The bus bumps along the windy mountain road. Our tour guide is talking, but in Chinese of course; apparently he’s funny though, because the people in the seats around me are laughing. I squeeze my husband’s hand and stare out the window, trying to ignore the smell of body odor emanating from members of a culture that has yet to discover deodorant.
We are en route to the LongJi rice terraces, about a three-hour bus ride from our hotel in Yangshuo. The tour guide explains in English that we will first visit the village of the native Yao people, who are famous for their women’s long hair (sometimes 2 meters long), and then take a local bus up the mountain to where we can hike around the terraces.
As we pull up and then alight from the bus, my eyes fall on a couple of small restaurants in the buildings before us. Then, piranha-like, they are upon us.
The local people have spotted fresh meat, and there is no hesitation. We push our way past women in brightly colored woven clothing, trying to make our way to the entrance of a nearby swinging bridge without finding ourselves the sudden owners of postcards, weavings, and sundry other items these women are anxiously proffering.
Having gained the relative peace of the bridge, we cross the river and find ourselves in the Yao village. We follow the crowd of tourists into one of the log structures, and our guide explains that we are in the actual home of a Yao family who has agreed to open their home for tours. It’s a neat cultural experience; I mean, you could honestly believe you’re in a traditional Yao home if it weren’t for the giant basket full of plastic bottles on the top floor, or the NBA posters visible through the half-open door of a bedroom.
As the rest of the group files into a new-made-to-look-old building for the local show (“only 55 yuan!”), my husband, Ryan, and I wander on through the village. The streets wind up and down as much as side-to-side, but it takes maybe two minutes before we emerge at the other end of the village. The path continues on, however, so we do the same, following it until a side path looks more interesting and we end up on some large boulders at the edge of the river. Here we stop, and look back toward the village and up at the mountains.
Someone has left a dead snake on one of the rocks, and its three-foot long corpse basks in the sun as though it could still reap some benefit. Ryan goes over and kicks it into the river, but it holds my thoughts, because it bears similarity to the village I have just seen. Like the snake, this village once had true vitality; now it has a semblance of life. Amidst the bustle of tourism there is a forlornness to this place which it seems only my husband and I can feel; perhaps because we alone took the time to stop and truly look. Beneath the tourist façade, does this place still have a beating heart?
But the heart of a place is its people, and that is the core of our dissatisfaction here. This is a people who were once proud and hardy, a people who literally carved a living out of these rocky, steep mountains for 700 years. Now a woman in traditional dress and with her long hair tightly wound around her head laughs loudly as she waves a 100 Yuan bill in the face of her neighbor. A child finishes his ice cream bar and drops the wrapper in the street, just as he sees all the adults do. A man in an old wooden shed runs a stand selling ice cream, water, cigarettes, and beer; the last of which fills most of the shed, and scattered bottles around the village testify to its popularity. A man and his wife thrash rice as their people have for hundreds of years, but next to them looms a satellite dish.
What has happened to this people? Is modernization the problem? Tourism? Our guide explained to us that the Yao can’t grow enough rice to support themselves anymore, so the government subsidizes them. Why can’t they grow enough rice? Is it because all their time is spent catering to tourists?
In America going to “Colonial Williamsburg” doesn’t bother me. But see, Williamsburg is just a re-enactment: people putting on a show, then at night going home to their regular houses and lives. They are showing what the culture was, but there is no mistaking the fact that it’s pretend; a museum of sorts. Here you can taste what the culture should be, but it’s warped and sour; a caricature that tries to convince you it’s the real thing.
These people are no less tenacious than their ancestors, but now it’s directed into selling post cards instead of sculpting mountains. Thanks to the wonder of tourism, a part of their heritage and culture will always be preserved—but is it worth the cost?