Blitzkrieg tourism at its best. A whirlwind of selfie-sticks, tour guide flags and hyperactive old people. On a class trip to Zhejiang Province in the southeast of China organised by my Beijing university, I was to have the genuine experience of a Chinese tour.
Thousands of Pictures Speak, Like, Millions of Words, Right?
Anyone who has witnessed a Chinese tour group descend on a site of public interest may have noticed the preoccupation with taking photos. According to my Zhejiang findings, I can report that photos fall into three general categories:
- The Attraction
Photographing every inch of [insert destination] with the attention to detail you would normally expect of a forensic scientist at the site of a mass homicide. Nothing is spared. Not even the toilets. Believe me. I was there.
2. The Group
Group photos with all their awkward shuffling left and right have to be taken at the end of every visit to any attraction. And at the beginning if you have time. The middle bit is optional. If you aren’t in the group photo, you weren’t there. Simple. As.
3. The Selfie
Possibly the most dangerous of the three due to the invention of the selfie-stick. I’ve yet to be brained by one but have put that down to divine intervention.
Rent A Foreigner
Before getting off our tour bus to visit Wūzhèn 乌镇 (an ancient waterside town) one day, our Chinese guide did something very strange in seeming to apologise for the presence of Chinese tourists. Specifically, he said, ‘There’ll be a lot of tourists here today from provinces all over China. Just to warn you.’
Too late did I realise he was not apologising for the fact that Chinese people had decided to go travelling within their own country, but rather warning us that we were to become part of the day’s entertainment for many people who had never seen foreigners up close. It seems that, as Instagram is banned in China, the equivalent of a really hipster filter is to grab the nearest foreigner and insert them into the photo. In a quick survey of our travel group, it was possible to see that you can get plus points for blonde foreigners, tall ones, hijab-ed ones and ones who can speak Chinese.
I happen to fall into the blonde category so by the end of the afternoon I was pretty twitchy, having been unexpectedly snatched away several times by tiny old women with harpy-like grips. Most of the visitors that day looked to be in their 70s and upwards, with an interesting arrangements of teeth and clothing, enjoying what was probably a rare trip out of their hometown. So they were not only very excited but dressed to impress. There was much in the way of velour tracksuits, sequins, oversized sunglasses and big hair. I’d probably describe the look as drag meets Real Housewives of Orange County.
A Cultural Feast
One of the cities we visited was Ningbo. It happens to be one of China’s most ancient, forming part of the Silk Road and as a centre of trade, it was at different points home to Arabs, Jews, Portuguese and British who included it as a Treaty Port after the first Opium War.
So what’s Ningbo like, you ask?
Well, frankly, I haven’t a bloody clue because I didn’t get to see it.
Guess where we spent most of our time? An ancient imperial palace? An art museum? A traditional craft workshop? Perhaps a famous teahouse?
A car factory.
Yes, after being given half an hour to rush around just one of the city’s ancient sites and take the obligatory group photo at the exit, we were stuffed back onto the bus like kids into the Child Catcher’s van in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to enjoy the three hour plus return trip to Ningbo’s most distant suburb to quite literally watch paint dry on car doors whilst being force-fed manufacturing statistics.
One Country, Two Worlds
After being robbed of an hour of our lives by one of China’s biggest car manufacturers, we bussed our way back to the centre of town to catch a train. The Ningbo University students who accompanied us during the day rolled their eyes as soon as we were back on the coach, apologising that we’d missed basically everything of cultural and historical significance the city had to offer. “That’s the older generation’s way of thinking’, explained one student as another searched furiously on his phone for historical sites we could visit near the train station. ‘They still want to show you how strong China’s industry is. It’s a bit old-fashioned.”
Indeed, it was quite incredible how these students seemed a world away from their professors who’d planned our Ningbo itinerary. After the previous day of organised activities which included visiting the four story semi-detached house (with vegetable garden and porch) of a ‘typical Ningbo family’, the students had taken us out for a midnight barbecue. There, the conversation ranged from the likely sexuality of one of the male students who professed to be ‘a little bit confused’, to the ethics of one-night stand culture, to the hottest Chinglish phrases in Ningbo. No one talked about manufacturing statistics, no one felt the need to mention GDP, and no one wanted to chat about Ningbo’s flourishing international trade. It was quite refreshing. Probably like the sea air of the port we never got round to visiting.