TRAVEL / Through the Bamboo Curtain: Paul Gander on the relative merits of group and independent travel in China

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The Independent Culture
GONE ARE the days when announcing a trip behind the Bamboo Curtain won looks of disbelief or admiration. Now, everyone's aunt or boss has been there or is planning to go. Over the past decade, travellers have been allowed much greater freedom of movement and the tourist infrastructure has expanded, particularly at the pricier end. All travel in China is run by the state- run China International Travel Service (CITS - Peking head office 601 1122) and its agencies. The independent traveller need not follow a CITS itinerary, but may find the services useful.

VISAS

In the UK, visas can be obtained from the Chinese embassy in London (071-636 1835) for pounds 25, though this will be done for you when part of a group tour. Your passport should be valid for at least six months. The China Travel Service (CTS - 071-836 9911) - not to be confused with its sister organisation CITS - offers a visa service with a same-day option for those in a hurry.

GETTING THERE

The greatest single variable in the overall cost of any trip will be the air fare. Air China (071-630 7578) offers a return fare to Peking of pounds 590; with British Airways (081- 897 4000) the return Apex fare is pounds 868. STA travel (071-937 9962) offers a return fare at pounds 599 or pounds 500 for students; Trailfinders (071-938 3366) has a return fare of pounds 649, if departure is before the end of August, returning by 14 September; or pounds 715 from September. From October to January the price returns to pounds 649; Major Travel (071-267 6843) offers a return fare of pounds 615 before October.

ESCORTED PACKAGE TOURS

If you want to see as many of

the 'sights' as possible within two or three weeks - and are willing to pay - then this could be the best approach for you. The luck of the draw dictates who you will spend those weeks with, in terms of the group, the courier and your local Chinese guides.

The well-worn tour route through the east of the country winds from Peking down to Hong Kong by way of the Great Wall, Xian, Shanghai and surrounding cities, then Guilin and Guangzhou. British Airways Holidays (0293 520500), CTS (see above), Cultural Tours (071-636 7906), Hayes & Jarvis (081-748 5050), Kuoni (071-499 8636), The Asia Experience at Rockford Travel (071-636 4343) and Voyages Jules Verne (071-723 5066) offer their own variations. Bales (0306 876881) starts from Hong Kong and works northwards.

If you prefer the Flaming Mountains and the Gobi Desert to the walled gardens of China's east coast, look over some of the Silk Road tours from the north- western province of Xinjiang. Jules Verne will take you by rail from Moscow to Tashkent and then down the Silk Road from Central Asia into China and on to Peking. CTS acclimatises you in Istanbul before flying you on to Urumqi, while Bales flies you to Urumqi from Hong Kong and shows you Xinjiang before tracking back overland towards Xian and Peking. A 23-day trip from trekking specialist Exodus (081- 675 5550) takes a more demanding route to Xinjiang over the Karakorum range from Pakistan.

INDEPENDENT TRAVEL

Since 1983 it has been possible for unaccompanied tourists to travel in China - though Tibet can still only be visited as part of a tour. You can fly direct to Peking, having acquired a visa in London, or arrange everything from Hong Kong. Entry to and exit from China must be by way of Guangzhou, Shanghai or Peking - and a new overland entry point has apparently been opened in Xinjiang.

The authorities may allow independent travel, but they do not make it easy. All the recent investment in the tourist infrastructure has benefited the big tour companies. Some Putonghua (Mandarin) Chinese is an advantage, since many of the people you will have to deal with speak no English and are not used to working with foreigners.

A list of CITS offices will be useful, obtainable from the London China National Tourist Office (number below). Even if you are not going to need local guides, the English-speaking staff will be able to help with tickets and hotels. They will answer inquiries about trains or accommodation, but you will have to resist their efforts to book for you if you don't want to pay their agency fee.

TAILOR-MADE TOURS

As a compromise, you may consider going to a tour operator with a holiday plan of your own; it can be rewarding but costly. Prices vary considerably, but you should expect to pay the cost of a package plus at least a third as much again for the same two-week period.

Companies prepared to work on an itinerary for an individual or a small group to the customer's own specifications include British Airways, CTS, Cultural Tours, Jules Verne, Kuoni and The Asia Experience. Regent Holidays (0272 211711) and Globepost (071- 735 1879) specialise in tailor- made tours. Exodus will consider ideas for groups of eight or more.

Pre-booked transport and accommodation will be included in the cost, but you will pay extra for meals and separate excursions while in China. It is also difficult to make changes to your itinerary once there. But for those who know what they want to see and how they want to see it, this can be the ideal solution.

MONEY

However you travel, you will have to contend with the dual currency system. Foreigners are supposed to change their money into Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) only, while the domestic economy runs on Renminbi (RMB) - the 'people's currency'. Only FECs can be used in government-approved hotels and restaurants. Some travellers take a risk and change their money illegally into RMB in order to use cheaper services, provided for locals rather than tourists. But that is not advisable.

Tapping into non-tourist transport costs is cheaper, but many visitors have found that what they gain in economy travel is taken out of them in energy.

GETTING AROUND

Rail: The central railway station in Peking, a couple of kilometres east of Tiananmen Square, boasts a ticket and information office for foreigners. Train travel divides into 'hard seat', 'hard sleeper', 'soft seat' and 'soft sleeper' categories. The first two are not as unbearable as they sound, though hard-seat carriages tend to be overcrowded. Hard sleeper offers bunk accommodation, and is only a little less comfortable than the more expensive soft sleeper.

The China National Tourist Office in London quotes a fare of pounds 25 (hard sleeper) for the 17-hour train journey from Peking to Shanghai. The equivalent air fare would be pounds 49. These are official prices, but if you have the necessary RMB and can get a Chinese to buy your ticket for you, costs will be drastically reduced.

Air: In Peking, information about flights out of the capital can be obtained from the Air China desk at the airport (Peking 601 7755). It is more difficult with planes than with trains to avoid the extra fares charged to foreigners. Do not underestimate the difficulties in travelling without pre-booking. Book your departure when you arrive in a place, even if you are planning to stay for several days. Otherwise you may find that internal flights (and also trains) to your chosen destination are full. You can then spend days waiting for a seat.

INFORMATION

For general information or individual brochures, contact the China National Tourist Office, 4 Glentworth Street, London NWI (071-935 9427).-

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