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Lynne and Andy Buddin are three-time China Highlights customers with plenty of experience traveling around China. Lynne gives her frank assessment of disabled persons' travel prospects in China after her most recent trip this year ...
I was hoping to write a positive article about disabled people visiting China, as I am a “glass half full” sort of girl, but also get told I can be too honest for my own good. Both my husband and I have 16 years’ experience taking disabled people to places and activities in the UK.
Unfortunately, a positive article is just not possible, sorry. (But disabled travel is still possible... read on.)
Being disabled, especially if that means you are in a wheelchair would be very difficult, in fact, in some places, nigh on impossible — unless someone took a giant iron to the place: everywhere has steep steps and uneven surfaces. I would advise anyone thinking of going to do so around 40–50, while you are still fit, as it is hard work on your hips and knees, never mind if you are trying to negotiate China in a wheelchair.
Pavements are often uneven, except in big cities, and sometimes are just made of dirt so it would be really hard to push someone in a wheelchair, especially when it’s wet.
Health and Safety is quite new to China, if there is work being done outside, there might be huge holes and a gangplank to walk over. It’s not that people don’t care — if you were struggling then most probably people around would get together and literally carry someone in their chair over any obstacle, it’s just that they don’t have any experience with people with disabilities. Just like the elders, someone with a disability would normally be looked after by the family, at home.
Also the difference in cultures means that there are less people with walking disabilities like needing a stick, or a walker, as the elderly keep more active for longer. Once they have grandchildren they are kept fit running around after them, while their parents work.
Then they also have the “free gym” in the form of the public park. Exercise keeps everyone fit and healthy, so again, there is little experience. Having said that, the parks are one of the only places we did regularly see people in wheelchairs, as there always seems to be a good deal of flat ground in the parks, even in mountainous regions. See China's Park Life.
Hotels and tourist spots are slowly getting there. China Highlights' Disabled travel page has a list of disabled friendly places. But sometimes you may find that although a disabled toilet is clearly marked with a wheelchair logo outside, it is often a step up.
This may seem ludicrous to us in the UK but in China, unless the architect has a disabled relative, the step issue would not cross their mind — toilets in China are mostly up a step. The handrails are useful, but unless you can manage to transfer from your chair to the toilet seat, you still can’t use it. I’m aware not everyone who is disabled uses a wheelchair, but it’s vital you know what you could be up against before you travel.
Most toilets in China are squat toilets, so even finding a Western one may be a challenge in some places. Plan your itinerary for suitable rest stops if you would struggle squatting.
As for the people I look after, who I push wheelchairs for, there are only a few toilets in China that have enough room to accommodate two people in a cubicle at a time, because the door is usually flush to the toilet bowl, except for room for your knees. Some older toilets don’t even have doors!
Most airport toilets are very good, especially the ones at Chengdu Airport, but these were built within the last 3 years, lessons have been learned, and they are in a spacious room, on one level, and fitted with support rails and a pull cord alarm.
We quite often found disabled toilets used as store rooms, as it is perceived they don’t get used very much, so “Why not?" This happens in the UK too, sometimes the hoover or supplies are kept in there, but we saw an extreme version in Mount Emei, where it looked like a building site, with bricks and rubble in it!
I think China could use a Toilet Advisor. I’m willing to volunteer my services (for a liveable wage). I’m an expert in this field, and I believe it will boost tourism if I manage a toilet revolution. Does anyone know someone in the Chinese Government that I could speak too?
In some tourist spots they have what they call ”wheelchair taxis” — a sedan chair where you are carried by two strapping porters, on a chair, with bamboo poles that they carry on their shoulders.
I paid 80 yuan (about 8 pounds) at Shibaozhai to go about 300 steps up a mountain in the blazing sunshine. Those men really earned their money, and a tip. I felt completely safe and didn’t look all sweaty in the photos. It was my birthday so I felt justified. But this shows that times are changing, that allowances are being made, even if you have to pay.
If you are determined to ascend one of China's popular tourist mountains you may be able to book sedan chairs in advance. Contact us.
Several tourist places have cable cars to get up mountains, like at the beautiful Yellow Mountains, but although the safety video shows a wheelchair user getting into a large gondola and applying her brakes, it did not show you how she managed at the cable car base. When we got out, we had to walk down about 6 flights of steps to the ground.
The Beihai Hotel, on the Yellow Mountains, which we stayed in, had 4 floors, but no lift. But that somehow seems ok, because to get to the hotel you have to climb for 1 ½ hours up the mountain steps, so, really, you must be capable of climbing 4 floors once you get there.
Another thing you would have to deal with is the fact that people will stare. Now China almost specializes in minorities. They have 55 different minority peoples who live in the country, and then all the different tourists...
As white Europeans, Andy and I get starred at, pointed at and our photos taken, with our permission or without, all the time. This is because we are seen as some kind of “oddity”. I have ginger hair, which doesn’t occur in China, well not naturally anyway, and my husband’s very tall and his hair is white, as this too is unusual, it causes locals to look. And you will likely get this because of your disability.
Try to remember this is a cultural thing, to stare in China is not considered rude. It is certainly not done with any bad feeling. In our experience a smile or wave back does the trick. Once they are sure you don’t mind, they usually pluck up the courage to ask for a selfie with them. They are just as likely to be asking for a photo because you are white as they are intrigued about other differences.
If all this has made you angry, then good! What I mean is, that you will need to have a determined spirit to not let your disability beat you.
If you do come to China, even in the big cities you would be somewhat of an innovator, which could prove to be very frustrating for you. And the trouble is, if you also don’t speak the language, communicating what you want, could be all the more frustrating.
Despite the difficulties you will no doubt meet, China is a fascinating place, so, if you like a challenge, go right ahead. Be that innovator, break down barriers, give Chinese people a chance and your experience will benefit travelers in the future.
I wish you the very best of luck.
My advice would be to go for a China Highlights individual tour so you have your own guide. I would travel with someone who understands your needs.
Maybe stick to the larger cities and known tourist spots.
Be honest with your tour advisor before you go. If your expectations are nowhere near the same, you are likely to come back unfulfilled. You can check details of your itinerary, so you should not find yourself in the position of being one the 4th floor of a hotel with no lift, if you cannot manage stairs.
So much of China is ancient; you may find yourself unable to do some of each tour. Look up the reviews from disabled customers themselves. You will have to weigh up if you think you can access enough to still make it a good holiday.
If you go with an able-bodied companion, and are willing to compromise so that you both get the most out of the trip, much is possible.
For example, if your wife is able-bodied, you could do what you can together. But if you are ok for your wife to go off with the guide, say up a pergoda, you could stay at the bottom having a cup of tea and take a photo of her waving at you when she gets to the top.
We know of someone who was recovering from a heart attack whose husband did a mountain tour. But she organized a golf buggy to take her to the top of the hill, where she spent a gentle hour shopping. Then, before waiting for the buggy to return, she sat in the shade with a cold drink, and said she enjoyed just watching the world go by.
On another, we saw one game OAP who walked with two sticks, but was determined to go on the tour which involved a ¼ mile walk along a wobbly wooden bridge. She just used it as an excuse to ask a handsome man to take her arm!
I have two friends who use mobility scooters, both find that cruises are the way to go. They can easily get around on board, liners have even floors and lifts, and the cruise means they move to a new place daily without the trouble of flights. (Both however are able to transfer from their scooter to a chair, or bed themselves).
I know that Victoria Ships' Yangtze River Cruises will pull out all the stops to help disabled passengers. Provided they know when the booking is made, they can organize help with baggage and assistance with walking the pontoon. You just need to ask.
China Highlights has information and advice on what to research, airline regulations for mobility aids, a list of sites with disabled facilities, travel preparations, and disabled traveler feedback. See Tips for Disabled Travelers to China.