Opinion / From the Readers

Go with a Guide

By Katelyn Sill ( Updated: 2016-10-14 08:56

Many international travelers insist on flying solo, wandering with the wind from town to town. While this option provides a lot of personal freedom, it also comes with limitations. Whereas an individual traveler can choose his/her own itinerary, language barriers (among other things) often limit them to more developed areas of a country.

Take China, for example. When foreigners travel in China, they mainly stick to the large cities: Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Why? Well, it goes deeper than the international notoriety or the tourist sites these locations offer. In cities, there is public transportation, people who speak more than just Chinese (or the local dialect), restaurants, bars, international hotels and so much more! What it all boils down to, though, is a matter of comfort. Only the more adventurous travelers strike out into the wildernesses of rural areas. Those that do, however, quickly realize how much more China has to offer.

To say China is a large country is the understatement of the year. People looking to experience "the real China" should not and cannot limit themselves to the cities. In the cities you only get one piece of the story and usually that piece includes overcrowding, pollution and cliché Instagram posts. So get out of the cities! Get away from the crowded tourist traps and see China's natural beauty. Don't know where to go? Start in Shanxi.

Ask the average Chinese person (non-Shanxi resident) about traveling in Shanxi and they probably won't have a clue what to recommend. This is because not many Chinese tourists actively seek out vacations in Shanxi. It's not because there's nothing to see in Shanxi - definitely not true. Shanxi's allure is more subtle than other, more trendy travel locations in China. It's like an expensive tea served in a simple cup – doesn't look like much but the taste is exquisite.

Northwest Shanxi is comprised of lush, green mountains and valleys. The wrinkled landscape ripples to the horizon, so every time you turn a corner you're faced with a view worthy of a postcard. Ningwu County is home to Luyashan, which is a protected ecological zone (almost like a national park). This makes it an ideal place for hikers or anyone who wants/needs to reconnect with nature. China has many famous mountains, but crowds come with that fame. Luyashan has all of the majesty of Taishan, Huashan or Huangshan, but with a fraction of the population clogging the trails. Furthermore, Luyashan is home to one of China's nine ice caves.

As the name implies, an ice cave is a cave which remains perpetually frozen throughout the year, which includes summer. The cause for such an anomaly is still unknown in the scientific community. The walls are layered with sheets of ice and, rather than stalactites, massive icicles loom overhead. It's something that has to be seen to be believed.

Because it is so far removed from the cities, it can be a challenge for foreign travelers to find their way to Luyashan. That being said, it is not impossible and travelers should not be discouraged from pursuing the opportunity. What's the solution? Hire a local guide. Think of it as an investment rather than an expense. To get the most out of a rural excursion, guides are a must. Not only do they know the best places to visit, they also speak the local dialect which eliminates a lot of travel related stress. It may feel like surrendering some independence, but the amount of information you'll learn from the experience will outweigh and eventually replace any discomfort you may feel initially.

How can you find a good guide for your trip? Start by contacting the largest international travel agency in the area or their corporate headquarters in Beijing. Most, if not all, will have a multilingual staff. Another option is to use internet resources such as Ctrip or Trip Advisor. Couchsurfing also offers a great community of travelers and hosts willing to share their knowledge with others. Of course, most independent travelers already know about these resources yet they don't use them to their full advantage.

Imagine being able to tap into authentic Chinese culture – the kind that hasn't been diluted by Western influences. A guide is the key to this deeper cultural understanding! Having a guide allows you to communicate and connect with the local people in a way you probably couldn't on your own. Conversations are no longer limited to "Ni hao," "Bu yao," or "Xiexie." You can ask questions and actually get answers. Or, hypothetically speaking, should you accidentally trespass into a family's courtyard while exploring a repurposed section of the Great Wall where it runs along the bank of the Yellow River, your guide can help you defuse an uncomfortable confrontation. A potentially negative experience becomes positive as you walk away with a handful of crab apples and a story to tell your friends back home.

Traveling abroad doesn't have to be difficult or frustrating. With a guide at your side you don't have to waste time with guesswork or misunderstandings. Best of all, though, you can gain a better understanding of China. A local guide holds the key to unique places like Luyashan in Shanxi that will set your visit to China apart from all the rest.

The author is an English Teacher of Hangzhou Dianzi University

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