The Real Deal: Ongoing travel photography workshops, 14 nights' accommodations, sightseeing, most meals, two flights, an overnight train ride, and private bus transportation within China, for $3,400 per person — including taxes.
When: Oct. 13-27, 2008
The fine print: The services of a tour guide, admission fees, hotel taxes, and most meals (13 breakfasts, one lunch, eight dinners) are included. Based on double occupancy; single supplement is $550. A one-month single entry visa ($50 per person) is required for U.S. citizens and must be obtained from a Chinese embassy or consulate prior to travel. Participants must arrange their own international airfare and supply their own digital camera. The trip is limited to 8 people. If this particular itinerary fills up, be sure to check out the complete listing of Asia photo tours.
Book by: No deadline; based on availability.
Contact: Grasshopper Adventures, 224/588-8039, grasshopperadventures.com
Why it's a deal: Besides the reasonable pricing, this trip is about participating in an enriching experience: journeying through remote parts of China in a small group led by two experienced guides familiar with the area's culture. Consider that the $3,400 rate breaks down to $243 per night and covers accommodations, transportation, sightseeing, most meals, and photography instruction.
Trip details: The Silk Road Photography Tour begins in Xi'an with a three-night stay at the Bell Tower Hotel — a large, Westerner-friendly hotel in the city center — and a welcome dumpling banquet. You'll spend time wandering around the artists' quarter and the Ming dynasty city walls, and take a day trip to see the famed terra-cotta warriors (good for some still life photography practice) and to browse Muslim markets.
A quick flight brings you to Jiayuguan for a two-night stay at the Great Wall Hotel and a visit to a crumbling section of the Great Wall in the desert (the focus here will be on landscape photography). Then you'll ride through the desert in a private bus to Dunhuang, where the Dunhuang Hotel will be your base for two nights.
After gaping at cave art in the nearby Mogao Grottoes, you'll board an overnight train to Turpan. You'll spend an afternoon exploring the desert and soaking up views of the Flaming Mountains and the domes of an 18th-century mosque, and then check in to the Turpan Hotel for the night. The next morning, you'll head out to see the ruins of an ancient desert settlement and the surrounding lanes, which are traveled by farmers, often with donkey carts.
You'll hop on the bus again and drive to Ürümqi to catch a flight to Kashgar, which the folks at Grasshopper Adventures describe as "the quintessential Silk Road desert trading town" thanks to its convergence of cultures and peoples, among them, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uighurs. The Seman Hotel will be your base for three nights.
While staying in Kashgar, you'll take a long, winding drive to Lake Karakul, set among the snowcapped mountains that border Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. You'll sleep in a yurt on the edge of the lake, and then wake early to catch the sunrise. The following day, back in Kashgar, you'll browse and snap photos of the Sunday bazaar and conclude with a traditional Uighur banquet. For more details on the tour and how to prepare and pack, read Grasshopper Adventures' Trip Notes.
Trip guides: The tour is led by China guidebook writer Simon Foster and by professional photographer Ewen Bell, winner of Australian Society of Travel Writers' 2007 Travel Photographer of the Year award.
The hands-on photography discussions are organized by theme, including capturing intimacy and expression, using light for dramatic effect, shooting for context, portraiture and digital techniques. Participants work at their own level, and each day of shooting is followed by a discussion of the results and experience.
To learn more about Ewen Bell, the workshops, and the trip, visit his Web site, where you can download a podcast and get caught up in his stunning photos from recent trips.
Getting to China: International airfare is not included and, as the trip begins in Xi'an and ends in Kashgar (airport name: Kashi), coordinating the air travel will take some legwork and likely involve a multicity fare. We did a quick search on Kayak for flights arriving in Xi'an and departing from Kashgar in mid-late October and found these fares: $1,466 from San Francisco, $1,480 from L.A., $1,523 from New York City, $1,755 from Chicago, and $1,773 from Houston (all on multiple carriers—and with multiple stops).
Grasshopper Adventures recommends that participants fly into Xian and then out of a larger city like Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu, and that they extend the trip by spending a few days in the city of choice. Whichever route you choose, it's worth doing some price comparisons: ask Grasshopper Adventures to quote you rates, price out a multicity fare using sites like kayak.com and cathaypacific.com, and scout out flights within China on sites like dragonair.com (one of China's many low-cost carriers).