Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Public Goods

One of the great ironies of travelling in "communist" China is the shameless commodification of anything that could be vaguely construed as a tourist attraction. I will confess that many of the museums and some other sites we have visited have been relative bargains when compared to what you would pay in the West - other sites though have been rather more dubious. The old town area of Kashgar, and an ancient Uighur village outside Turpan have all been slapped with "entrance fees". We quietly noted that the ticket booth for Uighur village (which we did not end up going in to) and all the surrounding souvenir stalls were manned by Han Chinese. Without being too cynical one can be pretty sure that the economic benefit of tourism to the local Uighur minorities is pretty minimal.

My favourite example of commodifaction that we have witnessed so far has to be the dunes of sand outside the small town of Dunhuang:

Sure there is a famous oasis between the dunes that Marco Polo allegedly once visited on his travels - but an 80 yuan (over AUS$13) fee is even steeper than the dunes. Needless to say we cycled alongside the fence until it had fallen down and climbed up with all the locals.

At least we are getting an idea of what some of the money is being used for though. It seems that pretty much everywhere we have visited - regardless of size - has undergone a massive facelift. I won't complain as I'm sure that most locals (at least the ones that haven't been forcibly evicted to make way for shops and apartments) and the massively increasing numbers of domestic tourists are enjoying the country wide building boom, and the associated commodities boom is keeping the Australian economy afloat. Unfortunately Anth and I have frequently been left thinking "I wonder what this place looked like a few years ago..." Its also meant that we've had to work a lot harder to find the unique character of each place we've visited behind the uniform facades of "progress".

Take Dunhuang for example - a town that was described in a guide book from two years ago as "a charming collection of a few dusty streets" now looks like this:

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