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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Perils of China - Tour Groups    

By Garreth Humphris
2455 Views | 3 Comments | 2/22/2014 5:17:59 PM

The New Year holiday season in China is drawing to a close. At this time of the year the majority of Chinese people 'head home' to be with family and friends but increasing numbers are taking to self-organised travel and tour groups away from hometown as well, many believing there will be less crowds and fewer lines at the attractions at this time.



Tour groups around the world are pretty horrid in general! They take on a life of their own! A huge self-centred carnivorous multi-armed animal that snatches and grabs  everything not bolted down, devours all food and trinkets within a 500metre radius, trampling grass and ancient artifacts underfoot and stripping the oxygen from air within the 5 minutes when it passes, never to be seen again!



The added value that Chinese tour groups have is their increased noise - from the amplified screech of the flag-waving tour guide to the cackle of 50 people pointing and commenting on anything they have never seen before to the heightened sense of importance that we are an important travel group, service us!



As you can see, I don't have much expectation for the future of travel groups and tend not to travel in them if I can avoid it!



But on this occasion I went with a strange group of travelling companions to a small island in the middle of one of China's large freshwater lakes, Lake TaiHu (JiangSu, ZheJiang, AnHui)- and lived to tell the tale!



The island is known as SanShan Island, and is a designated tourist precinct within Lake TaiHu near my hometown SuZhou. This classification means everything on the island has been transformed from subsistence farming and fishing to tourist attraction. And every building, tree and blade of grass must conform to a strict appearance and behaviour code. In and around SuZhou this usually means white low buildings with black tiled roof and views of water. In spite of these seemingly draconian measures, the island itself is very beautiful and as the name suggests, has 3 mountains nestled along it. The tourism classification has brought docks and ferries, paved roads and privately-run hotels but the island maintains it's rural isolation through not having petrol-driven motorised vehicles and mostly pedestrian transport system. The main entry point to the island has been beautified for tourists through a police station, mega-toilet block, government-run hotel and a few stores but it doesn't overpower the local market that has existed there for years. The fronts of the farms and houses have rudimentary landscaping but the chickens and ducks still run free under the canopy of orange trees that blanket the island. Here and there small paths lead up to the mountain peaks and into the farming areas so it is a pleasant walk away from people, even in the peak summer period, is possible.

Although seemingly isolated, it is only a 20 minute ferry ride from XiShan, about an hour from SuZhou.



The roads wind their way between lily ponds, over stone bridges and past little gardens. Even in the slightly sodden spring showers, each collection of houses along the circular loop around the island give the quintessential SuZhou scene, even if a closer inspection reveals a modern building, running water, cable television and free wifi!



Our party was a pretty motley crew to be fair! It was organised by my former partner in the bar business - she still runs bars and decided that she wanted to treat some customers to a weekend away and chose the island. A hardcore group of her best foreign drinkers made up ranks. Next was my former business partner’s family- mother, father, sister and brother-in-law, husband and 10 of her old school friends. Lastly were current and former staff of the bars we owned - including our own imported band from the Phillipines. So a group of local traditional Chinese, some crazy Chinese, some highly-likely-to-be-intoxicated foreigners and a band hit the most pleasant island in JiangSu with a vengeance!



You could see how worried the ferry staff were as we approached the dock - at this time of the year they would expect a few quiet couples, a farmer and 3 chickens and a couple of bottles of baijui (Chinese White Spirit) for the hotel to be transported on the ship - but today they had 50-odd assorted freaks, each carrying a boxful of alcohol, food and musical equipment. The circus had come to town!



We took on typical tour group behaviours, taking up all available space in the ferry waiting room, rushing the doors in a uniform crush as soon as they open, screaming noisily at each other running down the gangplank, occupying all photogenic locations on the aft-deck, languishing loose-limbed on every perch and seat so that other travellers were forced to crouch in the first few seats cowering at our boisterous largess, noisily flitting between seats to scream hilariously at images on mobile phones, yelling at each other as if across a cowyard rather than the interior of a ferry, talking loudly of being seasick and making bleerking noises to unsettle each other, munching sweets and snacks in the non-eating zone and enjoying that giggly enjoyment of going on a trip with others. 



Needless to say, the lovey-dove couples were first off the boat, running to the secluded sanctuary of their hotel before our ravenous horde and the chicken farmer nervously clutched his basket of chickens lest we get the urge to set them free or to eat them!



Clearing the ferry was a mad scramble of boxes, bags and bossy Chinese - everyone had to be organised, stuffed stowed on the electric cart taking it to the hotel and instructions had to be delivered by megaphone to include the locals in the battle plan! We were going to take this island and everyone must know!



The cart set off and our group followed behind - the foreigners who had started drinking 3 hours before complaining they were spilling their drinks by being forced to walk and the Chinese in the group madly scrambling in all directions to get 'funny poses' for their WeiXin accounts! Soon this degenerated into running into the private orchards to strip the few remaining oranges from the trees, linking arms and skipping carefree down the road and collecting bullrush switches to chase each other with! Childish, yes, but very tour-group like behaviour!



Our accommodation was a small private hotel that had been hollowed out of an orange grove and a new 3-story tower was built with views over the orchards to the lake or the mountains. The bottom floor was a restaurant style with KTV machine, side rooms for cards and mahjiang and an outside kitchen area. Upstairs were 2 and a half levels of rooms down a single corridor, 3 single beds in each and a small bathroom. Clean, tidy, rudimentary but pleasant. The owners were the cousins of one our group members and they cooked monstrous meals of local product straight from the garden, and the lake.



TaiHu is famous for the ’3 whites' fish - small fish (whitebait) usually served mixed in egg, white shrimp that are usually steamed and tossed in garlic and mandarin fish, a sweet fish that resembles a trout but with white flesh and y-shaped bones. The fourth White is not so common - it is a type of freshwater crab. The 5th white is a type of eel - All were on display in the meal as well as local chicken, vegetables, water-chestnuts and lotus. Needless to say, pollution-free skies and cool breeze made us hungry!



Also, amazingly non-China was the lack of noise! No constant 60 dB drone of city and transport - just birds and creaking trees and whistling wind. But we were about to end all that, we had KTV! And a band!



And atrocious it was! The local Suzhou dialect is loud, nasal and wailing so by the time we’d heard 'the moon reflects my heart' and got halfway through 'whatever' the local dogs were all howling in unison. Luckily most Chinese have an evening expiry time of 10pm so there were still a few quiet hours left in the evening for the die-hard drinkers of the group to do what they do best!



The next morning dawned a little drizzly, so the dance troupe hit the roadway out the front of the hotel with earnest...twirling batons, snapping fans and slamming bamboo staffs into the Tarmac as the completed their morning routine. A few years ago this exercise was mandatory for Chinese workers before starting their shift and many middle aged Chinese ladies continue the tradition. This racket of reedy revolutionary music, the quacking of the ducks and honking of the geese upset by the dancing was enough to wake the bleary-eyed drinkers from stupor which lead to the strange mixing in the restaurant of hyper-energetic Chinese and lethargic (and arguable sickly) foreigners for a breakfast of eggs, congee and breadrolls! Breakfast of champions.



The beer-breaths went back to bed as the rest of the group attacked the 4-person pedicabs, careening of into the mist at breakneck speed, everyone trying to prove they were strong and could pull their weight in the rickety machines...interesting none of the machines returned an hour later with such vigour. I still haven't worked out how teams of adults can allow the most incapacitated or inexperienced driver to control these things but somehow they do every time!



Adventurous Team B decided to scale the rocky slopes of the nearest mountain and succeeded in tracking 25 cubic metres of mud down its slopes to be deposited on the restaurant floor - we are tour-group, everyone cleans up after us!



Team C, the old, the invalids and the chronically hung-over spent their morning guarding the hotel! All was well!



After another huge lunch of local produce we packed the few remaining bottles of beer into bags and caught the shuttle bus golf-carts to the ferry, forcing them to delay the shipping schedule as we loaded our sick and weary onto the boat! After piling onto the boat like an ant horde, scuttling to spare seats, steps and other perches we proceeded to sing bawldry sea-shanties to subdue the other passengers - it worked, not a single one looked up from their mobile phone for the 30 minute trip!



Alighting the vessel at breakneck speed and boarding the bus we discovered we'd left 2 bags of alcohol and a small child on the ferry! Our fastest runner returned to the boat to recover the treasure (and the child) again delaying the shipping! But the captain smiled, knowing he wouldn't be seeing or hearing us until next spring festival! 

The bus ride back was fairly sedate, the ladies were still in high volume chatter and the drunked were swaying gently.

Upon our arrival in SuZhou we hit peak hour so we carefully parked our bus in the middle of the road to unload, blocking all traffic and drawing the ire of the taxi-drivers and motorists as we unloaded bags and bodies - but we figured, we were a tour group so we had right-of-way!



Chinese Tour Groups - if you can’t beat them, join them!


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(Showing 1 to 3 of 3) 1
#2014-02-22 17:21:08 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Another great look at life in China Gareth, and a helpful tip on where I might be able to take my wife's family for a reunion one day. Thanks for that.

#2014-02-22 17:58:46 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Gareth, I must say that I enjoyed this effort very very much. I could almost live it and feel it as I read your words - well done mate !

It goes to prove once again that China has so much more to offer than the hordes of people, the pollution, the traffic jams, the noise and (dare I say it) some towns and cities that I hope I never see again because they were ugly, dirty 'shit-holes' !

For me, it's just something else that adds to my strange fascination with this vast country

I have only been to SuZhou once (for 2 nights) and I fell in love with the place. The weird ancient buildings that look like they are about to fall over sideways, the beautiful tree-lined streets, the lights, and of course the famous 'bar-street' which adds a whole new dimension to the English phrase 'pub-crawl'

I would LOVE to do the trip to SanShan Island and hope to get the chance one day

Thanks again for a wonderful story mate

#2014-02-23 21:27:22 by Barry1 @Barry1

@aussieghump

"Chinese Tour Groups - if you can’t beat them, join them!"

Thanks for this amusing depiction of your adventures with the tour group, Gareth.

Coincidentally, I've only ever been on one tour group and it happened to be in your home town of Suzhou.

We jumped on a bus there and proceeded up the road to some lovely canal areas and historic gardens. The tour guide was jabbering furiously at every step of the way, including through the bus intercom as it weaved and wobbled its way up the road, missing other motorists by seeming millimetres at some stages.

Within thirty seconds of the tour starting however, I realised I'd made a major mistake. Either that or the nice Chinese lady accompanying me who'd booked the tour had made the error. Can you guess what it was?

No peeking...... the answer is in the next paragraph.

Well, the answer is not that I had forgotten my sunglasses. Nor the sunscreen. The situation is, dear readers - the tour guide spoke Chinese only and so for the entire trip, I failed to understand a word he said. What should have happened is that an English speaking tour should've been boooked, not a Mandarin one.

In any case, I still enjoyed myself.

Although now that I think about it, I actually didn't. If the truth be known, it was a rather boring tour. One can only look at so many slowly moving canals or aged gardens or historic temples, before one's eyes glaze over. Particularly if you're listening to a jabberer whose words are impossible to comprehend and everyone is walking around like a herd of catatonic sheep.

Part of the way through the tour, the bus stopped at a jade factory. We were shown various stages of jade polishing that was interesting enough. But most of the time we were herded into various salesrooms, where supposedly we could purchase "discount" articles of jade and suchlike. The head salesperson kept looking at me as the only Westerner there (and at 187cms, the tallest person also), wondering why I wasn't buying anything. The answer was because the prices were too high and we were being treated like silly tourists. Which of course, we were. Sigh.

For what it's worth, I still think some of the most enjoyable times I had in China was when I was being carted around in the back of the little bicycle driven cabs, touring around different towns, traversing from point to point within them. Apart from the thrills of nearly being run off the road multiple times each journey and listening to a discordant cacophony of blaring car horns around me each time, the feeling of the wind in your face, laced with fresh monoxide from the multitude of vehicles whizzing past was invigorating indeed.

My trip in China was overall really great. Until an unexpected problem awkwardly beset me from out of nowhere. But ah, that's another story, dear readers. You'll have to wait for the release of the book, in order to see how this bedeviling nightmare was embraced and finally dealt with.

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