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Backpackers Cultural Imperialism

April 6, 2011

You’re in China, the Disneyland.

A fellow traveller commented during a family dinner at Mama Naxi’s (I rarely do it, but honestly – I advise this family guest house if you ever land up here!) in Lijiang (Yunnan).

The scenery of Lijiang seems to support the statement. Sugar-coated houses with lovely red lamps and backlit roofs, filled up with cafes, souvenir shops and  and overspilling with Chinese tourists (even though it’s not even high season yet), it as “touristic” as it gets. The UNESCO heritage site has lovely preserved Naxi architecture and the guesthouses (like Mama Naxi’s) offer a quite genuine experience of living in a Naxi house, but the whole “spirit” of town is nowhere close to what it was. The street foods are sold from a neat unified stalls in an appointed place and the tiny canals – which a century ago were surely serving as city’s sewerage, now sparkle with clean water and green water grass. Everything is tip top, everything’s shining.

But hey, isn’t it what we want?

Backpackers are often so loud about seeking genuine experiences, and so grumpy whenever they feel places are “touristic”. Because for backpackers, the “real stuff” isn’t the really raw thing. It’s the semi-digested, semi-popular tourists spot. Reserved for backpackers. The “tour tourists” are the EVIL, where they land up, the prices tend to soar, and this is where it hurts.  They are the early adopters. Where the real travellers discover the ground, backpackers come next and are preparing the ground .Once the “tours” discover it as well and 3* hotels with SPA’s start pulling off, they take is a signal to move on. But once confronted with “the real stuff”, they often quickly run away. And are becoming grumpy, because their once promise land is now too expensive.

India is full of genuine experiences. The cities that grow in completely unplanned organic way, where the family businesses are passed on from generation to generation in an unchanged manner and where the question of esthetics & cleanliness is still secondary. First is survival. India is Authentic in the only way the place can be Authentic. It doesn’t mean it’s exactly like 100 years ago. The progress – believe or not – has reached even to the poorest villages in Orissa. The Authenticity means, that the modernization doesn’t replenish the tradition. That the modern means are getting incorporated into old customs. The TV mixes with statue of Buddha and the oven is used for making roties. All in the same noisy, smelly and chaotic manner.

But this is not what the “travellers” are looking for. Traditional in the mind of a westerner is pure, innocent and friendly. A farmer family who will share with you the little rice they have and won’t even accept any money in return (as money doesn’t matter for the traditional people), happily smiling all the time despite their house is a 40sq meters hut that has to fit them and 5 kids. And not far from this friendly family there should be a cheap shack that serves western breakfasts and beer 1$ per bottle  and where Bob Marley music hardly pulls through the thick fume.

This is a hypocrisy.

Where backpackers look for genuine experiences, they’re actually helping to kill the last living examples of it. Going to the forgotten villages in Laos, where “can you believe, they don’t even have electricity and TV at home!”, they praise how “real” it felt to be there. But hey – for those people with no TV at home YOU, dear traveller – are the destructive element. The only way to preserve the genuine culture of villages is to preserve them from being exposed to the modern world and – often – simply conserving their poverty. And the only way to stay satisfied within the poverty – is not to know the world beyond and – especially – live beyond the “money driven economy”.

Think of it. Those sweet “minority villagers”. How they perceive you  – and yours alike – visiting their village. You’re coming from another continent (which for people who visit the nearest town maybe once a year is like coming from another planet). You have iPods, big DSLR camera and shiny waterproof jackets. You create desires. Release imagination. Those cute little kids won’t live like their parents, because YOU made them want more. And they will learn how to satisfy your desire to confront “The Genuine” while satisfying their to “get the western goodies”. They’ll get the satellite – but hide it well. They’ll get the car, but hide it well in an old-looking stable. They might even install broadband wifi, but make sure you won’t notice. Demand – supply in action!

So fooling yourself doesn’t make sense. If a place is worth being a tourist attraction, it will sooner or later get there. It’ll get spoiled by the touch of the consumerism. To some extend it simply means, you get the infrastructure you need to enjoy a relative comfort there. Some places though might get suffocating, but then – it’s usually limited to one – two main streets and attractions and there’s still enough left to explore.

What’s annoying me, is that it seems that the backpackers (oh yeah, I AM one of those), seem to have different approach for a western and non-western destinations. I never heard anybody complaining for lack of wigs in Paris and lack of old butcheries in Prague’s Old Town. But Laos, China, India is like “Hey, I came here to experience the “real shit” what a touristic crap is this?”. This is nothing else as a far echo of a cultural imperialism.

But why am I even writing about it right now? Because I came to confront the other extreme. The Great Tourism Planning of China. And I think – this is too much even for me.

Not denying the beauty of the country (or rather – this tiny bit I got to see so far), the way the tourism is being developed here is the true Deng style.

China realized the right of demand-supply perfectly well. Too well. This communist country is really one big lesson on a wild capitalism so far.

There ain’t no single sightseeing place, which wouldn’t charge you a sumptuous fee for the pleasure of looking. And – unlike India, where the Nehru’s social state idea still lives and government has been so considerate, to impose a lower fees for Indian nationals in order to allow even the poor ones see some of national heritage (like Taj Mahal), the China says everyone is equal. Big Buddha – 120RMB ($15). Yes, tourist from Beijing come fleeing in!

They’ve realized that on the grand scale as well. The region doesn’t seem attractive enough yet? Let’s add on! Government is building a traditional village in Yuan Yang – place famous for the rice terraces near the Laos border. The village – one of the region “tourist attractions” with tickets priced at 30Y (app. $5) is a ridiculous phenomenon. All “brand new”, built in style which is not even close to anything local. The attractions include the minority residents told to wear their traditional clothes (probably resettled from somewhere else), an exposition hall – a tiny, dark museum of local artefacts and three reconstruction of a water-mill and some other utility buildings.

It’s the same big scale kind of thinking of a 5-years plans that works (so far) in the economy, just applied to cultural heritage. The same in Lijiang and Dali – where buildings designed (at least that!) in local style are mushrooming around to extend the “old towns” and hence – place for souvenir shops.

I know this post is a bit messed up, but there is no clear conclusion to it. What’s better? Leaving it to an organic growth like in India or an obsessive grand planning like in China?

I think I like Laos way the most. The just didn’t give a f*** sorry, a nod, while rocking slowly in their hammock. You want a tuk tuk? Ok, but now I have my siesta.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 2:19 am

    I love your blogpost, and i think the spiritual value of chinese backpackers are freedom and escape from the city life. most of the backpackers at china have a wonderful job back in downtown, the speed and pace of daily work make them feel comfortable when immersed in a wild and natural spaces. however, their passion towards those unconventional travelling are kinda way of escaping from and misunderstanding of the word travelling. they are indeed not travelling, but abreacting their nervousness from daily life.

    Id love to talk more with you about backpacking, welcome to visit my blog

  2. Betty Williams permalink
    April 7, 2011 2:23 am

    Hey Leon,

    Id love to see your blog post, thats really a lot of fun regarding to the behaviors and interest insight of backpackers back in china. i vistied china several months ago and hoped to read your posts bit earlier!

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