Monday, June 01, 2009

China! Day 4: The Tourist Experience

I could say that I signed us up for the "east line" tour to, hmm, be ironic or something. I could say I did it because the guidebook kind of implied that everyone did. Or, best yet, because I wanted to act as a clear-eyed investigator of what these tours were really up to. Honestly, though, it was just because I was a little overwhelmed by CHINA, that whole-body whole-mind immersion into the wholly other. I hadn't quite got my China legs, and didn't feel up to negotiating with a taxi driver and doing the research about where to tell him to go.... I just kind of wanted things to be easy.

The day was rainy. We went in a small van with various other tourists, mostly European. They were a pleasingly low-key group in fact. One young woman had very beautiful dredlocks, which of course I noticed.

We went first to Big Goose Pagoda. It was pleasant.

There was a Buddhist temple there also. I did obeisance to the buddha of prosperity. I've decided to make a habit of this, a little as a joke, but also because it can't hurt. On the synchronicity principle, you see. Make clear what you want, and it will come to you somehow or other.

After that, we went to Banpo village. This was the actual site of the village. They had excavated it and built a big building over it, that had been turned into a museum. Pocket of Bolts and I agreed that it was rather a melancholy sight. The Banpo people were excellent potters, and made some very distinctive pots. But it was sad to see the erstwhile residents lying exposed in their opened graves under plates of glass.

Saddest of all were the many many "jar coffins", large, deliberately broken pottery jars into which were placed those who had died as infants. These were not buried in the main cemetery area but near the houses. For reasons unknown, although some theorists make theories. It is easy to make theories when nothing can be proved either way.

After the Banpo village, an unannounced visit to (ugh) the factory where they make high quality reproductions of terra cotta warriors.

Whatever man. We were left there longer than I would have liked. Pocket of Bolts and I listened to the explanation of the making with some interest--they were made by hand, and that was kind of interesting to see--but when we were given "free time to look around and shop for high quality objets d'art and furniture", PoB and I both bolted for the door and sat on the back step, watching the rain.

After this, we were taken to lunch at an establishment that clearly specialized in tourist lunches for tourists being dragged around to the factory and then to the site for the warriors. Sigh. Unremarkable Chinese food served ostentatiously banquet style. I couldn't help thinking of the real banquets I had been treated to in Beijing and Wuhan...

I was being an English speaker on this particular day, pretending to know no Chinese for the fun of eavesdropping or just so as not to be singled out. But one incident occurred during which I could not keep silent. As we were finishing up lunch (strangers sitting awkwardly together at a round table for eight), the server came around with a comment card asking us to write comments and suggestions. She gave it to the person nearest her, a French girl. The girl shrugged and started to write on it. But then the server, a cutesy young Chinese woman with a girlish haircut and flinty eyes, stationed herself inches away from the would-be critic and peered down at what she was writing.

I found this extremely irritating for some reason and suffered some modulated form of China rage. I caught the server's eye and said conversationally in Chinese, "You know, where we come from one doesn't ask someone for a written evaluation and then look over their shoulders while they are providing it. Doing that makes them feel uncomfortable." The server looked startled and averted her eyes, maybe pretending to ignore me? maybe actually not having comprehended what I said. I think I may have said one or two more sentences elaborating on the theme. The French girl finished her comment, and the server snatched up the card and disappeared.

Then of course I felt a little bad. Was she peeking on her own initiative or had she been ordered to by her doubtless extremely sleazy bosses? One never knows if one is doing wrong, lashing out like that. There's always an excuse for something that seems idiotic or unjust or is just plain irritating. Sometimes it's even a good excuse. Other times, people are just putting one over on you because you are a dumb tourist.

We were given lots more free time to shop around in the hall of crappy but expensive souvenirs. Pocket of Bolts and I took pictures of sodden fireworks and a cracked fountain. There's a certain poetry in the run-downness even of tourist traps like this one.

The hotel agent in the CITS office had sworn we'd be given 120 minutes of free time to wander around and look at the terra cotta warriors. I'm not sure what our guide would have done if we'd actually tried to go off on our own. As it was, though, we were herded pretty effectively through the halls, roughly at the tour guide's pace. Although in the last hall, with its half excavated broken figures (which I found far more wonderful than the assembled ones) and really interesting informational displays, I lagged considerably.

These are the views I liked best. The whole warriors have a kind of sameness to them, all carefully reconstructed and replaced in their trenches. The ones half excavated and abandoned in their original configurations seem much more real, much more true to the realities of war. Aren't they more like the ravages of time, from which not even the best-preserved, best-protected can really emerge whole?

My falling behind caused Pocket of Bolts a lot of anxiety. I kept thinking, who cares if they have to wait for me? It's their own fault. But PoB didn't want to get lost. I can't blame him. I can blame CITS though, the liars. I was still more or less forgiving, however, until at the end we were herded into yet another souvenir hall. I saw it coming and started to turn tail. Thoughts of sneaking back into the museum to see some real stuff. Certainly the time allotted to shopping on whatever schedule our guide was following would be generous. However, one of the dressed up souvenir-supervisors spotted me and called out to our guide, who was chatting with pals outside the hall. He came bustling over and herded me back into the shopping area, chattering volubly. He had good English, I'll give him that. I looked at fake bronzes for a while. One good way to discourage overeager salesgirls to tell them in Chinese that you are not going to buy anything at all today and that you are just looking at these *reproductions* because you are actually interested in history.

I wandered around a bit looking at all the crappy things, and then I sat out back and contemplated the world. Joined after not too long by the rest of the group as well. When we had waited the requisite time, we set off.

On the walk back to the parking lot, there were a lot of elderly women trying to sell peaches to us. They were somewhat furtive, and of quite a different class from the middle-aged sellers of post-cards or the youngsters working in shops. I suppose that they were just trying to get in on some sliver of the tourist market by selling what they had to sell. They were very elderly. In pre-industrial China I would have bought those peaches, but god knows where they were grown and under what conditions, and anyway buying things here is pretty traumatic for me. I only summon up the nerve if it's something I really really want.

On the van-ride back, the guide let his patter trail off. I slept some and watched the rain some. The guide tried to drum up interest in a dinner song and dance theater show. Yeah right. Proposal met with dead silence. Then he chatted in Chinese to the driver and I listened. He said something to the effect that we were a bum group of tourists, not spending any money. Ha, so much the better.

Actually it was an interesting day. It was interesting to see what your average tourist get treated to and the ways in which it doesn't suit me anymore. I caught several errors in the guide's explanation of the tomb (well, it is part of my field of expertise). And although he was fairly amusing and witty, he would periodically lose track of which parts of his spiel he had recited, and repeat himself in identical words. I guess too I prefer to think my own thoughts rather than being talked at, go at my own pace instead of feeling obliged to calibrate with a group. In short, no more guided tours for me. If I hadn't been so lazy I would have done the calculation and realized that for us to hire a taxi for a day would probably have come out cheaper, even with my usual ineptitude as regards bargaining.

On the other hand, it was interesting seeing the pagoda and Banpo village, neither of which would I probably have gone to on my own. The factory on the other hand... eminently skippable. Due to my mulishness and what was, in fact, a reasonably generous allowance for photograph taking, I did get a fair amount of time to look at the terra cotta warriors. Plenty, in fact. They were interesting. But if you think harder, they are not the happiest of cultural symbols. Conquered and conscripted, unique faces perhaps but stuck onto mass-produced bodies.

I found this display in the museum to be particularly telling therefore:

Giant marionette warrior and slightly less giant marionette stereotypical little Chinese girl. I heard they danced at the Olympics. The intended message was CULTURAL CONTINUITY, I'm pretty certain. The subtext may be something else? Cultural conformity? Or was I overreading because of who and where I was?