Shangri-La?

Trip Start Oct 24, 2006
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Trip End Oct 30, 2007


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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Goodbye Vietnam - Hello China!
 
Vietnam wasn't done with us yet... It had to give us one last kick up the a***, as if to make sure we would definitely leave. Two smart alecks did us out of 30$ worth of Chinese Yuan when we exchanged our US Dollars at the border. We had noticed the tell-tale trembling hands, checked and cross-checked each note for counterfeits, counted the money three times. It is only once we tried to use the 5 Yuan notes that we realized they were Jiao, only worth 0.5 Yuan...
 
We walked through the drizzle to Chinese immigration, a large, austere, modern building, past two young Chinese officials outside who greeted us, their faces creased into huge smiles, their eyes mere slits: "Welcome to Chinaaaaah", they said in unison. Was this a spontaneous welcome, or the implementation of directives handed out in view of the upcoming Beijing Olympics? We didn't care...The rain trickled down our raincoats but we walked with a light step, filled with a sense of relief. The border was crossed. A new country awaited us, and if first impressions were anything to go by, we were in for a good time!
 
Industry and cities

We were on the bus all day to Kunming. We travelled over mountain tops with a bird's eye view of the summits around, then it was down into the plains for the rest of the day. Here we entered another world. The landscape was painted a sad, watercolour grey. Smoke rose slowly but incessantly from the top of tall brick chimneys. Entire new cities, consisting in functional, rectangular, plain rows of apartment buildings have been built around the industrial sites. Grey buildings merged into the grey backdrop of hills, grey smoke merged into the grey skies. We were travelling through scenes of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth".  We felt sad. In shock. We had seen it on the cinema screen - but it still affects you in a more direct way when you see it around you. Real life. This is it, this is what we have heard about, seen in the media... it is happening... and here...

Kunming is a large Chinese city as one would imagine a large Chinese city to be... or not. If you haven't been to China, nothing quite prepares you for what a large Chinese city might be like: buildings, traffic, people, noise, bustle, activity. I was here 15 years ago and remember a perfectly manageable town of old apartment blocks and wide lanes full of cyclists. Now it is large avenues lined with modern, high-rise buildings, sporting their shiny glass and metal. Pruned trees, manicured lawns, shoppers in fashionable clothes, BMWs with dark windows, banks on every street corner with their eight armed guards each.

And the contrasts: the narrow streets with the last few five-storey buildings, some of which disappeared in the two days we were there. The beggars in their rags, disfigured, dismembered, blind. Standing in the street peeing in the public dustbins. The local shops, the street vendors, the shop-houses, seamstresses working in the street...

The new and the old, the rich and the poor, the modern and the traditional, the polluting and the environmentally-friendly: in an effort to curb pollution, noise, and/or dependancy on the outside world (?), all motorbikes are electrical. Silent and efficient, these two-wheeled motorised vehicles replaced the hordes of bicycles that used to crowd the streets. And practically the only plastic bags we saw in the city were handed out in the oversized Carrefour, similar in size to an American shopping mall, only this giant is smack-bang in the centre of the city. Elsewhere, shopping is carefully placed in a soft bag the material of which we have not yet identified. Is it in a genuine effort to reduce the number of plastic bags wasted, or is it just a cheaper form of container, made from other, potentially harmful products? Patrick also noticed the vast number of solar panels on house roofs, a sign that the Chinese are turning to more environmentally-friendly sources of energy?

Kunming held its surprises for me, after 15 years - it has been transformed into a modern, vibrant and wealthy city. It was also an excellent introduction for Patrick to urban life in China.

When we left Kunming, we headed further and further away from city life.

Tourism gone wrong

Further north, in the same province of Yunnan, we reached Lijiang.
Now one of the prime tourist destinations in China, Lijiang used to be a small, traditional village.
Sadly, it is now one blatant and perfect example of how tourism can ruin, can destroy an idyllic location.
We had read about the suspended red lanterns, about the cobbled streets winding their way around the stream with the help of small stone bridges, about the weeping tree branches dangling close to the water, and the quaint feel to the town. And we weren't disappointed.

What we weren't prepared for, even though we had also read about them, were the crowds of tourists we had to elbow our way through, literally, come evening. Traditional homes have been turned into endless tacky souvenir shops and cafes. Although quiet and easily dismissable during the day, at night these cafes turn into bright, noisy, stages for crowd-attracting singing girls, and video clips on huge flat screens.
Nor were we expecting the ugliness of the new city that has been built all around the old town, so close it seems to be strangling it with its dirty, dusty streets of yet more functional and unattractive blocks of flats.

It is easy to criticise tourism, the consumerism that goes with it, and what it entails - the changes it causes to towns, buildings, landscapes, even people... But we are a part of it. In this blog, I have tended to describe tourism in negative terms, realising at the same time that we don't really have a right to do so ... after all, we are but one more couple of "tourists". The best we can do is try to be tourists in what we consider a less "negative" way. We try not to rely on all the facilities that we Westeners, and others, get used to finding when we travel: we try to eat local, travel local...
We know, however, that we are inevitably contributing to the transformation of some of these places, whether we like it or not.
We are tourists, "white" faces, which in many of the countries we have seen represent "rich" tourists, those consumers who bring dollar signs to many locals' eyes.

Way up high

Further from city life still was Tiger Leaping Gorge. Here, the Jinsha river cuts through the mountains, creating the longest (16 km), deepest (the mountains rise 3000m above the water) and narrowest gorge in the world. We did a two day trek along the mountains, looking over the huge gash slashed through the mountains, the turbulent, roaring river gushing through the gorge way below us. The mountain sides rose vertically on either side of the river, an occasional tree growing out horizontally, defying the laws of gravity.

As we set off in the cool early morning, a mysterious, milky white sun floated in the dawn mist that cloaked valley and mountains. We gradually climbed above the white haze, where we were met by blue skies and the first sun we had seen since we arrived in China. No more smog, no more fumes. It was just us, the mountains, and the metallic whirring of the cicadas.... plus the lizards, butterflies, hens, goats, horses, cows... We had been told that China was not the place to come to if in search of solitude, that there's always someone around. We wouldn't push the statement that far, but it does seem that man has left his trace everywhere one looks: plains are scattered with factories and industrial plants, mountains are scarred with roads and paths, and dotted with electricity poles...

As close to Tibet as we'll get

Then on we travelled, edging closer to the Tibetan border, stopping for four days in Zhongdian. The city was renamed Shangri-La by the authorities in 1997, in a claim that the region is the setting for James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon", and in an effort to draw the crowds. The ploy worked, and Zhongdian, or Shangri-La, is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. Contrary to Lijiang, however, it has retained much of its authenticity, and we have found ourselves extending our stay day by day, as we merged into the life here, and felt increasingly "at home".

Here the Tibetan influence is palpable: multicoloured prayer flags are strung above the town square, and flutter on the top of "lazes", stone heaps which are scattered over the countryside and often atop hills; locals gather every evening for traditional dancing on the town square, demonstrating a sense of community that has all but vanished in our western cultures; monasteries and temples are weighed down in colour, from the almost garish paintings on the walls to the bright swathes of multicoloured cloth hanging from the ceiling; women still wear their traditional clothes, thick bright pink strands of wool swirling around their head, matching their rosy cheeks and bright, happy eyes.

We have been warmly welcomed here. The effort we make to overcome the language barrier each day is recognised, and causes many smiles, but there is a genuine warmth to the locals, who seem happy we are here, and have surprised us more than once with their helpfulness.

Reasoning for no reason

Today a conversation came to mind that we had with a young French couple as we travelled on a bus. They were telling us of their three months in India, of the difficulty of coming to terms with the great number of beggars there, and of the extreme conditions they live in. We were comparing their plight with that of the beggars in Kunming, people who have come to the city from a rural environment and simply can't adapt. They are not surrounded by people like them, but by the wealth and materialism of urban life - which makes their condition almost more difficult to accept.

But then, we wondered, who are we to "accept" their condition, to be judgemental? In India, in poor regions of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, the extremely poor, the beggars, the malformed have no other reference than the life they know. They don't have the references we have, of a wealthy, developed world. And it is in their belief that someone who suffers in this life must have done something wrong in their previous life to deserve it. So suffering is accepted, as a part of life, as an unavoidable necessity.

Back to today: on the steps leading up to the ATM where we withdrew money was a beggar. I had the time to observe him as I waited. A cripple, legs twisted like wire, his ears mere holes in the side of his head, the skin on his face pulled taught as though melted to his skull, an opaque film over his widened, staring eyes, some fingers just stumps with bone pushing through.
He looked at me, our eyes locked. I brought to mind the conversation. But as much as I tried to reason with myself, I felt a surge inside me, then warm tears in my eyes. I looked away. But there had been that moment of contact. It is too easy to walk by the beggars, the handicapped, the sick, head high, looking straight ahead and pretending not to have seen them.
As we left I put a note in his bucket, and searched for his gaze again. I got it, and heard a soft whisper "Xie Xie" (thank you).
Sometimes reasoning just doesn't work...

Impressions of a first timer

With me having been to China twice already (in 1992 and Beijing in 2004), I wanted the fresh impressions of someone discovering the country and its people for the first time - Patrick! I asked him on two occasions.

After just three days here, he chose four words to describe the country:

- loud: referring to the noisy Chinese we had had on our bus journeys, when they shouted, rather than spoke, to each other across the aisle. And possibly referring to Kunming, where our hostel room was on the first floor right over a street restaurant that only got going around 11pm and stayed open until the last, drunk, shouting client had left, usually around 3am.

- development: we are right in the midst of what the media constantly describe - China's boom. There are construction sites all over every town, in the middle of the plains, on the top of mountains. There is new wealth here too, with the "nouveaux riches" showing off western clothes and accessories, as well as their large vehicles bought to impress. It is go, go, go, everything is on the move, being improved, pulled down, rebuilt...

- no English: indeed... no English. Just Chinese. We have maybe met 10 English speakers in 10 days. The rest of the time, we do our best with a pocket dictionary, pointing at Chinese characters when our attempts at pronouncing a word have failed at best, and given a completely different meaning at worst. We have also imroved our drawing talents, and become very creative in our own sign language. All I can do is kick myself that I didn't continue learning Chinese 13 years ago. If I had, I would probably just be able to get by now...Apparently there is a rush amongst the Chinese to learn English, and teachers of other European languages get paid a good third more than their English-teaching colleagues...

- dirty: a reference to the lack of cleanliness outdoors and in, although the cities seem to be making a concerted effort to place waste bins along the pavements and give an overall impression of tidyness. But there are also very different hygienic standards here. Public toilets, male and female, consist in one long trench with small walls dividing it into open "cubicles", so that you squat doing your business watched over by your neighbour. More surprisingly still, there is no running water, so all that is produced sits for ... days? Weeks? It piles up until it starts moving with maggots. The stench and mess wiped on the walls will be ours to remember...

The answer to the same question "what are your impressions now?" after ten days here was different. "An extremely friendly, kind and humble people, with a sense of community that we have lost", said Patrick.

We don't want to leave Zhongdian...

But it is time to move on...

We have just spent an entire day on the internet and making phone calls, sifting through pages covered in dates, destinations, train numbers and times.  We have been trying to book all the legs of our journey through China, sticking to transport overland. However, here too, there are summer holidays and millions of people travelling at the same time. We also want to catch a day or two with Patrick's mother Tony, who will be zipping through China on an organised tour in the next two weeks...
After 10 hours in front of the screen, and unable to find a sleepers on the long trian journeys, we eventually had to admit defeat. We booked two flights...

We leave our little haven tomorrow, on a twelve-hour bus journey back to Kunming, then we move on to new destinations...

Zai Jian,

Jayne and Patrick
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Comments

silverlining
silverlining on

Ni hao. Jayne and Patrick, you have a challenge...
...One more challenge (as if you were short of them, in your going round the world). A challenge that we all have. Your very perceptive travel account just reminds us once more.



You are dismayed at the impact that tourism has on the beautiful Lijiang -as you are also dismayed at the impact that vertiginous (yes, at more than 10% year after year) development has on China 's cities, two sides of one same coin--.



Our challenge is to accept and to still enjoy. After all, we in the West have been through all that before. There is nothing new under the sun. We know, have seen close by, how tourism can ruin, destroy many an idyllic location. Just as much as we have seen cities grow "large avenues lined with modern, high-rise buildings, traffic, people, noise, bustle, activity". We even know the grey smoke merging into the grey skies, the beggars... (although nowadays we have largely transferred the latter to countries like China , even though at the same time bitterly complaining about them making the same products, that we then willingly buy to them). Not nice, I admit.



First, however, accepting. And that means looking beyond. Seeing that this comes with people's rising standards of living, including people having more work holidays, able to travel, able to become "tourists". Seeing that by turning their "traditional homes into endless tacky souvenir shops and cafes, which, at night, turn into bright, noisy, stages for crowd-attracting singing girls", these charming and skilful singing naxi girls in, for example, Lijiang's Sifang street, are provided with an additional means of living (you know that in Lijiang the means of living are provided first by the women, not the men). Are we to deny them that?



Can tourism go wrong? I suppose it can. Just as democracy (of which we are so proud), for example, can go wrong. There is an obvious link between these two. Once-idyllic locations are transformed -often ruined and destroyed- in response to what most tourists are demanding -democracy is but the majority rule--. In their one or two week holidays, in the mist of their one whole working year, they want noisy cafés, going out at night, dancing... everything that they do not have or cannot do all the rest of the year (often spent in those same cities under the "grey smoke merging into the grey skies"). In these few days they enjoy that. Why not? I would too.



Yet, it is still possible for us ourselves to enjoy. I liked it when you found, in spite of all the above, the charms of old Lijiang still there, and you were not disappointed. Even more, when in Zhongdian you met the "genuine warmth of the locals, who seemed happy you were there, and had surprised you more than once with their helpfulness". This is just what I also met in Lijiang and, indeed, elsewhere in China .



The challenge is for us not to let tourism's (including massive tourism's) negative facets prevent us to feel just that. Not to let them prevent us encountering the real people, who are always there ready to meet us beyond all the noise and the bustle.



Because I can see that you are both sensible and sensitive, it is a relief to read Patrick's summing up of the change in his impression there after only 10 days, to find 'An extremely friendly, kind and humble people, with a sense of community that we have lost'. I agree. Thank you, Patrick.

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