Tourism and Localness

Hanging out on a small country road upvalley from Rebgong. We were obviously the first ever foreigners to go up this road.

Not a rant, but a confused musing.

In early May, I traveled to Nangchen county, a remote area of skyscraping mountains, deep forested canyons, and wide grasslands abutting the TAR in Qinghai’s deep south. I spent the day I arrived exploring the county town, visiting its markets and attempting (to no avail) to find a hike that was not guarded by a gang of viciously snarling, slobbering mastiffs. In the late afternoon, I was chatting with someone on the steps of a small indoor market when my companion gestured to the other side of the street. “Look,” he said, “it’s another one of you!” I quickly said goodbye and ran up the street, where I quickly caught up with the couple. They turned around and looked at me with expressions that were mixtures of happiness and mild disgust, relief and – most noticeably – profound disappointment. I introduced myself to the couple, who expressed their shock in seeing me here. “I thought we’d be the only foreigners here,” the man said, “but I guess we’re everywhere these days.” Once again, I had crushed a traveler’s dream of being the only foreigner in a place, bursting the illusions of uniqueness that, for foreigners traveling in this part of the world, seem to be the most irresistible parts of the experience. Travelers will tell you how they’ve been somewhere no foreigner has gone before, or how countless people have told them they were the first foreigner they’d ever seen. Everyone, including those of us who live here, occasionally gets caught up in this competition of authenticity, boasting to others about the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met, and the profoundly unique spiritual depth of our own experience – an experience which, of course, can only be encountered randomly and unexpectedly. If you are going to have a real experience, you have to do it like the locals: with no plans and as authentically as possible. To this end, traveling by buses or trains is simply lame (though sleeper buses are respectable) while traveling by private car is unthinkable. Hitchhiking and bike touring are worthier methods of travel for their greater authenticity (“I traveled just like the locals!”); better yet is walking, and the best possible would be ritual prostration (“I prostrated all the way from Xining to Lhasa! I nearly got killed by a mastiff and lost six toes to frostbite, but it was suchan authentic experience! I don’t have any pictures because all of my things were stolen, but I had an awakening on the trip: less is more. I’ve decided I’m going to open a nudist yoga retreat center in Boulder”).

Obviously the first foreigner to ride a motorcycle on this stretch of provincial route 203. (At least since last week)

In a sense, all of us foreigners have a certain desire to be local. Or at least semi-local. Strangely misplaced and confused, this desire romanticizes localness to the point where this quality loses touch with reality. There is something so powerful about the desire of localness – and about tourism in general –  that it causes travelers to ignore locals’ actual lives: the poverty, squalor, pollution, atrocious schools, and forceful policies that, more often than not, make people miserable. Instead, we look at a small county-town – trash-filled main street, vicious dogs sauntering along, monks wandering down from the monastery to beg money from the already impoverished population, redfaced men pissdrunk in broad daylight stumbling back towards their homes in the nearby nomad-resettlement village to do who-knows-what to their wives and children, weeds growing up in the forlorn empty square centered around a towering statue of CCP heroes, and beyond, the vast grasslands being grazed to death by millions of yaks and sheep, stretching upwards to snowy peaks lining the horizon – we look at this town and we see beauty, we feel astonishment, and somehow, however perversely, want to be a local, a real, authentic part of it all. We just want to fit in. This tourism-induced blindness also manifests itself in a certain snobbery towards both people and places deemed unworthy. In Xining, this is most visibly manifested by travelers at the Lete Youth Hostel who have come to town expressly to arrange their trip to Lhasa. With enormous disdain for pretty much all of Qinghai province, not to mention the people who live and travel here, they simply want to get to the TAR as quickly as possible. After all, the TAR is the only authentic Tib#t; why even bother visiting a cheap imitation (or even venturing outside of the hostel) when you are going to see the real thing? In response, I’ve developed a ‘local’ snobbery of my own, arguing that Qinghai is the real thing as well and possibly better: as all the tourists go to Lhasa, Qinghai is comparatively wild, unexplored, and – yes – authentic. When talking with people in Chinese, I go to great lengths to tell them I live in Qinghai – that I’m not just a traveler. I too, in some way, need to prove my localness. I need to feel like I’m a part of this place – and that I’m special for some reason because aren’t. This idea of localness is an incredible conceit, and one I can’t begin to explain. Maybe these quests for localness and authenticity are just part of our striving to distinguish ourselves from others. But why, in doing so, do we need to heap disdain upon others’ experiences? Why are we compelled to ignore the reality of peoples’ lives in the places we visit? Why are we so self-centered? I’m not planning to answer these questions, but they’ve been things I’ve been thinking about on recent travels – especially to Rebgong, where I’ll be living next year and have already started feeling the illusion of localness. With the arrival of summer, tourists are an increasingly common sight in town, and I feel an ever-greater need to distinguish myself from them. I don’t think this is a need I’ll ever fully extinguish, or even be able to explain, but I think being aware of it – and of its accompanying illusions and blindnesses – is a place to begin.

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One Response to Tourism and Localness

  1. wingraclaire says:

    Your post is interesting and thought-provoking, as always. By this time next week I’ll be traveling in Yunnan, in what I am assured is a swarm of foreign tourists, but if I do happen to see you there you are allowed to pretend not to see me back.

    🙂 Kailah’s mom

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