Most group tours are a waste of time and money. Tour guides drag you from one shop, often thinly disguised as a tourist attraction, to another, with a quick stop or two at an actual attraction in between. On full-day tours, they feed you lunch at an overpriced restaurant and when the day is over, many expect tips for taking you shopping all day. Despite all that, I occasionally sign up for tours. The truth is, they can be a lot of fun.
My enjoyment of a tour rarely stems from the tour itself. I’ve had some great tour guides, but even the best of them can’t make a drawn-out shopping trip exciting. Whenever I’ve had a great time on a tour, it was because of the other tourists (or because I went in with low expectations, which helped me get through this lychee picking tour in Shenzhen). With the right group of people, even a long string of visits to nearly identical stores becomes fun.
One of the worst—and yet the most entertaining—tours I’ve ever signed up for took me to see the Terracotta warriors in Xi’an, China. Before it took me there, it took me to five or six different stores, a few of which were at least attached to a workshop or a slightly interesting attraction. The tour looked terrible on paper and getting to the Terracotta warriors on your own is pretty easy anyway, but a few people I met at my hostel mentioned they had signed up, so I decided to tag along. The tour was every bit as bad as I expected; but I had a great time.
A van picked us up from our hostel early in the morning. From there, we drove around to other hostels and hotels to gather the remaining members of our tour group. Every stop we made, my hopes for the day grew. Not a single boring or annoying person entered the van.
At the last stop, two middle-aged German women got on and I knew it was going to be a hilarious day. They had a liter bottle of coke filled with a clear liquid and before we could even begin to guess at the contents of the bottles, they generously offered everyone in the van, including the driver, a shot of ouzo. It wasn’t even 8 am.
Ten minutes later, we had to stop so one of the ouzo-swilling Germans could use a restroom. Soon after, we made the first official stop of our tour. It was a shop. So was the second stop and the third and a few more after that. I can’t remember the order exactly, since they all sold the same things and kind of blended together. At one point we did visit the remains of a 600 year old village, but our guide moved us along after about five minutes. On the way out, we passed through a shop. He gave us 30 minutes in there.
Next we visited a large silk store where we watched bored-looking women demonstrate the complete production process, from cocoon to thread. It was fascinating and so were we; two of us anyway. I’ll let you guess who, but two members of our tour group wiped those bored looks right off the silk workers’ faces with their ouzo-fueled antics and gave them stories to tell for years to come. After the demonstration, we got another thirty minutes to browse around the silk shop.
In the early afternoon, we made it to the actual archaeological site and finally saw the highlight of Xi’an. It was pretty impressive, as you might expect from a horde of incredibly lifelike, ancient statues. Unfortunately, my photos do not reflect this. Actually, I’ve never seen any photos that make this site look even remotely interesting. It’s one of those places you just have to visit in person.
The highlight of our tour actually came on the way home. The two German women, having finished the majority of their clear coke, asked the driver if he could make a quick detour through a poor area of town. They hoped to better the lives of some of China’s less fortunate children with a sack of pens. The driver looked at them like they were insane.
The tour guide did his best to explain to the driver why these foreigners might want to give out pens, but you could tell he wasn’t really sure himself. Nevertheless, the driver took them to a standard residential area and when he found a group of children playing in the street, he pulled over. The tour guide called the children over to the van and I couldn’t help wonder how creepy that must have seemed to any parents who might be watching from their homes.
The children just looked confused. They did not approach the van, so the two women hopped out and skipped over to them instead. With a lot of fanfare, they slowly opened up their plastic convenience store bag and revealed the contents. The children still had no idea what was going on, but the ones wearing ear buds pulled them out and the ones playing their Game Boys or PSPs or whatever Chinese knockoff put the games on pause and glanced into the bag.
The two women were cheerfully telling the kids they could choose one pen each. The kids rewarded their generosity with the funniest look I have ever seen. I can’t even begin to describe it: basically a strange mix of amusement, confusion, annoyance and a whole bunch of other emotions. They couldn’t understand why these overly cheerful foreign women, who smelled like rubbing alcohol, had interrupted their playtime to show them a sack full of used pens.
Our tour guide explained that they were each supposed to take one, so they did. They still wore the same look and now they were each holding a pen up in their fists, expecting something else to happen. The tour guide informed them they were supposed to be grateful for these lovely ‘Deutsche Bank’, ‘random insurance company’ or ‘some real estate agent’ pens. The kids said thanks then looked at the tour guide as if to ask, “Is that it? Can we get back to our games?” That was, in fact, it. The women waved enthusiastically and blew a few kisses as they got back into the van and returned to their seats beaming with pride.
Clearly, some guidebook, probably written in the 1970s, had informed them that Chinese children are in dire need of cheap ballpoint pens. Every one of these kids had their own cell phone and most of them seemed to have a portable video game console. This happened in 2007; today, they would all have smartphones. Yes, they were poor, but no one in China is so poor that they don’t have a pen.
Back in the van, the women continued to bask in the afterglow of their good deed, though by now they had caught on that not a single one of those kids was actually in need of their generous gift. I’m sure our ceaseless laughter, plus that of the driver and the tour guide, helped clue them in. Luckily, they had a good sense of humor—and they were completely drunk—so they were able to join us in ridiculing their failed act of charity.
We knew they meant well and I’m sure the kids knew that too. Of course, the few that actually got a working pen probably just gave it to their parents, since most Chinese kids seem to prefer pens with colorful ink that don’t advertise for German companies, but they all got something much more valuable out of the exchange: a hilarious story about crazy tourists. We all love those and they could continue to tell and retell this one to friends, family, future children and grandchildren. Perhaps they could even turn it into a blog post.
Want to see the Terracotta Warriors without taking a tour? Find out how to get there on your own, plus more information on Xi’an: https://danielmcbane.com/travel-guides/east-asia/china/xian/
Chubby Chatterbox says
My niece was in China a few years ago and she saw the terracotta warriors and thought they were magnificent.
Daniel McBane says
I definitely agree with her. And they keep unearthing more of them, so I imagine the site will only get more impressive.
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Great post! That’s funny about the pens. I’ve joined a tour before when I visited Guilin, and it was filled with a lot of shops too.
I’ve always been fascinated by the terra cotta warriors but unfortunately haven’t been able to visit them yet. It’s crazy how they only unearthed a small percentage..I’m really curious to see what else they will find.
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Daniel McBane says
Most tours are designed to get their customers to spend as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a waste of time.
I’m curious to see how much they end up unearthing in Xi’an, too. The terracotta warriors are already an amazing discovery and the site will only become more impressive.
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Shanghai Ronin says
I laughed out loud reading this at work.
Those German ladies knew what they were doing. Next time I get one of those god awful tours I’m bringing a full flask.
The pen thing was hilarious. I remember when I went to a poor village in Bali one of the older men and a child came up to me and asked for a pen. I thought they wanted to write something, but it turns out they honest to god just wanted a pen. I gave them the only two used pens I had in my purse, and they thanked me with such gratitude I felt like Jesus. Are pens *really* that hard to find in Southeast Asia? I kind of shrugged the event off in Bali but after reading your post again it makes me wonder..
Love the new layout btw!
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Daniel McBane says
I’m guessing someone once wrote something about giving third world people pens and since then others started doing the same, whether the people they were giving pens to actually needed them or not. These days locals in certain areas, like Bali apparently, have actually started requesting pens, since they noticed that tourists seem to love handing them out. They turn around and sell them.
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Andy Beales says
Daniel, I love your writing style and humor, this cracked me up. Your style seems very ironic, uses mild sarcasm, I would have guest you were like me, British. Keep up the quality posts! Andy, Guilin.
Daniel McBane says
Thank you! Not British, but half German and half American. The sarcasm definitely does NOT come from the German side.
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The Guy says
That is a crazy tale with those pens. But each to their own I guess and I suppose it was good marketing with branded pens.
I’d love to see those warriors some day so I am a bit jealous of you.
As for organised tours I hate all those stop offs at shops. They just dump you for an hour and you’ve nothing to do except being sold to.
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Daniel McBane says
I know and even for people who enjoy shopping (definitely not me) the places they dump you are far from ideal. You’re usually better off buying things almost anywhere else.
The warriors are actually one of the few attractions where the longer you wait to see them, the better they get, since so much of the site is still being unearthed and there is likely much more to be discovered, too.
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This is so funny Daniel. I can’t remember how I found your post but so glad that I did! Yes, it’s quite the norm to be passed from one shop to another but the German ladies certainly made it worth the trip! I have only been to Hong Kong so I would very much like to see the terracoota warriors one day soon. Great post. I retweeted it.
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Daniel McBane says
Thank you! Yes, the German ladies definitely made the trip fun. I even enjoyed shopping thanks to their drunken antics!
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Isn’t it funny that people are passing out pens all over the world? Not only in China of 2007, but I’ve seen the same thing in Guatemala and Nepal within the past few months. Somehow you managed to make this story come alive though!
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Daniel McBane says
And in a lot of places (I saw it in Laos and Nepal), kids are actually asking for pens, not money. I guess they’ve realized they’re much more likely to get a pen than a few cents. Of course they immediately sell that pen to a local store, which then jacks up the price and sells it back to a tourist who gives it to another child. I think these pens go through hundreds of owners and never once write a single letter.
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