On the Yak trail in Southwest China…
“I’m not from here
but people tell me
it’s not like it used to be
they say I should have been here
back about ten years
before it got ruined by folks like me” - James McMurtry
I travel to Yunnan at least twice each year, and yes, there are worse ways to earn a living than spending three weeks a semester hiking in the mountains, wandering around various “Old Towns” (however new), and hanging out in Tibetan villages swapping yak jokes with the locals. This past April I spent another three weeks on the “Yak Trail” going from city to city, impressed as ever by the enormous changes going on in Yunnan.
I first went to Yunnan in 2003. True old timers tell me that the place was already ruined by then, that Lijiang was well on its way to becoming a kitschy tourist trap, package tours were inundating scenic vistas with screeching megaphones and hat-matched lemmings, Dali was passé, Zhongdian was Sinified, and that Kunming was becoming just another third-tier provincial city, devoid of charm or history, transformed into block after block of white façades and KFCs.
Well, now that I am something of a China old timer, it pains me to say that it was all true then and even more true now. Obviously the Dali/Lijiang/Zhongdian Triangle has been done to death. In Zhongdian it’s easier to find a decent quesadilla than actual yak meat. (Most of the yaks in the area have been replaced by larger, better tasting cattle-yak hybrids.) Not that I miss eating yak. I like my cultural experiences as much as the next guy, but I’ve always found eating yak meat to be somewhat akin to chewing on a catcher’s mitt, with the mitt featuring a more appealing flavor profile.
Lijiang has been completely overwhelmed. What little Naxi culture was there before has been swamped by cookie cutter souvenir shops and discos promising ‘cultural shows’ featuring either “Reverb Guy Warbling with Guitar” or “Sexy Minority-ish Girls Dancing Chastely.” It seems the city leaders and the tourism development board have a vision, and that vision is to transform this World Heritage site into Yunnan’s answer to Branson, MO.
As the purpose of my trip was to co-lead a group of students taking an Environmental Studies course, it’s probably worth noting that while all of this tourism in Yunnan has been a boon for the local economy, having millions of tourist tramping through the same gorges and lake shores can’t be good for the environment. Yunnan has the greatest biodiversity of any province in China, and with terrain ranging from high mountain peaks and alpine lakes to rich tropical lowlands, the province boasts an astonishing range of ecosystems and biozones. Of course, like much of China, all of these habitats are under excruciating pressure from modern development as well as from those who are trying to preserve older cultural practices and traditional modes of production.
Northern Yunnan is also in the midst of a serious drought. The “Black Dragon Pool,” one of Lijiang’s more famous landmarks, was completely dry and other lakes and rivers I had visited in past springs were at historic low water marks. This is now year three of drought conditions and people are really starting to worry. Village wells and springs which for generations had provided sufficient water for crops and homes are running dry.
During our two-week trip, we have met with representatives from the Nature Conservancy, the Yunnan Environmental Protection Agency, and the Yunnan Forestry Department. All groups recognize the problem, and each proposed similar stop-gap measures (encouraging ‘greener’ technology, educating the people about the importance of conservation) but few seemed to have concrete answers to the fundamental problems facing the province. What does a modern Yunnan look like? Is there a place in that modern Yunnan for all ethnic groups to take part in that modernity to the extent they wish while continuing those cultural practices they (not the tourist companies) feel are important? Can all of this be done and still preserve Yunnan’s rich ecological legacy?
For those of us who live in China’s cities, the pressures of modernization are all too familiar. Kunming certainly hasn’t caught up with Beijing in terms of automobile usage and post-consumption pollution, but by Jeepus it’s trying. Right now Kunming is still in the “Holy Shit! Mopeds are Cool! You can Drive them Anywhere!” stage of development. Frankly, I’m not sure which is worse: Beijing’s soul crushing traffic or Kunming residents riding their mopeds over and on every available surface and space.
The problems of rural Yunnan are more complicated and less about consumption than about the difficulties of balancing development and conservation, although there are some success stories.
In central Yunnan, a national park has been established with the help of the Nature Conservancy to protect the endangered Yunnan Golden Monkey. Bearing a not-so-slight resemblance to Steven Tyler, these alpine primates have been under extreme pressure since the 1950s and 1960s when villagers, facing starvation as a result of government ‘rural reform’ policies, slaughtered the monkeys in the thousands for food. Now down to fewer than 500 individuals, most of the remaining population lives within the borders of Laojun Mountain National Park. The key to the park’s success was the decision to utilize local knowledge and retrain local hunters, most of whom are Lisu, to work as park rangers. Unlike the lowland Naxi, the Lisu have long been more accustomed to hunting the hills central Yunnan than being settled in villages. While the Lisu are no longer allowed to (legally) hunt, the National Park gives the them a chance to put those skills to use in conservation.
The problem, as always, comes down to money. Where does it come from and, more importantly, who gets it?
Almost all of the national parks, ecological preserves, and scenic areas are controlled financially by tourism development companies. These companies bid for the right to develop the areas, construct the necessary infrastructure, and then flood the zone with enough lodging, restaurant, entertainment options to make back their investment. A carefully constructed mountain path is fine, but a chairlift brings in the tour buses and tour buses bring in the RMB.
Several spectacular national parks and ecological preserves have been constructed in the last few years. They look great and so far seem to also have a good relationship with local communities. But look closer and you notice a lot of half-finished lodges, exhibition halls devoid of much to exhibit, and ticket booths collecting anywhere from 80-200 RMB per entrance with that money going directly to the tourist development companies not the local community. When I asked about this, I was told that the development companies took the risk and made the investment and so need to get their money back first, plus there are supposed to be trickle-down benefits to local residents in terms of jobs and ancillary income. But as presently planned, most of these sites are not going to make the kind of money necessary to repay the costs of development. As that happens, the companies priorities are likely to change, becoming a) even less interested in sharing revenue with other stakeholders and/or b) “Hey, I’ve got an idea…fuck the monkeys, what this mountain needs is more hotels and a goddamn chairlift!”
Naturally, local residents have their own ideas about revenue sharing and some are less patient than others. At world-famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, we were told that our minivan wouldn’t be allowed to travel through the gorge. We would need to use local minivans…at whatever rate the drivers saw as appropriate. This was all in addition to the official ticket fee. The officers manning the ticket checkpoint seemed embarrassed by this brazen attempt to shake down tourists, but not embarrassed enough to do anything about it. I’m guessing too that they must get a cut.
Now, I’m sympathetic to the plight of local residents because over and over again the story in Yunnan seems to be the same: the money goes elsewhere, locals get screwed. I remember too a few years ago when the Tibetan villagers around Napa Hai (near Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan) decided to supplement their income from illegal logging with a series of crude toll booths to waylay passers-by. It’s easy to be frustrated by this poorly disguised brigandry…except that it’s an obvious example of the problems of conservation and environmental protection in Yunnan.
Until the benefits of modernity and development are equally distributed, and the responsibilities for conservation and protection shared among all stakeholders, then the rich and fragile ecosystems of Yunnan – and all of China – will remain under grave threat.