We didn’t find notable regional food or restaurants on our two-week China tour. Instead, we found ourselves trying to stay healthy and enjoy the food we ate. Here’s some background, our experience, and some tips.
Our tour included meals and was arranged by a Chinatown travel agency. We started the trip in a group of 16 while visiting Beijing and Xian; then we left the group for a private tour (for two) of Lhasa, Chengdu, and Guilin. Preparing for the trip, we read traveler reviews complaining about food on tours arranged by Chinatown travel agencies. We considered excluding dinners for our private tour. The agency said that the dinners cost so little that we’d be better off with the tour dinners and occasionally buying our own food. We did this, and it worked pretty well, after we learned some unwritten rules and managed the relationship with our tour guides.
To understand how tour food works, here’s a little about the travel agency, regional tour operators, and tour guides. Before the tour we worked with a Chinatown travel agency to plan and customize our trip. The travel agency coordinated with four regional tour operators in China to contract for our trip. The tour operator provides the tour services (guide, driver, car, hotels, flights, admissions, etc.). Depending on the regional tour operator, the tour guide can determine the food served on the tour.
Our meals in China can be grouped into these categories:
- Hotel breakfasts. Breakfast is the first meal of the day, and usually the high point. Most hotels had a buffet breakfast, and all buffet breakfasts were all very good to excellent, with a wide assortment of Chinese and Western dishes. We liked soup noodles, sauteed Chinese vegetables, omelet, croissants, juice, coffee, and whatever else looked good. The Guilin Shangri-La served custom-made crepes! When we left for an early flights before the buffet opened, we got disappointing bag breakfasts of yogurt, stale pastry, and fruit. In Yangshuo we stayed in the small inn with only a cook-to-order breakfast that was pretty good.
- Restaurant and dishes selected by the tour operator. For lunches and dinners in Beijing and Xian and dinners in Guilin, the tour operator arranged set meals in restaurants catering to tours. In Xian we had a buffet lunch and dinner that were okay. Buffets are good because you can eat as much of the dishes you like. You can’t do this for the served tour meals, which have 7-9 courses of food that the Chinese thought that Chinese Americans would like: fried fish, sweet and sour pork, watery soup, vegetables, etc. There were a few dishes we liked, but it’s not polite to take more than your share before everyone at the 8-person table serves themselves. The dishes were monotonous, the same for lunch and dinner. A Beijing duck dinner was at a well-known restaurant, but at a branch catering to tour groups. The duck was so-so — the skin was soft instead of crispy. We saw other branches with a crowd of Chinese waiting outside, so the food has to be much better at those branches. Our first dinner in Guilin was at a hotel serving only tours, with a preset menu. It was just like the tour meals in Beijing and Xian. 😦
- Leave the tour and eat on your own. We joined cousin Bob in Beijing for the Great Wall, a hutong walk, and two delicious lunches. We ate at a fish farm near the Great Wall and at a restaurant specializing in Mongolian dumplings — delicious, cheap ($4 pp), and much more food than we could eat. That evening we skipped the tour dinner and found something light, Ajisen ramen. It wasn’t as good as in California (much leaner broth and less meat), but it was cheaper, about $7 a bowl. This was in an expensive mall on the Wangfujing. If you leave the group away from your hotel, you’re responsible for getting back to your hotel. When the hotel is located near lots of shops and stores, walking is great. Hailing a taxi in Beijing was very difficult.
- Guide chooses the restaurant. In Lhasa and Chengdu, the tour operator provided the guide with a small food budget, and the guide is responsible for feeding us and staying within the budget. Our tour food was much better than in Beijing and Xian! In Lhasa, the tour guide chose the restaurant, and we picked a soup, entree, and drink from the menu. Suffering from altitude sickness, we chose Nepalese food (biryani and naan), skipping local delicacies like yak and yak butter. In Chengdu, the guide chose the restaurants to keep within the budget, and he ordered the meal for himself, the driver, and us. We really enjoyed the shared food.
- Tour operator chooses restaurant and guide chooses food. In Guilin and Yangshuo, the restaurants were chosen by the tour operator, but after the first dinner we got the guide to select dishes for us instead of the preset menu. When our guide chose the dishes, we had lots of food, mostly vegetables and not much meat (expensive). We were happy. Our last meal was in a restaurant at the Guilin airport. Other travelers said they had a bad meal there (probably the preset meal), but our guide ordered a meal that was delicious and more than we could finish. Here’s a picture of our lunch near Guilin. We paid extra for the sticky rice cooked in bamboo (behind the rice).
- Airline food in China. We rode a least three different Chinese airlines. All served hot meals. I didn’t know always what I was eating, but the food was warm, and I finished several meals. The airline food was better than expected, and sure beats the drinks served on US domestic flights.
- Enjoy your buffet breakfast. It’s very good and dependable. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
- China tour operators can select restaurants based on business relationships. The tour operators in Beijing, Xian, and Guilin chose restaurants based on business relationships. Watch out for places that serve only tours.
- Engage the guide and be clear. For our first dinner in Guilin, they drove us a half hour to a hotel serving only tour groups, where we were served the usual cheap dishes that the Chinese think that Chinese Americans eat (tasteless soup, fried fish, sweet and sour, etc.). We complained to the guide right after the meal, asking for dishes like kung pao chicken that she and the driver ate. After that, the guide ordered delicious, homestyle dishes for us, except for the Li River cruise, where the kitchen is limited and all passengers have the same lunch.
- Go off on your own as opportunities arise. The tour group travels by bus, and the bus often goes directly to the restaurant without stopping at the hotel. We only left the group for a meal with cousin Bob or when the group left for a dinner from the hotel. Restaurants in China are much less expensive than restaurants in California.
- In China, you get what you pay for. We haven’t heard complaints about the food on tours from mainstream companies such as Tauck and Geo Expeditions. Those tours cost more than ours.
- Serving utensils. Food is served family style. Restaurants don’t bring out serving utensils. Rather than have everyone serve themselves with their chopsticks, we asked for serving utensils. We didn’t get colds on our China trip, just some altitude sickness in Tibet. Much better than our previous trip to China, where almost everyone caught a cold.
We enjoyed our China trip and stayed pretty healthy. These are our lessons learned.