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.
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE
NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE ...
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.
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.
printable version of this article
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 Antiwar.com column appears Tuesdays.
Towards World Significance
on the Road to Capitalism
American in China
the Street in China: A Report
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
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
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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