I lived in China as a foreign expert teacher in 2007/2008: back then, things were definitely starting to look like the country would have immensely changed. Grey skeletons of new mass construction works were scarring the land all over, so much that, month by month, the only similar thing on a city bus route was its number. Everything was changing, puffing in smoke and construction fumes. Beijing, as it was preparing for the crucially important 2008 Olympic Games, looked like a lady under heavy testosterone reconstruction. China smelt like burnt plastic, containers and rotting nylon clothing. But there were of course some really fantastic places hidden in the countryside, and a few, such as the province of Yunnan in China’s extreme southwest, emanated real travel bliss.
Well, I have been In China several other times since then, and I am writing this piece from China itself. The country has changed, including my loved Yunnan province. The smallish, relaxing municipalities morphed into old towns attached to hyper-technologic concrete slabs of buildings that honestly look all the same. The renewed Chinese wealth has transformed what was a characteristic of development, excitement and difference before, into another pre-packaged bunch of skyscrapers and block of flats. Where I am now, in Zhongdian, the first Tibetan settlement of Yunnanese Kham, the Old City – which was THE CITY back then – has become a tourist ghetto where prices are higher and tour buses vomit hordes of local and international tourists looking for a pre-packaged Tibetan experience made of hot pots, car rides along the grasslands and infernal shopping.
Is development making me upset? Well, a tiny bit. It is of course great to see how people who were living in ramshackle barracks can now afford the comforts of a shiny new block of flats. But… my memories are suffering a castration, and scream like a mad eunuch at the court of Kublai Khan.
I still try to be positive and take a walk around this city that has now become a sprawling concrete slab polluting the idyllic, rugged mountain plateau at the background. I cannot see it anymore, unless I climb on the new, freshly constructed Tibetan gompas where you pay 5$ to enter and can have the most real of the fake Tibetan experiences. Everyone local in town seems busy trying to rent out his car services, or pushing you into one of the many souvenir and outdoor gear shops. Of course, nothing wrong in making a profit and turning the town into a tourist hotspot, that hopefully may benefit the local economy. The surrounding countryside is still beautiful and worth to be seen, but again, my eunuch is screaming. Screaming at how now I have to take a bus to get across that lovely patch of land grazed by yaks. Or that I have to pay an extortionate amount for what was almost free and infinitely more authentic just 4 years ago.
I do not know. I will suck it up, ok. But do not tell me that development and memories have decided to go to the prom together this year. Maybe it would be best if I avoided returning to some of the places I loved most… what do you think?
Marco Ferrarese has been living la vagabonding vida loca in Asia since 2007 and has extensively traveled in about 50 countries and 4 continents. When he is not on the road he lives in Penang, Malaysia, where he plays punk rock guitar, writes and studies extreme rock music in Southeast Asia for Monash University. Follow him at www.monkeyrockworld.com