Slice of Life: Beijing in a bubble
I have a confession to make: last month I went on a group tour to Beijing. A cattle-herd style, flags waving in the air, gigantor coach-bus city tour – the type the worldly backpacker in me had always cringed at. And it was all thanks to my mother and her recently harboured desire to travel burdened by a constant paranoia of the unknown. She was dying to see Beijing with me but the only way to appease her nervousness was through an all-inclusive package tour. So, of course (dutiful daughter and all that), I obliged.
Considering I’ve trekked through much of Europe and Southeast Asia on my own, I was dreading the experience of having my hand held through a foreign city. It all started before we even got off the ground when our spritely young guide met us at the airport check-in counter in Hong Kong with badges, luggage tags, maps and instructions at the ready. He made me second-guess my ability to make it from the counter to the gate unscathed… and on time.
And, on the Beijing side, a mega-chatty guide met us and throughout the trip he gave us advisory warnings (‘don’t talk about politics in Tiananmen Square’), self affirmations (‘look at these skyscrapers! Isn’t Beijing great? Look at all the money we have!’) and sales pitches (‘next stop is the silk factory. Gweilos love those silk blankets! Buy lots!’). He was the voice in our heads – all-knowing for us out-of-towners to trust and, of course, to follow to a tee.
Travelling to another place should be a cultural occasion. A chance to briefly live the life those people themselves experience every day. See what they see. Taste what they eat. But now I can see what the Mainland-group-on-an-organised-package-tour-in-HK must experience (and other tourists for that matter). For what we enjoyed was more like HK in Beijing than the full China capital experience.
It was almost like we were floating around town in a bubble, seeing the sights and hearing the sounds but not really experiencing the town. We efficiently ticked off all the ‘must-sees’ of Beijing – Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube, Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Ming Dynasty Tombs, The Great Wall and Tiananmen Square in a mere four-day trip, battling swarms of rival flag-herded groups. All the choicest parts of the city, wrapped up into one nice, neat, consumable package – almost like ‘you don’t need to see the rest’.
Flanking the visits were meals of traditional, round-table shared dishes that were not too far off from our Cantonese food. Um, we’ve tried that before...
In between the sites, we’d take in shopping houses masquerading as ‘museums’ and ‘sites’. A silk factory. A jade factory. A historic Chinese medicine facility where a doctor diagnosed me as ‘undernourished’. I would have believed her if she didn’t try to sell me RMB1,800-worth of medicinal teas afterwards.
For some, my mother included, this was the perfect way for the discerning Hongkonger to travel – see the sights, snap the pics and load up on souvenirs (what size would granny be in this ‘I heart BJ’ T-shirt?), be protected from potential pickpocketers, sketchy eateries and the dangers of wandering into the wrong part of town.
But, by the end of the trip, as I peered out at the hutongs we completely bypassed in our plush air-conditioned bus, I couldn’t help but think that we’d been fed the Beijing Beijing wanted us to see – like a mini censored travel experience. I felt a little pinch of irony in the fact that, perhaps, we’d had a small taste of a much bigger ubiquitous Mainland information bubble we always hear about.