China! October 1st to the 26th, 2002.

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Jenning Gee is a BASK member who’s grandparents immigrated from China in the early 1900’s. She was in China recently and took a tour boat down the Li River. She decided that it would be a beautiful place to kayak and started planning a trip to take some of her friends there. I have long said that I do not like to travel. I have been fond of saying that there is no reason for me to travel, there are so many beautiful things to see locally I can stay near home and never run out of stuff to do. So when Jenning Gee started talking about this trip I initially said no. But as the details were worked out I became more interested. The trip would include doing a bunch of tourist things like visiting the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Soldiers. I decided that this was an opportunity of a lifetime and I would have to go on this trip.

One thing that was not completely to my liking was while we were kayaking down the Li River we would not be camping. Every evening a tour bus would pick us up, take us to a restaurant for dinner, and take us to a Five Star hotel for the evening. Now that’s really roughing it! Jenning was insistent on the Five Star Rating and I bugged her about this a lot. I looked up how the rating system worked and discovered that it had more to do with how hotels are managed, not how clean they were. To get any stars at all you have to have certain standards of cleanliness. You get another star for having a restaurant inside the building so people don’t have to go outside to eat. But I wanted to go outside and experience the local food! You get another star for being a multi-national company that has hotels all over the world. If I’m going to travel half way around the world, I don’t want to stay in a hotel that looks just like hundreds of others back home. It turns out that a locally owned Bed and Breakfast can never get more than one star, but this sounds like the best possible situation to me! I told Jenning that I wanted to stay in one star hotels, but had to give up on that battle. However, Jenning added something wonderful to the end of the trip. She wanted to visit the village where her grandparents used to live and we were ALL invited to come along! We would stay in the houses of local people for a few days.

Once we got to China I was annoyed by the “tour” mentality that our guides assumed everyone subscribed to. I had seen this in Costa Rica and foolishly thought that this was a local phenomena there. Apparently people in China are also going to vocational schools to get certificates in “Tourism”. This seems to mean that you pick tourists up at the airport, drive them around in air-conditioned vans, take them to as many approved interesting places as possible in a day, take them to “safe” restaurants where all the other white tourists are taken, take them to a five star hotel in the evening and generally wrap them in a bubble of activity so that they really don’t have to find out what it is really like in a foreign land.

We rebelled against this and constantly tried to get our guides to take us to local restaurants. This was a difficult battle because all our meals were already paid for. In one case they insisted on driving us to a restaurant an hour a way when we would rather have used that hour of sunlight to explore the city streets. This might have been OK if the restaurant had been an interesting one, but it was just another restaurant in a different hotel! We told our guides “No more sweet and sour pork!”

We also rebelled against some of the places they were taking us and managed to get them to take us to places that we picked out of guide books. Instead of going to another tomb or museum full of “burial objects” we made them take us to a statuary garden, or the house where one of the Soong sisters used to live. (A museum never the less, but of more recent, relevant and interesting matters than simply more burial objects).

And it turned out that several of the “tours” that we were supposed to be taken on every day were actually commercial operations. Tea plantations, pearl factories, cloisonné factories, ceramic factories, jade factories. At each of these we were given a little lecture on how to tell good tea, pearls, etc. and then we were taken next door to a retail outlet where we could use our new knowledge to purchase something. A little of this sort of thing is fun, and I for one was looking for gifts to bring home for my family for Christmas. But by the second Pearl Factory we were tired of the rank commercialism of it. I joked that next time I traveled I was going to go to a communist country where they aren’t this capitalistic.

Because we were going to so many different places, we had to take several airplane rides inside China. I assumed that these would be small commuter airplanes, probably prop driven. But I was surprised to find that these local flights were all large jet airplanes with every seat filled. Most of the seats were filled with Chinese middle class people flying around their own country seeing the sights. Then we saw the poor people in the cities desperately trying to sell us postcards, or the poor farmers working incredibly hard in the rice fields. Chairman Mao’s edict “Never Forget Class Struggle” has obviously been completely forgotten. My comment about this was “I hope they wait to have their next peasant uprising AFTER I have made it safely home”.


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Mike Higgins / mike@kayaker.net