Here at NEI, we see our purpose not just as being one of the premier upscale providers of educational adventure travel around the world, but also as being a resource for our clients (and for other travelers). We‘ve recently fielded a high volume of questions concerning travel to China and Tibet, so we thought we‘d collect our “wisdom” here, as a series of “Dos” and “Don’ts.”
When and Where to Go (and Not Go)
The best time to travel to China is the spring and fall – but be certain to avoid the first week of May and the first week of October. Those are holidays in China, and the tourist sites will be overflowing with tourists. It’s also best to avoid the two weeks before and the two weeks after Chinese New Year (which will be February 19, 2015).
Everyone should make Lijiang part of their itinerary. Most classic tours of China skip Lijiang, which is a touristic crime, because Lijiang and its environs are incredibly beautiful and filled with culture and history (see http://naturexp.com/blog/exploring-chinas-lijiang-and-tibet). We recommend spending three nights there.
If you like hiking and mountain scenery, then two nights in Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) is also recommended, as it’s another place often left off mainstream itineraries – despite the fact that it also affords a visit to Hong Cun, where you can observe artists and painters at work creating breathtaking pieces.
We’d recommend against a Yangze River cruise — unless you are okay with not seeing a ton of beautiful scenery. The 4 day cruise is educational and gives you access to places you might otherwise miss (like the awesome Three Gorges Dam project) but, aside from a brief segment, the scenery is not spectacular.
Wildlife enthusiasts may want to visit the Giant Pandas near Chengdu but don’t expect to see pandas in the “true” wilderness. There are two panda viewing options. At Bifenxia, which is a very scenic 2 1/2 hour drive from Chengdu, you can see up to 50 pandas, around 10 of which are in “semi-wilderness” enclosures. You may also feed and play with a panda (no hugging) for an astronomical surcharge of $750 per person! The second option, Panda Breeding Center, is a 40 minute drive from Chengdu and has about 50 pandas in enclosures that are less “natural” than Bifenxia. Visitors normally see 10 pandas. Hugging a panda will “only” set you back $400 per person.
How to Go (and Not Go)
As you would suspect, traveling to China is not like traveling to a Western nation. There are a number of things to stress here:
- Bring along any over-the-counter medicines you might need as well as some antibiotics. The heavy air pollution in Beijing can sometimes cause upper respiratory tract infections or flu or cold-like symptoms, and the Chinese healthcare system is not very good.
- Never mix your medicines with Chinese traditional medicines. The drug interactions can be dangerous.
- Don’t drink the tap water. Ever.
- Always be polite in public, no matter what. Do not cause a Chinese to lose face by publicly humiliating or embarrassing them (e.g. by pointing out a mistake in front of others or by yelling at them). Public displays of anger are frowned upon, so do your best to be polite and cope privately.
- Always remove your shoes before entering a home or temple.
- Never touch someone’s head! (it’s believed to be sacred)
- Avoid the subjects of Mao, Tibet or Communism.
- Avoid public displays of affection.
- Never tip bellhops or waiters – but do tip your guides!
Tibet is a beautiful and fascinating “country” that has lived in China’s shadow for a long time. The Do’s and Don’ts of traveling to Tibet are a little different, but don’t let the list dissuade you from going – Tibet is well worth your time.
When & How to Go
Visit Tibet between April and October, when the climate will be pleasant and when there will be entertaining festivals.
If visiting Samye Monastery (see below), try to visit on the 8th, 10th, 15th or 30th of the month so that you can hear the Buddhist monks chanting their mantras in unison for much of the day.
To get the most out of your visit to Tibet, make sure to go on a private tour and to have an English speaking, Tibetan (not Chinese) guide. In group tours, there is usually a Chinese informer who will inhibit the guide from speaking freely about Tibetan history.
Prepare for the altitude — Lhasa lies at 12,000 feet. Start off at Tsedang for one or two nights; not only is it a little lower (10,000 feet), allowing you to acclimatize, but it’s also the gateway to the impressive Samye monastery. Rest the first day, don’t drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, eat light dinners, and take Diamox as instructed if you’re suffering from the altitude. To protect your skin and eyes, bring sunblock cream, sunglasses and a wide brim hat.
When you are rotating a temple or a monastery or a Stupa, always do it in clockwise fashion.
Always ask permission before taking photographs of Tibetan people.
Do some research. Knowing the history of Buddhism and the country of Tibet will make all of your adventures that much deeper and rewarding. This may also add a tinge of sadness to your visit as you see the dominance of Han Chinese and the repressed state of the Tibetan people and culture – but being a citizen of the world has its responsibilities as well as its pleasures!
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