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I contend that it takes a lot to earn the dubious honor of Worst Tour Guide in the World. Two years after a tour to China, I am absolutely certain I have not only met the Worst Tour Guide in the World, but also barely survived a day with her.
How Our Experience With the Worst Tour Guide in the World Came to Be
Our story begins with a mistake fare. It was one the last of the great mistake fares – a $400-ish business class fare from Washington DC to Beijing on American, upgradable to first for those of us who jumped quickly. I booked a room at the Park Hyatt Beijing while my two of my guy friends stayed at the St Regis.
It was their first visit and my first leisure trip so we decided to spend a full day touring the city. We asked for tour guide and driver recommendations on social media. Because we were planning our trip at the last-minute for early summer, we had to contact a few recommended guides before we found someone available. He told us he was busy but his experienced partner, “Jenny”, would take care of us. We went over the agreed upon rate and what she would cover. The rate would include a separate guide and driver. We’d have a half-day tour of the Great Wall, lunch, and an afternoon city tour. That afternoon portion would also include our choice of another major attraction (we chose the Summer Palace). We would also drive by other sites before finishing at our hotel at the end of the day.
Things seemed good enough in the beginning… until the morning of the tour that is.
Our Tour Begins Innocently Enough
The driver and guide were to pick me up at the Park Hyatt at a set time. We would then head to the St Regis to pick up the guys. At the designated time, no driver or guide showed up. I waited awkwardly outside for over 45 minutes, occasionally approaching random cars in the hotel drive. Those around me became increasingly uncomfortable with my behavior.
I was close to giving up and forming a plan B. Just then, a disheveled Chinese woman came running up the driveway carrying her shoes in one hand and a bag in the other.
“Are you Jennifer?” she asked. I nodded.
“I’m Jenny. Hurry. Quickly. You must come now. We are late!” she admonished, as she motioned for me to follow her down the driveway. Confused, I followed her.
We stood on a sidewalk as traffic rushed by. I was still confused but she offered no explanation.
Then a car pulled up and barely came to a halt. She opened the back door and shooed me in “hurry, hurry”. She climbed in the front seat.
“We are already very late,” she admonished me. “Traffic will be bad.”
I was confused. “We still need to pick up my friends at the St Regis,” I reminded her. This was clearly outlined in our request. “We will be very late.”
We picked up the guys and only then did she partially explain that she lived outside the city and had missed her train that morning. Turns out, the driver was to meet her at the hotel and had been circling, uncertain of what to do. We drove to the Great Wall in weekend traffic which took us almost two hours. We struggled to piece together exactly what had happened, but putting that aside vowed to have a great day. Little did we know that we were about to spend the day with the Worst Tour Guide in the World.
The Great Wall or The Great Divide?
Upon arriving at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, we took the cable car up with our guide. She was still explaining very little to us – just barking at us in rapid broken English to buy tickets. We purchased tickets for the cable car up and the bobsled style carts back down.
We rode the cable car up and she gave us a few minutes of general commentary that involved reading signs to us. Literally reading them to us word for word. No additional commentary. We tried asking her a couple of questions and she just shook her head.
She led us to a spot at one of the sections of the Great Wall easily accessed from the top of the cable car. Then announced that she would meet us back in that same spot in one hour. And she proceeded to walk off and sit on a park bench.
And so we were on our own at the Great Wall. Personally, I didn’t mind… I’m not the type who does well on long tours. I’m easily bored and I can read signs on my own. We took off and walked some of the sections. The guys wandered off to explore a section further in the distance. I headed to shade on the opposite end to shoot photos. I rejoined our guide early and tried to engage her in conversation until the guys returned.
At the end of an hour, we rode the bobsleds to the bottom of the hill and began the walk back to our car.
Time for Lunch or a Showdown?
We knew that lunch would be next. But we were surprised when our guide herded us into a Subway sandwich shop off the parking lot. Confused, we tried to ask her what was happening, but she just asked us to wait outside. We were collectively growing a bit agitated at our lack of information. Would we be eating Subway for lunch on our day tour of Beijing? We saw her standing in line and went in to ask her what was happening. She told us she was buying lunch for the driver and herself.
The lack of upfront information was frustrating but we stayed hopeful that the afternoon would improve. After leaving the Great Wall (and Subway), we drove to a roadside restaurant. The waitress seated us and our guide stood awkwardly over our table. When the waitress brought menus, our guide awkwardly scooped them up.
“I’ll order for you,” she said.
“What is included with our lunch?” one of the guys asked her. “We might want to order something else ourselves.”
“Oh, nothing is included. You pay for your own lunch,” she replied.
“In that case, we want to see the menus,” he said.
“Oh no. You won’t know what to order. I’ll order for you,” she insisted.
We proceeded to have a tussle over the menus. This was very awkward.
I pulled out my phone. The email definitely implied – but did not definitively state – that lunch was included. We each read the text and could not conclude whether the price should include our food or not.
But the prices were reasonable and we decided we would rather exercise control over our choices. So we ordered our own food. Our guide was very unhappy.
“You will not like that,” she sniffed. “And that is too much food.”
She walked away to go sit with the other guides. Our food arrived and we ate. We enjoyed our choices and finished what we ordered.
Afternoon Touring or a Brisk Walk
At this point it was 1 pm and we were less than an hour outside of Beijing.
“I’m not sure if we are still going to have time to go anywhere else this afternoon,” our guide told us.
“The tour is supposed to go until 5 pm,” I pointed out.
“Well, we may not have time for that,” she replied.
“We planned to go to the Summer Palace – we need to do that,” I insisted.
At this point, our frustration continued growing. In the meantime, the notoriously bad Beijing traffic was worsening. Our driver was attempting riskier moves to navigate it. We narrowly avoided two near collisions at high speed.
As we arrived at the Summer Palace, we could tell our tour guide’s anxiety levels were growing.
“Hurry, we need to hurry!” she insisted as we purchased our tickets.
We entered the grounds and she took off at a rapid pace with us chasing after her. It felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland chasing the White Rabbit.
She would occasionally turn and shout some commentary to us. We heard very little of it as we were rushing to keep up with her, uncertain of what we were running toward.
We reached a large pond and she turned and motioned to us.
“Rush, right now… NOW. Get on the boat. Get on the boat!”
She was rushing us to get onto a small ferry of some type going across the pond. One of the guys almost did not make it onto the boat as she was herding us so quickly, he almost became separated.
We turned to look as we got on the boat and there it was – the Summer Palace. It was behind us and we were sailing away from it. She had just hustled us on a brisk walk across a half-mile of grounds. We had made our way halfway around that pond and reached the palace. And now we were leaving it.
We were confused. Glancing at our watches, it was just after 3 pm. We still had time left in our day.
As got off the boat, we found ourselves back at the entry to the complex. We asked for a few moments to use the restrooms. Our guide let out a deep sigh.
“You must HURRY. We do not have time for this.” she chided us.
The Worst Tour Guide in the World
At this point, you would think we could hand out the Worst Tour Guide in the World honors. We will help solidify that win, however, just in case you have any remaining doubts.
We used the restrooms, which were a bit of a walk away from the entrance. Only two of us had returned when she decided it was time to leave immediately.
Yes, she was actually prepared to leave one of the three of us behind at the Summer Palace. This might have been successful had we not all been friends. But we were not leaving without each other so we forced her to wait. She finally went looking for our missing friend (who had taken a wrong turn and gotten turned around).
We got back to the car and she and our driver began a very rapid fire exchange in Chinese. The driving became even more erratic with our driver ending up speeding on the highway median at one point to get around traffic.
Meanwhile, we had entered the city and our tour would soon be coming to an end. Despite the original tour description, we knew there would be no driving by other sights for photos, unless it occurred at a high speed. In the backseat, we were conferring in hushed tones about whether to tip and, if so, how much. We had no idea those conversations were futile.
Suddenly in the middle of eight lanes of moving traffic, our guide suddenly announced to us “I’ll be getting out here – there is the subway!” The car didn’t even come to a stop as she jumped out of the rolling vehicle, darted through the moving cars, and disappeared into a rush of people on the sidewalk. The Worst Tour Guide in the World was gone.
We erupted into laughter. The driver started laughing too. His driving suddenly reverted to a calmer style of driving as he drove us to our respective hotels.
Afterthoughts on the Worst Tour Guide in the World
I later followed up with the original tour contact. He said our guide “Jenny” was relatively new with his service. I suspect she was actually his neighbor or friend and he pressed into service to make an extra buck. Either way, she is definitely the Worst Tour Guide in the World. I hope we were Jenny’s last unwitting guests!
This blog post has sat in my draft folder, partially written, for two years. I pulled it out the other day after a Facebook Timeline post and the long comment thread that resurfaced reminded me of our communal shock that day. I’ve taken some comically bad shore excursions. I have no problem navigating the absolutely free tours that locals sometimes give. And we’ve reviewed a lot of great tours here. But I generally do not like to go on blast when something goes wrong at the hands of an individual.
We all gave the company appropriate reviews on Trip Advisor at the time. (Ironically, their other reviews were all great although none mentioned Jenny as their guide.) Since I decided to post this primarily for the story itself, I’ve left out the name of the tour company. You will not find them, either, by searching “Worst Tour Guide in the World”. Not, unless someone else has also bestowed that honor upon them, that is. As two years have passed since this incident, I trust that the company has addressed the Jenny problem!