“So, how's China?” some of our readers have asked. We thought a fitting way to begin to answer this question would be through the lens of the ubiquitous greeting, “Welcome to China!” So far, we have received two distinct types of welcomes into the country — one that comes from the heart and the other that comes from the pocketbook.
The Version We Could Do Without
After crossing the Torugart Pass, we literally walked over the border from Kyrgyzstan to China. The man sitting in the passenger seat of the China-licensed SUV waiting for us popped out and bid us “Welcome to China!” He formally introduced himself as our tour guide for the day and for our visit to Kashgar.
We thought we were just being met by a taxi. His welcome reeked of disingenuous formality. We both had flashbacks to Vietnam and its unwelcome moments of conveyor belt style tourism.
It's important to note that we found ourselves in the situation of having to engage a tour agency to cross the Kyrgyz-Chinese border at the Torugart Pass because the Chinese authorities make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for foreigners to cross the border without organized transport waiting for you on the Chinese side.
After showering us with his pro forma platitudinous greetings, our guide got down to the business at hand. He pressed us for our plans and pushed city tours and trips to nearby lakes. Although we’d never been to China, we have been down this familiar road of being quizzed about our plans and financially sized up. Then he recommended a hotel in Kashgar that was five times our budget, four times our budget, etc. We smelled where this was going, so we tried to set expectations accordingly and let him know that we were budget travelers intent on creating our own experience.
Exhausted from the late-night Kyrgyz send-off in Naryn, we opted for a cheap hotel run by his relatives. After settling into our grungy little hovel, he buttonholed Audrey and asked whether she “had something extra for the driver.” Audrey doesn't like conflict, but this request was so absurd that she immediately answered, “No.”
Maybe we sound cheap, but the cost of the drive from the border to Kashgar (approximately 80 miles) was an exorbitant $170. Our guide and driver did absolutely nothing special (unless you consider the bribes their company probably paid the Chinese border authorities in order to speed us through). If the driver wasn't getting a decent cut of the fee, that was clearly a problem between him and his employer. As if her answer required further explanation, Audrey added that this was already a lot of money for us and we hadn't budgeted for anything more.
From that moment on, our guide paid us no attention. Not only did his forced smile droop into a frown, he literally ignored our greetings. Once he realized that we were tapped, we didn't exist. His meaningless “Welcome to China!” was extended only so long as we were attached to open wallets.
In our books, disappointment is one thing, disrespect is another. We've been down this road before where “Welcome to (you fill in the blank)” comes with as much feeling as the thread and ink in a dollar bill. It's disheartening to be treated as a quick buck rather than a human being.
The Version We Prefer
This is the part of the story where real human beings come to the rescue!
So there we were in Urumqi, an overwhelmingly developed city of 1.5 million people in western China's Xinjiang province. We decided to seek out where the locals eat, heading away from town and walking down a street lined with restaurants whose rows of Chinese letters made each one indiscernible from the other.
We poked our heads into one restaurant and were received like honored guests. A young waitress instantly glommed onto us and tried her hardest with her limited English to build a bridge to our non-existent Mandarin. She sat us down, poured us tea, and was intent on taking care of our every need. It quickly dawned on us that this was a hot pot restaurant, an all-you-can eat affair where you cook your own food on a skillet and in pools of broth in the middle of the table. Unfortunately, we weren't in an all-you-can eat mood and told our waitress that we'd return the following day.
A few days later we returned. In halting, broken English our familiar waitress greeted us, “I did not think you would come back.” It wasn’t the words themselves so much as it was her tone. She was truly excited to see us return and was probably disappointed when we hadn't shown up the previous two days.
Again, we were received into the restaurant like rock stars. Well, aliens at least. Maybe rock star aliens. Regardless, the staff and clientele acted as if a westerner had never stepped foot in the place. People around us were excited, fixed on the foreigners, nodding their heads and smiling in approval. One woman walked her son up to our table. He inspected us with curiosity bordering on perplexity, crinkled his nose and furrowed his brow.
As our waitress set the table – the split broth pot, gas, plates, etc. – we enjoyed a typically broken conversation with her regarding where we were from and whether this was our first time visiting China. “Welcome to China,” she offered with a smile and slight bow. Her welcome was genuine and generous of spirit.
To ensure the perfect hot pot experience, she would stop by our table each time she sensed us struggling or saw us violating hot pot rules like cooking tofu on the frying pan instead of in the broth or not having the right balance of foods. She took things into her own hands by bringing us various new ingredients from the bar, making us a beautifully spiced omelet, and delivering us a remarkable plate of sweets to finish off the meal.
The little boy came up to us one last time, full of smiles. As he rounded the last table on his exit, he turned around and blew us two rounds of kisses – double-handed no less! We were somewhere on the verge of laughter and tears.
Upon our departure, our waitress thanked us again, offered another smile and bid us adieu with another “Welcome to China!”
Not only was our eating experience something special, but the hospitality, kindness and care that our waitress showed us put a fine point on why we travel. We seek out authenticity, and along the way we find humanity.
These experiences are not the first or last of their kind – in China or elsewhere. They are simply a representative snapshot of what independent travel has to offer, good and bad. As we travel to increasingly touristed and money-conscious China, we'll continue to keep a log of our experiences. We'll do our best to stay off path and deliver more stories of hot pot ambassadors and less of jaded, money grubbing tour operators and we'll see which “Welcome to China!” wins out.