grapes and melons in China. The locals make raisins from the grapes in drying rooms above their homes. In this dry climate it only takes about one month for the grapes to dry into raisins which are shipped all over China. The grapes are grown on arbors about 7 feet off the ground so they may be harvested from below during the hot weather. Although Muslims do not drink wine, there is a winery located in Grape Valley and I bring a bottle home with me with each visit. The Hami melons named after the city of Hami are the sweetest melons I have ever had and very inexpensive when bought from the growers along the road. We visited a local family and had lunch at their home. I usually include lunch at a local Muslim home as the food and culture experience are one to enjoy and learn first hand about the Turpan history and area. Check my web site for two new tours of the Silk Road that I added for next year.

Turpan on the Silk Road

Turpan is a 3 hour drive east of Urumqi and the second lowest place on earth below sea level. I find it one of the most interesting places with so many historical sights. Here I want to tell you about the two ancient cities outside of Turpan that are in ruins after being invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century. Jiaohe in the top photo was a well fortified city with a King on top of a plateau. The other is Gochang both which can be visited in one day. In the desert both cities had large populations ruled by Kings and were very important to the trade routes of the Silk Road. You can visit these ruins and walk down their streets and visit some of the old buildings some of which are still in good condition. I was there late in the day and we had the ruins almost totally to ourselves for great photography. Jiaohe you can walk up a path through the city but Gochang is a bit further out and you can either walk or take a donkey cart out and back which gives some income to the local people besides having a ride if it is a hot day. The Silk Road is best seen in September for best weather and cooler temperatures. October starts to get cold in the higher elevations.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Learning About Muslims and Ughurs in Kashgar

When in Kashgar on the boarder of Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a great time to learn about the Ughurs and the Muslim religion. Our friend, Ekbar pictured above is an excellent guide and source of great information since he is Ughur and has lived in Kashgar all his life. Although most known for the Saturday/Sunday market at the Bazaar; Kashgar has many Mosques since it is populated mostly by Muslims. As I wrote earlier it is common to walk into a strange home when both doors are open to visit with the family even though you are a stranger to them. Note above Ekbar and my wife and I just walked in and Ekbar picked up one of the musical instruments and started playing to the delight of the family. Note the colorful rugs in the living space as well as the highly decorated walls. The family eats and sleeps in this room. Unfortunately group tours are not able to do home visits but perhaps you will be able to find some free time to visit the Ughur Old sections of the city on your own. Private tours for two to six people are better able to do home visits and I do provide this service for my clients who are interested in learning more about the local cultures in all areas of the country. I have introduced some new tours along the Silk Road this past year so check my web site at .   Click on the photos for full screen viewing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kashgar Saturday/Sunday Markets

When going on the Silk Road everyone wants to be sure to be in Kashgar on Saturday and or Sunday usually. Actually the Grand Bazaar is open all week long but on weekends expands into one more building with more of the same goods that are available all week long. The only difference is that the Sunday Animal market is only held on Sunday. Pictured above are a few views of the market but it is extremely large and photos do not do it justice. You will find everything under the sun and at bargain prices. I love the hand made inlaid knives and buy a few each time I am in Kashgar. My wife buys the hand made embroideries. We even bought a Ughur silk rug this trip folded up and I carried it home in my back pack. If shopping is your thing you will enjoy the Bazaar as well as the wonderful Ughur food which I have become fond of and crave when I am on the Silk Road. I have added two more tours as extensions from Kashgar and Urumqi along and around the Takamankan desert to the ancient town of Hotan which actually has markets as famous as Kashgar but not as convenient being on the southwest part of the desert. Both new extension tours are now available as packages however we do custom private tours to any place you wish to visit. Check out our web site at  Click on the photos for full screen viewing.

Kashgar....on the Silk Road

I will be writing about my 50th trip to China this coming week having just returned home after 30 days. We covered the Silk Road, Shangrila, LiJiang, Jiuzhaigou National Park, the Yangtze River cruise, Beijing and Shanghai this trip. Kashgar is known for the Saturday and Sunday Market however the markets are open all week now but one additional building is open on weekends. Just more of the same huge variety of goods and products. The Sunday Animal Market is still held too. Most tours do not include the Old Ughur sections of Kashgar of which there are five. Above pictured is one large settlement near the center of the city. As old as 500 years it is a maze of crudely built homes and apartments attached to each other with narrow walk ways throughout the huge complex. Pictured above is Ekbar our local guide who is Ughur and had a splendid description of the history and culture of the Ughur people. Many hand crafted products are made in homes. It is very common to walk into a Ughur home. There are two doors to each home. If the lock is on then no one is home. If the lock is on and open, someone is home but does not want to be disturbed. If the right door only is open. The woman of the house is home and welcomes any female visitor but no men. If both doors are open, then the man and woman of the house are home and you can just walk in and visit them. It was a bit shocking to just walk in with Ekbar and walk around their homes visiting with them for a short while and then politely walk out. It is the hospitality of the Ughur people. Be sure to do that when you visit Kashgar. It is culturally extremely interesting. More about the Silk Road in the next week. My 2010 web site will be up in about 4 weeks.