Nostalgia's not what it used to be ...
Eavesdropping in Yangshuo, China
"It's not really 'travelling'", said the forty-something year old on the next table. I pretended to be engrossed in my book as I eavesdropped.
"These young people, with their guidebooks, laptops, digital cameras, mp3s and mobile phones, staying in backpacker ghettos, eating in western restaurants and spending all their time in internet cafes writing their blogs, that's not 'real' travelling. They should have been here twenty years ago when I was first here. That was 'real' travelling."
One of my pet peeves, after six years of independent travel in Asia and the Far East, is the Superior Traveller. This was one of them. I listened to his patronising tone as he trotted out the now familiar mantras about having an "authentic" experience, only paying the "local" price, using the cheapest forms of transport, never using a guidebook and, best of all, going "off the beaten track" where you can really interact with the locals.
This last one made me laugh. I'd been in China for twenty months. On several occasions I'd planned trips which were definitely off the "western" beaten track, but always found that the ubiquitous Chinese tour groups had got there before me.
Then one of his listeners asked him if he spoke Chinese. He didn't. Interesting. I wondered how rewarding his interactions with locals could have been, when neither understood each other. Twenty years ago he would have been hard pressed to find Chinese who spoke English in the major centres of tourism, let alone in rural, less visited areas.
Having spent two months intensively studying the language, I then travelled for more than a year using and improving it. The Chinese are surprised and delighted if you're able to talk to them in their own language, but my competent, accurately pronounced vocabulary was just about good enough for interesting small talk, not for sophisticated dialogue. I wouldn't call it "really interacting" with the locals.
Twenty years ago would be 1987. I read a blog from a traveller detailing his attempts to go to Tibet that year. He hitchhiked, and only made it as far as Zhongdian. When I went to Tibet, I flew in from Chengdu. And there's now a train to Lhasa from practically anywhere in China.
When our superior friend was first there, China had a dual pricing system for tourist attractions, hotels and all forms of transportation. Except that there weren't any low cost airlines, and the road and rail infrastructure was nowhere near as comprehensive as it is today.
During my time in China, I visited almost every part except the coast east of Hong Kong and the areas north east of Beijing. If I'd been there twenty years ago, it would have taken me twice as long to cover half as much, it would have been a lot more expensive, and several of the places I visited would have been off limits to foreigners, not just Tibet...