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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

China: our tour guides

We arranged our trip to China through China Highlights, a travel agency and tour company. We booked a private tour to assist in travel arrangements and ticket purchase, and while this tour was very controlled and offered almost no scheduling flexibility, I was really glad we had used a tour. Not only would the language barrier proved difficult, the total lack of available information would have left us wandering uselessly around, learning nothing. 

In Beijing, our tour guide was Cindy. Cindy has a husband, a two year old boy, and a huge girl crush on me. It was super flattering: Cindy wanted to BE me, which is cute, like I have some fairytale life. I do have it pretty easy (good, reliable job; great church and friends; darling husband; low expenses), but heck, I've had some pretty rough patches, too. I didn't have the happiest childhood, and I had to work my way through college, which were some lean years. But overall, I have had incredible opportunities simply because I live in a country with vast freedoms, and if anything, I've squandered them. Hearing Cindy wish she'd had so many choices in her life made me feel a little ashamed of choosing the easy road so often! 
Cindy was especially surprised that I started out as an art major, then changed to chemistry and went to pharmacy school. She said that some colleges are more relaxed now, but when she went to school, your high school grades determined what narrow choice of major you could select (she could choose from four or five fields in the hospitality industry). That major, declared in high school, could not be changed. She said that this process is still very difficult, if not impossible; even if a college claims that a student may change their major, the school may not have the resources to allow additional classes and support, and the request will be denied. 
Cindy was happily deceived by her government in some aspects - ie, "Beijing is very safe, there is no crime. No need to worry about your door locks" - but other things rankled her. She was annoyed by her limited social media choices (although she refused to look at David's Facebook - available on his Google Fi service - while our driver was in the car with her!) and very bitter that, while she was allowed a second child, it was virtually impossible to do so. She commuted two hours one way on three buses for her fairly low-paying job, and because you have to own and pay taxes on a home for five years to send a child to school in Beijing, her child would have to move away and live with relatives a 20-hour train ride away. I felt sad telling Cindy goodbye - she seemed so wistful and really wanted, well, more freedom.

Our Xi'an guide, Rocky, was an interesting mix of super pro-communism and occasional honesty. Rocky did NOT like you to deviate from his plan, so as a tour guide, he was kind of annoying. Like, we biked around the city wall in the rain, but went to indoor tours in clear skies. My suggestion for swapping days was met with a sudden inability to understand English. When I told him in the Xi'an museum that I was not interested in the prehistoric exhibit, but would like to begin with pre-dynastic China, he was shocked and offended and bluntly told us he'd wait outside. Thank goodness. We needed a break from his dry commentary, and the information in the Xi'an Museum is in English and Chinese. Rocky told proud stories about his country...but he kept letting it slip that he had left Xi'an, his hometown, because he was starving. He was older - over 60, I estimate - and he told us that, when he was a child, there was never enough food so that the children would fight over any noodles they had. He moved back recently so he could retire near home. Rocky's the one who cheerily pointed at seven nuclear reactors, belching toxins, and told us that China used all clean energy, and that was natural gas! 

Our last guide was Chris. He was young and charming and reminded me of my brother Abe a little. He was from Shanghai, and spoke English fluently. Chris gets super high points in my book for the personal touches he added: something we found rare on this trip.
  • He came an hour late after our flight from Xi'an didn't get us into Shanghai until 5 am.
  • He stopped for coffee! 
  • He detoured to take us to our landlady's house in Shanghai, which was very important to us.
He has also spammed me almost daily since then asking for a Trip Advisor review! Which I finally completed! We only spent a few hours with Chris, but he had a sweet personality and was thoughtful.

Overall, I am happy with our choice of tour company, and I enjoyed getting to know our guides. I didn't really get to know, or even interact with, any Chinese people: well, there was Judy, the owner of the shop where I bought pearl earrings for my coworkers. She owned her own shop in Shanghai and we talked business. And then there was our hotel maid, who we actually had to write a note to - IN CHINESE! - to ask her to get someone to fix our broken sink in Beijing. She must have been able to read it because she took care of it! 

But really, our guides were the only Chinese people I truly talked to, so they offered a window into everyday life in an unfamiliar culture. 


  1. Interesting perspective. We hate guided tours and therefore never do them. Definitely gives us plenty of logistical trouble and communication issues at times, but it works for us. We like the flexibility so much, but I'm sure we also miss out on other things. Sounds like you had a cool mix of guides! China is certainly full of interesting stories and perspectives...

  2. Yeah, we don't do the package tour thing typically, but almost everyone I know who's gone to China (or somewhere similarly challenging language- and culture-wise) agrees that's the way to do it. (Also "natural gas" in