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Traveling with a Chinese Tour Group

Popularity 6Viewed 10979 times 2014-1-26 14:38 |Personal category:Travel in China|System category:Life| girlfriend, experience, together, Chinese, Yunnan

Last month I traveled to China for the first time for two reasons: to meet my online girlfriend from Guangzhou and to see China firsthand. XL was so concerned about spending time with me that she wanted us to have a memorable experience together. Her sister bought us a tour package in Yunnan to Dali and Lijiang, one of the most romantic places in China. I did not quite understand what she meant by tour package, but I was very happy to see another part of China during my two week visit.

For those of you familiar with the TV phenomenon "The Amazing Race", that is a good comparison. We took planes, trains, buses, electric trams, and taxis during the trip. It was constantly changing, yet also staying the same. I should let you know that I do not speak any Chinese. Sure I can say basic phrases, but that does not really help in a tourist situation. XL is constantly improving her English, but she still has some difficulty. Communication was halted at times, but that was also due to a cultural difference.

We had to get to Dali first. We flew from Guangzhou to Kunming, where our traveling companion met her friend. I thought he was her boyfriend, but by the time our trip was over, she had decided to call it quits with him. We spent some time with him and the internet company he works for. Because of my lack of Chinese skills, I was sent off to an office to play on the internet. Later we enjoyed some good food and then boarded the overnight train to Dali. I had never been on an overnight train before. Since I was the guest of our trio of travelers, I got the bottom bunk. I enjoyed the trip because there was a new challenge at every turn. I relied completely on XL for every detail of what was happening. She probably felt like a mother as much as a girlfriend. She was kind, but firm at times. I had no idea what was happening, but she helped me along and was patient with me.

When the train arrived the next morning, we scrambled to find our tour group. I did not understand at the time that we would be stuck on a bus for the next three days, but it soon became apparent that I would need to learn to follow a herd mentality. The group was very polite, but none of them could speak any English besides "hello". After a quick breakfast of hard-bolied eggs, congee, and noodles, we were whisked on to buses. Our tour guide was very kind and funny, and least that is how our group reacted to him. We drove quickly through the city to arrive at the old town and other various stops. I an sure he gave us time directions, but his voice became a flurry of sibilant consonant clusters as he explained about the areas we would visit. XL could not translate what he was saying fast enough, so she just sat back and dozed off.

The difference between a Chinese tour group and a "foreigner tour" has to do with the sites visited an the expectations of the tourists. As a foreigner, I am interested in the culture, the religion, and daily life of the places I visit. Since Chinese are not as fazed by these outwardly aspects, their focus is on food and shopping. We spent lots of time eating and shopping. Since this was a new experience for me, I did not judge. It was good to be the only laowai in the group. People in our small group had questions about me, but I could not answer them. XL spoke a lot for me. I really appreciated this as it showed a spcial concern for me. Also it showed that the others in our small group were curious about me without making me the center of attention. This may have some roots in the difference between collectivist and individualist cultures. In America, more questions would be asked perhaps to the point of embarrassment on my part. The one comment we always heard was that XL and I would have a cute baby. Ha ha! Although Dali and Lijiang have many religious sites of historical importance, we did not visit those places. WE saw many historical non-religious places though. Since Yunnan is the Chinese capital for tea, we learned a lot about tea. WE also had many opportunities to buy jade and jadeite. I did not bring that much money with me, so I spent much time looking and touching precious objects. No could speak with me, so they did not try to. XL spoke for me or about me many different times.

Eating Yunnan cuisine was a lesson in taste and texture. At least one dish on the table had spicy peppers in it. Normally I like spicy food. XL was surprised with the amount of spicy food I ate. Towards the end of the tour I had eaten enough hot pepper. I told XL to give me anything but spicy dishes. She honored my request. I still tried some hot dishes, but not with such great portions as I did before. I enjoyed eating food in a communal setting, around a large table with a lazy susan in the middle. Not many people talked while they ate. On a tour we only had limited time to eat and gather hot water (Don't forget that! It is winter!). I took photos of the food so people waited for me to get the right shot and then started eating. Eating was a focus during the trip and after. It seems that the downtime activity during the winter is to eat. If it is not a full meal, we ate fruit or other snacks. My bowels suffered during my entire stay in China, finally becoming regular just as my stay was ending.

It quickly became clear that the tour was subsidized by our shopping. There are many Naxi Girl Yak Meat shops in Lijiang, but our guide took us to one in particular. I am sure there are just as many tea houses, but we wound our way to a special one. I didn't question this at the time, but after I returned to my teaching job, I mentioned this to my Chinese students. They explained that the shops give kick backs to the tour companies. Additionally, the tour guide does not always receive a salary, but rather a percentage of the sale profits from the tour group. As I mentioned before, no one bothered me or pressured me to do anything. If they tried, I couldn't have understood them any way.

While the tour was rushed in places, we had enough free time to enjoy each other's company in the evening. Lijiang was very romantic as the lights dimly lit up the winding alleyways and many singing bars. Neither XL or I drink alcohol, so this was not a goal for us. As we wound our way through the streets, the many shops tended to repeat themselves. Woven scarfs, embroidery work, bongo drums, tea shops, and silver shops seemed to reproduce themselves as we walked through the Old Town district. WE had a nice, slow walk back to our hotel as the evening grew darker. I enjoyed holding XL's hand as we made our way past the street construction and narrow passages. Dali was not quite as peaceful, but we still managed to take a short stroll to find late night snacks.

The final day of the tour had the most variety. In the early morning sky, we caught our first glimpse of Yulong Xueshan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) towering over Black Dragon Pond. This is perhaps the most iconic image of Lijiang, and one of the reasons I bought a digital SLR for the trip. While the lighting wasn't exactly right for a postcard shot, it was still magnificent to see.   From there we drove to Dongba Valley for an even more impressive view of the massif. While there I made one of my most memorable purchases: a bath scraper made from a yak horn. It cost 15 RMB. XL asked me if I knew what it was and then laughed when the storekeeper explained it uses. As a tourist, I buy things to make a memory or at least to share a story when I get back home. The yak horn scraper caused a lot of looks of wonder on the bus ride, but it was worth it! We then went to a small village Shuhe just outside of Lijiang for a taste of Tibetan Buddhist medicine. Again everything was conducted in Chinese. They had a doctor who spoke English, but we ran out of time. I bought some trinkets while XL bought fruit. Our final destination in Lijiang was lunch. I also bought some locally made jelly candy. I chose the sealed package with the Naxi script on it for a greater treasure. It was slightly more expensive, but it was a  better looking package. XL tried to get me to buy the smaller package, but I would not be swayed. The bus then began the four hour drive back to Dali. On the northern outskirts of town, we stopped again. This time it was a jadeite store. Some of the pieces were huge! I bought a tortoise dragon for my brother there. He wanted something interesting from China to put on his desk at work. One more meal and then waiting for the train.

In general I was glad that I took the trip. I got to learn more about the Chinese way of seeing the world. I only saw one or two laowai on the whole trip, but they did not speak with me. I got to see what Chinese enjoyed during their free time. I saw the drive of commercialism and tourism among the Bai people. I also got to see a tender, caring side of XL as she made sure that I was well taken care of. My feelings for her deepened as she focused her attention on me. I took time to study about Lijiang before I left the USA. I knew what was there and I had certain goals. While the Chinese are a goal oriented people, they look after each other as well. XL carefully scrutinized every purchase I wanted to make, and then at times paid for it. I later learned that this is a trait treasured by the Chinese. She shows me that I am important to her, so she doesn't want me to waste my money on an inferior product. It was bothersome at times, but I tried to take everything in stride and live in the moment. If I had tried to push for everything I wanted, XL would have been disappointed or worse. I understood that this time was the best chance we had to see each others personalities and temperaments.

I think my whole experience would have been completely different if I could have spoken Chinese. I could have formed bonds with more of the people on the bus. I could have enjoyed the tour guide's rambling explanations about what we were to do and what we were to see. I could have chatted with XL about more topics. This trip further strengthened my resolve to improve my Chinese. It also brought us closer together as a dating couple. Someday I hope to be able to talk about the trip with XL in Chinese or with her improved English so that we can reminisce about those misunderstandings and look at the progress we have made as a couple.

For the adventurous and shopping-crazed, I highly recommend traveling with a Chinese tour group. You will see aspects of China you may not see. While it is not slow paced, or focused on the small things of an area, there is still an exposure to new things. Now I understand why Western guide books have negative comments about Chinese tour groups. They have a group mentality with strict schedules, much like American tours in Europe. At the same time, it felt good to be part of a group who looked out for each other. We helped each other with luggage, finding breakfast service, and even taking a photo with your sweetheart.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Reply Report sharonfr 2014-1-27 10:12
A nice article! Your girlfriend cared you since you were a foreigner to the local people, she worried you may be ripped off for not knowing the local market price there! To communicate with people having different cultures isn't smooth, but of course it needs a try! Cherish your two love. And bless you! As a Chinese, thanks for your good feelings to China, and Chinese people.

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  • Traveling with a Chinese Tour Group 2014-2-9 00:19

    I remember travelling with a Chinese group back in 1997. Me and my brother were the only foreigners on that tour. The passengers were all young couples and one couple accompanied by their parent. At the start of our trip they wondered who was the young Chinese girl accompanying us. When she told them that those two foreign looking guys were her uncle, they became curious and wanted to know more about us. My niece told them the whole story her father told her about the uncle who left his ancestors village and never returned. Suddenly we felt that we weren't foreigners anymore in their eyes and were treated very well, smiles, jokes, good food, play, scenic views etc, everything my old couldn't enjoy now his two sons were enjoying in his native country. Our father left in the mid 1920s and passed away in 1967.

  • Traveling with a Chinese Tour Group 2014-1-27 10:12

    A nice article! Your girlfriend cared you since you were a foreigner to the local people, she worried you may be ripped off for not knowing the local market price there! To communicate with people having different cultures isn't smooth, but of course it needs a try! Cherish your two love. And bless you! As a Chinese, thanks for your good feelings to China, and Chinese people.

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