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Jan Wong's excellent adventure

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Aboard BUS 83801 — If it's Saturday, it must be Ottawa. No, Montreal. No, Thousand Islands. Wait, it's all three.

Local Chinese newspapers keep printing ads for cheap Canadian package tours. The ads promise five cities in three days. I'd seen dozens of Chinese from these tours lined up at McDonald's bathrooms on the highway. I'd just seen China through Canadian eyes. It was time to see Canada through Chinese eyes.

So here I was meeting Tour Bus 83801 in the predawn gloom in a Scarborough parking lot. "Foreigners do this same itinerary in five or six days. We do it in three," our tour guide, Fontaine Cheng, said smugly. By "foreigners," she meant anyone not ethnically Chinese. The "Three-Day Luxury Tour of Eastern Canada" costs $373.23, including tax, hotels, Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking guide and 1,500 kilometres on a bus.

,Had I shared a room, the tour would have cost even less and with four in a room — as some of my Chinese bus mates had — the price would have dropped to $139.23.

It's a hell of a deal. Bus fare alone on Greyhound for the same trip costs $328.03, even without Kingston and Thousand Islands. Indeed, many Canadians head south, instead of checking out their own backyard because it's expensive to travel around this huge country.

Anyway, how bad could it be? The Mississauga travel agent who booked it couldn't tell me much except that I'd better send cash fast because the tour was selling out. On board, I was pleasantly shocked to learn I'd be staying at the Sheraton Centre in downtown Montreal the first night, and the Hilton in Quebec City the second.

But I didn't expect the iron-fisted guide and strange history lessons. And I still wake up screaming about the daily all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.

Saturday, Toronto, 5:30 a.m.

Bus 83801 begins picking up customers from four Toronto-area Chinese communities: Mississauga, downtown Chinatown, Markham and Scarborough. As we leave the last pickup point, Guide Cheng hands out yellow buttons that say, "Safeway Tours" in English and "Prosperity-Peace Travel" in Chinese. They match the flag she will wave above her head for the next three days.

Cheng, a fresh-faced woman with a ponytail, immigrated here 19 years ago from Malaysia. Her silken voice belies her tough demeanour. We are not to be late. We must sit in assigned seats, rotated daily out of fairness to those who covet the front. She will call us only by number — I am No. 8. There are too many Wongs, Wangs, Chans and Chens on the tour.

She also forbids us to use the on-bus toilet except in emergencies. "There are more than 50 people on this bus," she says in rapid Cantonese, followed by equally rapid Mandarin. "If everyone uses the toilet once, it will affect the whole bus." She lets that thought linger.

Every seat is taken. Ditto on another identical bus, with which we are travelling in tandem. The tourists are mainly from China. One newly married couple just received landed-immigrant status in Canada and flew from Canton to celebrate. An older couple from Tianjin, Dong Lanying and Cui Yantang, have been visiting their landed-immigrant son and Canadian grandson in Vancouver.

Neither speaks a word of English. Everything intimidates them. "But we wanted to see Eastern Canada," says Dong, 60, explaining why she and her husband had got up the nerve to leave the safe confines of her son's home where everyone speaks Chinese.

"What can I buy that's Canadian?" asks my seatmate, Chen Xiaowen, 39, a former film actress from China who now owns a travel agency in Tokyo catering to Chinese tourists. When I suggest maple syrup, she says, "What do you do with it?"

Saturday, Kingston, 10:10 a.m.

We break for lunch at McDonald's, a bizarre schedule that we will follow for the next three days: bus ride at dawn, no breakfast and a very early lunch, which Guide Cheng euphemistically calls "brunch."

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