Wednesday, December 02, 2009

If it's Tuesday, it must be Yangshuo...

I'm staying in a small village outside of Yangshuo, on the advice of guidebooks warning that Yangshuo proper, with its "West Street" filled with bars, backpackers and banana pancakes (apparently backpackers and banana pancakes go together like, I dunno, white on rice) was hardly the peaceful retreat that I craved after the urban overload that is Shanghai (even if I did spend most of the time lounging on my friend's couch). This village is awesome. It features several inns, including one with a rooftop Italian restaurant and a full wine list, and a cluster of "farmer's restaurants," dishing out the famed local specialty, "beer fish." And what could be wrong with beer fish? Nothing, I tell you. I had some, and it was delicious.

Apparently it was primarily these farmer's restaurants that transformed this village from a poor backwater to a prosperous little place whose residents are busily competing to see who can build their house the highest (I'm told that no one even occupies the upper floors; it's all for show). The restaurants attract busloads of Chinese tourists, every day. The food is cheap and good and they've cut some deals with the tour operators.

Chinese tourism is a pretty recent phenomena, and it feels that way, reminding me a bit of post-war American tourism, with its packaged tours, busses and guides waving flags to lead their charges to the next historic location ("We're walking, we're walking, we're walking..."). It can be a little depressing at times, seeing these large groups go here and there, wearing identical baseball caps, pausing in front of the designated scenic site to pose for photos, then onto the next in obligatory fashion, not seeming to take in much about the actual site at all.

Other times, I watch the tour groups, and I feel completely charmed by them. A lot of these domestic tourists are older, and I think, if you'd asked them thirty years ago if they ever thought they'd be touring their own country in air-conditioned busses, posing for photos with their loved ones, enjoying the scenery, they would have considered the notion highly unlikely, if not completely absurd.

And more and more I see Chinese travelers who take a more independent approach. Around Yangshuo, the favored form of tourist transportation is bicycle. This is a great area to bike. The traffic is light on the main road, and the side roads take you through some of the most staggeringly beautiful, unearthly landscapes I have ever seen. There's a silence here that's rare in China, when you are out on your bike, just the birds, the flowing water, the wind pushing against the trees and the earth. I see a lot of younger Chinese travelers, mostly in pairs, sometimes in small groups, on rented bikes, exploring the countryside. What a different experience this is from following around a guide reciting her memorized spiel through a distorted bullhorn.

Chinese tourists, stop uniting! You have nothing to lose but your chains...

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