The story behind the scenes

By Fred Steinberg
This item appears on page 54 of the April 2013 issue.
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There has been much discussion of tour-group travel versus independent travel in ITN, as there should be.

Tours are planned for you and usually entail no hassles. They’re safe, and you will see the outstanding tourist attractions. Independent travelers never quite know how the trip will go, and they like it that way. They often get the chance to meet and mix with locals and see spots that are off-limits to tours.

For example, on a business trip to China in the late ’90s, I was taken by a local woman to the hutong where she had lived with her family after moving to Beijing in the early ’80s. These were supposed to be temporary housing for new arrivals.

Busy with dour people and half-dressed children playing in the alleys, the hutong was dreary and dirty and the air held very unappetizing odors. Section after section of cinder-block rooms, each holding a family, were linked around open courtyards containing peat-burning stoves emitting dark fumes from cooking fires. Large latrines were located between groups of housing.

We did not go into any of the rooms, but I went to use a men’s latrine and was stopped by my host, who explained that I would find it repelling and it would embarrass the residents.

Two years later, on another trip, an American colleague asked if I would accompany him on a hutong tour. It bore little relation to my earlier visit.

We were taken in a line of pedicabs through a new section that was clean and relatively uncrowded. We stopped at one apartment that was simple — a small bedroom and bathroom — but nicely furnished. The very pleasant occupants spoke English quite well, served us tea and told us how satisfied they were with their very inexpensive, government-provided apartment.

Being a cynic, I wondered but did not ask if they really lived there or came in just to appear for tourists.

Now you know why I prefer independent travel.

FRED STEINBERG
Riverside, CT

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

There has been much discussion of tour-group travel versus independent travel in ITN, as there should be.

Tours are planned for you and usually entail no hassles. They’re safe, and you will see the outstanding tourist attractions. Independent travelers never quite know how the trip will go, and they like it that way. They often get the chance to meet and mix with locals and see spots that are off-limits to tours.

For example, on a business trip to China in the late ’90s, I was taken by a local woman to the hutong where she had lived with her family after moving to Beijing in the early ’80s. These were supposed to be temporary housing for new arrivals.

Busy with dour people and half-dressed children playing in the alleys, the hutong was dreary and dirty and the air held very unappetizing odors. Section after section of cinder-block rooms, each holding a family, were linked around open courtyards containing peat-burning stoves emitting dark fumes from cooking fires. Large latrines were located between groups of housing.

We did not go into any of the rooms, but I went to use a men’s latrine and was stopped by my host, who explained that I would find it repelling and it would embarrass the residents.

Two years later, on another trip, an American colleague asked if I would accompany him on a hutong tour. It bore little relation to my earlier visit.

We were taken in a line of pedicabs through a new section that was clean and relatively uncrowded. We stopped at one apartment that was simple — a small bedroom and bathroom — but nicely furnished. The very pleasant occupants spoke English quite well, served us tea and told us how satisfied they were with their very inexpensive, government-provided apartment.

Being a cynic, I wondered but did not ask if they really lived there or came in just to appear for tourists.

Now you know why I prefer independent travel.

FRED STEINBERG
Riverside, CT