Another traveler to Yunnan

In my story in the current issue about Xizhou, a small but historically prosperous and architecturally rich village in far southern China, I mention the cautionary example of the city of Lijiang. In the 1990s, Lijiang was also small and charming. Now, most foreign visitors instantly recognize it as a combination of Atlantic City, a discount mall, and a turnpike rest stop. The Chinese domestic tourism industry, which is developing very fast, is in the stage where it is processing huge numbers of necessarily low-end travelers. As sites become popular, many of them end up looking like Lijiang. That's the fate the friends of Xizhou are trying to avoid.


Kevin Kelly, "Senior Maverick" at Wired, has traveled widely in Asia, including to both Lijiang and Xizhou. That's his picture of "old" Lijiang, to the left. His account:

"Every regular visitor to China has their own story of headsnapping change. Mine has to do with Lijiang. I first visited Lijiang in the mid 90s on a month-long trip with my two daughters who were 8 and 10 at the time. Lijiang was our starting point for an excursion into the north beyond what is now called Shangrila (Zhongdian back then) into the Tibetan areas around Litang. I've spent a lot of time in the Himalaya and so was quite taken by Lijiang. It seemed to have everything a Shangrila was supposed to -- views, climate, music, and a strong unique, even isolated, culture. One could see how the fantasy began there. I wanted to return with my wife and son someday.

"Fast forward to about 3 years ago when we had a chance to return as a family. We flew in to save time. I was very excited so we set out the old town that evening. It was like a nightmare. I'd go down streets I was sure were cozy meandering residential alleys and they were now throbbing strips of discos. It was like that scene in Wonderful Life when James Bailey returns to "Potterville" his old town now a bunch of speakeasies and card joints. Only here there was blaring music and bus-loads, no maybe plane loads of drunk Chinese mobs staggering on the cobblestones. I was nauseous with grief, disorientation, fury, and sadness all rolled into one.

"I've been around too long, seen too many "spoiled" icons that I actually enjoyed, to complain that "they ruined" it, but the next morning when waves of thousands of tourists shuffled through the tiny streets, I felt in fact that they did ruin Lijiang. It's not a city like Venice, or Jerusalem, or closer to home Katmandu that can absorb the crowds, it was a very tiny working village that must now become a museum. I would not want to be the mayor of Lijiang (whom I did meet). It would be an impossible job. There is no way on earth to remain a cozy town and become one of the prime tourist destinations for a billion people.  Lijiang had to change.

"But still there are better ways to do the impossible, and worse ways. The transformation happened in only 15 years. Speed was part of the problem. You are right to hold up Lijiang as a cautionary tale for Xizhou. Learn from Lijiang."