I have the flu, at altitude! Traveling and having the flu can be particularly nasty. Because you feel guilty. Guilty you are not out seeing the sights. You’ve traveled a long way to see ________, you spent a fair amount of money…and damn it, you need photos to prove to your friends, and anyone else who cares (social media) that you are doing it better than them in their daily grind! Well, it is not so black and white, but I think you understand what I am getting at!
Having the flu also means you no longer care so much for the allusions and fantasies that hide the ugly truth. So let me aim my shaky bow and arrow at tourism!
I’m currently in maybe the most touristic town in China, Lijiang. It has all the prerequisites of a tourist goldmine, a unique old town, lovely old buildings, cobbled pathways gently intersected by fresh water canals. And, as happens, numerous shops to buy unique local gifts, from unique flutes to unique jewellery, photo opportunities with exotically dressed locals in traditional costume, and of course, all the comforts of home, foods from around the world; clay oven pizza, expensive coffee. If you walk to the edge of the old town, you can see the viral nature of tourism, as new ‘traditional’ guest houses and restaurants replace residential areas.
My cure to my flu is to sit here and drink beer until I feel the need for sleep. Maybe not the best remedy, but I’ve used it before and my self medication has worked in the past. As I write this article, and the bottles line up, I have a dog sitting at my feet, looking up at me. I’ve been told the dog is 20 years old. I think it is the ugliest dog I have ever laid eyes on. Like the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, this dogs face is too small for it’s head. It has eyes like a mole and has a mouth that looks as though it has been kicked in by a bull!
But yet this dog sits here, patiently, looking up at me, with knowing dots for eyes. It could be sitting at the feet of any of the numerous backpackers in this hostel. But no, it has chosen me. And the more I drink, and the more I look at it’s unfortunate face, the more I begin to like this flea bitten mutt. I feel it understands me, I feel it is communicating with me, saving me from having to endure the loud mouth at the next table, who of course went where no one else has gone, hitchhiking with locals, blah, blah, heard it all before, that whole tourist/traveler elitism! So I ask this odd looking little dog a question, “Are all tourist towns and tourists the same, the world over?”
The dog looks up at me, and seems to ask me to join her on an astral tour of the town. We float the crowded cobbled streets, above the noise and the din. She shows me yawning shop keepers, they have seen it all before, the throng of tourists, the inane questions, asking for the same directions. We then watch the tourists, mainly all Chinese, walking in that slow methodical method, camera around neck, map in hand; glamourous couples, wearing ridiculous new outfits, scarves and panama hats, straight out of the pages of luxury travel mags and families, dragging sticky fingered child, hands filled with toys and food on sticks.
She told me to observe them as we floated above a historical bridge, they all appeared the same. I had seen this scene one hundred times before. Occasionaly they would stop to take a photo, and then there was the browsing for useless local gifts and of course all good journeys must end with food. The Chinese don’t do things small, as far tourism towns go, Lijiang has it all. Every tourists seems to know by instinct which intricate doorway and moss covered bridge provide the best holiday photo opportunities. And of course like every tourist town, somehow a Reggae Bar/Cafe finds it’s way into the mix, tarnishing the memory of the third world’s first superstar, blasting out Marley tunes one has heard too many times before!
We purveyed the shopping lanes, where action was scarce, we then hit the food court, a buzz of action, a myriad of movement and smells.
This damn saint-like dog then asks me, ‘Is it any different, from Noosa, or Queenstown, or any other tourist town in the world?
And I understood, this unfortunate looking dog, flapping it’s tiny angelic wings, it’s smashed up jaw drooling on the cobbled streets below, was my messenger! She was telling me what I already deep down knew, that travel writing, travel blogs and travel videos were the most God Damn boring form of media every invented!
I already knew there was more to travel than ‘seeing the sights’, that tourism the world over was the same, just with different food, different costumes and different knick knacks to show the folks back home. I denied this fact because I knew there was money to be made marketing this shit! But now I was not being paid by anyone, it is me who decides on what I film!
I asked the dog if we could return to the hostel, and suddenly, in a flash, we were back, me sitting at my computer writing this, my new friend, the ugliest dog in the world, looking up and me, as though to say, ‘Mark, it is not too late, you understand now that tourism media is mere marketing fantasy. Now you can turn your attention to weightier topics, nothing is lost!
*Photos of Lijiang are deliberately avoided in this post, you will find plenty online.
* Altitude sickness is best dealt with as soon as symptoms appear, alcohol is best avoided. Don’t buy local dogs on a whim