Exploring Lijiang and Suhe Ancient Cities: A Comparative Analysis on Popular Tourism Locations–with Lugu Lake Area as Example

I decided to spend two days and one night in Lijiang this time around before returning back home to Kunming. I have a good friend that works in a guest house in the ancient city, so I used his hotel as a home base. I arrived in Lijiang at around 5pm after the 4-5 hour bus ride from Lugu Lake. I explored the ancient city by first dropping off something at a friend’s restaurant and then looking for my friend’s guest house. Lijiang Ancient City could be called the exact opposite…a decade before an earthquake destroyed much of the city, which was then rebuilt into a cosmopolitan outdoor mall encased in traditional Chinese architecture.
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Revamped Ancient City
What Lijiang was before, which I never witnessed, is no longer. It is now a place filled with hostels, guesthouses, hotels, shops, street vendors, and crowds upon crowds of tourists. Lijiang was established as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, which I find somewhat ironic. It seems like enacting that did the exact opposite of its intentions–preserve. Even the people who live in Lijiang and work in the ancient city agree. The culture has been “broken,” and not maintained well.
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Main Gate into Ancient City–UNESCO World Heritage Site
Then the next question is: How do you preserve a culture in the first place? That’s where my research comes in. I think the simplest answer is to not develop tourism and invite tourists to the area. Isolation is preservation’s best solution. But, in this time of age, that is not entirely acceptable. Tourism also builds an area’s standard of living, improves the education system, and opens new opportunities for the local population. These benefits are often desired by the local population.
While talking to my Mosuo friend in Lige, Lugu Lake, he said: “when tourism comes in, it destroys the culture. That’s what Chinese tourism is…it takes something beautiful and exploits it, destroys it.” Though what he said is extreme, there is truth in it. I think Lijiang is a perfect example–It’s arguable to say that Lugu Lake is on its way to becoming the next example, especially after the completion of the airport.
Lijiang is a commercialized tourism spot. It’s primary purpose is for the visitors to buy, buy, buy. They also have the opportunity to “study” Naxi traditional culture, but the tour guides bring them to newly renovated or fake Naxi cultural relics in the ancient town. To see Naxi culture nowadays, one must leave Lijiang. The ancient city is for the commercial tourist. One that prefers comfort. The same can be said for Suhe, which is about a 20-30 minutes car ride away from Lijiang Ancient City.
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Suhe Ancient City
Though Lugu Lake is becoming more and more commercialized each year with shops, hotels, and restaurants, the distance and rough transportation has slowed rapid tourism development. The signs of commercial tourism is evident in Lugu Lake though. Money is becoming more important than it ever was before–making a lot of money is now a part of many locals’ life goals. I witnessed this when I wanted to use a bathroom in a museum, but the people said, quite rudely, that I needed to pay the door fee–28 yuan–first. This happens all around the lake now, and the locals are aware of it too.
Why does this happen in the first place? I think it breathes from the Chinese tourism system. The Chinese tourism development patterns primarily emphasize on commercialization and profit, instead of considering cultural preservation to fit into the process. Therefore this profit-driving force becomes the center in tourism development, which then inflicts the mindset of the local population. In addition to this, locals often don’t have a say in tourism matters, instead the local government is given the most authority. This becomes an issue because the minorities are usually underrepresented in their own local governments, most positions are hosted by the Han majority. Thus, making money becomes contentious between local businesses and outside investors. An example of this happened just recently in Lugu Lake where a Han outside investor and his wife were hospitalized due to locals getting angry over being cheated by signing a 17-year long contract. The Mosuo are new to business and are not familiar with the harsh realities that it brings. Violence is not the answer though.
Going to Lijiang and seeing a place that lives off making money makes me wonder when Lugu Lake will turn into something like this…5 years?
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Suhe Commercialized Ancient City
Also, coming back from remote LJZ to Lijiang gives me the feeling that I’m in two completely different countries. No electricity, no phone signal, no restaurants, no Internet, no shops, just kind people, their farms and animals, and their homes. I find LJZ more worthwhile than Lijiang. I meet with locals, live in their homes, eat with them, and participate in their everyday lives. But somehow, Lijiang is a popular tourist spot. I think this lights on the difference between Chinese and Western tourists. This form of tourism has been widely accepted by the Chinese population because its the only form of tourism they have encountered…they view these cosmopolitan tourism spots as the best form of travel. Tourism in China is still a fairly new phenomenon beginning in the mid-1980’s. There hasn’t been much time for the majority of Chinese tourists to experience different forms of tourism (ecotourism, volunteer tourism, backpacking, etc.) (I’m of course generalizing, not all Chinese tourists are like this, but it’s a common trend among domestic travelers.)
Are there places like this in the U.S? Las Vegas? Branson, MI? Would you say the majority of American tourist are the same way?
A friend I made on my last trip told me that “I’m doing tourism right.” He meant that I went off the beaten track to experience the culture. “Us Chinese do it wrong,” he said. Is there really a right way to do tourism?
Lugu Lake and Lijiang tourism are still considerably different from each other at the moment. Lijiang is more inviting to tourists from all economic classes, while Lugu Lake is more inviting to the hikers, backpackers, and adventurous upper-class. Unfortunately, Lugu Lake will be just another cosmopolitan tourist spot in the coming years. Many say that it has already reached that point, but I disagree. The locals are still present in the area and tourism is still developing; however more and more outside investors are coming in each year. What I find unique among the outside investors in Lugu Lake, at least from what I observed, is that most of the non-Mosuo become part of the Mosuo community when they move there. This comes from building close relationships with the local people. Of course, there are outsiders who keep to themselves or differentiate themselves from the locals, but the community is small, and overall, close-knit.
Tourism destroys the authenticity of a culture, at least that it what most people argue. From the cases of Lijiang, Suhe, and Lugu Lake, it does seem like it does, at least in the case that authenticity means the opposite of cultural commercialization. Are there examples of tourism being beneficial towards cultural preservation? I’ve only read a few examples…I hope to find good cases during my Fulbright grant.
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Lunch in Suhe Ancient City — Hawaiian Pizza and Banana Milkshake
(Though it’s too bad the culture has become commoditized, it’s sure nice to eat some tasty western food in middle of nowhere China! Thank you globalization.)
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One thought on “Exploring Lijiang and Suhe Ancient Cities: A Comparative Analysis on Popular Tourism Locations–with Lugu Lake Area as Example

  1. I had a flashback of our Branson band trip. Oh, what fun. Remember that documentary about the Ozarks? All I can remember is the moonshine part… >.>
    Keep up the good work twin sista!

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