Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Tour of Hunan - From Zhangjiajie to Changsha - dispatches from the frontline of tourism in China

The Tour of Hunan was a four-day coach trip that was run by a local tour operator designed to show foreigners the highlights of the province. The coach became our second home, my back slowly locked itself into the shape of seat. They managed to turn a holiday into the chore by packing in as many iconic sites scattered across the four corners of Hunan as possible. Each day we seemed to drive for around six hours, starting in the early morning with shorter rides later in the day. With a 6.30 AM wake up call each day, it felt like work.

By submitting to this gruelling timetable we were able to catch attractions like this bed that Mao once slept in. This is a tricky exhibit as it has to ride a fine line between looking both stately enough for the Great Helmsman and yet humble enough for a junior scholar in a backward province. I must have taken a lot of effort to find that sweet spot in the middle!

And here he is again leading the coach through his home province. His presence seemed strangely apolitical, he seemed to function more by offering an, albeit premature, celebrity endorsement of the sites.  

The historic towns we visited were the homogenised type that had been given the tourist makeover. Coach after coach spilled out tourists who raided the streets buying up souvenirs and fake luxury brands. While this scene of consumption could be anywhere in China, the tourists themselves add some local colour. Buddhist monks were even getting in on the act, I like very much the disciple, here sporting a red Hello Kitty bag that almost matches his robes.

The drum shops reminded me of Lijiang in Yunnan, a tourist town that has been similarly transformed and which sports an unlikely number of them. These shops seem, at first, completely arbitrary and it remains a mystery to me who actually buys these drums. What I do see in them now, however, is that they evince the growing contact between China and Africa which they frame within the field of leisure. I should like to better understand what Africa currently represents in the tourist mindset here, this is something very much in flux.

We had a rotating cast of tour guides. Our primary guide had a habit of talking too much about stuff of no relevance. For example, when she was telling us what the dinner would be one evening, she launched into a story about fish, which we weren't going to have, and how her daughter had got a fishbone stuck in her throat and had to go to the doctor to get it removed only to be told there was no bone there. Well meaning but not informed about the sites at all, she went on extended improvisations with the microphone at the front of the bus. Alongside her was a local guide who spoke no English but who took care of the restaurant and hotel bookings.

At most of the sites we visited we there were then guides specific to the attractions we were being wheeled in front of so we'd sometimes have three levels of simultaneous guides, none of whom really made the place any the more interesting but who did at least keep up some sense of momentum.

I had recently come across a tongue in cheek article on cocktails you can make with ingredients from a Chinese convenience store. Over the four days I tested them all. This Baileys style drink was probably the most palatable. 

The interminable coach rides between sites were, on one of the days, augmented by the driver adding in some private business of his own. We made a stop to pick up some boxes and bags at a petrol station the the edge of one of the towns and then made a large swooping detour for him to go to his home town where the coach pulled and his wife ran to meet us and take a sack of pomelos from the bottom of the coach. Cocktail time.

One of the parks was full of monkeys. They seemed like used to the tourists and this one was not in the least phased by the circle of phones that surrounded it.

The cable car ride to the higher peak was not for those with vertigo. 

Zhangjiajie is stunning, an unreal assemblage of oversized toothpicks bound together with lush tree cover. We were given fifteen minutes to take pictures before it was time to move on.

One of the more absurd things the guide kept on stressing was that the mountains featured in the film Avatar. Even though this blockbuster movies was meant to lend the site greater kudos, it only brought it down in my mind to the world of aspirational CGI and middle of the road acting.

There was even a video machine there which could film you and then stick you on top of a dodgy animated bird flying high over peaks of Zhangjiajie. They had a special talent for making something very ordinary and kitsch out of an absolutely stunning natural location. 

We were vastly outnumbered by the domestic tourists who had a much clearer idea of what to do with a site like this. Their's was a near military style sweep: go to prime photo spot, selfie sticks out, take turns with group shot, break into solo and duet shots then move on the next site. Our tour was a pale, self-conscious imitation of theirs: we have the photos too but ours are not as cleanly composed, are far fewer in number and we never managed smiles like theirs. Being a tourist requires practice.


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