Saturday 8 Jul
Chong an, China
Since leaving Chengdu two weeks ago, we've spent most of our time battling the hoards of Chinese tourists who've arrived by the coach load in Southern China. It is now peak season and the Chinese government are promoting areas in the South heavily as holiday destinations. Clearly internal tourism is a huge economy driver at the moment. It's not that we have anything against tourist hotspots, there's usually a reason for places being popular, but I've never experienced tourism quite on this scale before. The place is swarming with tour groups, and contradicts what our guidebook and recommendations from fellow travellers led us to believe were sleepy villages. Maybe they were three years ago but times have changed.
Having had such a wonderful time in Northern and Central China we feel a little let down by the South. The countryside is still beautiful but it's difficult to appreciate it when you're swamped by people with cameras. On the one hand it's interesting to see how the Chinese go on holiday, but it is also frustrating and tiring. Whilst the Chinese excel at making the most of their long heritage and rich culture to regenerate areas, they do have a tendency to overcook things. We certainly weren't prepared for the thousand gift shops of Yunnan and we've been stung by the theme park feel of Lijiang (see previous blog). Maybe the rural China we were expecting to see just doesn't exist anymore, but we still get the feeling we're missing something.
Our last stop before leaving for Vietnam was going to be the beautiful province of Guangxi with it's spectacular rock formations and famous rice terraces, so we've been disappointed to hear from other people that this is also swarming with tourists and gift shops. We're still planning to go but have decided to take a scenic back door route, through some of the more remote, smaller villages of Guizhou.
Our Chinese guidebook has been so completely wrong and frustratingly outdated that we weren't quite sure what to expect. Our first stop, Chong 'an, was a pleasant surprise, not to mention a welcome break from a terrible 7 hour bus journey on bumpy roads. This was the first place since Chengdu where we've been able to escape the crowds, and our first real taste of 'traditional' rural China. Chong'an is a small market village set alongside a river surrounded by paddy fields, and we spent a lovely couple of days exploring the local villages and the beautiful green gorge.
Many of the local Miao women still wear traditional dress and headscarf (like a napkin). People pass us by in the street on their way to market carrying pigs, chickens and occasionally kittens in bamboo cages hanging from wooden poles across their shoulders.
Times are changing fast in China, but the hostel we're staying at in Chong'an really brings home the widening gap between the generations here, especially in the rural areas. Being the only hostel in Chong'an, it's more than a little basic with no flushing toilet and intermittent water supply provided by a tap above the bath, but the owners are lovely and we ate dinner with them every evening. The owner's son who was in his early twenties was a good laugh, spoke very good English, and charitably watched the England vs Portugal game with us. He was helping his Dad out after finishing his Chemistry degree, and had just landed a job as a teacher in a city further north. Wearing the latest Adidas trainers and continually chatting on his mobile phone, he couldn't have been more different to his Dad who wore homemade rope sandals, cooked for us on a small stove outside and filled the bath up once a day for water.