Destination Zhangjiajie: Of Chairman Mao and China’s army of domestic tourists

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

THE WIDE ROADS OF HUNAN’S CAPITAL. Changsha, a second-tier city, is the booming capital of Hunan Province in south-central China. With an area of 11,800 square kilometers (more than twice the size of Cebu Province), it has a population of seven million. Its gross domestic product is nearly a fourth of Hunan’s $400-billion-dollar economy. (Noel Villaflor)

FEW people travel in pursuit of a history lesson or a discourse on current events.

It’s often always about the novelty of experiencing something new, a momentary escape, a glimpse of the unfamiliar and elusive, Facebook photos and all.

It’s no surprise then that some travellers – myself included – tend to be dismissive of tour guides. Other than deeming them indispensable for their ability to lead you from point A to point B, the cheapest place for souvenirs included, we see them as mere props. The routines they follow, we always assume, have cosmetic, hackneyed qualities in them.


So when our Hunanese tour guide Long introduced herself and her sidekick Glory to our small group upon our arrival at the Changsha Huanghua International Airport from Hong Kong, I thought this was one of those regular guided tours that stuck to a well-worn script.

How wrong I was – toward the end of the five-day tour, the guides and our group composed of Honey Loop of the Freeman, Thea Riñen of Cebu Daily News, David Cua of Zee Lifestyle magazine, Lyndon Angan of Make My Trip Travel TV and Connie Cimafranca, marketing and communications supervisor of Cathay Pacific, had become wonderful acquaintances.

On the bus ride back to the airport where we had to part ways with our Chinese guides (Damon took over Long as head guide a couple of days earlier), we took turns singing — their repertoire consisted of folk songs close to the heart of every Hunanese, and us our videoke staples we knew so well. And for a few minutes somewhere in between, the bus reverberated with the national anthems of China and the Philippines.

When our voices got hoarse from singing, we talked, in more subdued tones, about things I thought none of us would ever dare ask: the Chinese government and its shaky relationship with its Philippine counterpart. Thanks to Lyndon, who instigated a two-way Q&A with Glory and Damon, we swapped impressions of each other’s peoples and cultures, tried to address misconceptions. For instance, Glory, the university student on an internship, said religion in China is not prohibited, but, like everything else, places of worship follow zoning policies. And while it has banned Facebook, China has its own Weibo and many social media platforms developed by the Chinese for the Chinese, 1.2 billion of them, mind you.


Though some of the topics appeared sensitive, Glory and Damon were candid and open enough to offer us a glimpse of how young Chinese people thought (i.e. they can think for themselves). The only thing lacking during that animated discussion was the semi-evil alcoholic drink called Moutai and fine Chinese red wine, the unlikely mix nearly knocking us out cold a few nights ago when the guides’ big boss treated us to the best Zhangjiajie’s sour and spicy cuisine had to offer: black-boned chicken soup, tubers, sour fish, mushrooms, blooded tofu, among others. In the end, we turned into envoys partaking in our mini version of international diplomacy.

All of these exchanges, however, began with the obligatory history lesson at the start of the trip, the five-hour bus ride from Hunan’s capital Changsha to the city of Zhangjiajie. Long, who could pass off as Glory’s sister (“we both have the same hairstyle”), skipped several centuries of Hunan’s 1,000-year written history and went straight to more recent events, like the 1938 fire that razed Changsha. “We don’t have ancient buildings because of the fire,” said Long, as she pointed outside, clusters of hi-rise buildings along the city’s wide, tree-lined thoroughfares.

She didn’t mention it, but I later learned that the ruling Kuomintang government ordered that Changsha be set on fire during the Japanese occupation in World War II so the invaders would have nothing left to loot.

It turns out that leader of the Kuomintang’s rival party, Chairman Mao, had his ideological awakening in Changsha, where he took up his studies in his twenties.

There, in the rivers and plains of Changsha, the young Mao Tse-tung planted the seeds of the Communist Party of China. Decades later, Chairman Mao would become a divisive figure, especially in the West, but among many Chinese, he is considered not just as the “Founding Father of Modern China,” but as a deity.

“In Hunan where he was born, Chairman Mao is revered as a god,” Long said. They offer prayers before Mao’s image – from reproductions of his iconic portrait to figurines that adorn car dashboards. Long cited her grandfather who would wash a statue of Chairman Mao in his village every morning, asking the great son of Hunan to grant him and his family a happy and prosperous life.

Perhaps Chairman Mao did answer all those prayers, because Hunan has prosperity written all over the place. Its capital Changsha is booming, with developments sprouting all over. Some of the projects are ambitious to the extreme, like the planned tallest skyscraper in the world, the 220-storey, 838-meter tall Sky City that has been put on-hold over environmental concerns, while others are more sensible, like the subway that’s being built round-the-clock. Even distant Zhangjiajie is going through a prosperous phase, mainly owing to its burgeoning eco-tourism industry boosted by its impressive infrastructure.

I wonder if this is the China that Mao had envisioned: Changsha’s busy streets and cosmopolitan air bustling with commerce of varying scales, Zhangjiajie abuzz with throngs of Chinese tourists replete with outdoor gear from head to toe: beanies, neon windbreakers over thermal undershirts, nylon pants, hiking shoes, with the matching branded backpacks to boot. All these bright-colored stuff would hardly count as what the Italian fabulist Italo Calvino calls as “traces of happiness still to be glimpsed.”


Yet Mao’s people did seem happy, well at least the ones who had the means to see Hunan’s prized destination, Zhangjiajie and its many wonders.

One of them was Alex, a university student from Beijing whom Lyndon had befriended along with her sister during the cable car ride from one of Tianmen Mountain’s peaks 1,200 meters above ground. The 7,400-meter cable car ride – said to be the longest one in the world – was an attraction in itself, although that time, thick fog covered the scenery, giving it an eerie feel.

It was Alex’s second visit to Zhangjiajie – the first time, she immediately fell in love with the place. Like their fellow tourists, they got to see “Heaven’s Gate,” a massive stone arch (to get there one needed to climb 999 steps), and walked down a narrow glass pathway suspended from a cliff face in one of the peaks. “It’s beautiful, it’s quiet, it’s breath-taking. I love it here,” Alex said. Her only regret was that she only had three days to spend in Zhangjiajie. They would be leaving for Beijing later that day, but she vows to return soon.

Alex and her sister belong to a growing army of Chinese travellers who patronize the country’s numerous attractions like Zhangjiajie. Their visits number in the mind-boggling billions and still growing – good news to those who belong to the tourism industry like our dear guides Long, Damon and Glory.

As for us outsiders who had the pleasure of their company from Changsha to Zhangjiajie and back, our image of China would forever be that of its otherworldly scenery, a bit of Chairman Mao and the prosperous land of his awakening, the bus shaking with song, and three tour guides whose faces bore traces of real happiness we all had the privilege to glimpse.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 07, 2014.


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