A tour of China, Cantonese-style, gives a fast, cheap and easy taste of the People's Republic - but may leave you wanting more when you're done.
Until China is geared for mass tourism, the simplest way into the mainland for savvy travelers is the four-day quickie excursion to Canton.
The groups form in Hong Kong three times weekly. Sometimes they can be arranged on only a few days' notice, and the all-inclusive price runs about $200 to $250 a person. The alternative is to apply for an extended tour of three weeks or more to Peking, Shanghai, Guilin (Kweilin), etc., at a cost of thousands of dollars. You may get in. You also may get snarled in red tape and end up on a long waiting list.
Before you bolt for Canton, a disclaimer. Canton is no Peking. You will not see the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, the Imperial Palace or Democracy Wall. But what you will see is equally a part of China.
Hundreds of farmhands tilling the soil by hand; a rare giant pandas at the zoo, a mobbed department store, out-door opera, acupuncture in a village hospital, the grey-and-blue-suited throngs pedaling bicycles en masse, a rural orange-growing commune, magicians and acrobats at the theater, and a 12-course banquet - of which one course is a whole roast suckling pig per table.
A sprawling metropolis of 5 million on the Pearl River, Canton has mild temperatures year 'round because of its subtropical locale. Heavy smog obliterates the skyline, however - a testament to the industrial center's production of machinery, textiles, paper and chemicals. Here, buses share the boulevards with handcarts, as the 2,000-year-old city struggles into the 20th century. (Canton, incidentally, is the colonial name. Chinese call the city Kwangchow or, in the new Pinyin translation, Guangzhou.)
Though China recently hired a Pan America Airways subsidiary to build $500 million worth of hotels, the country cannot cope with the backlog of would-be visitors. Visas are limited, tours sell out quickly. Philadelphian Paul Johnson spent years trying to get in. "Then I found out about these trips out of Hong Kong," he said. "So I decided to chance it, and - bingo - I got in without a hitch."
But there can be hitches in peak periods and during Canton trade fairs. For those who'd rather not take chances, methodical checking of possibilities from the United States could pay off, though it may cost you an extra $30 to $50.
The people of China, after years of isolation, seem as interested in us as we are in them. Natives everywhere were surprised to see foreigners. Except for rural camera-shyness, the Chinese welcomed encounters with tourists. They delighted in instant pictures of themselves and their voices being played back on a tape recorder.
Our group, which filled three buses, consisted mainly of middle-aged Americans, Australians, Britons and a sprinkling of other Europeans. While our itinerary was full for the four-day, three-night tour, there was time to venture out alone. Safety is no problem - even police and soldiers are unarmed - but getting lost on a Chinese bus is.The hotel provided taxis.
Nods, smiles, waves and handshakes were returned warmly, but the mutual language barrier rarely allowed us beyond hello and goodbye. Once a worker from an electric fan factory approached for a brief chat, using English learned from the radio. One tour member, walking along a side-street, was invited into a home.
Countless vivid scenes filled the coach window on the ride to Canton: piles of thatch, fish flopping as a pond is drained, rock quarries, rice paddies and swimming ducks and geese. The terrain changes from plains to terraced foothills with a mountainous horizon.
The train - old but roomy and running smoothly - left Hong Kong at 9 a.m. At the Shumchun border station, we walked across a wooden bridge, passed customs and immigration checks painlessly, and had lunch before resuming the final couple of hours of the journey. In recent weeks, tours have been taking the plane from Hong Kong to Canton, a flight of less than an hour. Fortunately for sightseeing, the train is still used on the return trip. There are plans to reinstate some trips entirely by train, now that the new through-train is in operation.
The first stop in Canton is the Dong Fang Hotel - the low point of the tour. The hotel is a cavernous box, a relic of Soviet-influenced architecture. The staff ignored a bird swooping about the high-ceilinged lobby. Don't look for a TV set or even a radio in your dreary room. For entertainment, make do with the fully audible conversations from adjoining rooms. The free slippers were a nice gesture, considering the uncarpeted floor. (I realized they were a necessity after blackening my soles by padding about barefoot.) The netting over the bed is not for decoration, either, unless you enjoy giving transfusions to mosquitoes at night. A pleasant touch was the box of tea leaves and daily thermos of hot water.
One does not visit China to sit around a hotel, however, so on with the tour. Wei, the well-meaning official guide assigned to our bus, kept losing something in translation. Namely, the English Language. Like the hotel shortage, the scarcity of interpreters handicaps tourism in China. We circumvented the problem a couple of ways.
Our bus traveled in tandem with the two other buses, each with its own guide. Chen's English was almost radio-announcer quality, and Yu's was quite acceptable. So whenever the caravan made a stop, we flocked to him. Our other linguistic secret weapon was Tommy Chu of Hong Kong's Arrow Travel Agency, who escorted those of us who were booked through commercial agents.
The prospect of authentic Cantonese food had me salivating. I was not disappointed. Even if you haunt the best of an American Chinatown, you've had only a fleeting preview of Canton's gustatory delights. It starts with a hotel breakfast of congee, a hearty rice gruel, with tidbits of vegetables and meat, plus dim sum dumplings and buns. A western menu is available for the homesick and culinary timid.
We dined divinely at the Beiyan restaurant. The skin of the suckling pig, roasted to shiny, crispy perfection, was cut into small chunks, dipped in coarse, granular sugar, tucked with scallions into a rice pancake, and dipped in a thick sauce. That was one of 12 courses. I don't remember all the others, maybe because we each had three glasses of liquor - all of which the waitress refilled to the brim after every sip.
Peacock eggs, chicken feet, frog legs, and beef tongue were among the delicacies in another banquet Chu arranged at the Pan Hsi ("beside the sea") in Liwan Park. The price, including a blast of high-octane, 120-proof mao-tai liquor, was $8. This dinner was in lieu of our regular hotel meal. It and the cab rides during our free periods were the only extra expenses we incurred outside the price of the tour.
Our first day's tour, which lasted a couple of hours during the afternoon we arrived, started at the Canton Zoo, where two gentle pandas munched on their favored bamboo, and it went on to a history museum overlooking the city. Miniature sculpture, done with surgical-like tools, was among the crafts demonstrated on the next day's half-day trip to the folk art center in nearby Foshan. Some works were so tiny that a dozen fit on a soucer. The final stop was at the 900-year-old Zumiao temple.
A day in the country was the theme of the third day's trip to the rural commune of Luoguang, whose citrus trees were laden with fruit. The 28,000 residents harvest over 17 million pounds of food annually; wages average $300 a year. We strolled among the groves, then visited new brick row housing. Each family apartment was studio-sized, with an attic sleeping loft, and sparsely furnished.
A short stay is ample to take in Canton's night-life. When darkness comes, the Chinese let it fall. There are no streetlights, neon signs or nightclubs.
What they do have is Culture Park, a mixture of Coney Island, Central Park and Jones Beach theater. It was not on our itinerary, but escort Chu again proved invaluable by organizing an expedition. Several thousand Chinese milled about the park. Many stood to watch opera on an outdoor stage. The complex included indoor opera and movie theaters, bulletin board displays and a snack bar. Vendors dispensed sugar cane. Most amusement rides were closed, but the roller-skating rink was packed with teen-agers going full speed. Some wore uncharacteristic, tight Western-style clothes, including a Snoopy T-shirt. CAPTION: Picture, Serving tea on a train in China.