I may not want to write a travellogue on my recent trip to Beijing but that doesn't mean that I cannot comment anything about it. And boy, do I have several observations to make.
First thing is, big group tours are inconvenient but may be necessary evils. A group that is no bigger than 10 persons is fine but not when it consists of about 30 people. Why? Because it is impossible for the tour guide to meet the needs and demands of everyone in his group. There's also a lot of compromise required of the tour group. Some will want to go here, some will want to go there; some will keep within the time allocated for visiting a place, some will exceed the time and then keep everybody else waiting. My wife and I were in a group of about 60, so that made the situation even more challenging for all.
If I have a better choice, I would want to visit Beijing, or any other place in China, at my own pace and leisure, but I know that it is difficult because both my wife and I can hardly get by without knowing Mandarin. Maybe she does understand this language slightly better than I. Me? Sorry, lah. So the only option possibly open for me is to join a tour group to China. Safety in numbers. Assistance in numbers.
Of course, this is my own shortcoming, so I cannot put blame on anyone for it. I was complaining to my friend, Herbert, that it's so difficult to learn a new language. Is it our age, I asked him. (We were born just days apart.) He said it's because we don't expose ourselves to the language constantly day and night. He was suggesting an experiment. Why not, he said, that I just turn on a Chinese language programme on the radio day and night, and try listening to it though I cannot make head or tail of the conversation at the beginning. Sooner or later, the jigsaw puzzle will fall into place. That's his theory of learning a new language. I forgot to ask whether it had worked for him.
Then there's the question of food during a group tour. Somehow, the food can always be better. The restaurant can always be better. They are never the nicest places. They are never the most delicious of meals. They are all rather standard fare. If you see an omelette in one restaurant, you will see the same omelette dish somewhere else too.
Speed. Don't eat so daintily or slowly during travel for the same reason: the food will disappear all too quickly from the table as you masticate your first mouthful. It's not like you are travelling just the two of us together, remember? This is a group tour with lots of other people. It sounds rude but if they don't care about leaving any dish behind for you, why should you care about them in return?
Finally, just a little comment about groups consisting of people with different religious backgrounds. For common meals, food is always restricted to what they can eat and what they can't eat, where they can eat and where they cannot eat. And that's no joy during a holiday.
For example, in China today, Cheng Beng has lost it's original significance. It's now a cultural practice rather than something considered as religious. During Cheng Beng in China (and we were there at the right time), the Chinese people still visit their ancestor's grave but it's just for the purpose of cleaning it up, not ancestral worship.
Similarly, public temples have lost their original purpose. Though in private, the Chinese people may still worship a deity or two in their homes, none is seen in the open. Point of fact: the Temple Of Heaven is definitely a tourist spot. Has been for many, many decades. It used to be a place of worship for the Chinese emperors but now, if you go there, people are visiting the complex to see the buildings, take in the view and basically have a good time by relaxing, participating in group social activities like singing, dancing and gambling, and even treating it as a playground or exercise yard. All very innocuous. Nothing suspicious, nothing ulterior, nothing indoctrinating, nothing to fear. And yet because of the word "Temple" in the name....this tourist attraction was not in our itinerary. Similarly, the Ming Tombs was also not in our itinerary although we could have visited or passed through the place while enroute to the Great Wall.
Of course, you can still visit such places but they will have to be optional tours and at your own time. If it is not too much out of the way, the tour bus may still drop you off there and pick you up later but entrance is on your own and touring the place is on your own. Getting lost is also on your own.
I've griped enough for today but I'm not done yet. I've still one more thing to say about shopping in Beijing but I shall leave that to another day.