Now that the Olympics are in full swing, I’ve been thinking about when Sachi and I spent about a month in China in 2006.
At the time, China was in the process of becoming more open to western tourists. We were mostly free to move about without chaperones or keepers watching our moves. According to people we met along the way, this was not the case only a few years prior. Still, I’m sure we were watched in ways we didn’t know.
We stayed in a large and unremarkable hotel in Beijing, which is a common jumping-off point for seeing the Great Wall. There were multiple locations for seeing the wall and we decided to make the Simatai portion of the wall a priority as it featured more of the original wall intact, even though it was farther – 100 miles from Beijing. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Getting there was possible via hiring a driver independently or planning it through the hotel. Having been on the road in Asia for months, the details of figuring it out independently seemed like a heavy lift. So, we signed up for the trip offered by the hotel and hoped for the best.
We had been in China for a few weeks, and we knew the trip would be an experience one way or another. We came to relish these weird tourist events and find the humor in them instead of the problems. This is a key lesson in making long-term travel work.
The next morning, we met a nice mini-bus outside the hotel and quickly found a row to ourselves. The other people on the bus were abuzz with conversation. It was obvious they were traveling together and it was a pretty fun and raucous scene. We quietly tried to decode the discussion and animated hand gestures. Soon, it became clear we were on a day-long tour with eight Italians, a driver, and a young Chinese tour guide named Prudence.
Prudence was a standard-issue Chinese tour guide. She was well trained, prepared, and really wanted everything to go as planned. Tour guides like her were everywhere in China, often seen guiding tourists with ever-present flags.
Watching the Italian conversations made two hours of terrible Beijing traffic more entertaining. There were disagreements, apparently. As we sat in traffic, hawkers were selling all kinds of goods and I saw something I didn’t expect: a car-to-car turtle salesman.
We all became a little frustrated with the traffic. Just as we were finally getting out of the city, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot and Prudence grabbed the microphone to make her first announcement to the group.
This kind of tour frequently includes an event where a busload of tourists are led through a “factory” where crafts are made by hand: pottery, woodcarvings, rugs, etc. Then the tourists are presented with a giant shiny gift shop. The tour operator likely gets a kickback for every person who visits, so the traveler is a pawn in the competition for the tourist dollar. For the disinterested, it’s basically a stop at a gift shop with a bathroom that seems to waste time.
This is a pearl jewelry factory from another excursion:
This tour was no different. Prudence announced that the group would now exit the bus for 40 minutes and tour a jade factory. This stop was not on the itinerary and came as a surprise to everyone, especially after losing so much time in traffic.
Our group was clearly disinterested and the seeds of mutiny were sown. Prudence was a nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her. By this time, we had developed some rapport with the Italians who were engaged in a debate that required consensus. Their leader, Stephania, was checking in with each person. Then, she came to us and asked if we wanted to do the tour. We said no. She smiled, turned back to her group, and said, “They’re in!”
Stephania is the woman in red pants:
The fate of the factory tour was sealed. We were unified and Stephania told Prudence that we were NOT getting off the bus and NOT going into the factory. The only thing we wanted was to go to the Great Wall. Prudence was clearly flummoxed and started making calls. Her next offer was to reduce the amount of time we’d spend at the factory. 30 minutes? NO. Just 20 short minutes? NO. OK, maybe just 10 minutes? NO. Arms were crossed. Stephania was our rock.
Just as Prudence was about to capitulate completely, one of the Italians noticed what must have seemed like a mirage in the distance. A small building across the large parking lot had a little red sign that said “Espresso”. At that point, the clouds lifted and a small celebration ensued.
Stephania, having been the victor, now announced that we would all be getting espresso. Prudence had no choice but to agree. So the people who demanded to stay on the bus now disembarked and marched to the small building that promised espresso.
In the building, there was no real barista or coffee shop. We were met with a man who was ready to make espresso for the group from a small home-style machine. As he hesitantly picked up a paper cup, one of the Italians threw up his hands in frustration. He then grabbed the paper cups and tore off the tops to make them espresso-sized. Then, he took control of the machine and proceeded to make us all espresso.
After slurping down the espresso, we all boarded the bus and finally got back on the road. There was much rejoicing and we were now honorary Italian travelers who worked together on a mutiny.
We finally made it to Simatai and it was damn impressive.
Prudence was a knowledgeable tour guide and seemed to loosen up on the trip. It was like she smiled, threw up her hands, and just went with the flow.
By the time it was all over, we were all friends, including Prudence, who regaled us with translations of Chinese jokes and tongue twisters. The group taught her a few Italian words and how to roll her “R”s. Part of me wanted to stick with the Italians for the rest of our time in Beijing.