Sunday, December 4, 2011

7. Baifeng Lake

In the morning Sam says that we’ll be finished with the items on the tour by noon, and proposes, for a modest extra fee, to take me to some additional, really spectacular sights.

Um, excuse me? The tour is supposed to be two full days. What do you mean there’s only a half day today? We’re supposed to see a lake, and a forest. All day.

Well, with Louis having to leave early, he kind of rushed the program yesterday, and we’ve already done the forest. That was the bit at the end yesterday. We’ll go to the lake this morning, but it’s a boat tour with a set itinerary and there’s not much else to do there.

Why don’t we just go back to the forest? The sign said the one trail was 5.6 km - I only saw a tiny bit!

Yes, but there’s a ticket to get in, and we’ve already done that. There’s a great place for you to see that’s not on this tour. It doesn’t cost much - I just need to pay the driver and the entrance fee. It isn’t much.

And it’s not really so much in western terms. Sam is such a nice guy and he’s so charming and informative that fine, I’ll pay the supplement. But I know I’m getting ripped off, and that puts an unpleasant aftertaste to everything.

Sigh. On to the lake.

Walking up to the lake, which is in another park with an entrance fee and paved paths, we pass by a cage of monkeys. There are signs saying beware of monkeys, but they don’t come out much in the cold season, so there’s a cage full of them to make sure you get your regulation monkey sighting. It’s everything I hate about zoos, too. Three macaques are housed in a concrete box with a wire front and roof, with one tree trunk for decoration. There’s not enough space. There’s nothing for them to do. Just bare prison walls.

A little farther up is a different kind of zoo, a tiny Buddhist monastery has its temple just a hundred meters up the concrete path. It’s beautifully peaceful, but I’d hate to be here in the high season with the chattering crowd poking into everything. The dormitory is much farther up the steep gorge, in the no-go zone.

Now for the lake itself. This lake, and the spectacular waterfall visible from where we entered the park, used to be just a pond and a dribble. Now that tourism is so popular, though, they diverted more flow into the lake so it stays fuller, and engineered a larger hole for the outlet so the waterfall is bigger. It’s all for the cameras. There is no other use for this lake - no fishing, no drinking (upstream), nobody lives along the shore.

The tour of the lake is like all the other places we’ve been. You start at the one boat dock/souvenir shop, take one of the boats for the set tour up and down the lake, and end at the other dock/souvenir shop for the walk down the other stairway to the park entrance. I am the only anglophone tourist present, so we get on a boat half full of Koreans. Sam doesn’t have much to translate of the tour babble, even though the boat’s guide rarely shuts up for more than a few seconds. Apparently she’s telling us how this peak looks like a rabbit, and that one like a monk. Apparently this is very common all over China.

At two picturesque spots, there are small barges moored, and these are all part of the show. The first houses a woman in traditional garb who comes out and sings for the passing tour boats. Everybody applauds and takes pictures of her. The second one has a man who sings. Our boat does not pass close enough to toss money to them; they’re paid as part of the ticket price.

Once we get down the long, long stairway back to the level of the park entrance, the path cleverly goes through a long gallery of souvenir shops - no shortcuts! - before bringing us in front of the waterfall. There’s a path alongside the lower part of the falls that leads up to a pagoda next to the bottom of the main falls. I have to see everything, so I go up.


If you just stay at the bottom you can stay in the fiction of the natural scene. Well, even there you have to try and ignore the cut stones and all the cables for the lights and suchlike. But you can do it. Go up the path, and all the artifice of the scene is laid bare. It’s like Disneyland.

That’s all for the lake. Time to pick up the luggage and head for the city about 40 minutes away, where we have lunch. From here we take the longest cable car in the world (8 km) up to a different bit of the Zhangjiajie mountain area, for a short walk around and then a look at a natural keyhole formation between two peaks. Sam is immensely proud of this keyhole. Just last year a formation of jets flew through it. And then some American in a wingsuit flew through it. And a famous Chinese singer went up to the site and discovered religion. She’s now China’s most famous Buddhist. Now they are building an incredible elevator that will whisk tourists up there in just minutes, avoiding the 990 steps now necessary.

Sounds great.


Argent said...

I went to China in 2004. I found the same kinds of things you described: beautifully engineered fake sights. There were, to be fair, plenty of real ones as well, but the whole for-the-tourists thing is a bit depressing.

Titus said...

The whole, real, thing is becoming a giant metaphor for what we're doing to so much of the world. I somehow didn't expect it from China, but that was an obvious lack of thought. Sad post, and the glorious pictures somehow make it sadder.