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China: what is left of the land of the poets?
19 April 2008 Hervé Bonnaveira

With its fantastic landscapes and idyllic countryside Southern China has inspired artists and poets, earning itself the the epitaph of "China of the poets." Between Yangshuo and Guilin thousands of sugar loaf mountains encircled by the meandres of the river Li are like the creations of a painter’s imagination. At the the "natural rocky bridge," one of the numerous scenic spots in southern China, a sign quotes a poet’s impression: "Such a scene can be seen but in celestial spheres, why has it been moved to here for human eyes ?" The sign doesn’t name the author, but surely he would turn in his grave if he knew how all of the region’s rivers, cliffs, arches and terraces serenaded and painted by China’s famous artists have been packaged and turned into tourist traps. Cycling allows you dodge the official ’scenic spots’ to find the same views in a more authentic context nearby.

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The China of the poets seen through the eye of modern China

In the China of poets, all the tourist guides and agencies propose pretty much the same programme: boat trip on the river Li, excursion to the rice terraces of Long Sheng, visit of a traditional Dong minority village. It’s a sure method of finding yourself in ther middle of a crowd of Chinese tourists, accosted by hordes of souvenir merchants and the like. While not completely cutting out touristic sites, we tried alternative ways of visiting them.

After leaving Yangshuo, we cycle along the Yulang river, across karst mountains to the "Dragon Bridge," then to the little village of Xinping which is fast being turned into another tourist hotspot - hotels and restaurants going up everywhere. We are met by calls of "hello, bamboo?" at every corner. This question translates as "are you interested in a trip along the Li river on a bamboo raft, or more precisely a copy of a bamboo raft made of metal and painted green?"
We were - we thought it would make a good change from pedalling; but it didn’t work - our bamboo raft man hadn’t paid his permit and we were turned back by some unpleasantly cynical officials. So we continued to follow the river by bike all the way to Guilin. As usual, the bicycle turns out to be the best deal - it gives you most independence. Following an unknown and unpaved road to Guilin was a much more authentic and gratifying experience.

A few days later at the foot of the famous Longsheng rice terraces spread over a height of 800m we pay our 50 yuan admission fee, knowing they will finish in the pocket of a local official. As soon as we cross the gate we find ourselves surrounded by merchants’ stalls on both sides. Cries of "Hello, picture!" and "Hello, long hair!" follow us along the path, as Dong minority women with very long hair in traditional dress urge us to get our picture taken with them, for a fee of course. To escape them, we follow signs pointing to the grandly named "Seven stars accompanying moon" - to the rice terraces visible on photos and billboards all around the park. Unfortunately, the fog prevents us from taking the photo for which everyone is here for. It is mid-day when the hordes of tourists on organised trips arrive from Giulin. The souvenir merchants are suddenly occupied, and the ’long hair’ women find their clients. Tired of all noise we quickly get on our bikes to find some calm. The next leg of our journey, leading through the province of Guizhou, will give us many opportunities to contemplate other rice and tea terraces, at least as beautiful, and in much more authentic surroundings. In unknown Dong villages, many of them not indicated on the map, we exchange sincere smiles with locals. No need to pay for the photos, the children spontaneusly crowd in front of the camera bursting with laughter.

New Chinese-style tourism is eating up the China of the Poets. The tendency to concentrate tourists in certain "scenic spots" so as to better manage them and to encourage them to take the right photos ends up corrupting the places themselves. From our experience, it’s the spaces in between the tourist spots that shelter the poetry still left to discover.

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