Monday, April 14, 2008
This past weekend my other foreign colleagues and I spent the weekend being entertained by officials from Mentougo district, in northwestern Beijing.
It didn't take long for me to realize we were the guests of these officials than our company shelling out for our "spring outing".
Our bus drove for an hour until we reached a landmark, a roundabout, where we waited for a fleet of two cars to meet us. To guide us to the restaurant in time for an early lunch, they flashed their hazard lights as if a VIP delegation were arriving.
Our entourage suddenly expanded to include several more people and at the restaurant dishes constantly streamed onto our three tables. What's pictured above is what was left over.
After we were completely stuffed, we boarded the bus again and were taken to two temples. Tour guides recited hundreds of pieces of trivial information, including the age of almost every cypress, magnolia and pine tree (between 700 and 800 years-old).
While the scenic view was amazing, peaceful, fresh air and colourful, there wasn't much explanation about Buddhism or the significance of the temples other than which emperors visited them.
Then we were taken to our hotel, which was more like a hostel. The beds were hard, there was no shower stall, but a shower right in the bathroom, and hot water only from 8pm to midnight, and then from 7am to 8am.
Dinner again was a giant feast, which included yet even more people we had never met before who broke out bottles of maotai, a gasoline-smelling clear liquor. Luckily we didn't sit with the officials, so our minders were subjected to drinking several rounds of the strong stuff. One woman soon went beet red and had to drink a glass of yogurt to settle her stomach.
The next morning after an endless array of breakfast dishes including fried eggs, soybean drink, doughnut sticks, bread, and fried rice, we boarded the bus again to two villages. The first one looked like it was literally in ruins. The guide proudly pointed here and there, noting which houses were those of people who passed the civil service examinations hundreds of years ago. But we couldn't go into those houses because they were locked.
We were told there were some 300 people living in the village, but we didn't see anyone around. Many of the gates to houses were locked, or run down. Someone asked and our guide explained everyone was in the fields. However, after we left that village, we couldn't see anyone working in the fields. The only people we saw were members of a family that were all retired and they didn't say anything about having to till the land. They seemed to live in spartan conditions, complete with a portrait of Mao in the living room.
We were treated to a farmer's lunch in a covered open space. While it was the perfect day for such a meal, the dishes were a bit dodgy, not all of them coming out of the kitchen piping hot, while the plastic bowls and cups were not exactly clean.
The second village, Cuandixia had more signs of life, but that's because it was crawling with tourists from Beijing than actual residents. We were showed an "inn", but it was really formerly a rich family's house. We were told these "inns" were rented out, but the one we saw was completely empty, the paper on the window shutters covered in holes. This village was used as the backdrop for the movie Blood Brothers, starring Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jet Li.
At the entrance of both of these villages were quite new modern washroom facilities for visitors rather than residents. The second one even had new signs guiding visitors. And after our trip, we were handed several heavy coffee table books, including one whose title was, "A Photo Album: Ancient Mountain Villages in Westwrn (sic) Beijing".
And for an even more memorable souvenir, the district officials from the publicity department gave us boxes of chicken eggs, as this area is apparently well known for its eggs. Each box was relatively well packed. Mine survived and were really fresh, as they still had dirt and even dried blood on them.
While these places were scenic, one has to wonder if tourism is the right way to stimulate the economy there. All the young people have left these villages to pursue a modern life in the cities, leaving behind the old to spend the rest of their days there.
Their homes have become a novelty for urban tourists to see what life is like in the country.
And with officials spending so much money on books, DVDs and entertaining "delegations", one has to wonder if the money could be better used in looking after its remaining residents than trying to create a flashy impression of rustic life.