Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Big Squeeze - Tourism in the New China

A week or so ago E and I sat down for lunch at a cafe in Dali's 'Old Town', one of the hot tourist destinations in China's southwest province of Yunnan. As we picked up our chopsticks and dug into our pork and noodle dishes, an audience gathered. A Chinese tour group stopped following their guide for a moment as they pointed and whispered to each other about this strange species of people before them. There we were: Westernus Backpackerus. Some pulled out their cameras, and I thought about putting out a hat and asking for tips. We have encountered this sort of interest all over China, but this was different - it was almost as if we were a photo stop on this group's city tour. I had watched Chinese tour groups go snap-happy in front of Westerners elsewhere in Yunnan province. It was not always to their liking but there wasn't much they could do about it - when it comes to tourism in the New China, Westerners are completely outnumbered.

In China's growing economy, domestic tourism is booming. As disposable income increases, more and more Chinese spend their free time jetsetting to the country's hot spots. The numbers are staggering. In Dali, the owner of a cafe told us that in high season the town could expect up to 20,000 Chinese tourists coming through the town each day, compared to just 400 Westerners. And the numbers make themselves felt in all sorts of ways. Visitors to Dali can make the five hour trip to Lijiang in comfortable, modern coaches thanks to the demand provided by the Chinese middle class, whose bums are planted firmly on the seats. On the Li River, the stunning beauty of the unusual rock formations on either bank is is almost negated by the growl of large ships which transport one Chinese package tour after the other, bumper to bumper, leaving smaller tourist vessels caught in the swell. And in Yangshuo dozens of extra street stalls appear on Friday evenings to coincide with the arrival of the busloads of Chinese tourists who come to spend the weekend. And spend is probably the most appropriate word. The Chinese tour groups are known to be flush with cash, so much so that an inverted type of 'local price' applies at the riverside market: the price rockets to five times as much when the Chinese tourists arrive, and backpackers are warned to delay any shopping until they leave town.

Numbers, and money, change a place. In Lijiang the beautifully restored Old Town is nothing more than a mall - most of its streets are lines of stores selling the same wall hangings, t-shirts, jewellery and other knick knacks. It is the Rocks On Speed. In Dali's Old Town, teenage store attendants wear ill-fitting full traditional dress, apparently giving us a taste of Yunnan's cultural diversity. Lijiang and Dali's Old Towns are nothing if not packed with tourists, so other cities have taken the hint and are now constructing their own 'Old Towns'. You have to take yourself on a decent walk before you meet anyone who isn't directly engaged in the tourism industry. As a tourist, the idea that you can have a truly 'authentic' cultural experience is perhaps an illusion. But in places like Lijiang and Dali, you get that empty feeling that comes when you know that you aren't even close.

In some areas, the flood of tourists has taken a particularly heavy toll. Ten years ago, Tiger Leaping Gorge was a destination for the more adventurous traveller. It is one of the world's deepest gorges, and is the site of a stunning and sometimes precarious two-day hike up and done one side of the gorge. E and I spent a gorgeous few days walking this trail, staying the night at some of the friendly guesthouses along the way. But unlike ten years ago, our route was shadowed a hundred or so metres below by an asphalt road which brings in dozens of tour buses each day. Millions of tourists now visit the gorge each year; the fume-puking buses shed their passengers at intervals for photos stops, but otherwise just sputter their way along the winding road and add to the ambience in a way that only tour buses can. On major holidays, the road becomes so clogged that passengers have to abandon their vehicles and walk until the gridlock subsides. Ten years on, the Gorge is a changed place. Unfortunately, its sad story is not over - if the dam-happy Chinese government proceeds with plans to dam the Gorge, whole villages will lose their livelihood and face forced relocation.

Of course, Western tourism in China is not without its consequences (there is, after all, a Starbucks in the Forbidden City), but the numbers are too small to have the impact of Chinese holidaymakers. One of the more benign impacts of Western tourism is the flourishing of Western-style cafes throughout Yunnan. In places like Lijiang and Dali there are dozens of them, and you can be hard pressed finding an alternative place to eat if nothing on the menu takes your fancy. Luckily, they cook both Western food and Chinese food - but do neither particularly well. The Chinese food is adapted for Western palates and so is unimaginative and bland, leaving you in the peculiar situation of being unable to find authentic Chinese food in the country that invented it. And the Western food often amounts to valiant attempts at American diner fare such as burgers, burritos and pizzas. There are exceptions, but in most places there is just something not quite right about what emerges from the kitchen. My own personal theory is that a little known Sino-American treaty permits American recipes to be described once only, and on a crackly telephone line. So, for a banana pancake, the conversation might progress along the lines of "It's a sweet dish, so add lots of sugar, and put the bananas on the inside", which is relayed to Chinese kitchen staff as "Right, it's a savoury dish, so add lots of shallots, and put the bananas on top".

After just such a meal, I was wandering the streets of Yangshuo, cursing the stalls that had come out for the weekend and wondering how there could be a demand for such junk. Then up ahead I saw a DVD store with a sign advertising 'DVD player for rent'. In China a market springs up at the slightest hint of demand, and they had found my weakness. I took the shop up on its offer and spent a comfortable night in, all the while musing that, sometimes, giving the people what they want is not so bad.

Photos of Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yangshuo and Longji Rice Terraces

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Charles Bukowski on beach holidays

What was the fascination of the beach? Why did people like the beach? Didn't they have anything better to do? What chicken-brained fuckers they were.
Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye (1982)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ganzi - A week in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture

The Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is situated in western Sichuan province. More Tibetans live outside of Tibet than inside it, 800,000 in Ganzi alone. It is a gorgeous region to travel through - the bus curls its way around immense mountains from one snowy peak to the next, grinding its way up to 4870 metres and passing by Kangding's Gongga Shan, which at 7556m is the 11th tallest mountain in the world. As we negotiated each precarious mountain pass, I breathed a sigh of relief and gazed out at the large rock piles, Tibetan holy sites whose most striking feature is the brightly coloured flags that strangely resemble the streamers at used car yards.

People in Ganzi make their livelihood by herding yaks, sheep and goats on the mountain plateau grasslands. Increasingly, tourism is a source of income for those enterprising enough to take advantage of the growing trickle of foreigners making its way into the region. We were greeted at each bus terminal by women advertising rooms in their houses - it's a practice not authorised by the Chinese government, but seems to go on nonetheless. In Tagong we stayed at a beautiful Tibetan house owned by two generous and entertaining locals. We sat for a few hours after dinner giving each other language lessons. The words provide a strange road map to our conversation, which covered family, food and altitude sickness - for our hosts, pronunciation of 'student' was near impossible, 'yoghurt' less difficult, while 'vomit' seemed to come out naturally. In Tagong as in other stops in Ganzi, many shop fronts were tall doors of deep red, decorated in a range of motifs. If you stopped by one for a meal, you would more than likely be served one of two things: Tibetan soup, a type of vegetable soup with thick, doughy noodles; or yak meat. In Kangding, the restaurant owner helped us decipher the Chinese menu by making horn signs with her index fingers. Minutes later we were presented with a plate piled high with hunks of yak meat, along with individual knives and chopping boards to help us devour this surprisingly tasty animal. Customarily, all of this is washed down with yak butter tea, a heavy, milky drink that leaves the impression that you've just swallowed half a tub of Meadow Lea.

Without the language, we found it difficult to gain any great insight into the politics of being a Tibetan living in an autonomous prefecture in China. However, our host in Tagong did communicate to us the frustration of competing in a tourist market which the Chinese are seeking to infiltrate. She was visibly upset that her Chinese competitor up the road built her guesthouse with a Tibetan exterior, offered Tibetan food and ran tours of the region, all the while charging far more than was reasonable. This allegation of Chinese people exploiting the growing tourist interest in Tibetan culture reminded me of another type of Chinese infiltration into Tibet - the Beijing-Lhasa railway. The building of this railway is widely seen as an attempt by the Chinese government to encourage Chinese immigration into the region and further weaken Tibetan culture. Just a couple of weeks ago it underwent its first test run, and is expected to be open to the public in late 2006.

As we arrived in Xianggelila (formerly known as Zhongdian), the end of our sojourn into Ganzi, we were exhausted. The week offered up a range of experiences that were either interesting cultural insights or whinge-worthy irritations, depending on our mood at the time: sitting on buses with the crisp -7C air blowing through open windows, numbing faces and toes for hours at a time; encountering novel toilet designs that deliver your waste back to you; opium-addled men spitting out bus windows, misdirecting, and hitting us instead; waiting four hours for a bus at the Chinese equivalent of Royston Vasey and then never being entirely sure that we were heading in the right direction; sleeping in freezing rooms whose electric blankets tended to lose their utility in the hours-long blackouts. So it was with great relief that we arrived in Xianggelila and found the following: running water (after midday when the pipes unfreeze), cafes serving eggs on toast and decent coffee, and a DVD room in our hostel. Tonight will be our third night here. We haven't had break in several months of travelling, and we think we deserve a little time in a home-away-from-home.

Photos of giant pandas, Chengdu Peoples' Park, Tibetan cowboys and more...

[Note: The Chinese government blocks access to a huge range of websites, including BBC News and this blog. As a result I am kind of posting blind! So please let me know if my blog entries feature upside-down photos or, more likely, lengthy reports on how well the Chinese government is doing in combating bird flu.]

Monday, November 07, 2005

Underground Beijing

Eighteen metres below the bustling streets of Beijing is a vast network of tunnels. Today they are nothing more than an amusing place to spend a half hour but they used to be serious business. In 1969 China was getting nervous about a possible nuclear war with Russia and Mao ordered the construction of this warren of bombproof tunnels. They took ten years to build, and included an arsenal, a hospital and a cinema. But had the Chinese government ever had cause to go underground, the level of comfort may have fallen short of expectations. For one thing, the complex is extremely damp, with a thin sludge lining the walls. And what's more, the level of protection provided by the tunnels was questionable - they were built far too shallow to be effective against a nuclear strike. The Ministry of Defence still owns the tunnels, and it provides an enthusiastic guide to show tourists around the tunnels, pointing out the underground routes to such above ground attractions as the Forbidden City and Summer Palace. He told us that there are tunnels under most major Chinese cities, and that their total combined length is greater than that of the Great Wall (which also falls into the category of ambitious, but ultimately useless, Chinese military projects). And every inch of it was dug by hand.

But there is more to the Beijing underground than tunnels. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing a visitor to Beijing is to legally purchase a DVD. The odds are against you - 90% of movies in China are pirated, and both the legitimate shops and the not-so-legitimate street sellers deal strictly in pirated movies. You might pay 20RMB (A$3.50) for a DVD in the shops, but this is extortionate. More reasonable prices can be obtained from vendors who spend their days shuffling down sidewalks and targeting tourists with conspiratorial whispers of 'DVD? DVD moo-fie?' These are the messenger boys, and if you take them up on their offer they will charge off at great pace across the street, up an alleyway, through a vegetable garden and across a river until they have led you to the main hub of business. One such business that I visited was run out of the back room of a restaurant. E and I were invited to sit down at a table and a huge spread of DVDs was laid in front of us - boxes of them, numbering in the hundreds. The range was startling, from the complete collection of Best Picture winners, to recent releases like 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', to a horror flick about necrophilia which did, admittedly, seem a little out of place. The going rate here was about 6RMB (A$1) a DVD. Business seemed solid - while we were there another Westerner also sorted through piles of discs, inserting his selections into his portable DVD player to check for quality. Overseeing all of this was a towering, broad-shouldered man in his thirties. He exuded the natural authority of Tony Soprano and would have had no trouble getting his preferred price out of snotty-nosed foreigners. And I'm sure that business is good amongst locals as well. I have read that Warner Bros is about to release a range of legitimate DVDs in China for 20RMB a pop. But they will be lucky if shops even stock them. The Chinese government has monthly crackdowns on pirated DVD sellers, but the backrooms simply close for a couple of days before reopening. This underground institution is already proving to be far more successful than Mao's tunnels.

And what of the underground subway? Well, it is perhaps the best way for the foreign visitor to get a full-body sense of what it is like to be in the most populous nation in the world. The figure '1.3 billion' is branded on your face, hips and buttocks as you alight from a train to the city centre. Put simply, the trains do not run frequently enough and, consistent with what might be called the new mantra of Western tourists in Beijing, "they had better fix it or 2008 will be a shambles". But only a fool would think Beijing won't be ready. The soundtrack of Beijing 2005 is the clang of the hammer and the scream of the power drill - construction work is proceeding at a frenetic pace all over the city, day and night. There are plans for new roads, new malls and, importantly, two new subway lines. On the marketing side, the Games are advertised everywhere, and official tshirts (of both the genuine and not-so-genuine variety) are widely available. China, it is clear, is gearing up for the Olympics in a big way, and will do whatever it takes to bring them in on time. And the Chinese, who once built hundreds of kilometres of underground tunnels by hand, may even do it early and without breaking a sweat.

Photos of Beijing and the Great Wall

Tarantino on travel

VINCENT So if you're quitting the life, what'll you do?
JULES That's what I've been sitting here contemplating. First, I'm gonna deliver this case to Marsellus. Then, basically, I'm gonna walk the earth.
VINCENT What do you mean, walk the earth?
JULES You know, like Caine in "Kung Fu." Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
VINCENT So you decided to be a bum?
JULES I'll just be Jules, Vincent -- no more, no less.
VINCENT No Jules, you're gonna be like those pieces of shit out there who beg for change. They walk around like a bunch of fuckin' zombies, they sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away, and dogs piss on 'em. They got a word for 'em, they're called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that's what you're gonna be -- a fuckin' bum.
Pulp Fiction