Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ready Made

Velveteen terraces, like giant emerald stair steps, carve the mountain sides; misty curls of fog coil around the tops of hills and mountains, like a mink stole on the shoulders of a graceful old woman; clusters of homes with tiled roof tops nestle in the sanctuary of valleys; fields of corn and rice paint the countryside green; the undulating patchwork of farming plots engages the eye as the bus winds its way on the side of a mountain, from here to there. For me, the highlight of journeying through China is in the scenery from the rain lashed windows of the bus or train... and from the top of a moody mountain peak after a day's hike...

The landscapes of China hold immense beauty. Such a contrast to the ugliness of the cities with their white tiled buildings, streaked with grime. China must be an architect's nightmare. The new buildings make me wince, but luckily, most cities have an 'old town' with historic buildings and homes, shops and culture. They are the pleasantries of a Chinese city. And many of these places are packed with tourists, most of them Chinese, and so these towns have become more of a tourist attraction than a town in and of itself, with rows of souvenir shops and restaurants, and packs of tour groups led by guides holding a little colored flag in the air to keep their flock on track.

Chinese tourism is strange in its way. Everything is packaged up and polished into the kind of scene one might find in a snow globe... the "ideal" of a place... except it's no longer the place anymore. This may appeal to Chinese tourists, who seem to prefer visiting a place from the seat of a bus, wearing matching caps, following flags. They'll readily admit that they don't like to actually walk between sites of interest. They find it humorous that we do.

Tourist attractions are like caricatures. They are premeditated, as if the attraction is a movie set of the attraction. For this reason, they are nice... but many times, I don't want them to be nice or overly comfortable. I want them to be rough and raw, natural. I want the reward to come with a challenge -- it's more of a reward that way. I don't want a building constructed over and around it. When it comes to entire towns, I don't want the Disney Land version of the place. I want authenticity.

At first it was hard to place my finger on the 'thing' that is Chinese tourism. Why is it different? Every tourist attraction, by its very nature, has some touristy infrastructure surrounding it, all over the world. But here, it's taken to an extreme degree. It's the thing that makes Fisherman's Wharf hokey, not the real San Francisco. It's the thing that makes theme parks themed. It's the thing that comes from trying too hard to BE something. And for many people, that's OK. And for me, it's been alright... there are always ways to find the genuine spirit of a place... a bike ride to a village, a hike over mountians.

Throughout history, the Chinese have had a tendancy to make things the way they want them to be, despite the reality of it. There's a current plan in place, in Beijing, for the city to have 100% sunny days. If that's not a tourist attraction, I don't know what is.


Post a Comment

<< Home