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Pavilion in the historic Yu Garden, Shanghai

Cathy Stripe LesterAs a lifelong independent traveler with a yen to see China, I overcame my resistance to group tours and signed up for a 14-day China Tour and Yangtze River Cruise, with Gate 1 Travel. My travel buddy George came with me and we had a wonderful time even if it wasn’t always what we expected.

George and me at the farewell "do" on the Cruise ship.

I missed not getting to chat with a big variety of ordinary Chinese. Plus, I couldn’t take my time and soak in the atmosphere, because a tour group is like a herd: “Boat ride up scenic gorge! Line up, please!” Baa! “This way, stick together please!” Baa!

Seaworthy craft for a scenic gorge? Or tourist trap? Well, we didn't sink...

That said, I took in a lot I would not have gotten to on my own. Of course we saw the obligatory sights – the Great Wall, the Terra-Cotta Army, the Olympic stadium, the forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, (more about all those in future blogs) – but the tour experience is so concentrated they get you to many, many other spots you might not even have known about. And, because you go places on buses, the guides have time to fill your ear with lots of info. Personally, statistics tend to go in one of said ears and out the other, but we also got a wealth of Chinese history, legends, religious beliefs, and what it’s like to live there now. Or, precisely, what it’s like for a middle-class tour guide who depends on tourists’ tips to augment his less-than-middle-class salary.

Frank, our Tour Manager (left), and Charlie, our Shanghai Guide (right).

Tour veterans will smile condescendingly at my naïveté, but I hadn’t anticipated the de rigeur tipping system. If anyone is planning a tour, be advised you’re supposed to tip bus drivers, the Tour Manager and your local guides. For a bus driver, the amount can be as small as $2 per day from each tourist. However, it adds up, and we were told they depend on tips to make a decent-ish living. That said, the guides were worth every penny – especially Frank, who combined the patience of a saint, the wisdom of Confucius and the persistence of a big-pharma lobbyist. He found things we needed. He explained what we were eating in the restaurants. (“Chicken with red peppers, a Szechuan specialty. Eat the chicken and leave the red peppers alone.”) And he kept us together, no mean task. I once told him he had the herding qualities of a good sheep dog, and he laughed: “No, sheep are much easier!”

The tour gave me one thing I did NOT expect: an appreciation of the intense pressure of the sheer number of people in China.

Our first city, Shanghai, has a population of 23.9 million. It seems all high-rises and skyscrapers. Aside from the old French Quarter with its graceful family houses, I didn’t see anything like a suburb. Where we have suburbs, they have row upon row of apartment blocks. Not only is it the largest city in the world, they have a high population density: 9,700 people per square mile.

Not even the center of Shanghai, but one of many big streets.

China’s biggest population movement is from rural areas to industrialized ones. And even though factory conditions are notorious, huge numbers of people are making the move. Our Shanghai guide, Charlie, grew up on a farm, and he bemoaned the fact that factories and apartment blocks were being built on prime agricultural land. We saw some of that from the bus, but it wasn’t until I saw it from the air that the extent really hit me between the eyes.

All this construction is fairly recent; some of it is still being built.

I am far from understanding the economic complexities of managing a huge developing country, but it’s easily evident that the Chinese themselves want a better lifestyle. Also it’s evident that a lot of the jobs are what Americans would consider sub-par.

For example, most of our tour members were retirees, so when we left the cruise ship, a porter was hired to take hand luggage for the ones who thought they’d have trouble hoicking their gear up a long flight of stairs to the bus. Instead of several porters, one guy roped the carry-on cases together and took them all. I didn’t avail myself of it, so I didn’t pay much attention to how much he got – one or two dollars a bag – but it seemed a measly amount for his effort. And then, after our group was taken care of, what else did he do all day?

The porter with the carry-ons. Notice the bend in the stout wooden pole.

The Chinese are willing and energetic entrepreneurs. But if their government doesn’t deliver jobs and development, they are facing very serious unrest.

Noodles drying by the sidewalk outside a small neighborhood noodle factory.

Noodles drying by the sidewalk outside a small neighborhood noodle factory.

Footnote: Since John S. Porter is blogging about living in China whilst teaching at Guizhou Normal University in Guiyang, I feel that if I’m going to give with the glitzy tour saga, I should add this caveat:

On a tour, you’re being shown what the tour operators want you to see, which is all about the surface glitter. You can make a valiant stab at a deeper understanding, but it still isn’t like the nitty-gritty of living there. So I hope our blogs balance each other out, and hopefully John can apply his professorial red pencil if I get anything too wrong.

Strictly for the tourists: For a fee, you can dress up like an emperor and get your picture taken in a reproduction imperial carriage. Next to the Great Wall.

  • Henry klugh

    Great piece Cathy! My wife and I did just one “do it yourself” excursion. It wasn’t a great success. I’ll post a description of it soon. My mother-in-law, an Australian, was raised in China until she was eighteen. She came to this country with her parents in 1933 and had many interesting stories to tell about the old China and its warlords.

    • CathyStripeLester

      Wow, Henry, I can hardly imagine the sort of things she saw! When you hear about the old rulers of China you begin to understand why they were desperate for a different type of government, and why they tried to eliminate the mindset that led to so many abuses.

      When did you take your excursion? From what I’ve heard, China has been on a learning curve regarding the care and feeding of tourists, ever since they opened up. A friend went on one of the first tours and she said the food was awful – weevils in the rice sort of thing. She insisted I take some dried stuff with me, so I packed some instant oatmeal and cup-a-soup. Unnecessary; they fed us sumptuously.

      • Henry klugh

        I’m afraid I’ve misled you Cathy. Barbara and I did a “do it yourself ” excursion but it was to Costa Rico, not to China…. My raised in China mother-in-law spoke English, French and Cantonese. When she was in her mid-eighties and in a nursing home some of her children took her out to a Chines restaurant where she surprised them by speaking Cantonese to the wait-staff. When they showed their astonishment at this previously unknown talent she told them that since coming to America she had no occasion to use it.

  • John S. Porter

    No red pencil. I love your post. I especially noted your comment about the complexity of governing such a big country. I was in government in a prior life and I don’t have any suggestions for the Chinese. Their population is four or five times as big as ours. Ditto the problems. Right on for the potential for social unrest in a downturn.

    You said: “Our Shanghai guide, Charlie, grew up on a farm, and he bemoaned the fact that factories and apartment blocks were being built on prime agricultural land. We saw some of that from the bus, but it wasn’t until I saw it from the air that the extent really hit me between the eyes.” That aerial shot, was that smog, or fog? ;-)

    I am lucky enough to live in a duplex like structure, very close to a single family home in the middle of Guiyang. Guiyang is a very small city, only about 5 million. My place is university housing and is very old. Almost nothing like single family homes are built anymore. Even upper class are in very nice condo-like homes. Some of the upper upper classes can still get new single family homes, but that is really rare in China.

    • CathyStripeLester

      Thanks, John! There was a little smog but I think the aerial shot was more smoggy-looking because it was shot through the plane’s window. We were fairly lucky on the smog front. Even in Beijing, we had mainly clear days with some wind which blew the smog away. Is there much smog in Guiyang?

  • Bobdisqus

    I just e-mailed friends from China to comment that now that the one child policy has been lifted I expect to see some new birth announcements soon.

    CSL, how was Xian? It is one of the places I kick myself that I did not get to when I was there, along with the yellow mountains. I could have gone to both but was worn out an opted for easy weekends in Nanjing. It looks like I may yet get to see some of the south as that is where the current account I am working on has their manufacturing.

    It is a big place and they have big problems, but they have big ambitions as well. The people I met had the excitement that comes with the knowledge that your life has more opportunity than your parents had, and that your children’s lives should be even better.

    • CathyStripeLester

      Bob, Xian was probably my favorite city on the tour. The Terra-cotta Army is mind-blowing. But the whole city just has a different flavor, maybe because it’s smaller, maybe because there’s a Muslim population there. I’m going to write about Xian in a future blog.

      People were friendly and enthusiastic everywhere I went. I wish I could have had more time to actually talk to more people, but you can’t have everything! Yes, I wonder how much of a quick baby boom there’s going to be now that the policy is lifting!

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