Golden Moments in China

On a tour in China's rural provinces, glimpses of authentic life -- away from vendors and souvenirs -- are precious.


I had chosen a "boyfriend" from among the Miao villagers, as instructed by Wilson, our Chinese guide. We danced, bumping hips, in sort of a Miao conga line, and then he led me by the hand across the courtyard and into a dim hut, a living space shared with chickens. There, he painted a red circle on my forehead.

Later, Wilson gave this explanation: "Only pretty lady has red ink there." Maybe, but more likely the attention from my blue-robed dance partner had to do with yuan - the expected tip.

We were an hour outside of the south-central Chinese city of Guiyang on a 13-day ethnic adventure tour that covered a loop from Guangzhou northwest to Kunming, Dali and Lijiang, east to Guiyang, then back to Guangzhou.

I was drawn here partly because I wanted to be ahead of an expected tourism boom. Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport, which opened in August 2004, is now the largest in mainland China and the new gateway to the area; heretofore, Hong Kong, about 100 miles south, was the logical point of entry for visitors to Guangdong, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

The late-spring tour was not quite the journey to remote and exotic places that I had anticipated. Even in these provinces - largely untrammeled by Americans but awash with Asian visitors - the Chinese are tourist-savvy. Expect tour buses and souvenir shops at every major site, where vendors thrust kitschy trinkets and Mao Tse-tung memorabilia at Westerners. We spent an inordinate amount of time at designated shopping stops; I hope never to see another jade bangle bracelet.

On my tour, we saw mainly the China that has made a great leap toward capitalism - cities with glitzy shopping malls and overly ornate Western-style hotels and must-see tourist stops.

in knee-high water planting rice, the men tilling the fields with water buffalo, men and women carrying backbreaking loads in baskets over their shoulders.

The mountain and lake scenery was memorable, the tour well organized and, at an all-inclusive base cost of about $2,000, it was a bargain. For those who've done Beijing, Shanghai and Xian, it's a logical destination.

The rush is on

With strong demand for China travel - the country has supplanted Italy as the fourth most popular tourist destination, according to a recent World Tourism Organization report - U.S. airlines are scrambling to get routes. I booked my fare independently, taking a $600 tour credit so I could take Northwest's daily service, inaugurated in fall 2004, from Los Angeles to Guang- zhou, with a plane change in Tokyo.

There were eight on our tour, five of whom were Chinese-born Americans revisiting the homeland after decades; one couple had brought their teen and pre-teen granddaughters. Our guides were bilingual and our group was compatible, considering that the adults preferred to speak their native tongue, of which I understood not a word. Mr. Chen, the other single in the group, spoke no English, so we spent a great deal of time grinning at each other.

China Travel Service had booked our first night at Guang- zhou's White Swan Hotel, a riverfront oasis of luxury in a big, noisy, congested city, the capital of Guangdong province. It's a traditional stop for Americans who have come to China to adopt a child, and the public rooms swarmed with couples toting baby girls. I was amused to see one hotel shop selling strollers.

After too few hours' sleep, I was awakened by a call from another tour member who informed me, much too chirpily, that it was 5:45 a.m. and our guide would be there soon to take us to the airport for the flight to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province.

We were met at the Kunming airport by our meet-and-greet guide, Johnson (guides tend to adopt Western names), who was wearing a Minnesota Twins T-shirt. Our bus navigated carefully through the city of 6 million, sharing the road with aged trucks and cyclists carrying incredible cargoes; one had seven 5-gallon bottles of water balanced over his bike's rear wheel.

Once, Kunming was known for opium poppies, but today it's cut flowers, which are seemingly everywhere. Like other major Chinese cities, Kunming is racing to obliterate many vestiges of "old China." From the 28th-floor restaurant of our hotel, the New Era, I had a bird's-eye view of past and future: squat tile-roofed houses built around courtyards, aging Mao-era apartment blocks and neon-festooned high-rises.

Iven, our city guide in Kunming, said only about 50,000 Americans visit Kunming each year, most lured not by its antiquities but by the Robert Trent Jones-designed Spring City golf course. Brits, he said with a go-figure shrug, come for bird watching.

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