Much time is wasted on compulsory shopping stops on group tours but occasionally there are interesting finds with good value.
THE newspapers these days are full of advertisements offering tours, land packages and discounted airfares to a variety of countries and destinations. At the lower end there are packages advertised at just RM600 or RM700 for an all-inclusive five-day tour to Hong Kong and Shenzhen; or, for less than RM1,200 you can spend eight days in Shanghai or Beijing. But as they say, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Usually, the obvious deficit in the tour price is partially made up for by that bane of Malaysian mass tour packages to China – compulsory shopping, where tourists are essentially trapped in an outlet until someone buys something at an inflated price.
Of course, this affliction is not exclusive to bargain-basement mass tours, for there is no escaping it even with higher-end, pricier group packages. You may be rushed through the Great Wall in 20 minutes, or given 40 minutes to run a marathon through the Forbidden City, but you can always take as much time as you like on the shopping stops which are pretty much the same from place to place.
A decade ago, products lacked variety and tended towards uninspired handicrafts or traditional medicines claiming miraculous properties with miraculously high prices. You had no idea how much to pay and had to waste time and energy bargaining until prices dropped to a fraction of what was quoted, only to find that prices got lower and lower at each subsequent stop.
The shops were humdrum and the staff less than accommodating. Their sales tactics, too, were not exactly subtle. Just six years ago, we were locked inside a museum shop just because no one had bought anything. Finally someone relented and we were allowed back onto the bus, but left the museum without stepping foot inside its galleries.
Silk factories, pearl factories, tea plantations, embroidery workshops, herbal footbaths, medicine halls, I have seen them all, except that now the shops, the display and the service have improved significantly. The products are also better quality, prices are effectively fixed at more realistic levels and some visits are actually educational.
At one silk factory in Suzhou, for example, visitors are first led through a display on the history of sericulture before proceeding to the production lines where the cocoons are processed. The showroom where silk-floss quilts are hand-made does a roaring business and is a model of efficiency. Prices are posted on the wall, you make your choice, pay for it, have lunch upstairs and the quilt is on the coach when you leave.
Earlier this year, I joined a group tour to Guangxi as a follow-up to my story on Malaysian tour leaders ( StarTwo, Oct 21, 2009) and discovered something different – a company that manufactures accessories infused with tourmaline crystal emitting negative ions that supposedly help you sleep better, reduce pain and improve your well-being. They even made available gauges to check the ion content of each piece.
Call it herd instinct but when my friends and I stepped into that vast, dazzling showroom and saw hundreds of people crowded around the counters trying out necklaces, pendants and bracelets, we instantly felt the urge to buy something and came home with a ceramic bead necklace each.
We also stopped at a famous Chinese medicinal plaster company that handed out 4sqcm samples. Back in Malaysia when I strained my Achilles on a pair of slingback shoes, I reached for that small piece of plaster. Relief was quick and I am determined to buy a roll the next chance I get.
The most bizarre compulsory stop was probably the armaments factory. We were told it had been decommissioned and there was no signage or markings on the exterior to indicate what it was or is; just a serious-looking, imposing grey building. I have heard of beating swords into ploughshares but converting weapons into kitchen knives and cooking pots is something new.
We were herded into a room where a salesperson in clipped military tones rattled off a spiel about the attributes of their shiny, lethal-looking stainless steel kitchen knives, turnip scrapers and fruit peelers. Chunky and certainly strong, they were like the hunting knives displayed in the showroom. To prove a point, she hacked a fat Chinese turnip in half with one blow, taking a corner of the wooden chopping board with it. For some reason, photography was not allowed but through it all she maintained a straight face while everyone else was rolling with laughter.
Of course, many of these timewasting compulsory outlets inflate their prices but sometimes you do discover a few gems amidst the commercial frenzy. The lovely silk floss quilts are warm when it is cold and cool in warm weather. Not so long ago a friend bought a black pearl in a Wuxi factory, and the jeweller who appraised it back home said it was excellent quality at a reasonable price. Ultimately it is partly luck and partly knowing what you are buying, but if you happen to be in one of those China group tours, you might as well make the best of the shopping stops. n Ziying can be reached at ziyingster@ gmail.com
On the factory floor: A silk reeling line at Suzhou silk factory.
Stretching silk floss to make a quilt.