LIJIANG, China, Jan 13 (Reuters) - China has never been more open for travel, and cheap 'bucket-shop' package tours, the staple for most Chinese enjoying the freedom to wander for the first time, offer journeys with a magical mystery of their own.
Magical, because the winter views in the southwestern province of Yunnan where I went with my family are breathtaking, especially in the high mountains where taking a breath can be a magic moment all of its own.
Tourists in rented ethnic minority costumes pose for a photo at an ethnic folk village in Kunming, Yunnan province.
Mystery, because we were very rarely told where we were going, when we were going there, or why.
At 2,500 yuan (S$492) per person, it's hard to complain.
That included return flights from Beijing to Yunnan's capital, Kunming, tickets for two overnight train journeys, two six-hour bus trips over narrow mountain passes - overtaking on blind corners included - and countless trips from tourist site to tourist shop to tourist site to, um, another tourist shop.
They threw in as well three meals a day and five nights' accommodation, though none of the hotels had heating and in one, well off the tourist track, we had to climb over panels of wood and broken furniture to reach our room.
But it was the itinerary that confused, model ethnic theme villages in Kunming and Lijiang, perhaps overkill in a province where nearly half the population is ethnic minority.
Lijiang, with cobbled streets, gabled roofs, arched bridges and rushing canals, is home to the Naxi, who have their own pictograph language and whose women traditionally held sway over the men. There is no need to visit a pseudo folk village here.
Then there were the shops. For every pagoda or faux village, there was a stop at a football pitch-sized emporium. Outside there would be 30 tour buses just like ours, the idea being the tour guides get a cut of whatever their tourists spend.
RESTROOMS AND RETAILERS
Even a restroom stop would involve a trek through such a place to get to the most basic convenience on the other side.
Which presumably was why we had an hour for each toilet break.
At one stop, a woman shouting into a megaphone chased us around a warehouse showcasing Yunnan's coffee.
Another woman did the same to a second group of hapless tourists. We were spoon-fed milky, sweet instant coffee every few yards, and the noise was deafening.
Then there was the woman selling very sharp meat cleavers.
This cleaver, she demonstrated, could chop through rolled-up leather, aluminium tubes, the edge of her chopping board, and of course any vegetables that happened to get in the way.
I wondered whether we would have time to make the door if we declined to buy one.
It was in Lijiang, a World Heritage-listed tourist destination, that a tour guide stabbed 20 people in April in an attack blamed on a row over kickbacks from souvenir shops.
After the knife shop came jade shops, tea shops, brick-a-brack shops, flower shops. Each meal was accompanied by loudspeaker sales pitches for pictures of blooming peonies and stalking tigers.
A view of the old town of Lijiang, Yunnan province.
DARK BROWN FOOT BATHS
At Dali railway station we were ushered into a waiting room before catching the train back to Kunming. Expecting an hour's rest, I was pulling out my copy of "Lost Horizon" when two men hauling a steaming plastic vat rushed into the room.
They threw basins at our feet, filled them with scalding dark liquid and told us to take off our shoes and socks and stick our feet in. A woman in a nurse's uniform launched into a spiel about the benefits of dark brown foot baths.
Then two men who said they were doctors appeared. They began studying the palms of our hands for clues of symptoms which they could cure with an assortment of medicines that were for sale.
Suspiciously appreciative 'patients' egged on the 'doctors.' Tourism is booming in China, which expects to attract millions this year as Beijing hosts the Olympic Games. Chinese travellers meanwhile are becoming more and more discerning.
"I will never do this again," one tourist from Beijing said.
"Shopping, shopping, shopping. Next time I will travel alone."
The tour was an adventure and my children learnt about life without five-star conveniences and, in some places, plumbing.
Our fellow travellers, reading the scowls on my children's faces at yet another 6.30 a.m. breakfast of rice gruel and boiled eggs, went out of their way to make us feel at home.
Addresses were exchanged at poignant farewells at Kunming airport.
By that time, my children were smiling broadly. The airport has a Western-style fast food restaurant.