In October 2017 I had the opportunity to try out a company I have been yearning to try for so long, G Adventures! After having done many Contiki tours, this was going to be my first time trying a smaller group travel company known to specialise in backpacker worthy experiences.
Who are G Adventures?
Previously known as GAP, this tour company specialise in authentic travel experiences with a focus on sustainability. With one of the largest networks of tours in the world, G offer tours anywhere from Mongolia to the Middle East to Antarctica and have many different types of touring options to suit any type of traveler. As part of their programs, G Adventures include home-stays and offer local living activities which give back to the local communities they visit. When on a G tour, you will never stay at a chain hotel, as they make sure to employ local companies at all times. The award winning tour company has also started a number of projects in conjunction with Planeterra to improve the lives of locals in third world countries. One example is the Women on Wheels project in India which has provided jobs for many female drivers and provides a safe travel option for local women.
Shoestring tour: what is it about?
Shoestring tours are specifically designed for 18-to-thirty-something’s who are looking for a budget touring option. Public transport and overnight sleeper trains are utilised and accommodation varies in each country from hostel accommodation to budget hotels. No meals or activities are generally included but can be added on for an extra cost.
I took part in half of the Ultimate China on a Shoestring (pictured), which is separated into three parts. The complete tour goes for 28 days which covers all of the must see highlights of the country. I joined the tour at the beginning in Hong Kong and went to Yangshuo, Chengdu, Shaolin/Mount Song and finished up in Beijing.
Day 1-5 : Hong Kong to Yangshuo
Our first day was an arrival day, with a meeting at 6pm to go over the details of the trip with our local guide Daki. We headed off the following morning with our backpacks on and caught a metro to Shenzhen to cross the border into mainland China. Once past the strict customs officers, we hopped on another metro to get to the main train station in Northern Shenzhen to catch our a bullet train to Guilin. Here we had a private transfer to take us to beautiful Yangshuo.
In Yangshuo we had a plethora of optional activities to choose from so it was lucky we had three nights here. On our first day we did a tour to a tea plantation and walked up a mountain for glorious views of the limestone cliffs. In the afternoon some of us opted for a Chinese cooking class which turned out to be some of the best food we ate the whole trip. *pats self on back.
Our second day saw us on a cycling tour through the countryside which took us to Moon Hill – famous for its natural arch – before lunch at a local families restaurant and then onto a cave where we bathed in mud and natural hot springs. In the afternoon we took a motorised rafting trip up Li River followed by an Impressions light show.
Our final day we had a Tai Chi class with a local Tai Chi master in the morning before setting off to the train station to head towards Chengdu on our first overnight train.
Day 6-8: Chengdu
After the unique experience overnight on the Chinese sleeper chain, we arrived to Chengdu and grabbed the metro to our hotel, which was situated on a beautiful street lined with buildings of ancient Chinese architecture. That afternoon Daki took us to a market place in Kuan and Zhai Alley known for unique shopping and interesting/disturbing cuisine.
That night, a few of us went with Daki to a traditional hot pot restaurant before heading out to Lan Kwai Fong, a street along the river lined with bars and clubs. An interesting experience inside the club with locals playing a common dice game and the bartenders amping up the crowd by climbing around the bar giving each other shots or setting things alight.
Our second day in Chengdu started with a visit to the Panda Base Research Centre to see them feeding in the morning. Then we ventured to Leshan to see the world’s largest stone buddha carving.
On our last day, we had the morning free and some of us decided to head to the People’s Park. Filled with not only beautiful flora, lakes and structures but locals doing anything from Tai Chi to dance classes, band or choir practice and Kung Fu. Then onto the metro again and through the routine security check-points to board our overnight train to Luoyang.
Day 9-11: Mount Song & Shaolin Temple
We arrived into Luoyang early in the morning and decided to chip in extra for a private transfer instead of waiting hours for our public bus. We hiked up a fair way to our local guesthouse inside the Shaolin Temple area and then had free time. In the afternoon we utilised our included entry into the famous temple and home of Kung Fu then were free to wander to other attractions or simply watch the kids in the Kung Fu School train.
Our group then had a full day of hiking up Mount Song, walking on paths hanging off the side of the rocky columned mountains, with epic views over the valley. Afterwards, a Kung-Fu master attempted to teach us his skills (but was less than impressed with our efforts).
The following day we departed Shaolin Temple and headed for the Longmen Grottoes. This UNESCO site houses up to 100,000 Buddha carvings dating back from 400AD. Then back to the train station for our overnight train to Beijing.
Day 12-13: Beijing
We arrived bright and early and those of us ending the tour in Beijing opted for a tour to the Great Wall. The other group who were doing the full 28 days would get an included tour to the wall on their last day in Beijing. Whilst it was raining and you could hardly see 50 metres in front of you through the mist, it was incredible to see this New Wonder of the World in such a haunting way, with little crowds and engulfed in cloud.
And just like that it was our last official night on the tour, so Daki took us all to try peking duck, a famous dish in Beijing. The following day the new group were doing an optional day tour to some hot spots across Beijing and we were able to tag along. Daki took us to the Forbidden City, then to a wealthy area in Beijing that resembled more of a slum area. We had a short rick-shaw ride around this area before we met a ‘cricket-fighter’ who literally battled crickets against each other for a living. It’s a really popular sport for Chinese punters apparently. We had lunch here and then the tour was over.
I really enjoyed all the activities we did on the tour and the group we had. I wholeheartedly believe it is worth every cent for people traveling on a budget. China is really difficult to get around on your own so without being on a tour, I would have definitely struggled. And the unique experiences such as sleeping on the overnight trains and visiting places I would never have even known about was invaluable.
Although I did have some reservations about it.
For one, it was a lot of walking with our heavy backpacks on and that’s without including the 40 minute metro rides we would take after each bullet or sleeper train, of which, we would be standing the whole time. We also spent a lot of time just waiting around train stations.
What annoyed me most though is some things that could have been included in the tour which wouldn’t have raised the cost of the tour but made our experience much easier. For example, the private transfer from Luoyang to Shaolin Temple which only cost us all about $2AUD per person. We had a public bus transfer included in the tour price, but had to wait hours for that because we arrived at 5am. How cheap would the public bus have been then? I just didn’t quite understand why they couldn’t include things like this that would make life a lot easier for us (and I would not mind paying an extra $2, hell even $10 in the tour price for that convenience).
Another was the guide. Whilst Daki was lovely and very knowledgable, we often had to squeeze information out of her. She was very quiet and reserved so this was probably just her nature, but some talks on the history of places we were going to would have added more to the experience.
I guess having been on many other tours where the guides were outgoing and always feeding us information, this was very different. However, this was Daki’s last G Adventures tour before she was to go back to study, so maybe she just didn’t care anymore?
This was especially frustrating on our optional ‘day tours’ where she seemed to just hire a car and driver and take us to places herself (Bike tour in Yangshuo, Chengdu Panda Base, Leshan Buddha, Great Wall of China). This would have been fine if it was the cheapest option, but it made me question if some of our money was going to her and yet we weren’t getting the proper tour guide experience from her. At the great wall that really upset me, as we saw other groups with their guide getting talks on different parts of the wall and the history, when our guide was sitting at Subway whilst we explored alone. For such an iconic site, I would have loved to learn more about it.
In saying this, the following day at the Forbidden City she did a lengthy speech to our group once inside and I learnt a lot about the history there and still remember so many interesting stories she told. But that was the only time she had done so.
If you want to know my thoughts on China in general, you can read all about my tips (and warnings) for traveling in China in my recent post, where I pretty much spill about everything I didn’t like or was grossed out by.
On sale, this tour could be snatched up for around $1,300AUD which comes down to only $100 a day. Granted no meals were included, it was all very basic accommodation and getting around by public transport, but for China this was still a great price.
The hotels were pretty good, considering it was on a shoestring budget. The local guesthouse in Mount Song was an experience, with no bathroom door for our tiny wet room bathroom and in Chengdu the bathroom door was replaced with a curtain. But they were all clean, had adequate facilities and had character which I loved. Some of the beds were a bit hard but hey, for the price, we weren’t going to be sleeping in a cloud.
The whole trip was a once in a lifetime experience and it was perfect to be able to fit so much into a small amount of time. Seeing so much in just two weeks, I witnessed so much diversity in this country thanks to G and loved their travel style of ‘living like a local’.
Would I do a G again? Absolutely! I have already booked my next trip. I loved the cultural aspect of it and the price couldn’t be beat. A few little tweaks here and there and it would have been perfect, so lets see what the next one has in store.
Have you completed a trip with G Aventures? What did you think?