Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Touring Beijing

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.

Touring in a Group
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.

Cultural Show
The first time I looked at the itinerary, I moaned out loud to my wife: "Oh no, not the obligatory cultural show." Why must group tours to China start off with a visit to an acrobatic show? I'm sure you can envision it: girls twirling table cloths with their toes or balancing spinning ceramic plates on rods, men prancing about through hoops or showing off their cheoreographed Wu Shu movements, women balancing on men's shoulders or swinging about in the air on trapezes or ropes, the whole works. Sigh...this visit is obligatory on us. But of course, you still have to be impressed with them. They have practised so hard till perfection.

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.

Then it's every man (and woman) for themselves. Never mind your table manners. It's not like home where it's good manners to leave the food on the main plates until you actually want it. On a tour, if you like something, take it first or otherwise someone else will take it. So food gets piled up on your own little plate. You may look greedy but this is a fact when sitting down at a table with strangers.

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.

Tourist Spots
Neutral areas in Beijing like the Imperial Palace or the Great Wall are fine to visit for tour groups comprising people of different beliefs or backgrounds, but places that suggest - even remotely - of having been used previously for the purpose of deity or ancestral worship are definitely out of the question.

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.

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