Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Quantum Tourism

I needed something to pull me out of my urban torpor and get me doing something active, and I had just the ticket. I have been itching to visit Jiuzhaigou national park for some time now, and the park certainly did not disappoint in the scenery department. The park consists of a narrow, Y-shaped valley which rises from about 2000m to 3000m (with the surrounding peaks stretching past 5000m). This is supposedly the best time for visiting JZG as the beginning to shed their leaves, and so the forests are a patchwork of greens, yellows and reds. But, for me, the most captivating aspect of the park was the rivers, lakes and waterfalls. The water in the lakes is of a blue, so vivid and stunning, you almost can't believe it's real. And the clarity is such that you can clearly see the stones and logs on the lakebeds even though the water is over 10m deep. Then you have an incredible phenomenon whereby in some areas there are pockets of fertile soil below the riverbed, allowing a forest to sprout in the middle of a flowing river. My words will never be sufficient to describe the valley adequately, so I'll just add this picture (because pictures paint a thousand words) which itself is nowhere near the reality, but it'll have to do.

I'd love to say that Jiuzhaigou is a natural paradise with beautiful hiking trails, unspoilt views, crystal silence and wildlife aplenty. Unfortunately this is China, and although I know I've had a go at Chinese tourism (and tourists) before, the spectacle I experienced here just made me want to cry, pull out my hair and throttle everybody, all at the same time. Things didn't start well even before entering the park:. Arriving at Jiuzhaigou town is like driving along the Las Vegas Strip: a long row of hotels, one after another, each gaudier than its predecessor (made even more astounding by the impossibly remote location). Then, upon entering the park (entrance fee $25) you see a whole fleet of buses (ticket $11) ready to whisk you all the way to the ends of the valley. Now I'm not against buses per se, in fact it helps keep the trails less crowded and more tranquil, but because the park is such a narrow valley those of us who want to hike (i.e. are too tight to pay the exorbitant bus fare) have to do it either right alongside, or at least very close to, the road. And what with the relentless cavalcade of coaches, and the fact that they keep blaring their horns (who cares if the park is home to some of the last giant pandas in the wild), the hike quickly slips away from the desired rural idyll. Then, when you finally reach a piece of wilderness (the spot in question was called Primeval Forest), a busload of tourists rocks up and its passengers find the greatest pleasure in walking into the middle of the forest (home to the above-mentioned pandas) and screaming at the top of their lungs (nothing clever mind you, just screaming because they can).

Now I'd like to think that I'm an open-minded and tolerant person, but there can be no excuse for such behaviour. It really made me see red. And unfortunately this is the behaviour of the majority here in China; they seem incapable of appreciating nature as it is and feel an incessant need to bend it to their liking. The famous trekker's dictum of "take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints" is completely lost on them. So just as in quantum physics, where you cannot observe a particle without fundamentally altering its state, so the Chinese cannot go into a pretty forest without building an enormous hotel complex, complete with helipad, amusement park and nightly fireworks displays, slap-bang in the middle of it. In all the countries I've been to I haven't seen anything comparable, and despite the fact that I try to see the best in people (usually), god help the remaining (few) areas of pristine wilderness here because before long they will either disappear completely or be turned into Disneyland caricatures of what they should be.

Well, that's about enough criticism for one night, but suffice to say that if you ever do plan to visit a natural park in China: be prepared for the worst.

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