Me and Chairman Mao
  It's always better on holiday ...
Unless, of course, you happen to be on holiday at the same time as 1.3 billion Chinese people, in which case things--and by things, I mean every and all things--are a little on the crowded side. And if you somehow can't already tell, when I say "little" I'm being sarcastic: things are really, really freaking crowded.

(Side note: not everyone actually gets the May Holiday off, so let's just say there were only 350 million people or so on vacation. You know, as if every single person in the US took the same week off.)

Anyway, as I mentioned the other day, this tends to lead to massive numbers of people--in tour group form--at anything that might remotely be considered a tourist attraction: The house next to the house where Chairman Mao once stopped to use the bathroom! The largest reclining Buddha carved entirely out of a single piece of driftwood in the western half of the northern section of Asia! The birthplace of a guy who's friend's cousin's nephew's daughter once made out with the Emperor! You get the idea. It would be like if every time you drove by one of those stupid brown "Historical Marker" signs in the US, you found rows of tour buses and hundreds of people milling around snapping pictures of the site, the sign, each other, and everything else.

We found this out the hard way when we went to see Prince Gong's Mansion over the holiday. (Confusingly, not actually built by Prince Gong.) Granted, it's a semi well-known site, but its location--buried in the maze of hutongs (AKA alleys) that surround the Beijing "back lakes" area--makes it fairly isolated. Or at least, that was our theory. After taking a somewhat pleasant stroll along the lakes, we made our way through the narrow, crooked back alleys in the direction of Prince Gong's pad, only to be confronted by solid rows of tour buses on both sides of the street when we got there. On the plus side, we knew we were in the right place; on the negative side, a few thousand Chinese tourists--if not more--had beat us there.

Bravely--possibly foolishly, although as others have pointed out that might be the same thing--we decided to press on with our visit. It went ... okay. I mean, nothing bad happened to us at any rate, so in that way it was fine. However, in the way of actually getting to look around the place we just paid 20 Yuan to get into, it went pretty damn poorly. Not as poorly as, say, the Charge of the Light Brigade, but fairly close. Probably.

For example, there was--as far as I could tell--something interesting about this rock formation. Sadly, we'll never know what it was, because there were just a few other people checking it out, whatever the mysterious "it" was:

Sadly, this was one of the least crowded moments around said rock. Unlike, say, this shot of a pavilion in the middle of a pond, which had God, Buddha, or Prince Gong himself only knows what in it, because we sure as hell were never going to be able to find out:

Besides the hats, I think it's the bunching up that gets me, like they have to be as close as possible to the tour guide or they might get lost or not hear something. And sure, there are plenty of foreigner-filled groups dutifully following guides around like lost cattle, but they tend to give each other a bit more breathing room. I'm sure it's just a cultural thing, but you watch thirty people in matching yellow hats who are packed into a dense, impenetrable ball of flesh marching across a courtyard in lockstep with a microphone-wearing, flag-holding tour guide and just try to tell me you don't think it's strange.

(Side note: The annoying thing foreign tour groups tend to do--besides cramp my style at the Forbidden City Starbucks--is wear name tags. It makes me want to say things like, "Excuse me Ruth Jennings, but would you mind getting your dumb ass out of the way so I can get by before your force me to beat you to death with that freaking Handycam?" and things of that nature.)

Um, where was I? Oh, tour guides. Speaking of tour guides, which I was at some point, here's a good shot of a typical one. She's got it all: the portable PA system; the brightly colored pennant; and the intense, ready-for-action expression. All that, plus a knock-off Coach bag--what else could you want?

Contrast her, if you will, to this next girl, who is so completely unprepared for being a tour guide that not only does she not have a flag or a fancy portable PA (megaphones are so Seventies), but if you look closely you can see that she actually has stuff written in ink on her hand:

Really, isn't that against the tour guide code of ethics or something? They're supposed to just know everything--isn't that what we're paying them for? Shouldn't they be able to answer every random question we can dream up, no matter how obscure? Yes, yes, and yes. Apparently the Republicans are right and truly nothing is sacred anymore. I know, I know, who would have thought? Next thing you know the "Domino Theory" will end up being right--for once--and I'll wake up tomorrow to find China staging a presidential election.

Well, maybe not, but you never know.

Oh wait, you do. Never mind ...
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