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How to Make the Most of Your China Tour Guide

Your tour guides will make a positive difference to your holiday. Here’s how to make the best of them. The following tips particularly apply to China Highlights tour guides. Other China guides may not be up to the same standard, or be so accommodating and helpful.

Anecdotes are from China Highlights customers Andy and Lynne Buddin's travels in China.

Top Tips for Getting the Best from Your Guide

Phoebe & Lynne at Panda Centre, ChengduGuide Phoebe and customer Lynne with the pandas in Chengdu
Be honest — There’s no point telling your guide you’d love to climb a mountain if you really can’t manage.

Tell them your likes/dislikes and needs — They are your personal guides, so, within reason, they can tailor make what you do, exactly to your needs. E.g., if you want to take loads of pictures, that will impact on how long you’re at each place. They need to know.

Go with the flow, take a risk — don’t panic if your Guide deviates from the itinerary. See example below.

Take their advice — it will save you time and money. With other guides a seemingly pleasant restaurant recommendation may be because the guide will get some form of payback. Here, with China Highlights guides, it is because the guide regularly gets good feedback from there. See story below.

Ask questions — you have their undivided attention, with no need to worry about asking something that you have always wondered, but not asked just in case it seems silly — there’s only you to hear.

Learn the lingo, use them to help you — you’ll never get a better chance.

Great Opportunities for Cultural Exchange... and Friendship

Guilin guide and customers Guilin guide Lele and customers

It is OK to ask if they would keep in contact if you got on well, we are still email friends with Phoebe from 2012 and Lele from 2014.

Try and teach them a thing or two, although it’s hard — Phoebe and Lele were so fluent in English, so instead we taught them some Cockney rhyming slang and Geordie phrases, plus new terms like selfie and onesie. Maybe you know some history to do with tour, the guides we’ve met were always happy to gain knowledge.

China Highlights guides are multitalented and multilingual, well, at least bilingual. Most of them can speak Chinese and English, but also have dialects of the local minority groups too. The strangest thing we heard was a Chinese guide speaking Italian to his guests. But as China is now opening out to the rest of the world, it is going to become more frequent to hear all languages at tourist spots.

What a China Highlights Guide is:

  • A security guard to keep you safe — even crossing the road in China can be taking your life in your hands!
  • A weather forecaster
  • Your translator — having learnt English from age 5, and practiced for many years. See when this was helpful.
  • Hawkers bouncer — your guide can politely tell sellers that they are wasting their time if you don’t want it. See below for a related story.
  • Restaurateur
  • Facts machine — they train for 4 years to be a guide.
  • A storyteller
  • Flexible
  • Helpful — many China Highlights guides have gone the extra mile more than once to help customers get what they want.

What a China Highlights Guide is NOT!

  • He is not on an easy gig — this is hard work!
  • Psychic — with the best will in the world, if you don’t tell him/her, they won’t know! See our example.
  • NOT your personal haggler: they will advise you, translate for you, but they will probably leave you to negotiate. They don’t know how much you can afford, or how much the trader can afford to let it go for.
  • NOT there to be abused.
  • Do NOT push them to speak of things they show discomfort in talking about, e.g. The Tian'anmen Square student incident. There are still a few subjects that people are advised not to discuss, and it’s unfair to put them into an awkward position. Ask questions by all means, but if you receive a polite refusal, that should be the end to it.
  • Do NOT ask them to do anything illegal, or immoral.

Good Guiding Examples

Example of When Guides Deviating from the Itinerary is a Good Thing

Lele shows Lynne the 20 Yuan note picture for real, River Li, Guilin Lele shows Lynne the 20 Yuan note picture for real

Europeans are noted for wanting to stick rigidly to the itinerary, as unfortunately we have all been on some dodgy tour where you missed the thing you signed up for, or they rushed you round everything to finish early. Even worse is being taken somewhere extra, where a high-pressure salesman gave the guide commission if his guests bought a carpet, say. China Highlights' NO SHOPPING policy stops this, but that’s not to say you can’t ask your guide to add a shopping trip for something that you DO want to shop for. This way you have the best of both worlds!

Your guide may change the itinerary around if the weather is not suitable for an attraction. For example, if it's raining in the morning, your guide may move your museum visit forward, allowing you to climb a mountain in the afternoon when (hopefully) it's fine/better.

Lele changed our tour schedule round am. to pm. the day we went to the caves. Now with me being a menopausal woman with ginger hair and fair skin who suffers terribly in outdoor heat, I was looking forward to the cool caves in the afternoon. But he changed it knowing we took video and that the atmosphere when all the coach trips get there would have been ruined by so many people talking. Instead we had beautiful video of ballet music while filming the cave called Swan Lake.

Translating to Save Trouble

Lele speaks dialect to a rice terrace farmerLele speaks dialect to a rice terrace farmer

Lele, our guy in Guilin, may have averted an airport evacuation when I accidentally left an item on the plane; there was no way I was going to attempt to explain to airport security.

Learning Chinese

Later in the holiday Lele taught me 1–10 in hand speak so I could negotiate with the locals.

Story of a Good Guide-Recommended Restaurant

In Guilin, our Guide Lele recommended Cloud 9 Restaurant, the food standard was high, price low, and toilets clean, the staff were nice, helped us choose, learn a little Chinese and the menu was in English with photos.

We went there the first night, and it was so good we never ate anywhere else. The added bonus was that because it was upstairs we could watch all the street theatre and music in the market area, but weren’t bothered by hawkers. The restaurant even did a Chinese cooking school. Now that’s what I call a recommendation!

Heed Good Advice on What to Wear

If your Guide says, “Maybe for tomorrow you need a thicker coat, hat and gloves,” then take the hint and bring them! We felt fine that day, we’re from N.E. England. Overnight it snowed, and there was a foot lying on the ground. It was 10% colder than the day before. There were people walking the Wall wearing flip-flops and platform shoes. Crazy! Obviously their tour company’s guides hadn’t cared enough to advise THEIR guests.

Persistent Great Wall Hawkers Story

Percy, Lynne & Andy on the Great Wall of ChinaGuide and customers on the Great Wall

One freezing November day we were one of very few visitors to the Great Wall and were followed by 2 ladies with full bags of goods, we had water and snacks and said no, but they still followed us for an hour. Our guide politely told them we didn’t want anything, they followed anyway.

As we sat for a rest, they showed us their full range; we ended up buying a book of The Great Wall photographs in different seasons, taken by her Nephew. Having negotiated a price she then said “no change” and I had to buy postcards instead. That still didn’t get rid of them as they had walked so far it was easier to continue on, down the steps, to the restaurant we ate in and her family owned.

In the end we grew used to our companions, learnt some Chinese and one helped me down the stairs, a bit embarrassing as she was 20 years older than me but she didn’t want me to slip on any ice. It was very sweet of her; I guess she hasn’t traveled to the North East of England!

We bought a large landscape photo of the Wall at sunset displayed in their gallery, also a delicately painted snuff bottle and a T-shirt. They may not have had many visitors that day but they certainly made the most of us.

An Example of Letting Guides Know What You Want

Percy makes a pointBeijing guide Percy makes a point

Realising this was quite a good ice breaker, and to be sure to get what we wanted, each time we met a new guide we told them:

“Hello, I’m Lynne, this is Andy, my husband. We like to see everything on the itinerary, but you are the local and might have to alter the order of things. We like to take hundreds of photos but would also like you to take some with us both in please. We like to try local Chinese food but can’t eat things very hot, we like to sit in the shade because I burn easily and Andy would like it if you could ask for a knife and fork, as he can’t use chopsticks. Lynne has a disability where she needs the toilet a lot, so please point them out to us. We would like to learn some simple Chinese please.”

Going the Extra Mile

Keltze, Tibetian Guide in Summer GardensKeltze the Tibet Guide and customers

Keltze in Tibet helped us in the bank to withdraw cash from dollars traveller’s cheques (never take advice from 10 year old guide books!). This meant waiting an hour in his time after the tour. The 4 hotels we‘d been in wouldn’t cash them and we had run out of money. We would never have understood the system without him.

Phoebe took us across Chengdu by bus to find the local football team for Andy. Most stores only stock Chinese sizes S and XS. She looked it up on the Internet to find somewhere that stocked 3XL.

Cherish your China Highlights Guide, because they’re worth it!

Leon Lion Tour OrganiserTour Organiser Leon in Guilin
Find out the China Highlights tour guide difference by taking a tour.

The travel experts in the office are also well worth getting the most of at the booking stage. China Highlights staff specialise in designing trips to customer requirements. Before you even step foot in China let them know exactly what you want.

Further Reading