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