I’ve been on a number of sightseeing tours in China and they all had one thing in common: they were bad. Often very, very bad (like this one in Xi’an). Despite that, I enjoyed most of them. Having the right people on the tour helps, but the most important factor is attitude. If you go in expecting the ridiculous and are fully prepared to laugh your way through it all, you’ll have a great day. Most of the time. Sometimes even that won’t be enough.
When I worked in Shenzhen, my company scheduled monthly sightseeing trips for us. We’d meet up early in the morning on a Saturday and embark on a standard Chinese tour to two or three sites with a stop at noon for lunch. Most of my coworkers found them boring and stayed home in bed, but I signed up for the majority, mainly because of the lunch—a lunch I didn’t have to cook.
The toughest test to my patience always came right at the beginning, when a tour guide would shriek information at us through a microphone at volumes that our family dog would find painful. That dog has been dead for over 10 years and is buried in the US. For me, sitting directly below the speakers and being alive, the screeching was unbearable. I learned to quickly put in a pair of earplugs as soon as I saw a Chinese girl with a name tag stand up at the front of the bus. With earplugs, the noise level is brought down to the upper ranges of a normal person’s speaking volume and you are able to follow along relatively pain free.
On this particular trip, our first stop was a lychee farm. When lychees are in season, thousands of city dwellers flock to the farms to pick the fruit directly from the trees. Apparently they taste much better when you not only save a farmer the trouble of hiring illegal immigrants, but also pay him for allowing you to take care of his manual labor. Paying a fraction of the cost to have the fruit vendor across the street toss a couple of lychees in a bag just doesn’t compare.
After an hour on the bus, we arrived at a large lychee farm and were escorted through the gates and set free amongst the trees. We visited right at the beginning of the season, so it was difficult to find completely ripe lychees. Most were hanging at the tops of the trees which meant that we not only had to pick the fruit in the hot sun, but also had to climb the trees to get at any fruit worth eating.
I ate about ten. They tasted great, but so do the lychees from the fruit vendor. It took me about ten minutes to pick and eat my ten lychees. Then I was ready to leave. Pretty soon, everyone else was ready to go, too. After a certain number of lychees, you simply don’t want any more and apparently, eating too many isn’t good for you anyway. That’s when I learned we had another two hours at the farm.
Obviously, I screwed up. Instead of quickly picking and eating my lychees, I should have paced myself. I should have eaten one every 30 minutes or so. I didn’t do that because it was hot, humid and dusty on the farm and I wanted to get back on the air-conditioned bus. And I wasn’t alone in my thinking, judging by the groans all around when our lychee time was announced.
We spent the next two hours standing in the shade under a lychee tree. Time crawled. Sitting down would have helped, but most of the trees showed signs of recently having been used as a toilet and the chances were high that the trees without visible signs—i.e. toilet paper and feces—had also been soiled, just not as recently. Sitting down was too risky, so we stayed on our feet. We were also getting hungry. Lychees don’t really fill you up.
Luckily, our next stop was a famous food court at a lake resort. It was exactly what I expected: an artificial lake surrounded by newly built buildings constructed to look ancient. It was a typical Chinese destination. For some reason, they love these artificial re-creations. In fact, they seem to prefer them to the actual things. They would rather have a beautiful waterfall removed and artificially rebuilt than spend time at the natural one. Perhaps the natural one sat at slightly the wrong angle to get that perfect peace-sign photo or the spray of the water drifted a little too close to the onlookers. Whatever nature’s deficiency, it needs to be fixed.
This place was a hundred percent artificial and completely uninteresting. Since we had come mainly to eat, I didn’t much care, though. We were promised a seafood meal and that’s what we got. Only seafood. It was nothing but fish with the occasional spring onion as garnish. No other meat and very few vegetables.
In fact, we learned that every single dish came from the same fish. It was some kind of gigantic carp and the chefs used every last part of the animal to feed us. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of this fish. Even the regular flesh had a strange rubbery texture, not to mention the various other parts that should have ended up in a dog dish, not on our plates. On top of that, large fish like this one are loaded with mercury and whatever other pollutants they’ve been swimming in their whole lives. Not that there are any pollutants in Chinese waters, of course.
After lunch we got twice as much time as necessary to enjoy the artificial surroundings. We did find an amusement park on one side of the lake. We didn’t have time to go in, but it didn’t matter. Looking at the park, it was clear the most amusing part was this sign:
We had one stop left before heading home. This time, they took us to an actual ancient village. The buildings were original, but had been renovated and in some case reconstructed and filled with art galleries. Most of them were closed, but this village and the surrounding farmland and hiking trails was the most interesting part of the day. Naturally, we left quickly.
This trip was my least favorite of those my company in Shenzhen sponsored. We spent way too much time standing around in the heat and humidity in a public toilet masquerading as a lychee tree and should have shifted one hour of that time to the final stop and used another hour to go home earlier. The lunch menu could have benefited from a little variety, too. That said, I didn’t cook it and that makes any meal at least somewhat enjoyable. I also got to spend all day playing with my camera. Overall, I’m happy I went on the trip, despite everything. Since I always keep my expectations low, these tours usually end up exceeding them. This one simply met them.
You can find practical travel information for Shenzhen here.