Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Beating the masses to heartland China

The Dominion Post Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Zhaoxing is quickly making its mark on the tourist trail and it won't be long before it's inundated by visitors. By Nikki Macdonald.
The streets of Zhaoxing are paved with rice. Every tiny piece of flat ground in the storybook wooden village is lined with scruffy canvas mats spread with the new harvest drying in the sun.
On the other side of the road women in hand-dyed indigo traditional dress with legs and backs bowed by hard labour shuffle past a shop selling the latest cellphones.
This is the new China – a land of contradictions and growing chasms between the peasant life of the rural masses and the burgeoning middle class.
Zhaoxing is heartland, a subsistence village in southern Guizhou province, reliant on the endless staircases of paddy fields. It's three days to the nearest airport; three days on local buses lurching along unpaved roads in the brain-crunching heat. Three days sitting in the aisles on plastic kiddies' tea-party stools wedged between ducks and chickens on their way to or from market.
Pacing the flawless boutique-lined boulevards of Shanghai, flanked by trendy teens with feathered and blonded hair, and cellphone charms, it's easy to forget that only a fraction of China's 1.3 billion population are reaping the benefits of the country's incredible economic boom.
It is hard to imagine that this is what Karl Marx pictured when espousing the virtues of communism – the rich flourish as half the country's gross domestic product comes from private companies, while the poor still have to pay for their education and healthcare.
Zhaoxing at least has the drawcard of tourism. Populated by the colourful Dong ethnic minority, with swaths of egg-white-coated indigo cloth drying in droopy M shapes from balconies and buck-toothed old women yakking by the canals, the pedestrian village has a charm that transcends its relative poverty.
The trappings of tourist cash are already beginning to show – cafes with an English menu selling pizzas and banana smoothies, satellite dishes, guest houses under construction, an assortment of ethnic wares for sale in dingy shops.
A strangely familiar tune blares out from the barber's shop TV – "A, B, C, D . . .". An enterprising mother has bought a Learn your ABCs DVD for her young son, in a bid to get him learning English early. Too bad he's more interested in his super robot swap cards.
Fittingly, Zhaoxing means "beginning to prosper".
In 20 years, when the road has been upgraded, Zhaoxing will be awash with foreign and Chinese tourists, like countless other small towns and villages that have already captured travellers' imaginations.
But for now its residents are mostly still more interested in going about their daily lives than paying much attention to their curious guests.
Lulu's Place takes a very relaxed attitude to business – trying to find someone to take your money requires commitment and though the guesthouse has a menu including dubious delights such as cow bile and pork with fresh blood, there is no kitchen or chef to be seen.
Zhaoxing is one of those places where you can fritter away hours wandering, watching, absorbing the rustic scenes. Shrunken old men with drawn faces but beady eyes sit cross- legged in the shade of covered bridges, playing some kind of variant on chess.
Children practise their version of the Kiwi schoolyard favourite of elastics, cartwheeling over a raised rope.
Men and women, young and old, scale the surrounding hills to the rice paddies. Stalks are scythed, their heads thrust into treadle-powered barrel threshers to separate the edible grains. The crop is packed into great sacks and wobbled back down to town, one sack hung over either end of a pole, slung across the back of the neck.
Left on the field are browning bundles of stalks, standing like scarecrow sentries at a community meeting.
Back in town celebrations are afoot. A wedding perhaps? From the lantern-lit second-floor restaurant balcony, furnished with a cold beer, we watch as an explosion of firecrackers breaks the peace. What looks like an entire roll of double happies is lit and unravelled along the street, scattering sparks and waxy red paper and carrying its reverberating cackle to the door of the celebrations.
Small children follow hopefully in its wake, snatching at unexploded fragments, which they rebelliously light and toss into the river at the first sight of flames.
Zhaoxing is quickly making its mark on the tourist trail but nearby villages are not so fortunate. Caught out late afternoon with no bus connection, we stay in a town where tourists are rare and men stop to gawp at the white intruders. There is only one guesthouse of a standard that allows it to take foreigners, and that is modest. Poverty prevails and the marketplace is strewn with filth and flies.
It's a sight unremarkable in travelling terms but for the flashy opulence that seems to be increasingly synonymous with China's international image.
We share the pre-dawn bus out with a gaggle of men commuting to work – probably a factory in Liping about two hours away. This is the reality of life in the provinces – back-breaking labour in the fields or a four-hour daily commute.
Perhaps the most startling development is that their own countrymen are increasingly joining, if not supplanting, the stream of international tourists. With a middle class of more than 100 million and growing, many now use their brief holidays to sign on to a package tour to a scenic or rustic provincial destination.
And at home, in the cities with their lustrous sheen of new money, Lamborghini showrooms jockey for place with Louis Vuitton (the genuine article, that is).
Pet trainers, shoe designers and real estate brokers were among the list of new professions in 2006 and pets have become the latest accessory, paraded on seaside boulevards and through pedestrian precincts.
There can be little doubt that China is on the up. Or that it is a stunning, diverse and fascinating destination.
And who would deny the simple folk of Zhaoxing the chance to earn a healthy living without turning hunchback at middle age?
But for those seeking a slice of old time unspoilt by the endless drone of tour guide megaphones, the time to go is now.
Nikki Macdonald travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific, Adventure World and Travel Indochina.

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