Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Men and Nature and My Mother

“If you look to your left, you will see Tibetan yaks grazing.” The tour guide, Mr. He, was again a beat too late pointing out sights of interests to the 27 tourists on the bus. My eyes only caught a glimpse of yak tails as our bus whizzed by cutting across the high-plateau grassland towards the Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area. Mr. He continued to enunciate in Mandarin peppered with a heavy Sichuan accent, “Tibetan yaks are known to be one of the three animals uncontaminated by human pollution. The other two are polar bears and penguins.”

It’s the third time that Mr. He recited the same line. I wondered whether this was highlighted as one of the must-mention facts in the little notebook he constantly referred to. Tour buses, mostly bigger and carrying more passengers than ours, raced pass us left and right. At least a third were dragging black smoke behind their exhaust pipes.

“We are very close to the entrance to the Jiuzhaigou valley now.” Mr. He had to repeat what he had just said in the back of the bus. The mic on the bus was broken. “The Jiuzhaigou Scenic Area is often called Fairyland on Earth.” His face was blank as he spoke. I wondered if all this had become a dreary routine to him. “It’s a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, a World Biosphere Reserve site, a Green Globe 21 site. It’s also a national park. In a recent survey, it was voted by domestic tourists as the top tourism destination.” My father listened attentively. My mother, having feigned indifference, even annoyance, since getting on this tour, was finally showing some interests to Mr. He’s use of superlatives.

It was my first time taking my parents on a tour. Before I went to the States in 1992, my family didn’t have enough disposable income to “waste” on such unproductive luxury as traveling. But people have money now. The domestic tourism industry is growing in leaps and bounds. My parents are getting old. When I announced I would take them to Jiuzhaigou, my mother asked, “What’s there to look at?” And, “You don’t have a job. Why throw money away?” It took a lot of cajoling before she consented to go.

“All the leaders of the Chinese government have visited Jiuzhaigou. They all loved it. Ex-party secretary and President Jiang Zemin have visited here numerous times. He praised the valley as Heaven on Earth.” I yawned. Mr. He had also just told us that twenty years ago, President Jiang Zemin’s son formed a joint-venture with some American investors. The JV developed a supra-five-star hotel complex in a primeval forest near the valley entrance. No wonder President Jiang liked it. (Note: Not sure of its authenticity. But this being press-restricted China, rumors need no substantiation.)

Finally, we were dropped off at the valley entrance among swarms of tourists and the tour guides herding the tourists with their little colored flags held up straight. The mountains were beautifully green, with early-morning clouds still hugging the tops. Mr. He gave us each a ticket. We followed him through the gate and onto a pollution-free park shuttle. At the first sight of a lake, everyone in the shuttle jumped up, “Look, it’s blue!”

Indeed, the most amazing aspect of Jiuzhaigou is the water. A string of small lakes dot the valley between densely forested mountains. The lakes are so deep and clear that one can easily see the old logs lying at the bottom of the turquoise blue water. (It’d be cliché for me to reiterate the beauty of Jiuzhaigou, You can click here to see some of the photos I took.)

When we reached Shuzhen Waterfall, I was thrilled. It’s not high, but it’s very wide. The streams of water rushed down like braids of pearls twirling. I breathed the air deeply. “Isn’t this wonderful?” I asked my mother.

She scanned the waterfall from left to right. “Humph. The American waterfalls are better.” She had visited several national parks in the States when she stayed with my sister in San Diego. Her tepid enthusiasm did not stop her from demanding photos taken in front of the fall. Everybody was taking photos.

What’s even more amazing than the water, in my opinion, was how untouched nature appeared in Jiuzhaigou. I had taken a few trips to the wilderness areas in China. At most places I had visited, strips of forests would have been cleared for crops and plastic bags and bottles dotted the view. But here in Jiuzhaigou, nature seemed to be in its most pristine state. It seemed that my follow Chinese, awed by the beauty of the scenery, were actually picking up after themselves.

Slowly I began to realize that I was only half right. At every scenic stop, a few park employees were picking up garbage with tongs. On in a high-profile place like Jiuzhaigou would the government bother with this kind of detailed caring of nature.

At the Tiger Lake, I asked a kid to pick up the plastic bag he had just thrown on the ground. He looked at me blankly for a few seconds before his dad did it for him.

We followed the tourist crowd, taking shuttle to stops, getting off, taking an easy walk (within a 100-meter perimeter) to the marked scenic spot, patiently waiting for our turn to take a photo (or 2), and getting back on the bus to the next stop. My mother, slowly cheering in this tourist routine, checked the valley map carefully so not to miss any major spot.

On the way to the Long Lake, I noticed a deserted plank trail paralleling the road for the shuttle. I said I wanted to go hiking. My mother gave me a stare, “Why walk when there’s bus to take?” Everybody was carrying a camera and/or a camcorder, most of them digital, and following a Chinese way of approaching traveling – pose, point, shoot and go.

“It’s rather like Disney, isn’t it?” I asked my parents, taking in the crowds putting on Tibetan costumes for photos by the Long Lake. More people were pouring in from the shuttle parking area. On a peak day like this, there were up to ten thousands visitors in the park.

“How could this compare to Disney?” My mother was ever so direct. “Can you two hurry up?” She directed her displeasure at a wife who took too long posing in front of her husband’s camera. When it’s our turn, she flashed a big smile and did a V sign for the shot.

The Chinese way of traveling is also sign-dependent. There had to be a point-of-interest, specifically marked out, to engage the attention of most travelers. At the “Primeval Forrest”, we moved slowly in tight formation on the wooden planks through the forest. Many wandered about, not sure what to look at.

“The tour guide told me the oxygen level here is high.” My mother breathed deliberately. “He said it’s like an oxygen bar. Very therapeutic.”

I tried to look at the trees over the shoulders of people in front of and besides me. The high-pitched chattering and kids’ screaming were making the Sichuan dialect unbearable to listen to. There was no nature, only trees and mountains and water propped up for a Disney joy ride.

Halfway through the circular trail of wooden-planks, a stone stood solemnly, marked with “Primeval Forrest” in fancy Chinese calligraphy. The procession stalled, the crowd agitated. Finally a point of interest. Some stepped off the trail and posed in front of the stone.

Just right next to the stone, there’s a big sign “Do Not Step Off Trail”.

More and more people wandered into the woods. Cameras followed. People sat on trees, hugged trees, circled trees, leaned on trees, or looked up at trees, for photos. The most popular photo spot was still the stone, the calligraphy making photos taken there easily identifiable when shown to friends later.

It would have been a funny New Yorker cartoon.

“Come.” My mother dragged my arm. She and my father hopped off the trail, and got behind the line of people waiting for photos in front of the stone.

“What are you doing? Didn’t you see the sign?” I tried hard not to scream at them.

“We can’t visit the primeval forest without having a photo of it.” My mother shot back at me reproachfully.

What can you do when they are your own parents?


dc said...

Tourism, particularly in China, is a mixed blessing to the destination.

Beijing Loafer said...

Indeed. I'm kinda glad that people are not into backpacking here. Imagine the day when millions roam the wilderness...

Other Lisa said...

I ran into a number of Chinese backpackers my last trip - including a lawyer who belonged to a mountain climbing club - he was going to Chengdu from Xi'an to meet up with his mates and they were climbing in Tibet somewhere. Seems to me it's catching on...

Beijing Loafer said...

I once traveled with a packpacker group in Xinjiang. They were a wonderful pack and environmentally conscious. It would only be a worry if somehow backpacking becomes a fad and the whole country catches on... :)

Anonymous said...

what a vivid recount of jiuzhaigou tourism. reminded me of my trip there earlier this year. good thing i didn't join a tour group and was spared many of the shopping trips you described. regardless i wasn't too impressed by jiuzhaigou (even its supposedly natural beauty) and decided to skip huanglong altogether :)

grace said...

hi, i was looking for qiang village information and found yours. recently i visited jiuzhaiguo indeed, such a nature beauty although there was a keen sense of tourism capitalism. another temple near munigou and songpan very interesting but i wasn't lucky to have more spare time. regardless i am not able speaking chinese either. best to explore independently, so many hidden places in China. i'm looking forward for another province visiting.