Side Trips: Do Your Research
I love China and the people here, but I feel like Westerners are often taken advantage of, and it’s beginning to rub me the wrong way. Sure there are the “Foreigner” and “Chinese” prices at the markets and some restaurants, and the occasional flat out lie about the quality of goods or people’s intentions, but my visit a few days ago to a “traditional Chinese village” pushed me over the edge. I had a few days to get excited about my trip, organized by a Beijing tour company, and hoped to talk to and photograph villagers in a quaint, suburban Chinese village. My first clue that I was about to enter the Disneyland of Chinese villages was a large blue sign (such as the one below) identifying the complex as the “Reception Village of Olympic Country Tour,” followed by a small parade of well-dressed men with golf carts and walkie talkies.
The village we visited was called Xiangtang, and came complete with its own very colorful 18-page brochure, with information about the village and its many Western conveniences including an 18-hole golf course and five-star hotel. I was almost ready for the timeshare pitch to begin -- there was nothing traditional about Xiangtang. The complex’s residents stood outside their homes to greet us, providing tours to whomever wished to enter. While they appeared traditional from the exterior, each home included an identical layout, complete with enormous kitchens and dining areas, several large bathrooms, huge living rooms with seating for a dozen, and several large bedrooms -- their owners didn’t look like the golfing type.
We were then brought to a “500-year-old” Buddhist temple that appeared to still be under construction. Our guide lectured the group about the temple’s history, stating that it was built during the Ming Dynasty -- further probing revealed that it had been “reestablished” in 2002. After exiting the rear of the temple, we were greeted by a man made pond with fountains and fake stones. Cheesy amusement park music played from hidden speakers, and flowerpots were filled with fake flowers drizzled with plastic dew. As expected, I took tons of pictures during my visit to Xiangtang, but for all the wrong reasons. There are definitely some great organized tours out there, but be sure to do your research before signing up for a tour in Beijing -- and don't worry about asking too many questions -- if you don’t get the answers you want, save yourself a few hundred renminbi and spend your day doing something else.