Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ordinary Places...

(click to embiggen)

One of the consequences of a rising Chinese middle class is the huge expansion of domestic tourism. If you've traveled in China, you've probably seen one of these groups -- all wearing identical baseball caps, being herded from Point A to Point B by a guide, usually a young woman, with a pennant flag and a bullhorn. It reminds me a little of the old film, IF IT'S TUESDAY THIS MUST BE BELGIUM, though I barely remember it -- the way Americans used to travel forty years ago, in package tours.

I tend to do the opposite -- I travel a lot by myself. This marks me as somewhat eccentric, a woman traveling alone. There's a sort of enjoyable melancholy to solo travel, a kind of loneliness that's pleasant. It sounds like a contradiction, but I don't know how else to describe it. I move at my own pace, wander around, try to take the measure of the place I'm in. 

When I go to China, I usually visit at least one place I've never been. This last trip it was Tunxi, a small city in Anhui Province. Tunxi is best known as the jumping off point to visit Huangshan, "Yellow Mountain," probably the most famous scenic mountain in China. I had it in mind to go there, but the respiratory grunge I'd picked up combined with snow up on the peak made me think better of it. Instead, I mostly stayed in Tunxi. Tunxi rated a shrug from the tourist accounts I'd read, a small place, not a lot to see. It has a well-preserved Ming/Qing Dynasty section, "Old Street," and I'd gotten a room at a "boutique hotel" in a renovated building there.

If you've traveled in China, you know what it can be like in a shopping area aimed at tourists: countless exhortations to "Look! See!" and buy. Tunxi's Laojie wasn't like that. Tunxi's shopkeepers were happy to sell you something if you wanted to buy it, but they didn't try to rope you into it. Instead they played games with their kids. Joked and chatted with each other. Did their work. Well-tended pets, dogs and cats, lounged on the slab stone streets. 

Since I wasn't feeling 100% and I had some work to do, I spent a lot of time in coffee houses/bars doing that. I was a little surprised that Tunxi had a bunch of cute places like this, given that it was supposed to be kind of a boring provincial backwater. 

One of the coffee house owners was a guy originally from Beijing. He'd come down to Tunxi, he told me, because there was more genuine traditional culture left in Anhui. "You should go see Hongcun and Xidi," he told me. These are World Cultural Heritage sites that were used as locations in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. "You can really see some of old China there." The other thing about Tunxi? "It's more relaxing here."

(my pal Wan Wan, a happy Tunxi cat)

That's basically what I did -- relax. Take the time to see what Tunxi outside of the tourist center was like. 

Fantasy China looks like this: 

(Hongcun, and it really is that pretty)

Real China? More like this:

I spent some time wandering around where the locals shop. In the big cities, you'll find fancy malls, designer stores, all the brands you're used to. In a place like Tunxi, you're more likely to find something like this:

I did make it out to Hongcun, where I spent an enjoyable afternoon (and bought some killer Christmas presents, including a toy bamboo tank music box that plays a totally out of tune version of "Fur Elise" as its turret rotates. Oh, and it says "Victory" on the side, in English). It's a beautiful place. There are all kinds of famous places in China, spectacular sites, amazing monuments.

But I don't know when I've had a nicer time than I had in "ordinary" Tunxi, doing not very much of anything, just being there...

I'll leave you with these thoughts:

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Lisa -- Sunday....


  1. Lisa, what a wonderful post. Tunxi looks like the old China I saw all those yeas ago. Thanks for taking me there. BTW, we could use that sign in the New York Public Library where the tourists haven't yet taken to spitting on the marble floors but do all the rest of, pretty much!

  2. I love the way you bring the world to me, and your observations about the "ordinary", which seem in fact quite extraordinary to me!

  3. I forgot to mention, the food in Anhui is pretty amazing, too. It's an entire cuisine that isn't widely known outside of China (I'm not sure how much Anhui food you can get in China outside of Anhui, for that matter). I really do recommend it!

  4. Another fun piece, which I will retweet!