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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Tourism in Jiuzhaigou: between race and commerce

We hear him before he enters. Our 20 year-old host’s clear, unabashed tenor stops abruptly as he opens the door to re-enter, politely smiling as he resumes his role, refilling our cups of barley tea while we quiz he and his cousin on Tibetan customs.

Throughout the evening, a rotating cast of young performers, dressed in worn outfits of faux-animal skin and silk over their jeans and sneakers; some of them siblings, all of them related, stop by our private dining room to grace us with a song or two. Though all of the songs are Tibetan in origin, over half are sung with Chinese lyrics and when my father asks one of the teenage girls to sing the song in its original language, she informs him that she doesn’t know how, smiling with embarrassment.

For most of the evening, we only pick at the numerous Tibetan hors d'oeuvres laid out before us, skipping the walnut flower and yak jerky for the popcorn-like crunch of their staple cereal: qingke, or barley. Each dish had been formally introduced by our main host, a well-mannered young man just exiting teenagehood, whose dark, mid-length locks would not look out of place in a skateboarder video. He had also taught us how to toast others in local fashion: you dip your finger into your small glass of barley liquor and flick it at their face—a miniature water fight soon ensues—as well as some basic phrases using neat pneumonic devices: the Tibetan for unmarried woman (bimo) sounds similar to “don’t touch” in Mandarin, whereas the equivalent word for a married woman (yimo) sounds like “already been touched.” 

Soon enough, however, after his short collection of rehearsed explanations, jokes and phrases had been exhausted, we found the obvious lines that separated us—Han Chinese/Tibetan, customer/performer—had begun to fade, leaving behind four curious foreigners and several similarly curious locals. The mood relaxed, and we quizzed he and his family members-cum-performers on everything from the Tibetan custom of going without family names to the ethnic make-up of his school and the administration of his hometown. In response, his sister asked us what it’s like to ride in an airplane.

His Mandarin is excellent, much more standard say, than my father’s diasporic Malaysian accent or my tone-deaf Anglicized efforts, and he had learned enough Cantonese from southeastern tourists to bluff a conversation with my mother. His English, and that of his peers, however, was non-existent, but for a few key phrases: among them “yes” and “yeah!” When non-Chinese speaking Westerners attend their nightly dinner/performance, “we speak our language and they speak theirs,” he explained. The rest is communicated through sign language.

Halfway through the meal his tone became more downbeat, as he explained the lack of economic opportunities in Jiuzhaigou, the national reserve (literally “Nine village valleys”) around which his hometown sits, and perhaps China’s best known. Earlier, his uncle had told us related stories on our way to their performance house in his small, Chinese-made sedan. A straight-shooting, warm-hearted bear of a man whose eyes appear partially blind (not particularly comforting for his passengers), he had picked us up from the main road outside our hotel, for fear of our tour guide recognizing him and subsequently cutting off any future business.

“I am Tibetan,” he had established immediately. “You can trust me. We Tibetans won’t cheat you like Hans will,” he said, attempting to penetrate our initial skepticism. 80 Yuan per person for a full meal, booze, singing and dancing had sounded too good to be true, given that our tour group had attempted to sell us the exact same thing for 100 Yuan more, and we were grilling him for the catch.

But, true to his word, there was none. He told us we could pay him at the end of the night after he had delivered us back to our hotel, which is exactly what we ended up doing. On the way back, he asked if we wanted to stop to buy some yak meat, and when we had convinced him we were not interested—nor would we buy some when our tour bus inevitably pulled in at a store selling the same goods at inflated prices the following day—he sighed with bitter-tinged satisfaction. 

“If you go with me, you’ll see what the real prices are,” he had urged.

For this local ethnic performance business owner, it was as important to discourage tourists from patronizing dominant Han-owned businesses as it was for him to maintain his own living. Such are the unequal relations in Jiuzhaigou between local Tibetans, who are largely cut out of the lucrative tourist industry, and the outsider Han investor class, now reaping serious profits from the perennially crowded park.

Originally, our choice to go with a tour group—something most Western backpackers would rather eat duck tongue than consider doing—was guided largely by economics. My parents, having flown in from the States to visit their son in the distant southwestern city of Chengdu, are not particularly rugged, and Jiuzhaigou’s tourist-ready, stunning combination of azure lakes and alpine slopes, home to the endangered giant panda, seemed an ideal trade-off. 

To reach the park from Chengdu tourists have the option of taking either an 11-hour bus journey or a 45-minute flight. Short on time, we decided to fly. But buying the return tickets alone would cost around 2,000 Yuan per person when done by ourselves, whereas tour groups were offering three-day tours, flying in, all-inclusive, for 900 renminbi less. Its such numbers which these tour groups flaunt before price-conscious travelers which make them hard to turn down, even knowing full well of the hefty price inflation and unannounced shopping stops such tours involve (detours which many Chinese tourists, judging by their copious purchases of quartz jewelry, Tibetan medicine and local meats, don’t seem to mind). 

The problem, economic inequality aside, is that all of this consolidation leads to a very dry, impersonal experience. Independent tourism is scant, as the town has few, if any businesses that do not depend on the graces of powerful group operators. Tour buses, flag-waving guides and their swelling masses of domestic middle-class tourists, shuttle between airport and stopover, gaudy hotel and park entrance, flowing through the valley in three-or-four day spans in well-orchestrated, rowdy fashion. It’s no surprise that a lot of backpackers choose to skip the park altogether, preferring instead to head for less commercialized—though periodically blocked off—regions of western and northern China, much of which is still very Tibetan in culture, if not political jurisdiction.

This is indeed a real shame, given the marvelous mixture of yet-unsullied natural beauty and richly diverse ethnicities (Qiang and Hui people also populate the area, in addition to Tibetans and Hans) that Jiuzhaigou boasts. The reserve itself is truly stunning. On the initial bus ride within the park, our fellow passengers “waaaah!” with delight at their first glimpse of its trademark sites: crystalline reflection of mountain peaks against perfectly clear, impossibly turquoise-blue lakes. 

“Tai piaoliang!” (“Too beautiful!), they gushed to one another, some already pulling out their digital cameras.

My girlfriend and I laugh at such dramatic behavior, throwing our hands up like teenagers on a Six Flags rollercoaster as the crowd continues to periodically squeal and shudder with excitement, eager to disembark and begin constructing their extensive “Me at Jiuzhaigou” albums.

Contrary to some traveler reports, however, it’s still possible to escape the crowds, at least in spring (fall and holiday seasons are supposedly horrendously crowded, with a 150 meter passage taking an hour to cover, according to one friend). Instead of taking the bus between the various highlighted points—most of them lakes with the occasional karst waterfall and Tibetan tourist village—we take the footpaths, and the crowd quickly thins to the point where occasionally we find ourselves savoring moments of precious quietude. 

The paths are all painstakingly constructed through the middle of Jiuzhaigou’s natural environment so that the trail traverses steep mountainous slopes, or floods over from running streams located inches beneath. The carpenters’ work —performed by the same migrant Hans that construct towers from Beijing to Lhasa—is quite impressive, and in actuality very environmentally pragmatic. Whereas we Westerners often balk at the idea of having to stick to pre-constructed paths, it makes far more sense when one considers the number of tourists who pass through the park each year, and the heavy-treading threat to Jiuzhaigou’s delicate eco-system they would otherwise present. The laborers go to significant lengths in order to maintain the existing lay of the environment; for instance: cutting the planks into different pieces so that some of the trees within the path remain standing, sticking out through the path from hand-sculpted holes.

Yet even amidst the humbling grandeur of the park, it’s hard to not feel disheartened at the commercial inequity of the entire enterprise. As convenient and impressively well-constructed as it is, with regular buses traversing its smooth roads, world-class facilities and museum, one begins to wonder where the human element resides, if at all, within the park’s rather eerily deserted hills and forests.

We find it, albeit in passively subsisting form, at one of the main tourist villages, its stereotypically Tibetan architecture gussied up with new paint jobs and whose local shop owners offer snacks and cowboy hats, amongst other paraphernalia. We came looking for food, but when we ask about restaurants, one of the shop owners explains the park’s mysterious culinary dearth. 

“The park operators don’t allow us to open any,” he explains, offering us packaged snacks as the next best thing.

Instead, we are forced to go to the park’s central cafeteria for serious sustenance, where patrons are forced to pay 50-80RMB for food tickets, or alternatively, to make do on laughably over-priced instant noodles. We choose the latter option, and join the numerous other economizers at a table neighboring a newly married bride and groom. They are both in full costume, having made the trek out to the park with a professional photography crew in order to achieve a more spectacular wedding album. 

It was with great fortune, then, that a young woman handed us a business card just outside the park, offering the non-commissioned Tibetan performance. She smiled at our indignant reaction to discovering the level of profiteering which our tour guide had forcefully pushed upon us for an identical performance (“Why not? You should support our local industry!”, the tour guide had chided me, when I’d turned her offer down the day prior), guaranteeing that the show was legitimate.  

Which, it turned out, was true. It was not particularly professional, consisting essentially of a dozen young locals dressed in worn Tibetan costume, parading ignorant Chinese tourists around a done-up house, but they were authentic enough simply as themselves, providing us a chance for local interaction that was otherwise sorely absent. 

After dinner, we stepped outside and, beneath strung-up prayer flags, danced in unsteady, awkward unison, clasping hands in a circle about a pyre. The Tibetans, converting the widely-held Han stereotype that they all love to sing and dance into commercial opportunity, tried to keep the dance and its dumbed-down steps going, but we outsiders--some having just donned traditional local costume—were simply hapless. Before long, the group dispersed, leaving the young men who’d earlier shared their culture and lives with us so openly, to dance unencumbered with one another.

They moved without self-consciousness, performing the elegant spins and hand waves that characterize Tibetan dancing. But, being the diligent host that he was, our young skateboarder-locked friend soon stopped, approaching us to ask if we needed anything.

“No, we’re fine,” my mother responded. “You guys dance, we’ll just watch.”  

Or, as my father had earlier put it over dinner when he had asked us the same question earlier: 

“We’re here, you’re here, and we’re talking together. As long as we have these two things, we’re already very happy.”

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