Zipping through China via Groupon

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How far does $40 take you in China? All the way to Wuxi, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai apparently.

This is the price of a Groupon travel deal – $40 for five days and four nights, all accommodation provided, all meals provided, the services of bus driver and guide etc.Too good to be true? Maybe. We bought a Groupon tour to China and I lived through it to tell the tale. Image

Five days and four nights in China for someone like me – an independent traveler who would never be caught dead on any package tours and on one of these cheapie deals to boot – taught me a couple of things.

First, any traveler or travel writer worth anything would try something at least once – and if that means a package deal, fine. Second, every form of travel teaches something. I took away some learning points from this experience which I am about to share. Third, package tours or independent travel, you do meet interesting people along the way. As with all forms of travel – keep a sense of humour and an open mind.

That last bit was what I lost by day 2 of the China tour.

Somewhere in the depths of Wuxi, in a pearl factory showroom, with black-suited women hovering at my peripheral and tagging along with me everywhere I went like a second shadow in the hope of making a sale, I lost it.

It was only day 2 but already the third, or fourth factory we had been herded to. We had barely glanced through Suzhou, driven two hours to view a lake at Wuxi and now, out of all that travelling, we had seen the inside of more factory showrooms than any real sights.Tote up the number of hours and we might just spend more than 50% at these factory showrooms. By the end of the trip, we’d seen more of the silk, pearl, teapot, jade, Chinese medicine, green tea showrooms than any actual key sights. (Silk factory below)

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I chafed at this forced activity. I would so much rather be out in a Chinese garden, trawling the streets of an ancient town somewhere than in a factory. This was not what I came to China to see.

But yet, for $40 what did I expect?

Seasoned package tourists say these showroom visits are shoehorned into every tour – whether or not you pay $40 or $2000. For $40 though, the number of these shamelessly commercial visits increase. These are our sponsors, explain the guides, who subsidise the cost of the tour so that we only pay $40.

You don’t have to buy, they say, just spend time in there. One and a half hours to be precise.It may not seem like a long time, but that is easily half a morning gone. Pack in travel time, and because the distances between cities can be far, these hours spent in a bus and then in showroom can easily add up. All of which means you spend less time sight-seeing than on a bus or in a showroom.

Not all factory showroom visits are boring. I’ve learned to see the entertainment value. The salesmanship tactics are phenomenal. These guys are smooth. They are slick in their presentations. They read us expertly like the consummate professionals they are – they know exactly who to swoop down on, who would be easily swayed and who to avoid. They know how to parry, how to defuse doubt, how to flatter, how to tempt, how to deal.

Taken in smaller doses, these showroom visits can be interesting too. For example, I learned about the benefits of green tea, the legends of the pi xiu, a mythical creature known to ‘eat up’ wealth, gold and abundance.

For $40, the sceptics wonder what sort of accommodation we would be given. Throughout the tour, we were housed in 2-star motels and hotels situated in the far-flung industrial boondocks usually an hour outside town. Some were clearly office blocks in a previous incarnation but converted to hotels.

Once inside the rooms though, it’s usually a comfortable night’s stay. The rooms are clean,  bathrooms decently appointed and best of all, they come with some form of wifi or LAN cables for internet connections.

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In any case, the tour is so hectic that we would only arrive at the hotel past 9.30pm every night. By then, nobody really wants to get out to explore the neighbourhood. I was happy to just shower, Skype, check emails and then hit the sack.

Tours being tours, it does get regimented – 6.30am morning calls are the norm. We had to stick to the group with strict instructions not to wander off, walk briskly (lagging held the risk of being lost) and at most areas, given limited time to explore – just enough to snap the usual “I was here” photographs.The  cliche of following the lady with the flag is also true.

To be fair, we did see some interesting places that were not in the original itinerary – the water village of Wuzhen was one.That was really the highlight of the trip for me and I’ll be blogging a bit more about the place later.

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Food was decent. We ate usually at decent restaurants and the spread was generous – think 11 dishes on the lazy susan – with leftovers. China’s reputation for “oily and salty” is gone – the food was actually quite good. It wasn’t exactly gourmet but we ate pretty well on this trip… although I have to say hot orange juice at breakfast was an unpleasant first for me!

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So bottomline is this: if you think $40 for a tour is too good to be true, then it probably is. Go into a Groupon tour with your eyes wide open. Expect lots of words from the sponsors. Understand that your time is no longer your own. If you can stomach the pace and the regimented schedule, then $40 is a good price to pay for a quick introduction to these places.

For me though, time is as precious as money. While $40 may seem like a good deal, my time is even more precious. I would much rather use the time I have in the country as wisely as I can and as I wish, rather than in meaningless factory showrooms. So you’re not about to find me embarking on another tour, much less a Groupon one.

At the airport, as our tour guide Jacky dropped us off, he said, “Next time you come back to China, look for me. And don’t join any of these cheap tours anymore!”

I hear ya.

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One Response to Zipping through China via Groupon

  1. I too have been on a few tours like this but only for a day. I feel your pain. 4 days must have been tough but $40 is pretty good when trying to travel as much as possible 🙂

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