If you are thinking of traveling independently in China you will find the book "China on Your Own" by Russell Jennings and Michael Kelsey helpful while making your plans.
The revised third edition is packed with maps and includes route suggestions with details on each destination. The bare-budget traveler will find lists of cheap lodging and candid comments on situations you can expect to encounter.
"We do not condone independent travel for everyone," the authors warn. "You must expect to experience a lack of comforts: crowded trains and buses, lack of privacy in some hotels, primitive toilet facilities in many places, crowded restaurants and unabashed stares by curious Chinese onlookers in most places you go."
Fortunately, things have changed for the better since Russell Jennings and his wife, Penny, researched the first edition several years ago. He reports: "More cities are open for the independent traveler and rules about special permits have relaxed."
Hotel Rooms Improved
Russell also found that the quality of available hotel rooms has improved, but this hasn't had much effect on the independent visitor.
"The improvements lean toward additional facilities on the outskirts of cities, which is good for tour groups that have their own transportation. The independent travelers still tend to use the hotels in the inner core, which haven't been experiencing as many changes."
Another point to note is that the black market has strengthened. Tourists can make purchases in special Friendship stores with foreign exchange certificates (tourist money). When Jennings first toured in China he found some Chinese would ask visitors to trade their tourist money at par. Now you are offered an additional 50%.
Dealing on the black market is illegal and when visitors flout laws they damage the reception for future visitors. This also applies to budget travelers who try to cut corners on, for instance, train fares. Tourists pay about 70% more for train tickets than Chinese residents. Some visitors try to get Chinese residents to buy tickets for them, but they're not helping the reputation of budget visitors when they get caught.
You'll still find that patience is your greatest resource, according to the authors who found that for every three days spent in China one day was spent traveling. They gathered their material by traveling hard class (economy) on the trains, booking dormitory rooms where possible and eating in restaurants.
Much updated material was provided by Kelsey, who spent five months traveling China independently in 1984. He had planned to climb China's nine sacred mountains. He visited all but was able to climb only eight. As a result of his experiences, a hiking section was added to this edition, which also includes details on six other mountains and the Great Wall hike.
If you still want to go on your own, here are some other helpful tips from the authors.
You won't have a tour guide to help you with language, so "if seeking a particular tourist site, carry a post card of it or a picture from a brochure and show it around." It's also a wise idea to "request a local person, say a hotel clerk, to write directions or destinations in Chinese."
If you do run into language problems "look around for a young overseas Chinese . . . distinguishable by their bright-colored clothes, modern clothing styles and the type of bags they carry, such as a sports bag."
You'll also find it helpful to have your own chopsticks, reading material in English, which you can exchange with other travelers, and a one-liter water bottle that will not melt when boiling water is poured in. This will allow you to have water at all times, especially on trains.
"China on Your Own" can be bought at retail bookstores or you can order it for $9.95 from Open Road Publishers, P.O. Box 46958, Station G, Vancouver, B.C. V6R 4G8, Canada.