ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

China 101

A trip to China's likely to be a once in a lifetime adventure for most of us. So you want to make the most of it whether it's a luxury tour or back packing. To help figure out what's right for you, we go to Marty Goldensohn.

China 101
by Marty Goldensohn

Real Audio Listen with RealAudio          help Need audio help?

[Sound of Kenny G]

Hear that? Airport Muzak. Could be Dulles or LAX, but it's the sound of a brand new terminal, deep in Hunan province.

The most important preparation for China doesn't involve packing one's bags; rather, jettison your mental baggage. China isn't what it used to be. More affluent, more cosmopolitan. Communist in name only, many would argue. There's no problem finding comfort and a warm welcome. Not just the bought-and-paid-for welcome you get in four- and five-star hotels, but off the beaten track, like when tour guide Rick Montgomery was ahead of schedule taking 30 senior citizens to the airport.

pig farm

Montgomery: "And I asked the driver, 'Pull off the road here, drive us to the countryside.' No one stopped me. No one said it was off limits. Take us too a pig farm. Old lady came out, looked to be Confucious' wife. And asked us what we wanted. A tour of home. Big home. Not 16 families...a pretty good size home."

If a guide feels free to just drop in on a Chinese family, it makes you wonder whether a full-blown tour is still necessary to get around China? Maybe the best way to answer the question is to ask: how much am I like Barbara Wilson from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in Beijing with her husband Dick."

Marty: "Tell me how you did it."

Barbara: "Same way I usually do. I cross-referenced several travel books on China. I mull over it and savor where I might want to go, where stay, and how I will get there. And then I faxed ahead to hotels, asked if they would fax back, please, a confirmation number and also have a driver meet us in Beijing at the airport again at Guilin and Hong Kong, I didn't want too get into Beijing and not know what I was doing. I found out ahead exactly how much it costs. So I have a sheet with the hotel, the airport transportation, how much it costs and transportation numbers listed."

Marty: "So your husband has married his personal travel agent."

Barbara: "You bet. He does nothing."

Barbara is independent, likes her creature comforts -- and China is now ready for tourists like her. But like the tour companies, her approach to China travel leaves little to chance. She sticks to the parts that have been made accessible to tourists. However, there are thousands of backpackers who don't and can't afford a top hotel, or a driver to meet them at each stop. They see a different China.

Ada Hatchner, 19, and Matthew Erasp, 23, college students from Minnesota, have been off the beaten path for five months.

Until you go out and explore for yourself, just thrown in, the shock of the system is what gets you I think. What else? A lot of the mothers out with their kids, will stop their kids, take their hand and point us out like they've never seen a white person before.

Whether you decide to get about China on your own or with a tour, here is some bottom line wisdom, the Ying and the Yang.

1. Summers are blazing hot, winters bitter cold. spring and autumn are best in China. But if you want easy reservations for hotels, trains, internal flights, the opera, the acrobats, go precisely when its very hot or very cold.

Shanghai harbor

2. Forget learning much Mandarin before you go. Too hard. But I found it most appreciated to learn hello -- [knee how] -- and thanks -- [she she].

3. Food. Lunch and dinner are wonderful opportunities. But breakfast, no. Pickled vegetables. However, at better hotels you will find croissant-shaped objects, with egg and O.J.

4. Bargain for nearly everything, even in a department store. But how? Every shopkeeper, even peddlers selling jade carvings on mountain peaks, carry calculators. They punch in a price. Walk away; they'll punch in a lower number.

5. Tipping. It's no longer an offense in China to accept a tip. So you could tip your cab driver, or hotel porter, but...it's not expected. Do tip your guides. Waiters? Certainly at the top eateries.

6. Yes, there's toilet paper in China. But if you plan to go off the beaten track even once in a while, bring a roll of toilet paper along from home or from your hotel. Toilets are few and far between and basically holes in the ground with little privacy. Be prepared.

7. Car rental? Forget it.

8. Finally, China is changing so fast, don't be surprised if when you get there everyone's expecting tips; bargaining in English, eating flaky croissant, drinking the tap water, stopping their rental cars at clean roadside restrooms.

Rudy: Who do you bump into when you travel around China? Is the place overrun with Americans? Let's bring Marty Goldensohn back here with us. Marty, do you find many Westerners, say, at the Great Wall?

Marty: Yes, but most tourists in China are...Chinese, from other provinces. Many have the income to travel now. The next biggest group is the ethnic Chinese: citizens of Thailand, Singapore, Canada...wherever.

Rudy: They come to find their roots?

Marty: Absolutely. And they say so. For example, outside Bejing, I bumped into Chou Sia and her husband Edwin, from Singapore.


Marty: "Did you always want to come to the Wall? All your life?"

Edwin: "Yes. Definitely. It's one of our dreams."

Chou Sia: "Of course. Most of Chinese would like to get sight of the Great Wall. Like the Jews want to go back to Jersusalem."

Marty: "Like the Jews wanna go back to Jerusalem, yes."

Rudy: Marty, could you get a sense of whether those overseas Chinese felt welcome, comfortable in China? After all, many of these families left or escaped half a century ago.

Marty: Welcomed, yes. But comfortable, not always. Because of an intereting travel glitch. They're steered to Chinese-speaking hotels, when in fact, often they don't speak Chinese -- not Mandarin anyway. Typical was Sean Peat's whose family's been in Thailand three generations. She wanted to rent a bike. Her concierge couldn't understand.

Sean: "They cannot speak English. Only way they understand us is by my tour leader or my guide."

Marty: So in that one respect your better off being American or German and booked by your travel agent into a western hotel.

Rudy: The Germans are great travelers.

Marty: Many Germans in China. Great hikers. Young and old. Like Benno. I remember asking him if he were retired.

Benno: "I am tired. Ya."

Marty: "Not tired retired."

Benno: "Retired, yeah."

Rudy: That's pretty funny. Who else is touring China?

Marty: Australia's nearby relatively. Many backpackers. My favorite one, 80-year old Claude Batten who was retracing Mao's Long March, that bloody cross-country military trek in the 30's. Claude, treking alone, was starting in the south, in a place called Yuyan.

Claude: "Oh it's the most fasinating place I've ever been to. Your right in the back blocks of places. I was fortunately enough to meet that survivors of that march."

Rudy: Sounds like you met some characters.

Marty: Yeah, for sure. That's half the fun.


Savvy Resources:

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy