August 7, 2001

Don't underestimate the power of the long-haired backpacker

In the Golden Age of the exploring colonists, the trailblazers were anthropologists, botanists, soldiers and, later, benevolent trading companies. These fine gentlemen categorized and conquered, bringing glory, wisdom and riches back to the motherland, but little changed for the farmers and petty merchants whose lives they jotted down into their notebooks.

One hundred or so years later, the 1960s backpacker arrives in Lijiang, Yunnan Province and finds life basically unchanged – a farmer still uses an ox-drawn plow, his clothes are rough hemp, he smokes homegrown out of a bamboo pipe and his wife hawks the harvest in the village square. After all these years, after all the excursions into the wild by serious scientists and soldiers and eager businesses – paved roads are still a rarity in the Chinese countryside. Yunnan Province and neighboring Guangxi Province are a backpacker's heaven – no tourists, no cities, no huge gaudy hotels, just peace and quiet, green fields and Zen.

Fast forward 30 years and both provinces have changed dramatically. Yangshuo, Guangxi and Lijiang, Yunnan – once quiet hamlets – are now bustling hubs for any tourist worth his salt. Highways lead from Guilin the capital of Guangxi to Yangshuo, and out of Yangshuo into the surrounding countryside. Lijiang and Dali both have airports serviced by the impeccable Yunnan Airlines, with flights into Jinhong, a once-remote village on the China-Thailand border. Steps lead up most mountains and there is a hostel or hotel every ten feet. You can get pizza and pancakes.

Peasants who once hawked small potatoes are now proudly displaying hand-carved masks and silver baubles. Their children are finding employment servicing the travelers in a variety of ways. I've met peasant girls who left school at age 16 who speak better English than some of my former university students.

Joint-ventures of a whole different nature than the ones touted by the US China Business Council and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation are popping up all over the countryside. Of course, there are the five-star, 15-floor, glowing monstrosities that are the fruit of Mainland Chinese-Taiwan forays into the tourist industry. But they cater to those who need no catering – the more significant impact is seen in the relationship between old expats and old craftsmen which have less to do with money and more to do with free beer and a place to stay. Lasting friendships as well as profit arise out of the bond between the Naxi woodcarver and the San Francisco fireman.


The backpacker continually seeks. What for is irrelevant – it is the seeking that provides all the answers. And new places to hang your hat and chill with swarthy, iron-lunged Chinese peasants. Guizhuo Province is one of the poorest in China. It is the bastard Province that provides coal and hydroelectric power for neighboring Chongqing and Hunan. Guiyang, the capital, is a sprawling, pungent, dusty pile of concrete – and it is the best place to be if you're a native of this Province.

But this is changing. There is a "newly discovered" road that dreadlocks are taking from Yangshuo up to Guizhuo that passes through minority villages and relatively pristine countryside. Hotels are already springing up as well as guides and maps and baubles and ridiculously intricate hand-woven cloth and ... the roads were being paved as I passed through the place. The roads to the biggest waterfall in Asia are already paved and the locals are out in force selling corn on the cob, wonton soup, useless baubles, tour guide information, straw sandals and so on. Sure, 90 percent of the visitors don't buy anything, but the other 10 percent provide more revenue than was available in this region five years ago.

Tourists and businessmen have no business in Chong An (Double Peace) village. It's a bumpy road and market research shows that the buying power is low. But backpackers love to sniff out such a haven – and they bring with them that lovely hybrid of brotherly global love and intoxicating global cash. I expect Double Peace village to be another Yangshuo soon, replete with highways, renovated whitewashed houses and English speaking tour guides. And when that occurs, Granny Smith will show up with all the other Grannies in that guided tour and they'll gobble up all that pretty cloth the Miao minority women so deftly spin. The vast majority of foreign tourists to China are between the ages of 45-64, according to the China Statistical Yearbook, but these figures include people from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Few young people come to the Mainland from these regions. This middle-aged majority of tourists stays where it's comfortable: in Shanghai, Canton and Beijing.

These cities have streetlights that work (and are respected!), highways, glittering towers and financial districts along the waterfront. Hotels charging less than 600 yuan are tough to find, and everybody staying there looks better than me and knows it. As you take the train out from Shanghai towards the West you pass through fields of paddies with no visible garbage. The houses are all concrete and, at first glance, I thought they were all churches – with spires and windows and swept steps ... only the blue clothes bent over in the middle of the paddy kept me from believing I was dreaming.

Houses become shacks and garbage piles up as you head west and you gradually enter the realm of the backpacker – regions with people who gape at you, then giggle, then try and sell you something.

Many of these out-of-the-way regions opened up to the world only recently, and invariably the first to arrive are backpackers and the staff of the Lonely Planet. It is interesting to hear a conversation between a farmer who dreams of the riches piled in the streets of America and and American who is nauseated by his own materialist culture.

Text-only printable version of this article

Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive column appears Tuesdays.

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But if backpackers make such an impact, how come I can still find home-grown-puffing, horse-buggy-driving farmers in Yangshuo?

Why, just three miles outside of Lijiang, (not far from the airport,) are Naxi minority people living in huts blackened by the hearth they sleep next to?

Why are old women in dirty clothes selling weed in Dali? Why are old women following me around in Chong An trying to sell me fake trinkets? Dirty kids with no shoes offer to be my guide at the grand Yellow Fruit Tree Waterfall. Every poor Chinese within 20 miles is at the tourist site – and they all sell the same thing – and nobody's buying.

So where's the money?

The hotels do well, the restaurants do well and the fees, tolls and tickets sure help the infrastructure, but the people we came to see, the peasants who share the smokes, the women who weave the cloth and the young men who carve the wood still live in huts and still wear shabby clothes and still have to work like devils everyday.

The truth is, tourism does not help the poor people who are the heart of the industry. Perhaps the trip to the market or the nearest big town is easier due to the paved roads, and maybe their children have a chance to benefit – but, economically, the impact is minimal.

There will be a backpackers realm in China for a long time to come, providing the Zen and history and escape from the city that young idealistic Western youth so crave. This realm represents a contact zone between cultures far different from the office towers of the big cities. The contact between the backpacker and the villager represents an exchange of ideas and laughter and culture and eating customs and smokes and maybe even a picture or an address.

But, unfortunately, backpackers do not represent what the villagers really need, which is the businessman and his suitcase full of investment capital and list of employment opportunities. Backpackers are the trailblazers for the businessmen and the family tourists packages, but the money and the tour guides do not always reach the hamlets nestled in the valley, stuck in time.

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