A Bricks-and-Mortar Enterprise

Tourists negotiate a steep section of the Great Wall outside Beijing. In varying states of repair, the landmark runs about 4,000 miles from east to west, across five Chinese provinces. (Lawrence K. Ho / LAT)

"One dollar!" -- all accounted for. "Two dollar!" -- someone was missing. Our guide was doing a head count, as he did each time we reboarded our bus.

The humor in his choice of metaphors was not lost on the group. As we traveled through China by bus and train on a December hit-the-highlights tour, we were besieged by vendors peddling "Rolex" watches, "Mont Blanc" pens and "North Face" outerwear. Their pitch: "Hello! One dollar! Two dollar!"

We were 20 travelers, sharing a sense of adventure and the knowledge that this "Historic China" tour was a bargain: 12 days, six cities, with round-trip air fare from San Francisco, charter bus and train transportation in China, lodging, meals and sightseeing for $1,099, plus $60 round trip from Los Angeles, $30 for a group visa (arranged by the tour operator), taxes ($53) and a "recommended" $44 in tips. I was traveling alone, so I paid a $250 single supplement. Total: $1,536.

San Francisco-based China Focus had promised "unbeatable prices with unparalleled comfort" and knowledgeable guides providing a "superb introduction" to old and new China. Knowing that the travel industry is striving to woo tourists to exotic locales, it seemed perfect for someone like me, a first-time visitor.

Our three-star hotels were mostly large early '80s commercial establishments with restaurants, shops and spas, comfortable but undistinguished. We ate our breakfasts, either Chinese style (dumplings, rice, vegetables, meats, pickled things, green things) or Western style (usually with bacon, eggs and decent coffee) in the hotel and some lunches and dinners at big restaurants catering to tourists. Meals were good and plentiful, if repetitious.

The downside of the deal: China in December. Shanghai was mild, with some rain, but temperatures fell to below freezing as we headed north. In Jinan, 300 miles south of Beijing, we encountered snow.

In keeping with Times policy, staff photographer Lawrence K. Ho and I went incognito, and we kept our distance from each other. Our Air China flight left San Francisco on Nov. 29, landing the next evening in Shanghai, 16 hours ahead of California.

As our bus approached the lights and cacophony of the city, our national guide, Han, who would accompany us throughout, cautioned us in his excellent English about pickpockets and counterfeit money and even fake bottled water: "Some people," he said, "make it at home."

Dec. 1: Shanghai

Our first glimpse of Shanghai by day. As our bus left the East China Hotel for the 16th century Yu Yuan Garden, we passed shanties fitted together like jigsaw puzzle pieces and, casting their shadow over them, sleek high-rises. This juxtaposition of old and new was to be a recurring theme.

We were a diverse group, many well traveled, 13 of us from California, including a retired college administrator; a former military man; a Colombia-born couple from New Jersey with their college-age daughter; a Tucson tour guide; a plastic surgeon and his dentist wife; a retired Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer; and a Fresno couple on a 25th anniversary trip. The 21st traveler was a China Focus staffer.

Near the garden we had our first encounter with entrepreneurship, Chinese style, at the carnival-like Yu Yuan street bazaar, where windup toys danced at our feet and paper fans were waved in our faces. A good place to buy, said our local guide, Matt, "if you have some relatives you don't like." (Tourists are steered toward government-licensed shops.) As street vendors all but climbed onto our bus, Matt taught us a Chinese phrase: bu yao, or "I don't want it." "No" never worked, but bu yao did.

Soon we were standing on the Bund, the wide boardwalk along the muddy Huangpu River separating colonial Shanghai, with its 1920s and '30s European mansions, from Pudong, the high-tech and financial district. Farmland only 12 years ago, Pudong now grows skyscrapers. As we peered across the river through the haze, we were stared at by Chinese, most likely tourists from small towns who rarely see Westerners. To them, Matt said, we are "big noses."

Lunch awaited at the Good Luck restaurant in Pudong -- familiar fare, Chinese food for Westerners, typical of what we would have throughout. About the most exotic dish we would tackle on this tour was goat, carved tableside from a carcass with a red ribbon around its neck. Broccoli and watermelon were ubiquitous. We were not offered local treats such as dog or eel with coagulated duck blood. And no fortune cookies. (For those who leave home without leaving home, China has TGIFriday's and numerous Pizza Hut, McDonald's, KFC and Starbucks outlets.)

That night, fighting jet lag, we struggled to stay awake at the New Shanghai Circus, where acrobats jumped through hoops and built gravity-defying human pyramids. The finale did get our attention: four daredevil motorcyclists zooming around inside a huge mesh globe, seemingly inches from catastrophe.

Dec. 2: Shanghai to Suzhou

Our bags had to be ready by 8 a.m., and Han told us to allow 10 minutes extra for room check; the hotel wanted to make sure we hadn't taken anything. An in-room directory said we could buy just about everything, even the wallpaper and carpet, as souvenirs. Such directories made great reading, warning us about bringing in unlicensed swords or eating watermelon in the room.

Before catching the afternoon train to Suzhou, we visited a Children's Palace in the former villa of a formerly in favor official. Under China's one-child policy -- strictly enforced in the cities, less so in rural areas, where farm families still abandon little girls -- children are pampered like little emperors and empresses, and parents who can pay take them to these palaces for cultural "extras." We peeked in on a class playing "Jingle Bells" on accordions, another counting aloud in English. Little girls, pretty in pink, were practicing ballet. The children paid us little mind -- no attention deficit disorder here.

As we drove through streets teeming with bicycles and cars, it seemed that all 16 million inhabitants were out and about, if not all 1.3 billion Chinese: the hip and chic young, an old woman balancing plants on a shoulder pole, an old man in a UCLA sweatshirt. The masses are moving from humble dwellings with shared facilities into cookie-cutter high-rises, the bonds between families and neighbors weakening as they do.