The massification of tourism
The Chinese recognized the huge potential for tourism in their country and moved rapidly to develop a robust infrastructure.
Ticket offices are spread on the entrance of every attraction: viewpoints, parks, ponds, temples and even shopping-mall turned old cities. And it's not cheap, ranging between USD 3 to enter a temple, to USD 12 to enter and old city and up to USD 25 for a National Park. It doesn't sound too much, but you visit several, the sum gets bigger and it doesn't help us stay within our USD 80 budget for both.
We visited the Black Dragon Pool in Lijiang, one of the most photographed places in China, a beautiful bridge and temple on a pond, set on a snowed peaks background.
A usual sight around the sites is very persistent ladies psst-ing you to take you through the back door for a fraction of the price. We were skeptics at the beginning (and I hope the authorities are reading not this now), but we gave in a couple of times. Beware: they will block you if you try to go through the back door by yourself.
After walking thoroughly every corner of the park to maximize the ticket expense, we ventured out ten meters, only to return to the park. Then the guard asked us for the tickets again, I guess we all look the same to him.
The best indication of the inner tourist orientation is the width of the buses and train seats, making me wish to replace Tal with a local as a partner. Just kidding, shoulder rubbing never killed anyone on a 12-hour bus ride.
Unlike any other country we've visited so far, we (and fellow western backpackers) were seriously outnumbered, no English menus to be seen, and even the Tourist Information Center is not a sure point to get some understandable info. Some times we wonder if we were the only foreigners around. We were not, it's just hard to find them in the crowd.
With its sizable population, the foreign tourism is not in any way in a position to make a big impact in the tourism industry, so why bother?
Tradition being a constant in China, old cities attract a lot of interest and people flock to see their original architecture, surrounding walls, gates, and temples. And where there are people, there's business.
Little is left of these old towns that once attracted merchants, fishermen, and farmers to sell their products. The cities turned into a big shopping mall with little diversity of products and an all for tourist market: hotels, restaurants, souvenirs, and traditional food shops. Some of these cities, like Lijiang, was completely rebuilt after an earthquake to become a tourist magnet. The famous Shangri-La was even renamed to lure visitors using the Tibetan heavenly city name given by a western book.
And yet, knowingly, you are attracted to these small towns with the cobble stone streets, running waterfalls and Chinese typical architecture.
The Industrialization of Nature
When one pictures a National Park it's usually a small wooden booth by the road, small paths winding into pristine forests and some clearings to appreciate the views.
In China nothing is small: the national parks are huge complex that is more likely to remind you of Disneyland than nature. Huge ticketing offices that lead to dozens of buses loading tourist along paved roads to the different stations inside the park. From each station the are well-marked platforms that lead your way through and over the natural sights, never even touching the ground. In some parks, the bus will leave you at the cable car, elevator or mini-train that will lead you to the next viewpoint.
The Chinese don't like to walk, and even consider hiking to be dangerous behind the marked boundaries of the platforms and paved paths. We intended to hike for 28 km around a holy mountain in the Yading Natural Park but were dissuaded by the locals, although the way is perfectly doable according to many hikers.
There is though a logic behind it: for ones, it's probably the only way to bring spoiled urban dwellers out of shopping malls and movie theaters and second, you can only imagine the havoc 20 million yearly visitors would wreck in a natural park if left to wander by themselves.
The Avatar effect
At last, we arrived in Zhangjiajie (it reads Shanshiashie for real). This otherworldly place has inspired James Cameron on the setup for his movie Avatar, and also 20 million Chinese to visit the park every year. The whole park is a surreal mix of a huge canyon covered in green, misty rivers and impossible rock columns defying gravity and erosion for millions of years.
Hundreds of buses, together with cable cars and elevators crisscross the park carrying the organized tour groups from one viewpoint to the next for hefty amounts. Of course, our legs paid the price and we climbed the 3800 steps instead.
The irony of this park, the second most popular tourist site in China (second to the great wall) is that at the summit of the highest mountains there's a McDonalds.
With a population as huge as China's, and an ever growing middle class eager to travel and explore, you can't expect to find many secluded spots for yourself. China is growing and it will soon be the number one tourist destination in the world (mostly internal).
And yet, the crowds and noise cannot spoil the beauty of their sites, they just add to the experience.