Travel writer Kerry van der Jagt busts some of the common myths about group travel. Group travel is really not as bad as people really think it is.
The old man leans forward, his hand trembling as he signs the book I’ve just bought at the Terracotta Warrior museum just outside of Xian. It says “Yang Xinman – the man who discovered the warriors”, translates my guide.
While others are lining up to buy fridge magnets and postcards, our guide has lead our group to a quiet corner to meet the farmer who discovered the entombed warriors when he was drilling a well on his land in 1974. In that instant every doubt I ever had about group tours vanished – over the following days, every myth was busted.
Myth – You can’t interact with the locals
Busted – If meeting Yang Xinman was the highlight of my trip to Xian, playing an impromptu game of table tennis, in the shadow of the ancient city wall with a group of locals, was a close second. Xian is a compact city, with much to offer besides the Terracotta Warriors and, with a two-night stay, there was plenty of time to meet locals. I rode a bike around the ancient city wall, joined locals for early morning tai chi and wandered the streets of the Muslim Quarter at leisure.
Myth – There’s no opportunity to explore on your own
Busted – With a free evening in Xian, several people from our group took the advice of our guide and made a booking for a dumpling banquet at De Fa Chang Restaurant. Popular with locals, this restaurant is unusual in that its dumplings are in the shape of barnyard animals; ducks, geese, swans, piglets, chickens – even turtles, corn and walnuts. There’s no way I would ever have found such a place on my own.
Myth – you can’t have an authentic experience
Busted –After a morning spent climbing the Great Wall our guide suggested a foot massage – but not just any old massage – one at the Beijing Traditional Chinese Medical Research Center. In an attempt to preserve Chinese culture the centre offers free massages and pulse and tongue diagnosis on selected days throughout the month. I’m not sure if poking my tongue out at a Chinese professor counts as authentic, but it was certainly a highlight.