Saturday, April 07, 2007 China China

World's biggest shopportunity?

Jade shop [Enlarge]

We flew from Xi'an to Beijing, the last stop on our organised tour of China. Our tour concludes with two guided days in Beijing. We will then spend a few days here on our own before moving on. Our guide met us at the airport. Her name is Lily and she looked a bit stressed when we met her. What was wrong? The previous day, our flight had been moved back by a couple of hours and nobody at TravelChinaGuide had thought to tell her. She had been standing at the exit gate for around two and a half hours wondering where her charges were. When she had called her office, nobody there claimed to know what was going on either. We were lucky that she hadn't given up and gone home. She and our new driver took us to our hotel, the lovely Holiday Inn Central Plaza Beijing. Probably the best hotel of our trip so far and certainly the best breakfast we have ever had in a hotel anywhere in the world.

Next morning we were collected bright and early by Lily. She is a former English teacher who has given up her previous career in favour of being a tour guide. She has been guiding for only a year, and plans to stop once the Olympics are over. She doesn't really like guiding, and is only in it because the money is much better than it is in teaching, and with the Olympics coming next year it's only going to get better. Lily was quite open that she was only in it for the money. Then, en route to our first sight, the Great Wall of China at Badaling, she steered the conversation around to Chinese characters, got out a piece of paper and a big black marker, and launched into a pre-rehearsed spiel. We immediately smelled a rat.

"Do you know how to write 'China' in Chinese characters?" she said.

"Yes!" we said, and Glenn got out his note pad and wrote the symbols zhōng and guó, meaning 'middle kingdom', the Chinese term for China.

Ha! She had never had that happen before. Nevertheless, she soldiered on. "Do you know how the second symbol of China, 'kingdom' is made up?"

"Yes! The bit inside the box means 'jade' (symbolising wealth). Then you put a box around it to make a region full of wealth, i.e. a 'kingdom' or 'country'."

[Actually, it's a lot more complicated than that, but this is a common explanation of the derivation. If you're really interested in the full version, see this entry in the excellent online dictionary at]

Lily was impressed but was not going to be put off just because these students had been reading ahead in the text book a little.

"Right, so jade is very important in China. The king could not rule the country without his jade seal. So, before we go to the Great Wall, we want to take you to see a jade factory." Bingo! Shopportunity alarm!

We looked at one another. Glenn said that we would rather not, as we didn't want to buy anything, because we were travelling around the world, etc etc.

"That's okay, you don't have to buy anything, just look." Then she insisted that we would be really missing out on a valuable opportunity to understand so much about Chinese culture if we didn't go.

Glenn decided to be cheeky to the teacher. "Okay," he said, "we know that you're getting commission for taking us there. We will go in if you give us half the commission."

Lily laughed and turned red! This had obviously never happened to her before. She admitted that it was true, she is on commission; and then she agreed to our terms. She told us that just by taking us to the shopportunity she gets 30 yuan (GBP 1.94 / USD 3.88), and the driver gets his expressway road toll refunded. Then if we buy anything she gets more commission. No wonder they squeeze at least one shopportunity per day into the schedule. She agreed to give us 15 yuan if we went. So we went, we saw, we used the loo and as forewarned, we bought nothing.

Actually this was a very interesting shopportunity. It has to be the biggest one of its kind in the world. The car park was full of coaches and there were literally thousands of tourists milling around the huge showroom, in which you could buy any tacky souvenir you could imagine. It didn't even have to be made of jade. We didn't get any of the promised cultural education though. Every visitor was given a badge with a number on it, which was registered at the door by the visitor's guide for commission purposes. This shop should stand as a monument to cashing in on tourism on a mass scale. We wondered if such places exist in our own country, to snare the passing foreign tourist coaches? Maybe they do—we would probably never know.

When we got back to the car, we decided not to mention the 15 yuan straight away. We would see whether Lily was a woman of her word. Her phone rang. When she had finished taking the call, she turned round to us and said, "That was the shop. They say we only stayed for 29 minutes, and unfortunately we needed to stay 30 minutes to get the commission. So I can't pay you anything, sorry." We weren't amused and we showed it. We think she realised that she had possibly just blown any chances of getting a tip from us, because she went quiet for a while.

But this lady was not going to give up that easily. When we arrived at the Badaling section of the Great Wall (which is about 70 kilometres from Beijing), we parked up outside a 'Hotel and Coffee Shop'. The second we got out of the car, a man with a walkie talkie accosted Lily and asked her something in Chinese. She answered: "Yingwen" and he relayed that back though his walkie-talkie. Obviously they were preparing another 'cultural experience' for the Walking Wallets. We knew that Yingwen means 'English', and so Glenn took a wild guess and asked Lily why the man had asked what language we spoke. She just laughed enigmatically, and said "I think you can speak Mandarin!". Little did she know, that we had just been incredibly lucky with the symbols earlier to get ones that we had read about in our fantastic little book, I Can Read That: A Traveler's Introduction to Chinese Characters. She handed us the tickets to enter the Great Wall and told us we should meet her inside the hotel's coffee shop at 12:30. Presumably this is where the shopportunity staff would pounce. We said that we had a better idea—we would meet her back outside, at the car at 12:30. From now on the Walking Wallets are on strike.

Apparently, it's always this busy. Nice. [IMG_2024]
Badaling Great Wall [Enlarge]

Not much to say about the Great Wall of China really. It's a wall. Admittedly it is very impressive as it stretches away into the distance. Maybe we've been spoiled by seeing so many of the wonders of the world in such a short space of time, but it just wasn't all that amazing. It has been heavily restored in certain sections (including Badaling) to show what it would have looked like when it was built, so it's not even original. We would have enjoyed it more were it not for the overcrowding. China has over a billion inhabitants, and it seemed that they were all visiting the Great Wall on the same day as us. We asked Lily later if this was a particularly bad day, and she said not really, it's usually about the same. We suppose we can't exactly complain, when we were spoiling it for everyone else just as much as they were for us, but we just weren't expecting it to be such a zoo.

We walked back to our meeting point and arrived there about ten minutes before the agreed time. We were pleased to see Lily and the driver waiting outside for us. Maybe she will now start behaving like a tour guide first and commercial rep second.

Map of Day 133

Day 133
Xi'an to Beijing

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.