Archive for June 3rd, 2008


The Tour Guide From Hell Takes Us to Heaven’s Lake

The trip to Xinjiang (which I’d really prefer to call “East Turkestan,” since that’s the original name the inhabitants gave it) went very well over all, and was quite exciting. I’ve pretty much recovered from the long train ride – we’re talking almost two days there, and two days back, in a very cramped sleeper car surrounded by people with whom communication, at least for me, is very difficult. Not so much for Allison, naturally, but certainly for me. So over the next few days, while I wrap up my stay in China, I’ll periodically post stuff about the Xinjiang trip and the last minute trips I take before leaving.

For now: The trip we took out to Tianshi (“Heaven’s Lake”) was … well, much more of a cultural experience than you’d expect a trip to a national park to be. You see, we didn’t join a tour group designed for foreigners, but rather one for native Chinese. Allison and I were the only foreigners in the group. And apart from the obvious difference in language (Allison more or less had to translate for me, and the tour guide didn’t know any English), it turns out that there are some rather striking differences from how tour groups operate in America or for Americans than how they are run by native Chinese for native Chinese.

The first stop on the way to Heaven’s Lake was what appeared, at first glance, to be a very, very hokey and crappy museum about the different animal life found in this area of Xinjiang. All it was, really, was a big hanger filled with stuffed animals of all varieties, looking sort of like the cover of the Interpol album Our Love To Admire, except very, very much on the cheap.

And then we got Oddball Moment of Absurdity #1. Completing our trip through the museum, we entered into a medium-sized classroom of sorts, where I was expecting a short film about the Lake or the region. No. Not at all. A woman dressed in a white coat, giving the appearance of a doctor or a scientist, proceeded to give us a presentation about … Chinese Traditional Medicine, specifically, Chinese Herbology. It seems that many herbs and medicines very much favored in CTM are grown in this area of Xinjiang. She spoke about the efficacy of various herbs in treating this disorder or that, and explained that her company grows and produces many forms of this medicine available for purchase there at the museum. (Unless otherwise noted, yes, all of the discussions I mention here were entirely in Chinese, where I understood only through Allison’s translations to me.)

We were then led into a big salesroom where, sure enough, we were surrounded by CTM products of all sorts. I snapped photos of what I saw until some guy working there gently asked me to stop.

So what was this all about? Allison explained to me that she had forgotten to warn me that our tour group might do something like this. In China, many tour groups are sponsored, and the tour company makes money from, say, manufacturers of CTM, in exchange for bringing the tour group, as the proverbial captive audience, directly to their doorstep. Most Americans, Allison and I agreed, would be outraged by something like this, and would rebel if told by a tour guide that they were not allowed back onto the bus until a requisite period of time had been spent listening to a presentation or spent in a store. Time-share promotions are one thing – there, people agree to listen to sales pitches in exchange for free or very highly discounted travel to ski or beach resorts. But this was a far different beast, where we thought we were getting a tour of Heaven Lake, and only upon being deposited did we discover we were in for a gigantic sales pitch for CTM. The other Chinese tourists, Allison explained, probably expected something of this nature, since this is common practice here, but it was very surreal for me.

Then, we were back on the road for the lake. Along the way, we saw quite a few yurts, these portable tent-like structures that native Kazakhs use for purposes of managing their sheep herds. Indeed, if we had had more time, Allison and I could’ve arranged to spend the night in a yurt with Kazakhs, who offer their hospitality as a means of making money that the People’s Republic can’t really tax. Their herds are actually technically the property of the State, so offering their services to tourists helps them get by financially. It’s supposed to be a lot of fun, if you like camping, but also if you like learning about different religions (mostly Shamanism and Animism for Xinjiang Kazakhs, with elements of Sunni Islam) and storytelling traditions. (This area of Xinjiang is traditionally Kazakh, unlike most of the province, which is Uyghur.)

And for what it’s worth, don’t get the idea that these people are primitive in any sense. The Xinjiang Museum and other government sources almost universally suggest that the non-Han ethnic groups in Xinjiang, as well as Tibet, are undeveloped, unsophisticated country bumpkins, who need the economic and educational opportunities only their enlightened Han brethren can provide them. In reality, Kazakhs don’t wear these traditional clothes the Museum suggests they do, but pretty much modern blue jeans and shirts. The ones who are involved in animal husbandry and live in yurts in the summer actually live in regular houses in winter months, and even the yurts often have electric generators and satellite dishes. And don’t get me started on Borat – though he’s humorous enough, there’s virtually nothing Borat has in common with real Kazakhs. He doesn’t even look remotely Kazakh. And many Kazakhs don’t speak Mandarin Chinese, not so much because they don’t have the opportunity, but because they, like the Uyghurs, see it as a cultural imposition.

The arrival at the lake was welcome, since for us, it was long-since past lunchtime. But instead of a delicious BBQ lamb or goat dish prepared by Kazakhs, we were led into a faux-luxurious hotel’s banquet hall, where even our tour guide conceded that the meal was going to be a subpar offering of either a noodle-based or rice-based dish. It was filling enough, but it was by far the worst meal I had in Xinjiang.

It turns out that there was some deception regarding how we’d actually get to the lake from the bottom of the mountain. Allison and I were told that we’d be have the option of paying ¥35 (about $5) for a “cable car” (which I would actually call a “chair lift”). Of course, as cool as that would be, we thought we’d just save the money. But it turns out that it’s not optional at all. Everyone pays that rate, we were told, because the vans that the entire group was loaded into was designed for those guests who were too scared to take the chair lift, and since the vans get everyone to the same destination in the end, we also had to pay ¥35, where we had been told before that everything was to be included. So this was annoying, and unfortunately, not the worst or last deception involved in this tour.

We still had some climbing to do, but pretty mild by my tastes, just a 10 or 15 minute hike up a hill until we were confronted by one of the most beautiful views of a mountain lake I’ve seen. I kept remarking to Allison how much the area reminded me of the best of Colorado, of these secluded areas where my dad would take my family four-wheeling or for camping. Fresh air, a highly valuable commodity after putting up with Beijing air for months, abounded, and the water was remarkably clear and unpolluted. Snow-capped mountains surrounded us, as well as a few peaceful temples. In the pictures I’ll get online soon, perhaps by the time you read this, you’ll see a Taoist temple overlooking the lake.

After walking around for a few moments, the tour group came down to a pier, where Allison and I were thrust into Oddball Moment of Absurdity #2. Or, perhaps it should be called Oddball Moment of Outrage, because what happened to us was nothing short of outrageous. The tour group lined up to board a boat that would show us all around the lake, but Allison and I were stopped by the main tour guide woman. She explained to Allison that we weren’t allowed on the boat, because, “foreigners weren’t allowed” on the boat, and that we wouldn’t understand the things being discussed on this portion of the tour. We were told that we should just do our own thing, and that the tour group would meet us at the bus promptly at 4:30pm, and just to return by that time, or we’d be left behind. We were so stunned that we could only watch in disbelief as the other tourists boarded the boat, and we watched them depart from the pier.

Allison and I will, naturally, post warnings about this tour group on websites and with Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. The thing is, this is a group that has an affiliation with the youth hostel where we stayed, which itself was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. This wasn’t some podunk group we found at random. This anti-foreigner attitude was insulting, especially because Allison actually understands Chinese quite well, thank you, and even if we didn’t, this is first-rate condescension. We later brought the matter up with the agent at the hostel, and he apologized. He explained that the previous agent we purchased our tickets from neglected to explain that the boat trip cost extra, and that we should have been offered, either from the other agent or the tour guide herself, the option of paying to join the boat with everyone else.

So, what to do? Allison and I tried to just enjoy the views. I snapped quite a few photos of the lake and various landmarks there, including what I take to be a Kazakh animist icon of some sort. We at least got to visit the Taoist temple (from the outside), which the group didn’t do. In some ways, spending time off by ourselves wasn’t such a bad thing, and we managed to enjoy ourselves. But even now, several days later, I can report that Allison and I are still outraged by how we were treated. She suspects that the woman was something of a Han chauvinist, since she was also saying a few condescending things about the Kazakh minority, as if they were like animals you’d see in their natural habitat. The anti-foreigner things she said to Allison certainly would fit with what you’d expect a racist to say. It was such that the other assistant tour guide, and the other tourists we were chatting with, sounded shocked when they heard what she said to us, and couldn’t believe that she had done that.

After viewing the temple, we hurried back down the mountain, and made it to the bus promptly at 4:30pm. One other guy was there. We waited nearly an hour in that parking lot before the rest of the group came back, including the tour guide herself. More time that we could’ve spent actually going inside and touring the Taoist temple.

So at this point, I expected a fairly uneventful return to Ürümqi. Ah, but there was one more Oddball Moment of Absurdity. The third such moment came from a stop we made on the way. Instead of just bringing us back to the hostel, we stopped at yet another sponsored stop, this time at a jade factory and jewelry store. They had merchandise there that ranged in price up to, in American dollars, tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. I later heard from a friend of Allison’s, a Fulbright colleague of hers studying in the area, that when he took this very same tour, he just ran off and grabbed a taxi. In retrospect, that’s what we should’ve done, but it hadn’t occurred to us, alas. No pictures of this place, unfortunately, but unless you really like jade jewelry, you’re not missing much.

All in all, I’d say that we had a good time, believe it or not. I was more amused than angry about the crappy animal museum and CTM sales pitch, and the views were gorgeous enough to help us forget, if only temporarily, about how we’d been treated. If you can ever go to this place, do it, but don’t go with a tour group. This group nearly succeeded in ruining an otherwise enjoyable excursion into one of the few remaining natural beauties in China.

Coming soon – the fabulous, if occasionally disturbing, Xinjiang Museum, the Perfume Bandit, and Other Tales of the Chinese Western Frontier.