An April 2011 trip
to Beijing by pabrams52
Quote: It is a pity that it took me this long to get to China, but I'm grateful I finally made it. Everyone should see this amazing and fast evolving country firsthand.
No, I was simply trying to mentally absorb the reality of the numbers. Everywhere we went, there were masses of people. Yes, one expects to find them at major sites, particularly since China has moved quite near the top of favored countries to visit. Anyone who has made the trek to China understands why that is – it holds much fascination in the West and is rapidly rising on the world scene. If you easily feel claustrophobic or just don’t like crowds, this is not the destination for you. I would urge you though, to reconsider and try, as the undeniable pluses far outweigh the negatives. Yes, China has its challenges, not the least of which is their population. They have nearly four times the amount of people that the U.S. has, yet their land mass is nearly the same as ours (being only a bit smaller than the contiguous United States). But, one has to consider that much of their land mass is uninhabitable, being either desert or mountains, compressing their population onto a smaller area of land in proportion to ours.
Another interesting aspect of this great population is watching human behavior. On several occasions, I heard comments by other visitors that were surprised and occasionally put off that the Chinese do not stand in orderly and equitable queues. Though it was a little startling when it first happened to me, what came to mind was that 1) we’re in THEIR country and 2) it is a very different culture. Those are important facts to remember as visitors travel throughout China, particularly Americans, who (like it or not) think that everyone should abide by the same "rules". I saw it as a valuable learning experience and only perceived it as an essential observation during our short time there. It can be quite the eye-opener, but that is a good and necessary thing.
With such a large population, it is not surprising that the Chinese are as assertive as they are. But even with that necessary behavior, it was always civil. I never witnessed open hostilities in spite of the tight spaces. I also continually saw their genuine interest in and curiosity about us – us, meaning Westerners. One has to remember that until recently, much of the population lived in the rural areas and simply did not have the means to travel. But as China develops economically, many of its people are moving to the major cities where industry holds the promise of better economic opportunities. That transition has occurred in the history of many Western countries over time, as they developed. The same holds true for China. As a result of their economic development, many Chinese now have the ability to travel within their own country. I dare say, it won’t be long before many more of them are traveling internationally. I remember when I saw the first wave of Indian tourists in Europe and thought to myself, "this is a good sign – it’s proof of growing prosperity". One of the most vivid examples that occurred to me was during my visit to The Great Wall. Our savvy tour director took us early in the morning so as to avoid the peak visitation time and minimize the crowd impact. Nevertheless, we weren’t the only people there. In the one section of The Wall that we visited known as The Badaling, there were several thousand other people there too. The tourist count grew steadily throughout the morning. As my husband and I climbed a section of The Wall, unbeknownst to me, I was being watched by some Chinese tourists. They seemed utterly fascinated by my light skin and blonde hair. Before I knew it, they eagerly maneuvered me into a photo being taken of them by their friends. No doubt, I will end up on someone’s living room wall or in someone’s photo album as a novelty of sorts. But I can tell you I didn’t mind a bit and it was a pleasant, if not humorous experience! Though we could not share any conversation, they smiled graciously and we tried to communicate with facial and hand gestures as best we could. It was a lovely moment I’ll long remember.
In closing, without a doubt, the best part of all this people watching, were the children. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were sweet and curious and when the opportunity presented itself, I took photographs, always being mindful of their "space". As a tourist, I personally try to consider the privacy of others and make an effort to gain the consent of the subject(s) before snapping away in close range. One does not like to be guilty of committing what I call "animal in the zoo" syndrome. To my joy, many of the mothers of children I wanted to photograph were honored that I wanted to take their child’s photo. I would show the resulting image to them with appreciation. I could have made my entire trip out of this delightful venture, but alas, I would have needed far more time than our tour allowed. Now there’s an idea – a photographic study of the children of China. I fear, I will not be the one to take those precious photos, but it is lovely notion and certainly a bridge into another culture.
Tauck’s website is well-organized and reflects the level of professionalism they bring to each of their tours. Whether you are looking for a small group experience, river cruise or in-depth educational tour, there is something for everyone. Their 86 years of experience has helped them hone their approach to a fine art. It didn’t hurt that they began on the right track and have gone on to perfect their formula to "beyond perfection". Anyone who has taken one of their tours will tell you that it felt seamless and amazingly organized. The traveler is never aware of all the arrangements that go on behind the scenes, both before and during the tour. It is a comforting feeling being in the hands of tried and true professionals.
So, by now, you’re itching to know about the Tauck experience. The traveler is greeted at the arrival airport by one of their local representatives. This was particularly reassuring for us as neither my husband nor I speak Mandarin. She made sure that our bags arrived and walked us to our private car that took us to our first hotel on the itinerary. I would like to add that all Tauck hotels are either five-star or the best available. In the first city on our tour, we stayed at the Regent Beijing, a gorgeous and unquestionably comfortable hotel in the center of the city. Another great touch is that Tauck makes every effort to reserve rooms at hotels that have popular amenities such as a generous-sized swimming pool, spa and fitness center. These services can be more than welcome upon arrival after a long flight or after a long day of touring. This was especially important to me, as I love to swim, and find it most relaxing doing laps to either start my day or wind down after being on my feet. On all Tauck tours, there is always a director that manages all details and keeps a very close headcount on the group at all times. He or she is literally the "go to" person for just about any issue you can imagine. Once the problem is conveyed to them, they take responsibility to follow up to the best of their ability. An example from our trip: one of our participants discovered that someone on an intra-China flight had taken her backpack from the overhead bin by mistake, thinking it was his. His was left on the plane. This was immediately reported to our director, who in turn reported it to the airline as well as the local guide in that arrival city. Every effort was made to make an exchange while we were still there. Though I do not know the ultimate outcome (which of course depended on the other passenger returning her backpack for his), I have no doubt that Tauck went to all possible lengths to insure this could be transacted.
After many years of experience, Tauck has developed a wide network of professionals in the cities they tour. The bus guides in each of the cities we visited were local, highly informative and easy to understand. They select the best restaurants that convey the local cuisine and ease their tourists in/out of highly popular sites without lines, delays or any frustrations. The locals know the Tauck name and respect it for its repeat business and appreciative clients. Another example: in one point on our tour, I was seriously contemplating a rather expensive purchase of Chinese embroidery. On a prior vacation, with another company (cruise line), I had been "burned" by a merchant on one of the cruises recommended shore excursions, and ever since have been skittish and have since used great caution when making such purchases. But, I found some pieces in China from which I simply could not walk away. I went to the Director of our tour and asked him, point blank, "do I have any reason to be nervous about this investment or suspicious of the merchant?" He reassured me with a "absolutely not!". Tauck has a reputation to uphold. Though we may never go to China again, other tourists will, and Tauck cannot afford to have their good name sullied by mishaps that can ruin vacation memories and could otherwise have been prevented. Word of mouth travels FAST and both Tauck and the merchants with whom they do business know this fact well.
Tauck takes pride in each and every venture. At our farewell dinner, on the last evening of our itinerary, we gathered to enjoy each other’s company one last time. Our Director revealed to us that it is one of his personal joys watching the wonderment on our faces and listening to the pleasure in our conversations as we discover new places. My husband has long had a favorite motto, which I still believe rings true: "the first day in a new city is magical". I think that was what our director wanted to enjoy as he shared his love of travel with us. Some participants got up and spoke of how much they enjoyed the tour. I had to ring in with my own observation. At the opening dinner, we were mere strangers - 37 people from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Mexico and England. But as we said our goodbyes, we were no longer strangers. We had formed friendships, exchanged helpful information and lively conversation, and had enjoyed a great adventure together. We left the tour better for it.
No doubt, there are many more examples of Tauck’s exemplary professionalism, but I dare they must be too numerous to mention. I encourage you to view their website and save up for one of their adventures. It is money well spent! Bon Voyage.
Los Angeles, California