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July 16, 2008

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.

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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.

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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.

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Comments

peter

As of 18 months ago there were some hutongs to the E of the Forbidden city, right off the main shopping street. Many of the hutongs in the Back Lakes District surely remain, but they're being gentrified rapidly, so the inside is often pretty late 21st century prosperous.

Forget the Olympic special sites and sights if this is your first trip to China. Go to the Great Wall at Mutianyu (others have their favorites); spend half a day in the Forbidden City; go to a night market; and plan a contemplative quiet half day at the Temple of Heavenly Peace. Ride the subway. Go into a Chinese grocery.

And yes, eat Peking Duck at a reputable place like the "Sick Duck" off the main shopping street (so-named because it's next to the main hospital). Just walk.

Go to Back Lake district, and wander off the tourist trails. See the old Chinese barber cutting hair on the streets. I don't ask you to live like a Chinese, but do see how they live.

But, to quote Tom Lehrer, Don't drink the water/and don't breathe the air.

Alan

Hi - Your blog brings back lots of memories from the year and a half I spent in China for business. Are the hutong's (courtyard homes) still around the Forbidden City? It is well worth roaming around those alley ways. Also I recommend visiting Hohai park at night. There are a ton of fun bars and restaurants built around a small lake in the park. It's a fun way to get a sense for the nightlife. "Bar Street" was gradually being torn down when I was there - but if there are remnants it is an interesting place to get a bit of flavor. I used to wander around the city on my own on the weekends, visiting climbing gyms, and just exploring, and came to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of modern and old in the city. For sure, however, the most interesting cultural experiences are to be found outside of the major cities and well worth the effort of finding if you can get away after the Games!

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