A SOJOURN IN BEIJING
CHINESE TOUR GROUPS ARE PARTY ANIMALS
I’ll say this much: Chinese tour groups know how to party.
It was already dark, past 7:30 p.m., and I was crammed into the back seat of a packed bus, headed out for the evening’s cultural entertainment. My fellow 40 tour comrades and I had just wolfed down a no-frills Chinese meal (included in the package) of rice, vegetables and an assortment of mystery meats.
We also polished off a half-dozen large plastic bottles of the region’s specialty alcoholic beverage: it was sweet and colorless and went down smooth as the silk scarves for sale in the merchant stalls outside.
By the time the bottles were drained, many of us were, as my mother used to say, three sheets to the wind. Backs were slapped. Faces were flushed. Eyes rheumy.
It was strong stuff.
Once on bus, our indefatigable tour guide, bounced along the aisle.
“Is anybody tired?” he shouted into his microphone.
“No!” came the chorus from my Chinese traveling companions.
I was back in the Cultural Revolution and our Red Guard leader was whipping up a frenzy of xenophobic political fervor.
“Are we going to those white devils beat us in this year’s grain output?”
Frankly, I was exhausted, and it wasn’t just the scandalously high-proof booze we’d just poured down our gullets.
Me, my wife and her school friend named Yan had arrived at Hunan Province from Beijing well after midnight, our flight delayed when an elderly man suffered a heart while we were on the ground in the capital. We all felt bad as his body was carried off the plane.
“Do you think he was going home?” my wife asked.
We arrived in central China and, after downing two large bottles of Tsing Tao beer to take the edge off, I had a splitting headache. I slept fitfully, three hours at best, before our 6 a.m. wakeup call.
Yan had better luck. “I slept like a dead dog,” she said.
The following day, we’d all hiked a total of ten miles, seeing the sites within a national park here, comprised of 300 square miles of forest, punctuated by odd quartz-and-sandstone peaks that rose out of the valleys like ancient spires.
These natural skyscrapers, 300 million years in the making, are simply otherworldly. One even inspired the strange Halleluiah Peak featured in the Avatar film.
Years ago, I’d taken my father-in-law to the Grand Canyon. He was suitably impressed, but mentioned that he’d been to a similar natural wonder in China that was just as amazing, perhaps even more.
I doubted him then. I don’t any more. This was the place, the Zhangjiajie National Forest, that he’d been talking about.
From the start, I had wanted to plan this itinerary on our own; book our own flight, meals, hotels and things to see. But my wife insisted that tours were the way the Chinese saw their country and, frankly, the entire world around them.
So, I gave in. Over five days, our excursion was like Chairman Mao’s Long March, a slog so difficult that not all survived. Our misadventure featured countless bumpy bus rides, Disneyland-long lines, lumpy beds, a fine-mist for showers and unspeakably-bad tour food.
I had a blast.
By the end, we’d gotten to know our travel comrades, mostly couples and some retirees. We ate together, drank together, gasped at the beauty of the scenery together.
We’d grown closer, like any group of soldiers following a tour of duty.
Still, the morning of the first day dawned ominously.
I looked out my hotel window and could see, um, nothing at all. The view was a brown soup of smog, or maybe fog that needed a bath.
Nonetheless, we were off. The bus was full, people were anxious to see the sights, start taking pictures.
But, no, we couldn’t go. Not yet.
Suddenly, my wife had to go to the bathroom.
And so, we waited. And waited.
Once on the way, I unknowingly became one of the sights; the lone foreigner in a busload of Chinese wayfarers. I towered over most of the woman. And when our tour guide began his informational monologues, every was fascinated by the history and backstory at every stop.
They oohed and they aahed.
Everyone but me; and a five-year-old Chinese kid who got motion sick on every bus trip. He couldn’t care less, but I did. I wanted to know.
Yet I was like a blind man at the painting exhibit. I was watching a foreign film without subtitles, a 24-hour Jerry Lewis telethon in an indecipherable tongue.
I was hopelessly lost. But I’d warned my traveling partners.
Earlier, I’d told them my Chinese name:
“Ting bu dong.”
At first, my wife translated snippets of information but quickly got bored and rushed off to join her friend Yan and the rest of the tour group, leaving me to lag behind with the hapless five-year-old.
Unless she wanted to buy something, which was most of the time.
One of the major drawbacks of any Chinese tour are the built-in stops to sell you things you didn’t know you wanted.
The bus suddenly swerved to the road side and you were cattle-prodded into a musty salesroom for a stultifyingly-boring demonstration on how tea is made in the region. Then you’re offered an amazing deal to buy some of the product at one-time-only prices.
And my wife? Well, she just could not say no. She bought it all: silk bedding, Chinese-made delicacies, baubles and trinkets.
Most of our comrades were hard-working, frugal folks. They listened patiently to sales pitches, but they rarely did they bite. My wife not only bit, she consumed things whole.
At one stop, she fondled an ornately-engraved flask made of pure silver (Special! Direct from the Chinese mint! Or so the hawker claimed.)
The rest of our group passed by and could only smile. The Chinese-America woman was at it again.
But the price was steep: $600.
I resisted, reasoning that she could do far better things with her money.
But, of course, she was going to buy it, and suggested I just deal with it.
“Take it like a man,” she said.
We weren’t the only tour group in this vast nature park. There were countless guides with their towering flags and tiny microphones, shepherding their individual flocks here and there. The groups rushed around like madcap military platoons led by sadistic lieutenants.
Blink and you got sucked into the gravitational pull of another planet, another tour group. But somehow it worked.
Until the monkeys ruined everything.
On one forested walkway, mama monkeys and their babies lined the route, providing a veritable phot-taking bonanza. All along, the crowds had jostled for advantage at every view point, and selfie-sticks ruling the day, but the monkeys sent the Chinese tour brigades into a frenzy.
The creatures had been fed by so many visitors for so many years, they had been transformed into cagey little beggars, pick-pockets who could swipe your wallet straight out of your pants.
Women screeched. Their husbands snapped pictures. When the monkeys became too aggressive, a worker appeared, scattering them with a slingshot.
In the end, the tour groups got as gnarled and confused as a Tennessee family tree. Later, I took a page from the monkeys’ playbook.
To keep things stirred up, I began sneaking up to photo-bomb other tour group’s snapshots, a schtick that disgusted my wife.
Still, they loved me. The old ladies from rural Korea and the Chinese countryside. They called me out for encores. I killed it.
Next year, I’m considering going on tour across Asia, stepping in uninvited to include my ugly meg in strangers’ photos.
My wife will of course probably refuse to go.
All that photo carpet-bombing made me hungry. On most travel adventures, meals are a welcome break from the manic activity, a chance to enjoy good local cuisine, something exotic and unexpected.
Not this one. No, no, no.
At one lunch break, our tour group was corralled into a temple cafeteria already packed with hundreds of famished travelers pushing their way through two buffet lines.
One by one, we passed an array of metal pots, each one containing a serving of meatless, overcooked gruel that was worse-looking than the one before it.
The three of us — me, my wife and Yan — dug in.
I couldn’t help myself; the fare was so rubbery, so tasteless, that at one point I mentioned that I’d once spent a few days in a Fort Lauderdale jail, where the food was comparable, if not better than this.
Still, Yan’s tray was piled high. She shook her head as she spooned in another mouthful of rice. She’d never been to jail. She didn’t care: she said she’d eat anything she didn’t have to cook herself.
I understood her point.
That night, after dinner and the endless bottles of Chinese rice wine, we were herded back onto the bus, cattle-like and taken to a vast cultural hall already teeming with other tour groups.
There was a 90-minute production of singing and tumbling. Then our captors led us all outside for another half hour of gymnastics.
I was exhausted. I just wanted to check into the nearest hotel and go to sleep. But I was stranded at this party without a ride home, so I had no choice but to stick it out.
But as I glanced around at my comrades, I realized something important: they really were a fine, funny and generous group of people.
Without being prompted, they passed around snacks they’d bought along the way, offered their seats on crowded buses and, literally to a person, were interested in what this big lug of an American thought about their country.
At the start of the tour, I’d pitied myself as a luckless David Foster Wallace-like character, suffering through experiences, promising never, ever, to do them again.
But my Chinese comrades had won me over. We’d all been to battle together, and we’d survived.
At the end of the night, after the last tumbler tumbled, we all piled back onto the bus for the long-awaited ride to the hotel.
It was nearing midnight and we’d been on the go for 15 hours straight. The alcohol buzz had long worn off. I had another headache.
But my companions? The newlyweds. The little old ladies and their pensioner husbands. Even the squirrely five-year-old kid.
They were ready to party.
As I drifted off, our over-caffeinated tour was at it again.
“Is anybody tired?”