4 Ways I Traveled - Chinese Bus Tours (Part 1)Suppose taking a trip is as simple as confirming travel plans, packing bags, and flying to a new city in a new country. Forget all the other nuances like deciding what the best places to eat are, which hotel would be the most ideal, or where the most popular attractions are. Does such an easy way of exploring really exist?
Traveling abroad can be really daunting. Potential problems vary depending on the destination in mind. If I go somewhere foreign, will people there speak or at least understand English? How much universal sign language and hand-flapping should I brush up on? What kinds of transportation are there to take? Which is the cheapest and safest?
Of course, these sorts of scenarios shouldn't ever keep anyone from gallivanting through the big world we call Earth. Our phones are a great resource nowadays. If not, the good old trusty travel guide books are a safe bet as well. Otherwise, the simplest answer for those who are hesitant of their own abilities and prefer a guided experience is a bus tour. This is the preferred method for my mom and many other older immigrants who haven't really traveled much before and have in recent years had the capabilities and wish to do so. It is also the solution to the biggest hurdle that might stop them from actually booking the trip: language.
I cannot attest to all bus tours because there probably are many different styles and many different price points within the travel category itself. My experiences mentioned here are going to be specific to Chinese budget bus tours abroad.
These are the kind of tours that are booked mostly through a travel agent at one of the many Chinese travel agencies that are open in the Chinatowns throughout the world. (Yes, I am going to make that bold statement because all the fellow bus tour members I have met in Thailand, Taiwan, and China did, in fact, come from all over the world. Whether they were from the USA, Canada, Australia, or Malaysia they all found their way to where we were because of a travel agency in their respective Chinatowns.) Somehow, the deals are always undeniably captivating: BOGO Free, BOGO 50%, ~$200 roundtrip flight to Asia + food + room & board + mandatory tour around Shanghai and neighboring cities, etc.
When promotions sound like that, how could one possibly resist? Sometimes a couple hundred dollars could land a person thousands of miles away. Participants don't have much to worry about since tour guides almost always speak Chinese, whether Cantonese or Mandarin varies and English is a plus not a must for tour guides. Everyone is bussed from one location to the next. Hotel and food are already part of the itinerary and mostly paid for. What a steal and it is headache-free!
Tallest buildings. Longest structures. Natural glories. Man-made beauties. Museums. Memorials. Floating markets. Night markets. Bangkok. Pattaya. Taipei. Hualien. Taitung. Kaohsiung. Tainan. Shanghai. Hangzhou. Wuxi. Nanjing. Suzhou. Beijing. Chengde. Nanjing.
If simply being to the most number of places in one trip is a priority, there is probably nothing like what the bus tour could offer. No matter if the tour is 6 days, 7 days, or 8 days, the sheer quantity of places and cities the tours can manage to fit in the itinerary is praiseworthy. On days where it was attraction-heavy, the guides would take us to 3+ photo-worthy spots. Other days, it may be one attraction and a bunch of shopping stops in addition to the travel time needed to reach a new city that is hundreds of miles away.
The places on the travel itinerary are usually ones that are relatively famous and/or tourist hotspots. The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Great Wall in Beijing, Taipei 101 in Taipei, and West Lake in Hangzhou. Sometimes it was to a lesser traveled to yet historically significant and interesting sights nonetheless. The Shakadang Trail in Hualien and Mountain Resort in Chengde. Regardless, the common point across all tours, no matter the country it is in, is the limited amount of time spent at all the attractions. The reason is pretty obvious. The only way to be able to visit all the places and see so much in a limited timeframe is by sacrificing the chance to slowly absorb the surrounds and move around at a relaxing pace. It is a tight line that tours usually try to stretch so attendees don't feel like they aren't getting their money's worth in terms of sights that are seen.
Shows and performances on the itineraries are interesting, for a lack of a better word at this moment. Cultural recitals, drag shows, and tease shows in Thailand and acrobatic shows in Beijing. It is a difficult topic to explain in a way without being contradictory. Having to go to performances that I had no say in picking keeps me open to other cultures. Yes, it is (usually) a representation of their customs and lifestyles and definitely unique from what I would ever get to normally see. But a majority of the performances we were taken to were filled to the brim with only other Chinese tourists. The shows were lacking the authenticity of the local art and culture that I would personally prefer. Something that people who live there are excited to see and give praise to instead of something that is more-or-less manufactured to profit from outsiders with.
The greatest and worst thing that comes with bus tours is the bus itself. Greatest because if anyone is the type, like me, that can fall asleep anywhere, the bus rides will add countless hours of naps to your schedule. Which is great because wake up calls are usually pretty early in the morning. Buses can be the best because there is no worrying about safety and transportation and money, just make sure your butt is with the rest of the group when the bus is ready to get a rollin'. Then there is the bad because not all buses or tours are the same. Some vehicles might have tons of leg room while others have barely any (which is saying a lot because I am a short girl). Some tour groups are larger than others (buh-bye double seats). Then there is the absolute worst because most of the time anyone spends on a tour is on the bus itself. Whether it is being driven 30+ minutes between stops or 2+ hours to reach the next city on the trip, your butt is in for a long long ride.
Food is one of the main reasons I travel; being able to eat and taste things that I wouldn't normally try or be able to try at home is a big driver. But on bus tours, food is more of an afterthought. All of the tour guides I met all joked that food on the tours were not to taste good but to survive on; it would not be anything particularly outstanding, just edible. What this actually meant was lots of buffet food from the hotel or family style Chinese stir-fried meals. Hungry, I was not. Yet I didn't get to taste very many local delicacies outside of what the hotel buffet line had to offer. Again, it is just an issue I personally have with authenticity to the local culture versus something tailored towards a foreign visitor. Why would I travel to a place like Beijing, Shanghai, Thailand, or Taiwan to have southern style Chinese food? The 2 exceptions to the buffet and southern-style Chinese food meals were once when the Beijing tour included a Peking Duck dinner and once when the Taiwan tour included a street-food themed sit-down meal.
As everyone's preferences are different, so are the way food is fit into tour itineraries. Some would include time at markets so that travelers could walk around and buy local snacks for the bus ride. Others would organize night market time as a dinner replacement. Certain occasions the guides would upsell meals after the included meals so that they could bring you to a "special local spot" for things like turtle soup in Taiwan or shark fin soup in Thailand.
Shopping stops are the single most shocking experience across all the tours. There were many stops to buy jewels, jade, pearls, tea leaves, teapots, animal-skinned goods, silk bedding, and dried fruits and candies. I had mentally prepared myself to fight off the temptations of just wanting things that look nice. I also readied to dissuade my mom from doing the same. Yet the tactics and sheer numbers of shopping stops got the best of us. There is always something that looks too good to resist. Case in point for me, local food and snacks.
I should clarify what these "shopping shops" are first in order to paint the full picture. The budget tours are so glaringly cheap because of the various sponsors who probably negotiate deals with travel agencies to provide food and hotel in exchange for customers who would be willing to buy a lot of stuff at their establishments. Establishments which aren't really open to the general public, from what I could tell. They are usually in seemingly remote places where the only other people you'd see, besides the employees, were tons of other bus tour groups members. The main goals of these shopping stops were so the sponsors would basically earn back the "investment" they made on the travelers. The better way of putting this would be to say they offer good prices for luxury goods to visitors.
There have been shows and reports, especially in Asia, that talk of how sometimes the establishment would force travelers to buy things before they can pass the doors to leave. I can say that I mostly didn't experience that particular style of sales on the tours but what I saw could be almost on par. The more typical approach was to offer steep promotions. Sometimes manager types would offer freebies as a way to entice. Then the penultimate maneuver is the story.
Oh, the power of a story! Each busload of people is usually brought into their own rooms with their own manager to explain the various kinds of things that they sell. Then there is the noteworthy "this is the one and only of it's kind," the strategic "best and safest investment," or the sympathy-inducing "I didn't really want to work for the family business but my dad is ill so here I am" scenarios that happen all too frequently. When the story is paired with the freebies or steep promotions, or better yet both, that is when the magic happens. Something in the minds of the people turns them into customers. The ability to make someone believe in something that may or may not be true is really something else. The sponsors and the guides bank on the affirmation that the formula works and that all bus groups are separate from beginning to end so the stories are never shared until it is too late. Now whether to call this a form of forcing is probably arguable. Saying it is the power of a story is being nice. Calling it deceit is the extreme.
Earlier I mentioned "I mostly didn't experience any forcing to purchase" because there is one scenario where it did sort of happen to a certain degree. At a shopping stop, there were only a few couples and families purchasing. A majority didn't see a need for the product or had particular excellent self-control that occasion. Many sales girls stood around with no sales to make. Despite the lack of interest, our tour guide hadn't suggested we leave any earlier. So we stood and sat around. Perhaps a manager noticed and started pushing a bit. While travelers who came as pairs were able to shrug off the advances more easily, a big group didn't fare the pestering as well and eventually gave into buying and all was well for everyone else. The reasoning? If enough people buy enough things, it would cover for what the non-buyers did not spend.
Yet with all that said, I don't think I want to completely condemn the idea of these Chinese budget bus tours. It is definitely not my preferred style of traveling: the time spent on the bus, the time wasted for me at the shopping stops, and the low freedom to roam. However, it is extremely difficult to deny how cheap it is. While the included tour is mandatory, it is still possible to get away with buying a very limited amount of things. It is especially easy if you don't speak Chinese or don't look Chinese. In exchange for the tour, the flight tickets are usually open for a long period of time; if holiday time allows the shopping tour does not have to be the only destination! I met a couple who took advantage of the cheap package price to also stop in Hong Kong for a week or so for their honeymoon. My mom and I, on the other hand, utilized the air ticket as a way to go to not only Hong Kong, but also my families' hometowns in Southern China, Japan, Singapore, and Korea all in one go. Hint, how there can be 3 more parts to this series to come.