China for Beginners

How to manage in China without a guide, without a group and without knowing the language.

It was the moment when the guidebook ends and real life begins. The Lonely Planet guide to China clearly stated that you can take a bus for a bargain price from the airport in Beijing to the center of the city. But Lonely Planet did not know exactly which hotel we would be staying at. We also did not know. Because, heroically, we decided to travel to China without a guide, without a group and without knowing Chinese. All we knew was that we needed to count three stations from the airport and then get off.

And now what? Ask where Bialik Street is? Because for the Chinese, it would be the same if we said "Bialik Street" or tried to correctly pronounce the name of the street we were seeking to locate. And we did not even have a business card that we made sure to take from every hotel we stayed at as a means of communicating with taxi drivers - after all, we had not yet arrived at the hotel.

And then, suddenly, a miracle occurred. "Can we help you?" a voice from heaven said in English at the bus stop where we had landed. We showed the English speakers the page we had printed from the Internet, with the name of the hotel. The name was not familiar to them, but such a trifle would not deter the two Chinese people, who started playing with a handheld computer. They got up from the bench in unison, stepped into the street and stopped a taxi. After a long conversation, the driver was convinced that he knew where the place was, but we then apparently displayed the fears of tourists worrying that they were about to be kidnapped.

Demonstrating a profound understanding of the spirit of man, our two good saviors quickly told us that they are heart surgeons. And that here in front of us is the hospital where they work. From such a medical team, you do not only buy a used car. You can even get into the same taxi with them. That is, they got in and we got in after them. After circling around a bit, we reached the hotel.

One of the surgeons was not content with the critical assistance he had provided us. He also pulled out several yuan notes to pay the driver for the ride. They, the surgeons, live about 30 minutes away by car. After we persuaded them that we had money to pay for the taxi, they consented to leave us and disappeared into the Beijing night.

The hotel raised serious second thoughts in the minds of the independent travelers. But only for a moment. With a bow of the head, we informed the establishment's manager that we did not intend to stay there and asked his assistance in finding a slightly nicer and much cleaner inn. "Certainly, certainly," he replied. A brief telephone call secured for us a room in a splendid hotel at an even lower price than we obtained via the Internet. And here again we encountered a wonderful attitude toward tourists. The man who had suddenly lost two customers picked up one of our suitcases and led us himself to the next hotel. "Have a nice night," he said, "and I'm sorry that you were not able to take a room in my hotel."

Beijing was the last stop for us after 12 days in the most fascinating part of Asia and perhaps of the entire world. This is a region of flavors that never repeat themselves; they change anew every hour. But before we get into this matter of postcards from China, one can state without any hesitation: It is possible, permissible and worthwhile to travel to China on one's own. According to this logic of travel, it is best not to begin the tour in Beijing. Not only because in any case you need to return to it in the end to fly back to Israel, but also because after you see the wonderful things that China has to offer, you will have lost your fear of the sacred when encountering such history-laden places as the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven. You can then get right to the heart of things without a guilty conscience: to eat ice cream by the Temple of Heaven, to listen to the elderly chorus that sings from song sheets near the Forbidden City, and to peek into the magnificent elementary school whose older wing was built in 1890, its newer wing in 1919.

First, you need to see the city that changes all the time: Shanghai. The entire city is reflected, distortedly, in glass skyscrapers. Soon, they told us, the poor section of Shanghai will no longer exist; it will be expelled to some place where tourists do not go. Therefore, we hurried to the place called China Town, far from the center of the shiny city, to witness the authenticity of the poverty.

This looks like poverty is supposed to look: kitchens the size of a single cupboard, where something sour-smelling is cooking. In narrow alleyways, barely wide enough for two people, sinks are installed that serve the residents of the neighborhood for all their water-related needs: laundry, drinking, washing dishes and cooking.

The houses are not tall, but the narrow alleys make it seem like the buildings are moving closer to each other as you walk up from one floor to the next. Clean public bathrooms serve the residents of the neighborhood. The laundry - both its dominant blue color and the tiny amount of clothes each family owns - testifies to the fact that the days of Mao Zedong are still here. During the morning hours, the neighbors - some of them already toothless - gather, and spend the relatively chilly morning together between the walls, which are not exposed to the blazing sun.

Without a tour guide, hands become tools for writing and speaking. This is how we were able to see what Mrs. Li was cooking in the pot and how neat the bedding was in her tiny, dark room, inconditions very similar to those we saw in Liogong village three days later. A one-hour flight south from Shanghai brought us to the city of Gueilin, which presents a new picture in the Chinese kaleidoscope. Should we take the organized tour on the Li River or not? That is, should we pay $100 per person or dodge the tourist trap? We dodged it.

A comfortable bus brought us within an hour from Juilin to a colorful and beautiful town of backpackers, Yangsho. En route, we met a Taiwanese citizen who had overcome bureaucratic hassles to receive a visa to visit China with his fiancee, "the most beautiful of women." Two hours later, we met Robert. Robert, like Ann or Danny, Helen or Maya, is a name adopted by Chinese people who come into contact with foreigners. This is a phenomenon we encountered in every hotel. "In any case, you would not know how to correctly pronounce our real names," Robert explained.

Robert manages a small stand that sells tours to visitors. Among other attractions, he suggested rafting on the Li River in a bamboo raft. How many times can a person die? We took it. Five bamboo beams tied together, a sunroof imprinted with an advertisement for a Western drink, a double chair made of straw and connected with flexible shoots to the bamboo beams. That is the raft. The lean Chinese raft operator worked hard to overcome the weight of the two tourists, who had to get off the raft every time it ran into a depression or shallow water, until it passed these obstacles. Two hours of sailing between bamboo groves, between great mountains and, especially, sailing among frolicking Chinese who played water games in the river, spraying water at one another from small bamboo shoots - all this was a wonderful return on the equivalent of NIS 50 we paid to Robert.

For the equivalent of five shekels per person, we rented bicycles the next day that took us via dirt paths to one of the unmarked and most fascinating sites: a small factory for producing rice noodles and peanut oil. We arrived there by accident after getting mixed up with navigation. And it was a good thing that we did. Otherwise, we would not have seen the rows of small columns on which thousands of noodles are spread to dry, and we would not have met the "general manager" of the factory, which employs three women and four children. The latter are responsible for feeding the peanut roasting tray, stuffing them into a grinder and extracting oil from the peanuts.

Four hours of riding were enough for us to get to know the general manager's village up close, its revolution-era houses and the shrub branches that weave their way into the windows. The general manager's cousin dispatched another cousin to guide us across the river on a thin raft. When we reached the other bank of the river, we loaded onto a three-wheeled, motorized bike driven by a tough-faced Chinese woman, and within less than a half hour returned to Yangshau, to the small hotel called Bamboo, where Lin works.

Lin speaks English well and supervises the hotel meticulously. Every day she learns another word in English, something new on the computer, and receives another guitar lesson from Franz, the Dutch gymnastics teacher who decided to spend half a sabbatical in the town. If Lin saves up enough money, and does not spend all of her $40 monthly salary, she wants to study computers. Perhaps then, when she works for an American company, she will be able to travel to her parents, whom she has not seen for three years. They live in a different province and the cost of traveling there is equivalent to one month of her salary. So it is easy to understand why visits to parents are deferred.

After all this, you can continue to the postcard sites, to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Lama Temple, or make do with the shopping temple - the giant market where haggling is the main thing, not the item itself. It is a place where the tourist knows that when he hears the expression, "You are killing me," it means he can continue bargaining down the price a bit more. "You must be joking" is worth another two yuan and "I am disappointed in you" brings the negotiation almost to its limit. The concept of "last price" has no expiration date and only the expression "bye-bye" means there is no more bargaining.