Finding serenity at world treasure sites amongst the crowds and loudspeakers.
03.06.2007 - 06.06.2007 29 °C
I've already mentioned the Chinese propensity to nickel and dime a visitor at every possible tourist site. But the practice reached new lows in and around Guilin, the major departure point for visitors to view one of China's most revered tourist desitnations: the oddly pointy limestone mountains, called karsts, along the Li River.
In the center of town, the city has taken steps to obstruct the view of one such formation called Elephant Hill so that interested viewers instead pay a $7 entrance fee. All for the priviledge of walking past the obscuring vegetation to a lower walkway, and then being harassed by souvenir vendors. No thanks.
Later we shelled out $32 per ticket for a four-hour boat ride down the Li River, jam packed with Chinese tourists competing for viewing and photography angles while a loudspeaker blasted nonstop commentary, ads, and music. The morning started with us being delivered to a kind of holding pen for 45-minutes, where we stood amidst a room full of souvenir sellers.
It ended in Yangshou, probably once a peaceful small town nestled amongst the karst and now a backpackers "paradise" with more Internet bars, tourist kitsch stands and travel agencies than seems possible.
Ah, this is modern day tourism. Amidst the eye-popping beauty and wonder of these magical places a whole Disneyworld like experience has been constructed to squeeze out every last yuan from one's pockets.
Hardly ever does a traveler truely get away from the crowds; hardly ever does she feel a sense of discovery or serenity. In China, there is always some soundtrack playing. Even climbing a mountain path in Putuoshan, hidden speakers play traditional Chinese music.
The mythical world treasures that I've fantasized about seeing since childhood are actually more a mixed bag of awe and annoyances. Fighting the crowds for a good view, patiently ignorning dogged touts, shelling out money constantly: these are the realities of the modern travel experience.
I ran into a similar situation years ago in Kenya, where a safari tour involved vans racing across the Sarengeti in a competition to see the animals before they were scared off.
We ran into a couple of grimy young backpackers off the night train in Taishan, Americans from Florida, who were heading later to Chengdu in the hopes of holding baby pandas. Apparently they had seen some photo of it being done by a tourist.
Tony later remarked, "You see, any idiot nowadays can get on a plane and arrive almost anywhere in the world."
The affects of tourism are most disturbing when it comes to interacting with locals. The relationships are often reduced to buying and selling, even as there are so many opportunities for greater cross-cultural understanding. For sure, a greater mastery of the local language would surely help. Jacob, for example, has many more non-commercial encounters with the Chinese than Tony and I do. Yesterday in Yangshou, for example, he found a quiet set of steps and ate a pomelo as a number of locals chatted with him. That has not happened to me.
We have had a number of genuine encounters -- the woman in the Beijing hutong who served us a dumpling lunch, the nuns in the Putuoshan temple who gave us apples. For those we are grateful.
But I am longing to be in a place long enough where relationships can develop naturally.
Sometimes this gets started merely by showing up to the same place multiple times for dinner.
We saw that scenario happening in Qingdao where we visited the same outdoor meat griller twice for dinner. The second time he gave us a beaming smile and emptied someone else's remainders from a beer pitcher into our glasses. He appreciated the fact that we had liked his food and came back.
It's also happened on 16-hour train rides when we've been practically breathing down the necks of our fellow passengers day and night.
In a way, it's remarkable how easy and natural relationships with other people form when given the chance to blossom.
The good and bad of traveling have raised some questions in me.
How do I appreciate the major tourist sites, which are indeed some of the most remarkable places on Earth, for what they are and not just for what they have become?
How do I minimize my own negative impact as a tourist while enhancing the value that I might bring?
And how do I get the most out of the pedestrian, daily observances and encounters with Chinese society?
As we were leaving Yangshou by bus to return to Guilin, the driver insisted we pay 14 yuan even as we countered that we'd been told the ticket price was supposedly 10. We acquiesced but later noticed all the locals indeed paying 10 yuan.
It was probably good that I didn't speak Chinese then. Or should I consider it an extra "tax" of being a tourist?