Back in the fall as Will was beginning his senior year at the University of Michigan, we told him that his big graduation gift was going to be a trip. He got to pick where we were going to go– and the way Annette and I figured it, this was a gift for us too. Our assumption was Will would pick some place in Europe. Then he said “How about China?”
“That’s too expensive,” I said, but it turned out that wasn’t true. So off we went. Here’s a link to a gallery of photos and videos I took, along with descriptions. These cover most of the grandeur and spectacle of our trip, and there was plenty of it. A few other highlights/thoughts:
- We booked this trip through Gate 1 Travel; here’s a link to the specific trip we took. We’ve never taken an organized tour like this before– actually, we have actively avoided these kinds of things. But we decided to do it this time because Annette’s parents had had very good luck with Gate 1, because the price was impossible to beat, and most importantly, we figured China might be a whole lot more challenging to travel in than, say, France. More power to folks who do it themselves (I have a friend who recently did this), but we were not up to that.
- I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Gate 1– great guides, great itinerary, and fantastic price. Without getting into all the details on that here, I think if we had tried to do this on our own it would have cost us at least twice as much– probably a lot more than that. They took care of all the hotel reservations (and they were all nice hotels), porting the luggage, driving us around, feeding us, trouble-shooting every single little thing– everything. Let me tell ya, this was an organized tour, and as far as I could tell from the guides who talked about their jobs, Gate 1 seems to be a good company to work for. Most of the people in our group had been on other Gate 1 tours before this one– one guy had been on eight trips with them. I am sure that we’ll use them again when/if we go to a place like India or Viet Nam. So two big thumbs up.
- That said, there are some inherent limitations of a guided group tour like this. Obviously, we had to deal with a group of strangers for the duration of the tour and there are many ways in which that could have gone wrong. Luckily, our fellow travelers were all pleasant people and from surprisingly diverse backgrounds in terms of age, income levels, race, etc. The only other folks who were academic-y were a couple of community college instructors. We all naturally steered away from politics and religion and other potentially controversial issues, and we instead talked a lot about what we all had in common, which was an affinity for travel. There were only a couple of times where I had to bite my tongue a bit, though it is not at all difficult to imagine how “that guy” could have made the whole thing unpleasant for all of us.
- The other problem was the tight schedule/itinerary of the group. As was made clear in the orientation session on the first day, this was a tour and not really a vacation, meaning there wasn’t any opportunities for sleeping in or lingering someplace longer than planned. This is not the way we usually travel. There were a few times where I would have preferred more time in a museum and spent less time shopping (and vice-versa), and Annette and Will (who both tend to sleep more than I do) were usually completely beat and ready for bed by 9 pm. The meals were all planned and arranged by the tour, and while all good not exactly haute cuisine, and beverages were limited mostly to either a can of a Coke or Sprite or a bottle of beer– and all the beer I had in China was extremely light, more like a Michelob Ultra than an actual “beer.” I would have preferred some more adventurous food and at least some decent wine, but I completely understand why that wasn’t an option. I mean, I would have been more than willing to take the Andrew Zimmerman/Anthony Bourdain route to trying anything and everything, but that wouldn’t be the case with most of the rest of the group. And from Gate 1’s perspective in terms of “tour management,” it made a lot of sense to limit the booze.
- Speaking of dining: the food was good and surprisingly familiar. Almost all of our meals were served family style with a dozen people at a table sharing about as many different dishes, most of which were basically the same kinds of things you’d get in a good Chinese restaurant in the US. The guides picked the food, and I am certain they selected dishes that were both not too weird and not too spicy for the tourists, but all of these restaurants were local places and had plenty of Chinese folks were eating there too. The main difference in most of the food I had compared to what I could get here is there it was a lot more oily, less sweet, and more fried.
- Besides weak and watery beer, they did occasionally serve some pretty bad red and white wine, a sweet and funky fermented rice wine, and a clear liquor called Baijiu which the wait staff called “fire water” and which tasted a lot like moonshine. They served in tiny glasses that were maybe about half a shot– seemed appropriate. Maybe it was because of the nature of the tour we took, but I didn’t sense a big drinking culture in China overall. I didn’t see a lot of bars.
- I also was surprised to not see as much smoking as I was anticipating. All the things I had read before this trip said the Chinese smoke a lot and everywhere, but the laws have recently changed in China making smoking in most public places against the law, so I only smelled cigarette smoke a few times. That might not be the case in less touristy areas or smaller towns though.
- I don’t know if I I was surprised about this or not, but for the most part, the Chinese do not speak English even though it is a compulsory part of schooling. I’m no expert about this, but I suspect this is the case mostly for the same reasons why most Americans don’t speak a foreign language: China is huge and so the need to have a working familiarity with different languages is minimal. Besides that, English and Chinese are vastly different languages. I mean, I don’t speak or read French or Italian or Spanish, but the letters are familiar enough that I can sometimes make a guess as to what’s on a sign or a menu. Chinese characters are a complete mystery to me, as is the spoken language. The tonal differences of words is staggering. Our tour guide told us about how nearly identical the words were for “mother,” “horse,” and “curse.” And the language translator apps for Chinese to English are all pretty much garbage. So sure, I was fine the few times where I had to communicate by pointing and nodding and everyone I encountered was super friendly, but beyond that, I was completely helpless.
- China is an authoritarian state– not so repressive as North Korea or communist Eastern Europe in the old days or what-have-you, and as far as I could tell, this wasn’t much of a problem for the Chinese. We saw lots of people enthusiastically lining up outside Mao’s mausoleum in Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to his preserved body, and our guide told us that the typical Chinese tourist to Beijing sees this as a must visit, sort of like Americans visiting monuments or the Capitol in Washington, D.C. We spent some time in a public park in Xian where hundreds of Chinese gathered every day to sing patriotic songs about the Chinese Red Army and what-not, not unlike Americans’ affinity for songs like “The Star Spangled Banner” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Incidentally, when our tour group showed up to this musical group in the park, we were warmly welcomed and the band struck up a rousing rendition of what I am guessing was one of the few Western songs they knew, “Jingle Bells.”
- But yeah, China is still an authoritarian state. Most of the internet sites I take for granted (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are blocked by the Chinese, though easily circumvented with VPN software. Before we got to Tiananmen Square, our guide told us there were some questions about politics he wouldn’t be able to answer there because there were many undercover security agents who might overhear him. All the hotels had versions of CNN International and BBC World Service that seemed heavily censored, though oddly, one hotel had HBO. Most of the hotel TV was made up of channels operated by the state, and most of that programming seemed to be extremely non-political– sports, musical performances, nature shows, that sort of thing. Our guide told us about one popular official news show that was on every morning for 30 minutes. The first 10 or so minutes were about the successes of President/Chairman Xi; the second ten or so minutes were about various improvements around the country; and the last third or so were focused on bad news in the rest of the world. There were surveillance cameras everywhere, and we all had to submit to facial scanning at the airports.
- I think the most extreme example of how the authoritarian nature of things manifests itself in China happened to us at the airport in Xian. We were scheduled to fly from there to Shanghai at around noon and to then have most of a free afternoon in Shanghai. Instead, our flight was delayed about five hours– not because of weather or a mechanical or computer snafu, but because (at least according to our guide) the Chinese Air Force was conducting some kind of exercise and had closed the air space to passenger air travel. This delayed dozens of flights. I mean, if the U.S. military delayed a single flight here because of some kind of exercise, people would have gone nuts and it would have been the lead story on the news for a week. In China, it seemed like everyone at the airport just greeted it with a shrug.
- There were a lot of times China kind of reminded me of scenes out of Blade Runner. Remember that scene where Decker is sitting at the counter of some kind of greasy bar or diner with grimy chaos all around him while he tries to eat a bowl of noodles? There’s a lot of that kind of thing in China. Remember the huge LED signs advertising Coke or whatever, and the constant smoggy haze? There’s a lot of that kind of thing in China. I was constantly seeing things completely familiar (after all, what in our day to day lives isn’t made in China?) and completely foreign all right next to each other. It’s a country extremely proud of its ancient history and traditions and superstitions and, simultaneously, it’s a country bent on modernization at light speed. I do not know how or for how long free market capitalism can flourish within the parameters of a dictatorial government intent on squashing the free exchange of ideas, but it seems to be working for the time-being.
- Our Visas are good for 10 years, so maybe we’ll go back. I know a few folks who have had teaching gigs in China over the years, and if something like that came up for a month or so in the summer, I’d think about it. Gate 1 (and other companies) have other tours, and China is a big country. So who knows?