Don't Live in the Park!
Friends of Ethan's who came to Jiuzhaigou when it was first opened to the public in the late 1980s, were horrified by the way visitors threw trash and trampled around the lakesides. But the park management soon realised they couldn't allow that to continue. Jiuzhaigou is now a supremely well-organized "earthly paradise" that manages thousands of visitors a day during peak times, whilst carefully preserving the natural beauty they come to see. But we were forcefully struck by how much easier it is to preserve the beauty of nature than the authenticity of human culture.
100 km of wooden boardwalks have been laid alongside the park's rivers and lakes so that visitors can file past the most spectacular beauty spots and photograph them from the best vantage spots, and even hike peacefully through the quieter stretches. Trash and waste are removed from the park's boundaries and there is no development inside, no hotels or restaurants or concessions apart from one visitor resource centre. But no-one can fail to notice that the approach to the park gates is lined with hotels, gift shops, restaurants and other facilities to cater for the multitude of visitors, begging the question of how the environment outside the immediate confines of the park is affected. The visitors flock here to see one carefully-tended valley, but what impact does their presence have on the region overall? If it’s true, as we heard, that the people who take the park's trash away wash the empty bags in the river just downstream and return them to be re-used, that suggests the ethos of environmental protection does not extend beyond the gates.
We stopped by the side of the Five-Coloured Pond to talk to a woman who was selling carved yak teeth key-chains, and asked her how business was going. “It’s slow,” she said, “there aren’t many visitors at this time of year.” “It must be much better in the summer,” we said. “No, not really, because we’re not allowed to sell like this in the summer. We’re only getting away with it now because there aren’t many park rangers around.”
I’m not sure about the accuracy of this statement, because the trinket sellers were everywhere and the women standing at key points with Tibetan dress-up clothes for tourist photographs have nailed up signs advertising their rates. Also the park rangers seemed to know everything that was going on: at least they knew what we were up to when we skipped out on our tour bus and hiked from one station to another. (We didn’t realize until we got there that the trail system was closed for the winter and we would be obliged to ride a tour bus to designated viewing points only. We opted to walk anyway, either along the roadside or, once or twice, around the edge of the sign saying ‘do not enter’.)
The trinket seller was generally disgruntled. We suggested that she must make a good living just from being a park resident and she shrugged and said that each household does receive a share of park profits, but that has gone down significantly this year and anyway, they are not allowed to grow crops inside the park anymore, so how else can they live? Judging by the elaborately decorated new houses and large cars parked in each village, and the tumble-down older houses in the background, we thought some people must be doing better than others, and the trinket-seller concurred. When we asked if she couldn’t get a job working in the park, she said you have to have connections to get a job, and you have to look the part as well.
Just as in Jiaju village, it’s easy to imagine how the wealthiest and most powerful families would be best-positioned to profit from the opportunities tourism presents. The benefits could end up being very unfairly distributed, depending on who is supervising the process. At least this woman was not happy, but one would actually have to live in the park, or very near it, to approach a real understanding of how people’s lives have been affected. Instead we could only see what was on the surface, and one aspect of that was shocking. On our way out, we hopped on a bus that called in at the largest of the nine villages. The tour guide bus announced that we would all be able to visit a Tibetan household and see how the local people lived. Sure enough, the bus pulled up in front of a large, newly painted house with signs at the gate saying in Chinese ‘Come in to rest and smoke – for free!’ Resting and smoking were the only things that were free. We entered the courtyard and I thought there must be a mistake, we had stepped into a gift shop instead of a family home. But in fact the family had turned their home into a gift shop, complete with glass counters and racks of clothing for sale.
So many busloads of tourists thronged around that it was difficult to move, but we managed to squeeze through into the living quarters, where the father of the family turned out barley bread at 5 yuan each and one of the three daughters sold small bags of barley. The walls were hung with large photos of the family meeting with different government officials and Chinese pop stars. Each table had a small plastic menu of drinks, snacks and tea for 25 or 30 yuan each. It was also possible to tour the shrine room and to go upstairs where the family’s bedroom doors were left open for visitors to view inside. As we gazed around in astonishment, a fellow tourist asked me in English, “Do you like Chinese culture?” At a loss for where to begin answering that question, I just said yes. It’s true, I do, but I wasn’t sure what type of culture, if any, was on display. That evening we discussed what we had seen with Carrie, a graduate student from the US, and Brian, a British man who had come to write a guide to park’s flora. We went over all of the obvious issues: as soon a place with a distinctive culture comes into contact with an outsider, let alone groups of tourists, then it begins to change, and who should manage that? Should anyone try to? If culture is kept alive purely for tourists, is it still culture or something else? The village house was more like a hybrid of gift shop and display case. We didn’t reach any conclusions but we wondered grimly how much the future of Ganzi Prefecture will resemble that house.
We spent a pleasant day hiking through the forest, first up to a fire-prevention station called “lower pasture” and then back down to the river and along its banks until it was time to turn back. The air was clean and there were snow-capped mountains on either side. We hiked all day and didn’t see any signs of monkeys, apart from some poo and tracks in the snow that were possibly of monkey origin. We didn’t see a single person either, only some cows. It was truly