27 05 2012

Generally, I think that Chill Bird has the better arguments.



20 05 2012



31 10 2011


18 08 2011

20 07 2011

11 07 2011

On the road in Yunnan

12 06 2011

There’s this concept in physics called the observation effect. It says that sometimes, just watching something will stop it from happening. Observation results in interference, which is its own input into the system, thus changing the system. Just see it and it’s already gone.

One good place to ponder this concept is on the smooth, sealed Dăli – Lìjiāng highway,  southwest China, while you try to avoid getting squashed by all the thundering progress. Anyone who says that progress marches is misguided. Colonial soldiers march. Brass bands march. Progress is more of a 10-tonne truck that barrels down the highway, shaking the foundations of nearby houses and kicking up the dust. And there are lots of trucks on the road in southwest China.

Of course, trucks have plenty of company. There are home-made farm vehicle frankensteins, with ute/tractor hybrids proving popular; motor scooters; workers on bikes; workers on foot; and the occasional glossy expensive car. But the trucks are the rulers of the road and there are sheer mobs of them. What am I doing here? I’m on a bike, blinking in the dust, and searching for that genuine Lonely Planet backpacking experience.

I’m looking for old China.

So far, I’m really not having much luck. From what I’ve seen in the last 6 weeks, this country has all the heritage preservation of an amnesiac. There just isn’t any old to be found. What’s to be found is Old China Lite. Old China Lite means grandiose temples and buildings that are at maximum 20 years old. If the past is a foreign country, then Old China Lite feels like going to a foreign restaurant in your home town, and just knowing that everything on the menu has been reworked to suit local tastes. Old China Lite has bright lights and loud music and the tackiest souviners that you can imagine. It’s a theme park. It’s everywhere, and it’s full of rich middle-aged tourists from the cities. They apparently love this stuff.

Currently, however, it’s occurring to me that this plump shuffling crowd might have their reasons to prefer a low-authenticity version of the past. Middle-aged? Check. Educated and urban? Yep. This marks them. They may have been here before as part of the re-educated generation.

At the time that my parents’ generation was heading off to university or on their OE, their counterparts in China were getting sent off to become peasants. Young people were lifted from the cities and dumped into labour in the countryside. Sometimes they had no idea of if or when they would come back. Marriage could become a life sentence to exile because any children would be legally locked to their birthplace. Backpackers, I think, can enjoy the experience of stark and simple rural beauty because it’s not the rest of their lives. But to face a future of rusticated poverty and boredom… I can understand why middle-aged wealthy China is interested in a comfortable, airbrushed past. Progress thunders on.

I’m thinking these thoughts as I turn off the highway , and the road reverts to something more along the lines of what you would picture for rural China. Meaning: the seal ends and the dirt begins. A metre-high, baked-on mud spatter coats the house walls next to the road. Even now, in the dry season, there’s a definite aroma of pig poo. In the wet – it doesn’t bear thinking about. So I press on past the houses and into the countryside, where people in the fields work pump-action spray bottles with dubious contents. Every so often a heavy construction vehicle rumbles past. There seem to be a lot of earth works going on.

Then I round a corner, enter the village and hit genuine old China. Not restored, not rebuilt, not bulldozed in the first place. Noone has ever gotten around to it – yet. The alleys between the houses were very obviously designed by people who were not thinking about motorised transportation. They form a maze that leads down to the water and up to the rocky outcrops. The walls are whitewash, mud and stone, layered one on top of the other over time like strata deposits. The clear light here bounces off the white. Old people sit and play mahjong in the temple. People wear their traditional clothing simply because it’s what you wear, like I would wear jeans.

Down by the water is a hostel. It’s sandwiched between the cliff and the shore, and most of the view is blue water or blue sky. There’s a courtyard where everyone eats a communal dinner which tastes like cosy home cooking. What’s really remarkable is the other backpackers. They are young, curious and university educated. Barring me and one Irish girl, they are all Chinese, but they graciously switch to excellent English for our benefit. I think that it says something about a country when it starts to produce backpackers. When you have enough freedom to step out of the rat race because there’ll be a good job to come back to, when you have enough education to wonder about how the rest of the world lives, when you can live on a shoestring because it’s not the rest of your life.

I’m only here for one night, then I have to bike back and catch my flight. It’s a sunny day and I wander back through narrow alleyways, listening to the lakewater slapping at the rocks. The whole village, with its stonewashed walls and traditional clothes, has the weird feeling of being suspended over the edge of a precipice. Any minute now, the drop will begin; in fact it already has. Already the waterfront is too expensive for the locals. It’s all been bought up by folks from out of town, and they’re bringing in out-of-town labour – rural backwater  time doesn’t sit well with city time schedules, and besides they trust people from their home province more. The backpacker owner is planning out the conversion of the backpacker to a luxury resort. And on the trip back, I get a good long look at what all those 10 tonne trucks are building. It’ll be a wide sealed highway, suitable for tour buses full of people after souviners and loud music. I bet they’re planning out the theme shops already.

I spend a lot of the ride back to town contemplating the observation effect.