China: Inexpensive tour makes seeing numerous cities, sites doable

BEIJING -- China wasn't my first choice, but it was the cheapest. How could I turn the trip down?

The 12-day "China Delights" deal included airfare, meals, hotels, tours, in-country flights and guides. It was a chance to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, famous gardens and shiny Shanghai. All for $999.

The downside? I was concerned about China's famous pollution. Twelve days on a bus with strangers. Squat toilets. The 12-hour time difference. Maybe being monitored by the government.

Still, I booked the trip and flew to San Francisco, where I caught Air China Flight 986 nonstop to Beijing. There, I put my China Spree name tag around my neck, passed through immigration and walked out into the land of dragons and Mao.

There, I saw a smiling man holding an orange flag with a pompon on top, calling my name.

China might be booming, but Chinese tourism hasn't been doing so well during these economic down times. Although the Chinese people themselves are traveling domestically, fewer foreign tourists are coming -- 10 million last year compared with 13 million in 2007.

This year, however, the Shanghai Expo 2010, a world's fair, is open through October, so Shanghai is expected to be quite crowded this summer. An estimated 70 million people -- almost all Chinese -- are expected.

During my trip, however, American tourism in China wasn't exactly a hotbed of action. And that was good. My group tour turned out to be just 13 people, all experienced, adventuresome travelers. We were upgraded to the five-star Marriott Beijing City Wall hotel.

And when we got to the Forbidden City, we were practically the only Western tourists amid a sea of Chinese.

That was fine with me.

There was only one consequence of our rarity. I first noticed it in Tiananmen Square. I would stand for a photograph, and suddenly a Chinese woman or teenager would stand really, really close, and I realized she wanted her picture taken with me, my odd blond hair a freaky standout. An even bigger celebrity in our group? A large-size guy from San Diego. Waitresses and complete strangers reached out to pat his stomach, saying, "Baby?" or "Buddha!" He was horrified at first. Then he got used to it.

The first night in Beijing, the air was acrid, holding the remnants of a big sandstorm that had blown through town two days before. But that night, it rained hard. By morning, the sky was incredibly clear -- a rare gift for tourists who often see the city through a disappointing haze.

The blue set off the regal yellow roofs of the Forbidden City, where dynasties rose and fell centuries before America was born. In Tiananmen Square, the guide again held up the orange flag with the pompon.

"Sticky rice, ladies and gentlemen," he said to our group, who unlike Chinese tour groups wore no matching hats or name tags but instead tended to wander off. "Stick together," he said, marching under the portrait of Mao into the famous attraction.

This advice was good, because the Forbidden City is like walking into a mirror. You pass through one giant courtyard, then find yourself in another courtyard that looks almost exactly like the first courtyard. Then you pass into another, and another, each slightly different -- but only to someone who has been there before. A person could easily get lost.

Emperors, of course, loved this quality of the city. It made them safe. It kept enemies off balance.

Beijing was impressive -- if you ignored the gridlock traffic across an area the size of Connecticut and the squalid squat toilets in public places. (I will say little about the toilets except that there is no privacy, no toilet paper and often no flushing. All that is a minor inconvenience when compared to the grandeur of the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven and the tasty treat of Peking duck, right?)

After four days in Beijing, we flew two hours south to Shanghai, then rode two hours farther to Suzhou and Hangzhou, artistic garden spots of China with populations of "only" 2.4 and 3.4 million, respectively.

Poets and artists have been inspired by this region, whose highlights are silk factories, tea plantations, the canal village of Tongli and the Master of the Nets Garden, a harmonious haven of water, flora and villas. But by this time, the most entrancing part of China to me had become the names of things.

Outside a school in Suzhou was this sign: "Be Civil Study Hard Be Handsome Strong and Active."

The Summer Palace in Beijing had "Hall for Listening to Orioles."

Tongli had the "Turquoise Relaxing Garden."

The Forbidden City featured the "Hill of Accumulated Elegance."

And the Master of the Nets Garden had a pleasant room, the former library, called "The Hall of 10,000 Volumes."

At last we came to Shanghai, population 19 million, one of the world's largest cities. Our hotel, the Pullman Skyway, was about 50 times nicer than I'd expected. So was the Shanghai Museum, a world-class repository for historic ceramics and bronzes. The Bund, the pedestrian promenade lining the historical riverside, just reopened in March after three years of remodeling, so it seemed like everyone in town was out walking.

Of course, in China, everyone is everywhere. Every minute, you feel the presence of its 1.3 billion people -- throbbing, busy, pressing in, rushing forward. The energy is palpable. The scale is intimidating.

One illustration was a boat ride on West Lake in Hangzhou. West Lake has inspired millennia of lovers and looks just like a Chinese painting in spring -- slightly misty, like a watercolor, the willows weeping with their delicate fronds.

A relaxing boat ride? Not exactly. Chinese tourists packed the boat like sardines, elbowing out of the way anyone who might have a spot on the rail they wanted, gabbing loudly and talking on cellphones. Yet squeezed together, I had a chance to meet some Chinese people out for the ride. My guide translated two interesting questions from a Chinese woman: Do all American women wear engagement rings? And is our hair color natural? Usually yes, I said. And not always.

I looked up. There was a crowd around me, hanging on every word the guide translated. China may have been strange to me. But not as strange as I was to it.

Anyway, it turns out my biggest fears about China were not realized. The pollution didn't choke me. Nobody spied on me that I know of. The sights were amazing. The toilets weren't that bad. The 12-hour time difference took only 11 days to adjust to when I got home.

And the cheap China tour turned out to be the best $999 I ever spent.