By Zhang Mei. This article was originally posted on Caixin.
Yongning, a small town outside of Lugu Lake in Yunnan, seems stuck in the 1990s. Trucks roll through the only street in town, Yongning Lane, throwing a thick layer of dust onto the women in colorful ethnic costumes walking their grandchildren to school.
Zhamei Temple, a Tibetan Monastery at the northern edge of the town, houses a beautiful collection of 500-year-old frescos, but there are no tourists, only pigeon calls and the fluttering of prayer flags. That is until A Lu picks us up and drives us to his family lodge, Dingya Tree House, 2 miles south of the town. There are only three people in the lodge, A Lu, his brother and his mother, but there is a warmth to this place that draws one in.
A Lu guides us through a beautifully designed lobby, a small courtyard, up a set of stone stairs, and over a two-foot-tall doorstep to enter “grandma’s house.” It’s like we stepped into a different time. The lights are low, the exposed wall made of wooden logs has turned black from decades of smoke. His mother, in traditional costume, sits between the fire and her bed. To the right of the fire pit is an L-shaped sitting area surrounding a square table filled with steamed ham, beef stew and stir-fried vegetables. It is a warm sanctuary on a chilly winter night.
“I am a Mosuo,” A Lu says. It’s an unobvious answer given his cowboy hat, leather jacket and boots. The Mosuo are the last matriarchal ethnic group left in China. The mountainous area where they live is four hours from Lijiang, a famous tourist destination. “We intentionally kept this room untouched. The fire ring is four hundred years old, passed down by my ancestors,” A Lu explains. “This lodge is on our family land. When my brother and I built the new tree house and two other wings of the hotel, we kept two buildings unchanged — this one which is grandma’s house, and the ancestral hall. Both are important parts of our heritage that keep our family together, and we want our guests to be able to experience them.”
Worried that my hotel room would be cold after dinner, I ask A Lu to preheat my room. “Already done, I control the heating on my phone!” He proudly leads me to my room, and shows me that the curtains are electronically controlled, and so is the knockoff Japanese bidet toilet, with a warm seat, too many buttons and jets of water. The next morning, A Lu sends me a video clip of his mother making offerings to winter gods in the back of the house. “Guests can appreciate these ancient traditions,” he tells me.
This experience at A Lu’s lodge surprised me in many ways. I walked through these mountain ranges twenty years ago, and there was no electricity, and it was impossible to convince the local villagers that their traditions were of beauty and value, that they should keep the traditional houses while building tastefully to cater to modern visitors. A return trip would often reveal a newly built concrete block, with security bars on the windows, and bathroom-style tiles on the outside. It was disheartening.
On this trip, having been locked out of China for two years, I find it so refreshing and promising to witness this change in attitude so deep in the country. I can speculate on many forces that are driving such changes, and I expect one of them to be the booming of domestic tourism. Chinese tourists are maturing at China speed, and city dwellers flock to remote areas hoping to find peace and quiet, a break from fast-paced urban life. The soul-nourishing effect of sitting by grandma’s fireplace is universal. The Chinese travelers are voting with their dollars. Places like A Lu’s can and do charge 10 times more than a room in a concrete block.
The pandemic accelerated the discovery of domestic treasures by Chinese travelers. “We went overseas before, and never thought there was anything worthwhile to see domestically.” Roger P, a wealthy lawyer in Beijing, told me, “Now with the pandemic, we have discovered beautiful parts of China.” Roger bikes around China with his wife and a few other couples regularly. The tour organizer packs and ships his 82,600 yuan ($13,000) Pinarello Dogma bike ahead of time, and reassembles it upon arrival. In addition to their biking kits, the best hotels and a professional photographer/videographer are standard issue for their travel. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have biked along Fujian coast, with a view of Taiwan right across the strait, Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, Southern Gansu, and Western Sichuan, all “Thanks to Covid.” he says.
Of course, TikTok and Little Red Book are driving these trends as well. Everyone used to be on WeChat, but that served only enclosed circles of friends like Facebook, most suitable for bragging to friends with a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. Both WeChat and trophy travel have fallen out of favor. WeChat is still the mega app that makes online payment convenient, but TikTok and Little Red Book, two popular video social media apps, have taken up the role of “zhongcao,” which literally translates as “seed planter,” inspiring travelers with images and videos of a life they dream of.
Before meeting A Lu, I was hiking with some friends in the mountains nearby. As I always did on such trips, I would show the villagers if I took any photos of them. Then it struck me they might also have a cellphone. So I offered to airdrop the photos instead.
“Do you have WeChat?” I asked.
“Yes,” the 76-year-old lady answered, while fishing for the phone in her beautiful blouse. She unlocked the screen slowly, and her finger was pointing toward the WeChat icon, when I saw another icon right next to it, TikTok!
Villagers have learned to make full use of TikTok to market mountain businesses. Villagers in Zhuangzi village tell me a success story of a young man marketing walnuts to his 300,000 fans on TikTok. A Lu also sends me images of his brother, dressed in a cowboy hat and a shirt unbuttoned low, carving a whole roasted lamb. These images send seeds spouting faster than rain in Spring.
Far flung places like Yongning are now accessible because of the expansive high speed rail network. This is old news, but I am still surprised by the extent and scale of this change. I took a train ride from Kunming to Lijiang, and before I had even settled down to crack my sunflower seeds, I saw a large body of water on the left side of the train. This was Erhai lake by Dali. It seemed unreal, as in the past, it was a full night’s drive from Kunming to Dali, and then another day on the winding roads to Lijiang. Now the whole trip takes 3 hours. What is even more surprising is the rail connection from Kunming to Luang Prabang in just 4 hours. Twenty years ago, I worked for Yunnan Railroad, and we drove for three days in Laos, probing the possibility of building a railroad. The chances looked very dim. That was the early 1990s.
This means many of the regional bus companies are out of business. New businesses that offer last mile services are becoming popular. One of the services uses 7-seater vans to shuttle passengers between home and train station. New business models are sprouting at the same speed that the rail network expands.
What does this mean for non-Chinese speaking travelers? I personally think these changes usher in a golden era of exploration for travelers to go deep into the country, but it also makes it more challenging for international travelers. The industry is improving dramatically to serve domestic clients, making domestic travel more and more convenient for Chinese people, but little is being done to cater to the international travelers. It’s a classic case of supply and demand, foreign travelers to China stayed almost flat at around 35 million visitors a year pre-Covid, while Chinese people took 818 million trips domestically in 2021.
The travel experience to China will become more and more like the experience in Japan, great services and experiences for domestic clients, but if you don’t speak the language, things may be out of reach. I guess that makes a case for businesses like WildChina to exist.
When will international travel to China return? Your guess is as good as mine.
Zhang Mei is the founder of WildChina, an award-winning travel company, and author of “Travels Through Dali With a Leg of Ham.”