Photo and story by Jack Souther
"Hello! One Dolla! Hello, Hello! Three for one dolla!"
My attempt to get a photo was frustrated by a swarm of aggressive street hawkers and by the time I had the camera put away my group had disappeared. Buffeted by a surge of people streaming into a narrow street I searched vainly over the heads of the crowd for a glimpse of Brian or Gary, the two tallest members of our group. And then, before panic set in, the reassuring voice of our guide and leader —"Hanson travel this way. Keep to the right. Stay close together. Blue and yellow follow Ivy, orange and grey stay with me."
We were a group of 33 friends, and friends of friends, who teamed up with Hanson Lau for a custom tour of China. Before leaving Vancouver we got together for dinner and a pre-trip briefing where Hanson collected our passports for processing, warned us about pickpockets and scams, and divided us into four colour-coded platoons, each responsible for keeping track of its members. By the end of the evening, wearing my blue identity tag, I began to wonder whether we were embarking on a holiday or a trip to bootcamp. But it took less than a day in China for me to appreciate Hanson's no nonsense leadership style. In the teeming cities of China where you can't understand either the spoken or written language, not even the street signs, it helps to have someone in charge who knows the ropes. And Hanson, a veteran traveller who has led trips to the "middle kingdom" since 1974, knows his way around China.
I rejoined my blue platoon and followed Ivy, Hanson Travel's local guide, out of the Forbidden City, along a crowded sidewalk lined on one side by small open-fronted shops and on the other by a jumble of parked bicycles and motor scooters. A stream of two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles, many piled high with boxes, bags, and baskets, moved erratically along the street. I had no idea where we were. Ivy pulled out her cell phone, talked to our driver in the local dialect, and led us down a side street to our waiting bus. We piled aboard and headed for dinner, first along a crowded four-lane elevated freeway, then down a multi-ramped interchange and into the restaurant parking lot. Hanson directed us to our tables — "blue over here, yellow the one in the corner" — and we sat down to a sumptuous dinner of Chinese food washed down with an endless supply of good local beer. Later, in the lavish foyer of our five-star hotel, Hanson handed us our electronic keys and ensured that the bellman delivered our bags to our immaculate air-conditioned rooms. This was the tone of our 21 days in China — hassle-free luxury travel in the Hanson style.