The Fellowship of the Flag

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By: leelefever on August 25, 2006 - 9:20pm

By all accounts, the Yangtze cruise was an amazing experience and one that exceeded our expectations.  It also reminded us how much we value our independence as travelers.

We’ve often witnessed large groups of people being led around popular tourist sites by someone holding a colored flag and possibly a loudspeaker slung across their shoulder.  These are usually groups that arrive by bus and travel together as part of a package tour. For the first time on the trip, we became part of one of these groups, and it sometimes made us want to scream.

China is the sort of place that is often best explored with a tour group, as sites are set up to manage groups and not the independent traveler.  After all, we heard it was only 20 years ago that each tour group had a “government spy” that would submit a report to the central government about the sights seen and questions asked.  I suppose we should feel lucky to have access at all.

At least once each day, we would be led off the boat and onto a bus where a government-employed tour guide for the day would provide information about the sites and answer questions. Upon arriving at a destination, we would disembark the bus and follow the flag to a meeting spot, where more details would follow.  Sometimes, you could break away, other times you had to stay with the group, all being herded through the tourist area as if we might get lost or hurt ourselves without the flag being in sight at all times. 

After traveling independently for so long we came to resent the flag and all for which it stands.  We mocked the flag and joked about how we wish we had a flag in all parts of our lives.  We called ourselves The Fellowship of the Flag. The flag became the symbol for all the things that we eschew about dependent travel.  Once, upon being told where and when to meet the group Sachi looked at me and said “There is something about being told when and where to be that makes me sick.”  I know how she felt.

The flag does offer some security I suppose and the flag bearer is often a knowledgeable and friendly person.  However, as we discovered at Yellow Mountain, the flag bearer can ruin a day.  I had been looking forward to Yellow Mountain for many months as it is the place of classic Chinese mountain scenery, with steep misty and craggy cliffs. 



Unfortunately, our flag bearer was a control freak.  All we wanted to do was be on our own and return at a specified time to catch the bus – but this guy would not let us.  I asked him for information so we could leave the group and he would blatantly ignore me and only say “it is a highlight, I’ll take you there”.  Then as Sachi asked “Can you show it to us on the map?” He just stared at her defiantly in the face and puffed away on his cigarette.  You could almost hear him saying to himself “independence in NOT a virtue”.

We and a few other Western couples attempted a break-away while waiting for the geezers in the group to ascend the steps but he stopped us in our tracks saying that he needed to “make an important announcement" – more waiting.  In the end, we spent about two-thirds of our time waiting around with the flag Nazi and one-third actually exploring the scenery.  He made us feel as if we were 5 years old and he was the sage grandfather who held the sacred knowledge of the mountain.  This grandfather never uttered a word of wisdom, except where to go to catch the next cablecar.

Somehow we have made it through over 12 countries just fine without a flag leading the way and if we have a choice, the next twelve will be flag-less as well.

Post From: Shanghai, CN
By: Richard Eriksson on August 26, 2006 - 7:33pm
Too bad you couldn't steal away and get some independent sight-seeing in. But great photos as usual, and I loved the video of the Three Gorges. As astounding as people have told me. I'll have to put it on my list for the next time I visit China.
By: Echo (not verified) on August 27, 2006 - 5:38pm
ahah, the places u visited is the tourist place, it must hv many many flags, when u come to Beijing, u will find more, espcially the famous places.