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I’ve taken so many local bus tours across China that I’ve lost count. Honestly, as an expat, they’re just one of the best ways to travel and see all the beautiful sights China has to offer, from bustling cityscapes riddled with towering skyscrapers to the most incredible, jaw-dropping natural escapes you just might ever lay eyes on.
But, I know—you hate traveling with tour groups, right? You’d rather plan out your own itinerary and explore attractions on your own time. On top of that, you can’t even imagine joining a Chinese tour that isn’t equipped with any English. What’s the point in that!? I know.
Here’s the deal: You can’t let that stop you from skipping out on one of the best ways to travel across China. And I get it, you just need a little convincing; a comprehensive look at why their worthy and what you can expect. So, here goes …
How to Book?
There are a few ways to book local bus tour trips in China.
First up? Hit a travel agency. You may not recognize them, but travel booking agencies are widespread across China. They’re in malls, markets, shops along the roads, and they usually offer packages for everything, from bus tours, private tours, and flight and train deals, to cruises and resort vacations. But unless you’re fluent in Mandarin, you’ll need your Chinese friend to assist.
Two? Popular Chinese travel agency websites like Qunar, LY.com, and the Chinese version of Trip.com provide short and long-distance bus tours to famous attractions and destinations all across China. By the way, you’ll need a Chinese friend to assist with this one, too.
Three? Every major city in China has usually got some grand Chinese or Western hotel that provides bus tours to nearby tourist hotspots. You can walk in, sign up, and leave as soon as the next morning on 2-4 day trips. There might be someone at the hotel that can speak enough English to help, otherwise … you guessed it—phone a Chinese friend.
Why? Why join a local Chinese bus tour group versus a foreign-friendly, English speaking bus tour? Are you insane!?
It’s an Immersion Adventure
Joining a local bus tour group in China would just be one hell of an adventure, wouldn’t it? Heck, it’s the equivalent of spending Chinese New Year with an actual Chinese family, except that this one’s an awesome cultural immersion experience with travel as an add-on perk.
Let’s see, only foreigner(s) in the group? Check. By the way, how interesting would that be!? Wine and dine like a local for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Great! Not speak a lick of Chinese but link up with complete strangers to explore a wide range of awe-inspiring attractions and undoubtedly finish out the trip some crazy stories to tell? Now that’s priceless!
Local bus tours in China are dirt cheap, well, except during the holidays, but even then they’ll probably still be cheaper than those foreign-friendly bus tours that explore the same destinations.
And besides, it’s a bus tour anyways, which means that because you’re traveling with up to 30 other people, you’ll save money on transportation, food, ticket fees, and hotel stay included in the package. More bang for your buck, err, Renminbi.
Local bus tours can get you to those off beaten places in China that’ll cost an arm and a leg to reach by Didi or taxi, and that’s if they can get there at all. Take Guizhou’s 500-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, for instance. From downtown’s Sheraton Guiyang Hotel, a roundtrip, single day tour of the site cost just 280RMB, and that includes breakfast. To get there by Didi? About 500RMB, one-way. Ouch!
And again, it’s a bus tour. Transportation to and from the site(s) is already arranged. You won’t need to struggle trying to figure out how to get from point A, to B, and to C, which we all know could be a major headache!
They Offer Different Excursions
The local bus tours usually offer a bunch of mini-excursions and activities you can join outside of the package you’ve already signed up for, of course, for an extra fee. That’s not bad, right?
Let’s say you’re touring the Xilarumen Grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Sure, the basics of your package include roundtrip transportation and overnight stay in a Yurt, but wouldn’t you want to go horseback riding? Or how about smashing around the grasslands on a dune-buggy? What about watching an authentic Mongolian wrestling match? With bus tours you’ve just got more options available, and usually at group discounts.
They Go Everywhere
That’s right—local bus tours go everywhere in China, from far and near to the well-known and the obscure. Yes, it’s damn easy to get to some popular tourist attraction in China on your own, but if you really want to visit those top places in China you’ve probably never even heard of, look into local bus tour destinations. By the way, the place up above is Hengdian World Movie Studios, the biggest movie studio in the world!
What to Expect?
Dun, dun, dun. Now that we’ve covered why local bus tours in China are worth the trip, let’s take a look at what you can expect. And most importantly, let’s keep it all the way 100 …
You Can Use a Translator
Why go on a local bus tour when I can’t speak Chinese!? Here’s the truth: You really only need to know what times to meet, and what’s on the itinerary. That’s it. Who cares about all the miscellaneous mumbo-jumbo your tour guide will talk about—just get to the destination and have fun.
Here’s what you do: Exchange your Wechat contact with your guide and use Wechat’s translation feature to ask questions and get details on specifics and need-to-knows. You can also download a translation app should you want to communicate with other members in your group. And if you find anyone that can speak English, stick with them like white on rice!
Persuasive Tour Guides
In China, tour guides are salesman just as much as they are chaperons. They’ll do their best to persuade you into shelling out money for extra activities and spending wads of cash in the markets. As a foreigner though, that language barrier might just come in handy when you don’t want to hear any of it. Speaking of which …
Your Tour Guide Might Not Take a Break
Those local tour guides—boy can they talk. Seriously, they can speak non-stop for 2 hours straight, and that’s at 200 words a minute. You’ve seen them leading groups at tourist attractions, right? Carrying flag poles and on the loud speakers? Well, imagine that type of energy confined on a bus!
You May Have to Pay Extra as a Foreigner
Here’s a fact: Not every hotel in China accepts foreigners. It’s true, they must have a special permit to do so. It’s more common to find these types of hotels in smaller cities, though some hotels in 2nd tier cities have been known to shoo away foreigners as well.
If you take a local bus tour, here are the possibilities: 1. Easy does it. Your hotel is booked and there aren’t any problems, 2. The hotel your group will stay in can’t accept foreigners and you just cannot make that trip, or 3. The hotel will require you to pay an extra fee just cause you’re a foreigner. They may not be allowed to take you, but they’ll sneak you in anyways at a cost.
Trust me, I’ve experienced all 3 scenarios!
There are Toilet Stops … Thank God
There are usually some massive gas stations located along highways that are pre-loaded with shops, food stalls, and the largest restrooms you’ll probably ever see in your lifetime. At any given moment, there are at least 10 other tourist buses at the same stop, which means you’ll see swarms of people in the area. The buses stop about every 2-3 hours.
You Might Go Through a Security Check at Tolls
It’s not uncommon to undergo a brief security check at toll booths, especially during the holidays. And no, all of you won’t need to get off the bus in orderly fashion with your hands up. Police won’t storm the aisle with guns drawn. This ain’t America Jack. Instead, 1-2 officers will board the bus, check everyone’s IDs, and the whole process will take less than 10 minutes.
They Stop at Markets
The worst part about local bus tours in China is that they always stop at markets and goods shops at the very end. The tours have arrangements with these places too—souvenir shops, electronic stores, jewelry markets, cosmetic boutiques—and the guide can get a cut of the loot their group spends.
To be honest, 95% of the time there’s never anything appealing. The locals, however, may wind up spending hundreds to thousands of Yuan on anything from snacks, ornaments, fabric, and silverware, to sculptures, paintings, and handmade artifacts. And sometimes, it may even be against their will.
There have been occasional stories of ‘forced shopping’ reported by tourists on local bus tours in China. Cases where tourists were berated, threatened, and/or strong-armed into dishing out cash at these shops. I’ve never heard of foreigners experiencing the same situations, but just be careful!
Well, there you have it. Are local bus tours on the Chinese Mainland worthy of the trip? I’d like to think so. I’ve taken numerous local bus tours across China, and whether solo or with friends, I’ve always consider them one of the best cultural immersion adventures you can experience as an expat in the country. In my opinion, as long as you’re equipped with a translation app, are familiar with the itinerary, and always know when and where to meet, then I think you’ll survive.
So go ahead, give it a try. You might just like it after all. Safe & happy travels!
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->