Touring China without a Guide

My husband and I would like to visit Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, Guilin, Yangshuo, Hangzhan and Shanghai. Is it easy to travel between cities on our own or is it better to be in a tour group? We would like to travel by train but are concerned about not reading or speaking the language.

Independent travel in China is doable, even for those who do not speak Chinese. But to pull it off, one must have the stomach for all the issues that come with traveling this way, such as delays, finding one's way around. If you do not have a tight schedule and can be flexible with your trip, and you have that kind of patience and adventurous spirit - you know, the backpack traveler's mentality even if you're not actually having a backpack trip - you can go as independent travelers. On the other hand, if what you're looking for is a carefree, smooth tour of China, then doing-it-all-by-yourselves may not be the way to go.

The main issue in your case is probably the fact that you're planning to visit quite a few cities. If you're visiting just a couple of places, it is quite straightforward thing to do. If, on the hand, you have multiple destinations on your itinerary, making connections among these destinations may not be an easy thing to do.

This said, the situation may not be one where it is either independent travel or a packed tour with a group led by a guide. Some kind of compromise may be possible. For example, the main challenge and difficulty with traveling independently is with transportation, that is, getting flight and train tickets that you need (Train tickets, in particular, may pose a problem as currently they're not available online in any predictable way). Maybe you can have some people to take care of that part of the tour for you, and you can then go on your own trip, knowing that you get to and leave a city on a certain date. With transportation - maybe hotels too - you can enjoy the freedom that comes with traveling independently and still have some certainty in your travel plans. You may be able to find a travel agency that is willing to arrange a tour in this way for you and then let you go on your own trip.

Another possibility, one that involves a little more assistance, is that you have your own guide. That is, instead of joining a tour group and be dragged along with it, you and your husband basically make a group of your own and the guide would accommodate your needs and interests. If you feel like it, you can even go without the guide for a day or an afternoon and then reunite with the guide later. This probably means higher cost, but there are some agencies and guides that are willing to do this kind of tours, to customize your tour and work with you. If you find the right agency and people, traveling like this may not cost a whole lot more.

In short, you have a number of options - to go on your trip all by yourselves, to have an agency arrange transportation (and/or hotels) for you and then go on your trip by yourselves, to make a tour group of your own and take a guide along on the trip, and, lastly, to join a standard packaged tour group.