Huggable subscribers, I have been indulging in some ‘sublime landscapes’ to reference my last post. In fact, I have been gorging on one of the most spectacular, easily accessible* sights in China, the Tiger Leaping Gorge located in Northwest Yunnan province.

Dali. Dali is an ‘ancient’ new town. This is what I consider a uniquely Chinese interpretation on providing historical tourist sights for its population. Back to that later. Dali is about 5 hours bus ride from Kunming and nestled beside Erhai Lake and below the Cangshan mountain range. The history of the area is pretty interesting with Yunnan province actually being independent (i.e. host to various kingdoms) from central Chinese authority for much of the past two thousand years.

It’s consider isolated from the rest of China and rightly so. Wedged up between Tibet on one side, the southeast asian countries on the other and rugged Sichuan on the northeast, it was able to maintain this distance, as well as play host to numerous ethnic minorities who are still very prevalent, trudging around town all rugged up in ‘ethnic’ dress. The old town contains many souvenir shops, old ladies who continuously ask you whether you want ganja (it is not far off Phnom Penh for prevalence!), bus loads of Han Chinese tourists who ramble along the souvenir streets buying horrendous knick knacks and while I was here, host to the 8th Annual Chinese Photography Art Festival which was cool. Also the YHA where I stayed inflicted on me the thinnest mattress I have ever slept on. A sheet on a wooden board would have been an improvement.

The big local attraction is a rebuilt Buddhist temple complex which is pretty frickin massive. This on a scale that would handle many hundreds of thousands of tourists per year (the Buddhist monks would never have thought of building that many toilets and conveniently located roads for electric carts for lazy tourists).

Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Lijiang is about 3 hours north of Dali and is like a honey pot to hordes of tourists getting themselves lost in cobble stoned lanes and alongside gently noodling streams through the town. Kind of reminded me of Venice in some respects. The word that springs to mind is kitsch. Nonetheless I managed to find an Irish bar with a bar tender baking a hash cake. This is the historic centre of the former local Naxi kingdom and there is a palace that is a replica (getting familiar?) of the original palace. The other big attraction is Tiger Leaping Gorge which is north 2 hours by bus. This is the deepest gorge in the world apparently. I walked most of the length in a day and a half and it was spectacular. Roasting hot, but the looming sharp mountains on the opposite side of the gorge made an impression, with misty clouds occluding the higher reaches. Again, strategically located mules are offered to those not able to hack the terrain. Again, offered bags of ganja halfway up. I swear it is not going to make me go any faster! Luckily it was fine both days, I would not want to be walking it in the rain – just plain dangerous with that loose shale and sheer cliffs…

Chinese tourism. It’s strange to say this, but the tourism market in China is indisputably and heavily domestic. The foreign tourist, unlike every other country I have visited so far, is a distinct super-minority. The buses and trains book out far in advance and if you want to travel efficiently (rules me out) you need to book early. The other thing is that the sights are all rebuilt replicas. The reason is shockingly obvious, the scale of the destruction which occurred during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese effectively destroyed thousands of years of architectural. literary, art and religious history. Only now has the Government realised that increasingly prosperous Chinese wanting to spend money on travel, need stuff to see. Ergo, wholesale rebuilding of ancient temples and towns and artwork. Of course from a Western perspective it is all terribly fake and kitsch. Nonetheless they flock.

The travelling infrastructure is angled towards satisfying domestic requirements which are different to western ones. One: the domestic tourist tends to travel in cosseted tour groups, and independent or adventure travel is virtually unknown, two: although for most Chinese price matters (in fact time and quality are not valued nearly to the same degree as plain price), there are a huge number of rich Chinese tourists willing to pay close to Western prices for things like entry fees, food and accommodation, three: the Chinese tourist goes to Government-identified tourist destinations and off-the-beaten track does not exist. Three types of destination are either combinations of or specifically: historical (Terracotta Warriors), ethnic (Dali – proof all peoples live happily between the heaving Communist bosom) or modernist and showcase China’s growth (Shanghai’s skyscrapers). Taglines like: ‘Dali, a place you cannot but go to at least once in your lifetime’ (the Chinese Hajj?) and ‘Charming Dali: a World of Wind, Flowers, Snow and Moon’ pull the punters like mad.

I’m in Chengdu at the moment, provincial capital of Sichuan. Am intending to sample the local spicy cuisine. No pandas. Too damn cute.

*Relatively speaking. Most of the truly amazing places require heroic sacrifices like Tibet, or some discomforts like hiking for days through rough terrain.