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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."

Even those without jet lag begin feeling queasy. Dong flew in with her husband from Vancouver the night before. A gaunt woman with glasses that slip down her nose, she clutches her stomach. "My wei is no good," she says, using the Chinese word for stomach, but referring to her entire digestive system. She skips the Big Mac and fries. Cui, a quiet gentleman and chain smoker who grabs a cigarette every time the bus lets him out, buys her sugar cookies at the nearby IGA.

Back on the bus, Guide Cheng gives us a brisk Canadian history lesson. The 401, she explains, is properly called the M-C Freeway. "M stands for Macdonald, the same place we had hamburgers," she says. "Many people think Sir John A. Macdonald is related to Ronald McDonald. That's not true."

She asks everyone to guess what the "C" stands for. Silence. She points to her watch. More silence. "An expensive watch," she hints, arching her tattooed eyebrows. "Cartier. George Cartier was a leader in Quebec," she says impatiently. She doesn't say whether Sir George-Étienne Cartier is related to the luxury watchmaker.

Cheng also says the Hudson's Bay Company was set up as a tax dodge. "French fur traders decided to sell their furs to Charles II, king of England," she explains. "This way, they could evade taxes."

Saturday, Gananoque, 11:50 a.m.

Our bus pulls up behind its twin in Gananoque as the Thousand Islander disgorges another mass of Chinese tourists. Normally, cruises shut down by mid-October, but a crew member says they'd already done two that morning. All Chinese? "Pretty much," he says, laughing. It's freezing on deck. Only a hardy few venture outside to snap photos. The rest of us huddle inside listening to the recorded tour in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese. One lone Chinese tourist, bundled in a parka, stays on the prow for most of the cruise to take photos. When a wave hits him right in the face, everyone laughs. He comes back inside.

Remembering Guide Cheng's admonition against using the bus toilet, my seatmate, Chen, stylish with mauve sparkly nail polish and a snakeskin jacket, lines up to use the washrooms on the boat. "Very stinky," she reports on her return.

By now, I realize our group includes a Filipino-Canadian family from Toronto and at least six Japanese. None speak Chinese, so Guide Cheng occasionally gives out snippets of information in English.

Saturday, Ottawa, 3 p.m.

My tour mates take in a seven-minute tour at the Royal Canadian Mint, line up to lift a solid gold bar, then storm the gift shop. This is, after all, a store selling money. Ignoring the mugs and T-shirts, they snap up gold coins, silver dollars and sets of commemorative coins as fast as the four clerks can sell them. Chen thinks the coin sets are a bargain at $15.95. She buys one for her teenaged son, another for a friend with a newborn baby.

"It's pretty booked up with Chinese tours," said Christiane, our Mint guide, hurrying to help her beleaguered colleagues. "You should give me a commission!" yells one Chinese tourist who speaks English and has been helping his countrymen shop.

We drop into the Canadian Museum of Civilization for an hour. The Chinese pose in front of totem poles. Then we drive to Parliament for more photos. The tourists pick red maple leaves off the ground. They spot a squirrel. "Looks like a rat!" someone exclaims. Everyone grabs their cameras. We drive by 24 Sussex Dr., Rideau Hall and the Chinese embassy. "I can't see anything," a woman behind me says.

Meals and admissions aren't included in our package. Guide Cheng passes out worn brochures of the sights we will see. She extols the culinary delights ahead. In Quebec City, she promises an authentic French meal. The Chinese buffet restaurant in Ottawa where we will dine shortly is patronized, she says, by the Chinese ambassador himself.

Four "delicious" meals and five admissions cost $105.50, she adds, handing out envelopes for us to fill with cash. Chen, who knows the tourism business, is skeptical. But when a few of us balk, Guide Cheng warns there will be nowhere else to eat nearby. And anyone who declines to visit a site will be locked out of the bus and have to wait in the cold. We all pay up.!

Saturday, Vanier, 5:30 p.m.

"Look, there's lots of restaurants," says Chen, miffed, as we debark in a parking lot in a suburb of Ottawa. We're in a strip mall, with various kinds of pizza and fast-food restaurants. But we troop dutifully into Du Barry Chinese Buffet. The place is huge and full of customers, but the only Asians besides our bus tour are the waiters.

Dong really isn't feeling well. Cheng says anyone not eating must wait outside the restaurant. I decide enough is enough. I pull up a chair for Dong and tell a waiter to get her a glass of hot water. She sits there, cradling her head, as everyone else piles their plates high with chop suey, chow mein and deep-fried cocktail hot dogs. The tourists taste everything. They avoid seconds. There is no sign of the Chinese ambassador.

Over dinner with Chen, Cui and Dong, we discuss the latter's digestive problems. I suggest All-Bran. They look blank, so I write it down on a slip of paper and tell them it should cost about $3.50 or $4. They head for the supermarket next door and return in defeat.

"It was over $30," Cui says. "We don't mind spending $10, but $30 is too much."

I bolt down the rest of my bean sprouts, head to the washroom because, you know, we're not allowed to use the one on the bus, and make it into the supermarket one minute before it closes. I find the All-Bran. Every box is marked, "$32.9." I laugh. So does the cashier. Cui doesn't think it's funny at all, but he buys a box when we assure him it's actually $3.29.

Back on the bus, Dong starts eating All-Bran. Guide Cheng puts a Jackie Chan movie, The Tuxedo, in the DVD player. During the trip, we will watch two Jackie Chan movies, a Taiwanese comedy about overweight lovers and some wordless Mr. Bean videos. We arrive around 9 p.m. at the Sheraton. Guide Cheng calls us by number and hands out keys. Our phones are blocked for outgoing calls, but my 10th-floor room has 10 fluffy pillows and a view that includes a snippet of the St. Lawrence River.

Sunday, Montreal, 6:28 a.m.

An unsolicited wake-up call, apparently arranged by the efficient Cheng, jolts me out of bed. Why we need an hour to pack our pajamas in an overnight bag eludes me. It's not like there's any breakfast. Unlike my bus mates, I didn't think to bring emergency rations. A few of them figure out how to use the coffee machine to boil water for instant noodles.

At 7:30 a.m., we load our luggage on the bus and disturb the early mass-goers at St. Joseph's Oratory. Everyone stares at the actual heart of the founder, Brother Andre, encased in red glass. One elderly Chinese man stares at the priest's life-sized wax statue. "As short as Deng Xiaoping!" he exclaims, referring to the diminutive Chinese leader.

Later, at Notre Dame Cathedral, Guide Cheng tells us to ignore the no-camera signs. We spend 15 minutes annoying a group of worshipers. At the Olympic Stadium, we stop for a minute to watch families swimming. Then Cheng hustles us through a tunnel into the Biodome, an indoor zoo and aquarium.

Four hours later, we pull into another mall for another buffet, this time in Montreal East, at the Le Buffet Chinois Mandarin. Dong is able to eat again. She digs in for the first time. She stops after a few bites. An hour later, we head for Quebec City. We have not seen Old Montreal, the Port, Mount Royal, not even Chinatown.

Sunday, Quebec City, 3 p.m.

We arrive in a downpour after a glance out the window at the Plains of Abraham. Guide Cheng takes us on a 20-minute walk through the Lower Town, which mainly consists of pointing out washrooms and where people can buy disposable raincoats. Then we have two hours free time for shopping. Cheng finally reveals the name of the French restaurant where we'd be dining that night: La Maison du Spaghetti.

We have a choice of steak, chicken, fish or for $5 more, we can upgrade to lobster. "This is French food?" says Chen, puzzled. She has ordered fish, which comes with frozen carrots and peas and parboiled rice. I gently break the news. The wine, something called Caribou, is screw top. The bread is pallid, the soup bitter. My liver pâté comes garnished with a stray hair, which I notice only after I've eaten half (the pâté, not the hair.)

All around us, others leave their rice uneaten. "Chinese love rice," says Chen, shaking her head. "You know it's really bad if the Chinese won't eat it."

Monday, Quebec City, 6:30 a.m.

Another unsolicited predawn wake-up call, followed by a call from Guide Cheng herself, just in case. At 7:30, Chen tries to buy some breakfast in the food court under the Hilton and gets completely, utterly lost. The bus starts to pull away. I report my seatmate is missing. Guide Cheng is not happy. Chen arrives breathless and sweating, clutching a box of fried eggs. She is 10 minutes late.

After driving all morning, we pause for our third Chinese buffet in three days in Lasalle, Que. It is also called Le Buffet Chinois Mandarin. Guide Cheng assures us the ownership is different from Le Buffet Chinois Mandarin where we ate the day before. We eat in silence. We have spent more time at Chinese buffets than sightseeing in either Montreal or Ottawa. Back on the bus, two young Japanese women behind me rip open a bag of Doritos. "They won't eat the buffet," explains Chen, who has lived in Japan for 16 years and speaks fluent Japanese.!

Monday, Kingston, 3:40 p.m.

Our Kingston city tour consists of 22 minutes at the waterfront for photos, then it's all aboard for Toronto. No one has used the onboard toilet. But one of us has been late. Guide Cheng makes Chen sing a song as a penalty. Soon the whole bus is singing along. Now that no one is dozing, Guide Cheng takes back the microphone. The travel company pays her only $40 a day, she informs us.

Last year, during SARS, she got nothing. Everyone should pay a daily tip of $7 for her to share with the driver. Then she walks down the aisle, stuffing cash into a manila envelope. I figure the take, for three days and 55 passengers, is $1,155. I'm sure it's a total coincidence that she pointed out Revenue Canada's headquarters in Ottawa and the women's prison in Kingston during the tour.

"What city we see the Biodome?" says Chen, the three days of sightseeing blurring, as she rummages through her wallet for exactly $21. "And where was the church with the heart?"

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