Zhang Mei: Surprising changes in China travel after two years of Covid
Yongning, a small town outside of Lugu Lake in Yunnan, looks stuck in the 1990s. Trucks drive down the town’s only street, Yongning Lane, throwing a thick layer of dust on women in colorful ethnic costumes who accompany their grandchildren to school. Zhamei Temple, a Tibetan monastery at the northern end of town, houses a fine collection of 500-year-old frescoes, but there are no tourists, only pigeon calls and the waving of prayer flags.
That is until A Lu picked us up and drove us to his family lodge, Dingya Tree House, 2 miles south of town. There are only three people in the lodge, A Lu, his brother and his mother, but there is a warmth in this place that attracts. A Lu guides us through a beautifully designed hall, a small courtyard, a set of stone stairs, and over a two-foot-tall doorway to enter “Grandmother’s House”. It is as if we are entering another era. The lights are dim, the exposed wall made of logs has turned black from decades of smoke. Her mother, in traditional dress, sits between the fire and her bed. To the right of the hearth is an L-shaped seating area surrounding a square table filled with steamed ham, beef stew and sautéed vegetables. It is a warm sanctuary on a cold winter night.
The headwaters of the Yangtze, also called the Jinsha River, on the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Province. Photo: Zhang Mei
“I’m a Mosuo,” A Lu says. It’s an unlikely answer given his cowboy hat, leather jacket, and boots. The Mosuo are the last remaining matriarchal ethnic group in China. The mountainous region where they live is four hours from Lijiang, a famous tourist destination. “We intentionally kept this piece intact. The ring of fire is four hundred years old, passed down from my ancestors,” A Lu explains. “This lodge is on our family land. When my brother and I built the new cabin in the trees and the other two wings of the hotel, we have kept two buildings unchanged – this one which is Grandmother’s House and the Ancestral Hall. Both are important parts of our heritage that keep our family together, and we want our guests to experience it.
Afraid that my hotel room will be cold after dinner, I ask A Lu to preheat my room. “Already done, I control the heating on my phone!” He proudly leads me to my room and shows me that the curtains are electronically controlled, just like the fake Japanese bidet, with a hot seat, too many buttons and water jets. The next morning, A Lu sends me a video clip of her mother making offerings to the winter gods at the back of the house. “Customers can enjoy these ancient traditions,” he tells me.
This experience at A Lu lodge surprised me in many ways. I crossed these mountain ranges twenty years ago, and there was no electricity, and it was impossible to convince the local villagers that their traditions were beautiful and precious, that they should keep the traditional houses while tastefully building to meet the needs of modern visitors. A walk back and forth often revealed a newly constructed concrete block, with security bars on the windows and bathroom-style tiles on the exterior. It was discouraging.
A 76-year-old Mosuo lady in the village of Sanjiacun near Lijiang. (Left) A Mosuo grandmother sits in her traditional home. Photo: Zhang Mei
On this trip, having been excluded from China for two years, I find it so refreshing and promising to witness such a profound change in attitude in the country. I can speculate on many forces driving these changes, and I expect one of them to be the rise of domestic tourism. Chinese tourists are growing at the speed of China, and city dwellers are flocking to remote areas in hopes of finding peace and quiet, a break from hectic city life. The soul-nourishing effect of sitting by Grandma’s fireplace is universal. Chinese travelers vote with their dollars. Places like A Lu’s can and do charge 10 times more than a room in a concrete block.
The pandemic has accelerated the discovery of national treasures by Chinese travelers. “We’ve been overseas before, and never thought there was anything interesting to see in the country.” Roger P, a wealthy lawyer from Beijing, told me, “Now with the pandemic, we have discovered beautiful parts of China.” Roger regularly cycles in China with his wife and a few other couples. The tour operator packs and ships his 13,000 yuan ($2,043) bike in advance and reassembles it upon arrival. Along with their bike kits, top hotels and a professional photographer/videographer are standard for their trip. Since the beginning of 2020, they have been cycling in Fujian, with a distant view of Taiwan, Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, southern Gansu, western Sichuan, all “thanks to Covid”. he says.
Of course, TikTok and Little Red Book are also driving these trends. Everyone was on WeChat, but it only served closed circles of friends like Facebook, most appropriate for bragging to friends with a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. WeChat and trophy trips have fallen out of favor. WeChat is still the mega app that makes online payment convenient, but TikTok and Little Red Book, two popular video social media apps, have taken on the role of “zhongcao”, which literally translates to “seed planter”, inspiring travelers with images and videos of a life they dream of.
A man prepares a Mosuo barbecue. Photo: A-Lu
Before meeting A Lu, I was hiking with friends in the nearby mountains. As I always do on such trips, I would show the villagers if I took pictures of them. Then I thought they might have a cell phone too. So I offered to distribute the photos instead.
“Do you have wechat?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied the 76-year-old lady, while fishing for the phone in her beautiful blouse. She unlocked the screen slowly and her finger was pointing at the WeChat icon, when I saw another icon right next to it, TikTok!
Villagers have learned to make full use of TikTok to market mountain businesses. Villagers from Zhuangzi Village tell me a success story of a young man marketing nuts to his 300,000 fans on TikTok. A Lu also sends me pictures of his brother, dressed in a cowboy hat and an unbuttoned low-cut shirt, carving a whole roast lamb. These images send seeds squirting faster than spring rain.
Remote places like Yongning are now accessible thanks to the extensive high-speed rail network. This is old news, but I’m still surprised at how big and big this change has been. I took a train ride from Kunming to Lijiang, and before I even settled down to crack my sunflower seeds, I saw a large body of water on the left side of the train. It was Dali’s Erhai Lake. It seemed unreal as in the past it was a full night drive from Kunming to Dali and then another day on the winding roads of Lijiang. Now the whole trip takes 3 hours. What is even more surprising is the train connection from Kunming to Luang Prabang in just 4 hours. Twenty years ago, I worked for Yunnan Railroad, and we drove for three days in Laos, probing the possibility of building a railway. The odds seemed very low. It was in the early 1990s.
This means that many regional bus companies are bankrupt. New companies that offer last mile services are becoming popular. One of the services uses 7-seater vans to transport passengers between home and the station. New business models are developing at the same speed as the rail network is growing.
What does this mean for non-Chinese travellers? Personally, I think these changes usher in a golden era of exploration for travelers who want to get deep into the country, but it also makes it harder for international travelers. The industry is improving dramatically to serve domestic customers, making domestic travel increasingly convenient for Chinese, but little is being done to meet the needs of international travelers. It’s a classic case of supply and demand, foreign travelers to China remained almost flat at around 35 million visitors per year before Covid, while Chinese people made 818 million trips to the country in 2021. L travel experience in China will become more and more like the experience in Japan, great services and experiences for domestic customers, but if you don’t speak the language, things may be out of reach. I guess that justifies the existence of companies like WildChina.
When will international travel to China return? Your guess is as good as mine.
Have a good trip.
Zhang Mei is the founder of WildChina, an award-winning travel agency and author of “Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham”.
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