FIXED ITINERARIES AND FRUSTRATIONS

Trip Start Sep 16, 2007
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Trip End Oct 12, 2007


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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Friday, October 5, 2007

We arrived in Kunming around 7 PM. Kunming is in the Yunnan province in southwest China, near Tibet. This is really the first stop during our trip through China where I feel like we have gotten off the tourist path. It is true that Guilin, our last stop, is not a foreigner haven, but it is a vacation spot for Chinese, especially when we were there during China's Golden Week.

After we arrived, we got checked into our hotel in Kunming and then walked six blocks to Yun He Xiang, a fantastic Chinese restaurant in a grand old stone building which was formerly a Chinese General’s house. It was possibly the best Sichuan meal I have ever had.

Restaurants in China are generally very busy and loud. Tables will typically be large with a lazy-Susan in the middle. Meals are usually family events, or business gatherings. Last night’s meal was a little unusual in that it didn’t have big tables; it was more of an intimate setting. And by Chinese standards it was pretty pricey---which is hard to believe because we spent only US $30, including a US $20 bottle of wine!

As elegant as this restaurant was, however, it did not change the fact that meals are family events in China. There were three four-year old kids running unchecked throughout the restaurant. We never saw the adults to whom these kids were attached and assume they were in a back room. The kids had no qualms about being as rowdy as they wished and none of the staff or other patrons seemed to even notice. They were playing hide and seek sometimes hiding behind us or under our table--and blowing whistles! What was that I was saying about intimacy?

In a very short time---ten to fifteen years---China has transitioned, and is transitioning, from a two-wheel society to a four-wheeled one. Roads and streets have been widened and sometimes divided to make room for and separate the two-wheelers from the four, but judging from the horrendous traffic we have witnessed everywhere, it is obvious the infrastructure has not kept up with this change. There are still a lot of bicycles and electric scooters. The electric scooters will drive around at night with their lights off to save "juice"—so you can neither see, nor hear, them! Several times I have witnessed people “feeling” them when they unwittingly walk in front of them.

The smog is suffocating. I haven’t written much about it, but it is unbelievably bad. At one point while sitting in a street side café in Beijing, I could not see through the haze to read the sign across the street.

From Kunming, we took a couple-hour drive to the Stone Forest, which is an interesting and pretty geological formation. It covers several hundred acres but the part visitors see has been made accessible with paths.

We are becoming accustomed to being a spectacle wherever we go in China. The best part is the kids. Little girls walk complete circles around Linda. Little boys walk right up next to me to judge their size against mine. It is good stuff. At the Stone Forest, we saw a small group of Chinese laughing about something. When they saw us approaching, a couple of the group motioned for me to come over. There was a narrow opening in a wall of the rock where there was plenty of room for your body to squeeze through, but the narrower opening for your head was a different story. Typical for the Chinese, it symbolizes something if you are able to squeeze your head through the opening. They had been having great fun watching each other try to squeeze through; now they wanted to see if the Great White One could. It was obvious I couldn’t, but I made a show of trying—to their great pleasure. This resulted in more pictures with Linda and me. At some point, I have to remember to hand someone MY camera when this happens.

During our two-plus weeks of traveling through China, we have been growing more and more frustrated with the “guided” tours we had been getting at each stop. Since we weren’t able to rent our own car in China, we had to arrange to have a driver/guide at each location, or succumb to group tours. The drivers/guides are licensed by the government, and what we didn’t realize is that they are strictly controlled and are not supposed to vary from the pre-approved itinerary. Being shepherded around on a rather fixed itinerary has not been a big issue for us thus far, because we have been traveling in areas where tourists see the same things: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, etc. But now we are away from all of that, and are looking forward to the opportunity to roam more and see the China that not everyone sees. It was beginning to become clear that even though we are in areas not frequented by tourists, we are still seeing only the things the Chinese government wants us to see. As it has been with almost every pair so far, the driver is a middle-aged, non-English-speaking Chinese man; the guide is in his or her twenties and speaks English.

We expressed our frustration with the “fixed itinerary” to the young male guide we have here in Kunming and told him that if he was unable to take us to a village where we can see how people live we would have him drop us off and we would hire a taxi. Young and eager to please, he said he would be happy to show us his village, the village where he was raised, because it was on the way back from our two-hour drive to the Stone Village. Great!

The young guide had the driver drop us off along the highway from which the guide, Linda and I walked down a dirt path which led to the village. It was a great experience seeing for the first time how Chinese live outside the cities. We walked through the village, visiting with villagers our guide knew and seeing the villagers in their homes. When we left the village we walked up a different path to return to the highway where the driver had driven to meet us. Once back in the car and moving toward Kunming, we could see the driver was agitated and was speaking angrily to our young guide in the front seat. After a while the young guide turns to us in the back seat and says sheepishly that the driver is very mad because the village was not on the approved itinerary.

This whole thing made me anxious. I was worried that in this young guide’s eagerness to please us, he may have put his job—or worse, himself---in jeopardy. Linda and I have decided to be more careful in what we ask of, or express to, our future guides to avoid potentially putting them at risk.
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