Top 5 things to avoid when planning a China trip

There are some activities that seem to enter all itineraries going to China, and they can sound so appealing, but they really shouldn’t be for you, if you are reading my blog posts.

1. Cloisonné Factory: The itinerary often says that one can observe the skilled artisan create intricate designs. It’s usually on the way to the Great Wall. It is true? Yes, for about 5% of the time there. More importantly, this is a tourist destination shop that pays the tour guide and driver commissions. Usually, the guide and driver can obtain from 30% to 50% of what you paid in the shop, and this is their salary. The guide and drivers don’t usually get paid a wage for their time, so you can understand the pressure they are under. If you don’t buy, they would have worked for free that day. Imagine the service you’ll get the next day.

2. Jade factory visit: This is often in Xi’an and lots of other places around China too. This is again a commissioned shop. Again, your guides and drivers in Xi’an depend on this shop for their living.

3. Carpet factory visit: There is one famous one in Shanghai. Don’t think I need to repeat myself. That said, there are some workshops run by NGOs in Tibet, and those are real places you can actually see the workers stitching the carpet. Knowing that money there goes to support local schools or NGOs, I would encourage those rather than the ones in Shanghai.

4. Silk factory visit: There is one in Suzhou. To be fair, it was kind of interesting; I personally went there and bought a silk blanket and a mao jacket. But, remember I went there as a travel agent, so I could negotiate without tour guide commissions. I wouldn’t imagine going there as a tourist.

5. Yangtze River Cruise: I personally would not recommend it. It’s really not very interesting and you are just on a boat with tons of other western tourists for 3 days eating buffet good. That was a fine option when china was less accessible before, but nowadays, there are so many wonderful places to visit, fine restaurants to dine in. Particularly, for anyone looking to experience a country, rather than tour a country, the cruise is a hard place to experience China. There are generally no shorter options either. So, if I had 14 days to spend on one China trip, I would not spend 20% of that time on the cruise.

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Mr. tour guide, would you leave me alone please?

My husband and I arrive at Setti Fatma, got out of the car, and were immediately approached by Mohamed, a 20ish year old young man hankering for a job as our tour guide. We planed to hike up the mountain to visit the famous 7 waterfalls in the High Atlas mountains, and thought it might be nice to have a guide along. So we asked him how much he would charge to guide us.

“As you like! No fixed price. If you like my service you pay me, if not, no obligation.” Said Mohamed, sounding like any of the other sneaky offers we got off street corner in Marrakech.

“又来了! (Oh, please, not again!)” My husband and I both complained in Chinese. Yes, this line has been wearing us down throughout our journey in Morocco. We are not big tour joiners, so have decided to take it easy and navigate on our own. But, everywhere we went, be it looking for a restaurant, or a market, there always seemed to be some youth hanging around the street corner, ready to guide you astray and charge you a few dirams for his “service”. We were tired of these guides. It is at moments like this that I wonder, if individual travelers to China are subject to this experience. I don’t know since I am Chinese and speak the language.

“Tell us how much you’d like to charge, otherwise, we wouldn’t consider a guide.” We told Mohamed.

“ok, if you like my service, 100 to 150 DM (roughly US$15-20) per hour from each of you. If you don’t like my service, nothing.”

We took off, he followed us. My husband and I were tired of this type of haggling. We sort of agreed to the deal without talking about it further.

The trail started across the little river and wound upward quickly. There were quaint little restaurants and shops along the way. The shop owners approached us, but Mohamed quickly signaled to them that we were just at the beginning of the hike. So, the shop owners left us alone.

“hmm, there is benefit to having a guide. At least that fends off more business propositions.” We actually started to enjoy a hassle-free walk.

Quickly, we came to a slight traffic jam on the trail. The couple ahead of us were having a hard time climbing one rock face, as there were few places one could rest the foot on or hold onto. Their guide was at the top of the rock face, stretching his arms down as far as he could, trying to help the travelers to climb. But, they couldn’t even reach his hand.

All of a sudden, to my surprise, Mohamed leapt ahead, put one of his knees against the rock face, stretched his arm out to the hikers ahead of us. He explained carefully, that the hiker was to step his left foot on part of the rock, and right foot on his knee, make a move to step on another part of the rock, so on and so on. Magically, the couple got up the rock face after a few attempts. We followed suit quickly, with the help of Mohamed and the other guide on top of the rock working as a team.

All of a sudden, I felt truly grateful for having hired Mohamed as our guide. The wariness of being haggled at the beginning of the hike disappeared completely. We continued on to talk about his family. We learned that he grew up in this village of 40 families, and that he has 3 sisters, 2 of whom are his age and married, and the littlest is school in school. So so and so on. We truly felt like we got to know him, this wonderful person as he was!

He continued to perform as one of the top outdoor guides I’ve worked with. Telling us what the next section of the trail maybe like. Stopping to give me a hand when the slope became too steep or the rock in the creek unsteady. At a later point, he took our backpack, and carried it from there on!

I couldn’t stop wondering if we just got lucky, or there could be a system for wonderful local guides like him to make a decent living without having to go through the initial haggling that completely didn’t show how wonderful a guide he was. In countries like Morocco, travelers are so frequently approached and offered all kinds of services, and at a lot of times, these offers were truly vile. How to sift through all the sand for the gold to shine?

I do not know the answer. We all seem to resort back to the old word of mouth network, or the new like twitter and blog. But, when will those network influence a little village like his or mine back in China? For one thing, I wish I got his cell phone.

Short of that, I do want to recommend the lovely B&B we stayed at: Maison Mnabha www.maisonmnabha.com. It’s owned and run by Peter and Lawrence, two English gentlemen. Extremely friendly and helpful. Great food too. I couldn’t have had such a wonderful time in Morocco if I didn’t find a home at Maison Mnabha.