Tourism in China, or ‘Bruges meets Disneyland in the midst of the industrial revolution’

I recently arrived back from a trip to Shanxi, a province approximately 500km west of Beijing famous both for its ancient historical sights and its status as the coal-mining capital of China (a factory in Shanxi was the last commercial producer of steam-engines, and only stopped production in the 1970s). I went to see a couple of the former, but the latter was everywhere in evidence.

First, we went to visit Pingyao, one of the few towns in the country to have preserved its medieval city walls totally intact. A charming, if hectic, place, Pingyao is definitely set up for the tourists, but the stalls set up to hawk to Chinese tourists are a little different to what you’d expect. For instance, a favourite memento seemed to be ‘ancient vinegar;’ I’m not exactly sure what you’d do with that, but I imagine that you’d be the toast of any party if you brought a little Pingyao vinegar along.

 We also attended a performance of ‘traditional folk culture’ which included, among other things, a man playing six trumpets at once while dangling a young woman from a rope he held in his mouth, and three ‘face-changers’ swapping their masks in dazzling succession while blowing fire across the stage.

After Pingyao, we took a seven-hour train ride up to Datong to visit the Yungang caves, a complex of monumental Buddhist carvings from as early as the sixth century AD. The sculptures themselves were breathtaking, but perhaps the biggest surprise was the new-built facility that surrounded them. The developer had literally built a lake out of nothing and then placed a large, ancient-looking temple on stilts on top of said lake. Visitors approached the lake via an avenue lined with massive stone columns, and buddhist music played out of small statues to the side of the path wherever you strayed. When I described the whole place to my girlfriend, who visited the caves a couple of years ago, she thought that I’d gone to the wrong place. All of this was built in the last year, and the strangest thing is that it is pretty much tastefully achieved, though the music is a little hypnotic.

Remember my initial claim that coal and culture are ubiquitous bedfellows in Shanxi? You can just make out the chimneys and other facilities of a large coal mine in the middle-distance behind this temple. The labour market in the nearest town, therefore, must be dominated by the mine and this huge, upmarket, tourist destination; a starker choice for young people entering the job market is difficult to imagine. Our Pingyao tour guide himself had started his career as a boiler maintenance engineer at a local industrial facility, and was now making a living conducting entertaining tours (including not a little singing) in both English and French. (He claimed, incidentally, that his swift linguistic acquisition was due to an early mastery of tongue-twisters.)

It is by now an old and tired adage to point to the juxtaposition in China of very different lives and stages of development but in some places, it still has to be seen to be believed.