The Dragon Trip: An expert on China tours for young backpackers

For many backpackers who seek exotic thrills, China is one of the places that both allures and frustrates. The language barrier alone is enough to thwart the idea of backpacking in the Middle Kingdom. Yet for those who do visit the country, the experience becomes one of the most unforgettable adventures of their lives. One such backpacker, Ramsay Kerr, did more than just enjoy the China experience himself. He decided to turn his experience into an enterprise.

Camping on the Great Wall. Photo: Courtesy of the Dragon Trip

A Brit’s ‘China Loop’

The result of his endeavor is the Dragon Trip, the first, and to date the only company that solely focuses on China backpacking tours, founded in 2010. Ramsay, a Brit who spent his childhood in Hong Kong, started the company at the age of 22, having worked in a bank for six months and decided that a career in finance was not what he wanted for his life.

Aiming to be the “young traveler’s China specialist”, the Dragon Trip provides affordable tours to young budget travelers and caters to student groups’ various academic and adventurous needs on their school trips.

The star tour of the company, which is a loop around China, is famous for its “off the beaten path” locations while hitting all the spots one would want to see. It also allows the backpackers freedom to choose a partial loop on a hop-on hop-off basis depending on their budget and time.

Ramsay, who is now based in Shanghai, told in a conversation via email that the idea of creating a China loop for backpackers originated from a backpacking tour he did in New Zealand in his gap year. The tour left such an impression on him that he wanted to develop one of his own in China.

“I was convinced that a country like China, which has so much more to offer in terms of culture, natural beauty and incredible sights, would surely be able to attract similar number of foreign backpackers too,” Ramsay said. “Plus, all the reasons that make China a difficult country to backpack in, such as the language barrier, difficulties of getting train tickets and the size and scale of the country simply makes joining an organized tour an appealing option.”

“Of course I have to say this when running a travel company,” Ramsay continued, “But I do believe you get so much more out of your travel in China if you join a company, who has spent years researching some unbelievable locations, which most foreigners just could not get to by themselves.”

Before he decided to develop the China loop, Ramsay had already traveled a lot in China. On top of that, he and his friends spent another six months exploring the length and breadth of the country so that they could find the most efficient route that offers the best China experience for those who have only one month or less to see the country.

The full China loop includes 10 stops, featuring modern cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau), quintessential scenic countryside (Yangshuo, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Xi’an), as well as unique cultural experiences in Dengfeng and Fujian.

Talking about finding the less “touristy” but equally, if not more fascinating locations, Ramsay recounted the story of “discovering a farm high up in a gorge in the Qinling Mountains, one of only two spots left in China with wild pandas”, after days of driving around the mountain roads.

“We had taken a few groups up there, yet unknowingly we were in the middle of a military training region, which was made clear to us in no uncertain terms when we crossed paths with a group of these soldiers!” he recalled.

It was exactly this kind of in-depth tour that gets the backpackers excited. And the loop included certain places even the Chinese themselves don’t know about, like the lagoon near Hangzhou with crystal clear water, surrounded by a dreamy bamboo forest.

Trip to the bamboo forest lagoon. Photo: Courtesy of the Dragon Trip

Unique experience on a shoe-string

Making the tours into a reality took the collective effort of the international team at the Dragon Trip, all of who are young, vigorous and immensely enthusiastic about backpacking in China. 

William Rowles, head of School and University Trips at the Dragon Trip, who was a classmate of Ramsay, has to some degree been involved with the Dragon Trip from the beginning. He met me on a sunny autumn afternoon in Beijing. “A lot of the places people get to visit with us were not originally tourist spots,” he told me. “We created it.”

For example, backpackers get to do a lot of camping throughout the trip. In a country where there is no camping tradition, the Dragon Trip team had to work hard to create the sites from scratch. “We had to dig out the ground and flatten it up to make it a suitable camping ground.”

“Sometimes on our specialist weekend trips we do barbecues and engage the locals to help us out. They bring and help prepare the food. Occasionally we also need them to help us bring the rubbish down.” Being able to give back to the community and preserve the environment while providing the backpackers the best experience is something William is very proud of achieving.

William studied and traveled in China just as Ramsay did, before quitting his job in business and joining the Dragon trip team in 2013. With a degree in Contemporary Chinese Studies and having lived and worked in China on and off since 2007, William is a quasi-expert on China, a country he likes very much. The love for the country and for traveling as well as an eagerness to spread the fun is a trait that is shared by every Dragon Trip member, including their part-time guides.

Another popular feature of the Dragon trip is its low price. Months of research and four years of practice ensured that the team knows where they could get the best bargains. Clever combinations of sleeper train and night bus trips also save the backpackers time and money, while bringing them some very authentic Chinese travel experience.

What makes the Dragon Trip stand out, besides the affordability of the tours, is their ingenious designs. “We do things in a different, and more interesting way. Take the Great Wall trip for example; everybody who visits China does it. But with us, you get to camp and watch the sunrise on the wall.”

Backpacker's Great Wall fun. Photo: Courtesy of the Dragon Trip

School trips: safe and fun

As head of School and University Trips at the Dragon Trip, William has more to say about the school trips, which has been created into a new department in the past year. Their first school trip happened somewhat by accident.

“The school was from the UK. Something went wrong with their Chinese trip provider and they approached us for help. We organized the trip for them.” William recalled.

Things started rolling from the successful first trip. “A lot of it has been word of mouth,” William said. “We also promote our trips through student and teacher forums and educational fairs.”And the biggest spur came from international organizations like STA Travel and Real Gap with whom the Dragon Trip are now partners and supplies tours to them.

All the best features of the Dragon Trip’s backpacking tours are present in its school trips, most noticeably its cheap price. And the team has to make extra effort to make the school trips as adventurous because there are more safety issues and regulations to take into consideration. “We really jump through the hoops to make things happen and not let the regulations limit the fun things.”

The Dragon trip has a base trip which is then doctored to cater to each school’s academic focus, whether it is language, geography or business. Mandarin lessons, trekking trips and visits to factories and companies can all be arranged.

There are some unique features as well. In Xi’an, students get to help out at the Yellow River Soup Kitchen, a charity group started by a British engineer called Tony that helps the homeless. “The students could either do food preparation and serve the food, or do a street walk to give out the food. Our backpackers also help out here once a week,” added William.

In the same spirit of giving back to the local community, trips to orphanages are also available and students can interact with the orphans and donate toys and clothes. On a lighter note, Dragon Trip organizes trips to all sorts of companies for the students to get a sense of what the Chinese business world is like. Visits to Chinese secondary schools are a compulsory element of the Dragon Trip as well. “The Chinese schools really do put on a show for us, and the students love it,” William said.

“We are fully licensed. And we do everything legitimately. We follow the rules of the country where the schools are from as well as the Chinese regulations. Every member of our staff is well-trained and always carries the First-Aid Kit with them,” William stressed.

A school trip on the bund, Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of the Dragon Trip

Four years down the road, the Dragon Trip is attracting more and more young budget travelers to visit China. Along with the main 10-stop backpacker loop which runs from March till early November, there is also a new Snow Dragon Trip that takes people to the lesser-known far-east China in the winter.

When asked whether the Dragon Trip will go global, Ramsay said for the moment, he wants to concentrate on China given its sheer size and the potential growth.

“We’ll remain focused on our two core routes and adapt them each year to keep the itineraries relevant and efficient,” Ramsay said. “We want to continue to provide the best trips we can.”

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