Friday, May 28, 2010

Be scene, be herd

Let one day be a microcosm of Chinese tourism. That day will be the 22nd of May, 2010:
We arrived at the airport to find my name was misspelt on the booking system. We called the agent, who in turn called their man at the airport to deal with the matter. He consequently disappeared with my passport and my friend's ID for twenty nervy minutes, before reappearing with corrected tickets. We made it to our gate on the final call, and were directed onto a packed terminal bus. We squeezed on and waited, and waited. Apparently someone else was late. After ten minutes suddenly a wave of annoyance arose within the group: "It's freakin' hot," "Let's go!" erupted. Just then a young women strode calmly over, sat in the seat next to the driver and we left. "She must have been doing her make-up!" someone quipped. The flight gave us only biscuits and bottled water for the one hour flight, which no-one on the flight consumed because they knew that the food on tour groups would be poor, and so they were all keeping it for later. Once on the ground, we jumped on the bus and headed on our way to the parks. On the way, we were given a spiel for traditional Tibetan medicine to adjust to the altitude. My friend and I always wary of a sales pitch declined. We arrived at Huanglong park, the first sight of our three day trip. Though starting at a height of 3150 metres and going to a height of 3500 metres (almost as high as Mt Cook), we still insisted on not taking the cable car to the top, preferring to do it traditionally, on foot. Within half an hour my friend was hit by the altitude, first by tiredness, then dizziness and finally nausea. She shooed me onwards, saying she could rest while I could make the trip worthwhile, so I steadily strode toward the main beauty point at the top. Having just had a dry winter, the water wonderland was less than wonderous for most of the walk. The blue sky was suddenly darkened an hour up, and the chatter of the climbing masses silenced by a thunderclap: it began to snow on a warm day. That passed, and I got to the top, admired the beauty for two breaths, before heading back down to see my friend. Down, we climbed back on the bus. Another sell began: "On this trip, you'll have 12 hours of enjoyment, for what was a very cheap price..." Apparently there was a performance on the evening of the second day which we had to see for the price of NZ$64. We fluttered the tour contract in front of the tour guides forehead: There are to be no additional costs on top of the original cost of the tour. He said that it was strongly recommended we went and that money would go to charity. We didn't bend. He said at least one of us should go. We said we weren't going. He told us that we were the only ones not going (we weren't) and that our intransigence stood between the event making money to give to the needy. We just blinked but didn't give. And thus we would "miss out". The bus had to stop for technical issues twice on the way causing us to have dinner at 10pm. That night I shared a room with another member of the tour, who smoked in our room while I was in the shower.
But it was a great trip. Chongqing, the so-called western capital, and Jiuzhaigou were wonderful. Both were set in the southern spice belt of China, where dishes run red with chilli. I didn't meet a single dish that was too hot, enjoying every bite. My friend's family really took me in in Chongqing and really took to the region. The dialect was interesting, sounding like a Korean speaking French but with words strangely similar to Mandarin. If I knew the topic, I could almost understand everything; but soon as the subject drifted and the thread slipped through my fingers it became inpenetrable again. After learning a few key words, my general comprehension lifted to about the same level as the Cantonese I've been working on for months.
The star destination was a place called Jiuzhaigou, a place is regarded as one of the foremost natural treasures of China. We got there the day after the one I mentioned above. The park started at a height of 2500 metres and stretched to 3000 metres in places, higher than Ruapehu's summit. "Once you have been to Jiuzhaigou, you can't enjoy waters," they say and I can say that it is not an overstatement. This place certainly has beauty up to the level of the best sights of the Southern Alps with water colour only slightly paler than the Emerald Lakes of the Tongariro Crossing. A place drowning in beauty that exhausts the eye. But this is China, a place that democratises tourist spots. In New Zealand, many of our natural jewels are the preserve of the a-bit-more-than-able-bodied and the super-rich in their copters. In China, everything is boardwalked, gondolaed and staired. Jiuzhaigou had a bus fleet ferrying people from one visual splendour to the next. In this relatively remote place, these buses were more packed than any city buses I'd taken in Guangzhou. This allows the elderly and the young to enjoy the beautfy in a way that New Zealand could never do; but also opens natural scenes to the emotional pollution that an incorrigible human mass and their idiosyncrasies can bring to one's experience of beauty.
As mentioned we declined a performance on our last night, preferring to walk slowly around the township that supplies the park its accommodation. I ate some very authentic food (from sites that looked like refugee shelters), chatted with Tibetans and bought cheap. What in English we call Tibet, in Chinese is called Western Tibet; we were in an area thought of as Eastern Tibet. It was good to escape the group. Back at the hotel we heard that we would be getting up at 5:30am. We were doing this so that we could go to expensive stores before we flew back. One shouldn't complain: the reason the tour was cheap is because the tour receives a commission of sorts to bring tourists in. And it is rather slick, if not sickening. The selling actually starts on the first day when the tour guide tells us "expected prices" and that to buy outside of authorised dealers is dangerous. Then arriving at these shops we are hustled into theatres to be told: "Gold hair crystal: the beloved of the successful and rich. Bringing wealth to those who wear it." "Green crystal, the favourite of women," etc. in an attempt to mesmerise or guide the tired, weak travellers.


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