15 May 2005
|No mark on the map for this one - it's just a day trip 120km Northeast of Urumqi. The only way to get there is by Chinese tour bus. I'd been to another, less interesting place with a tour agency two days before and - aside from the compulsory acapella karaoke on the way back - it had been quite enjoyable. They all looked after me, applauded me apparently just for being from England, remembered my name, took my picture with a Kazakh dancer, made sure I had enough to eat, and understood when I didn't want to participate in the obligatory dried fruit and mineral shop stops. Oh, the difference between educated and uneducated Chinese.
Having said that, the karaoke was traumatic. What songs can I remember the words to? Geno? God Save the Queen? Anarchy in the UK? I ended up taking a leaf out of the Blairs' book and singing the Beatles, on the off chance that they might recognise it, but I chose "Yesterday" rather than "When I'm 64". I have no idea if they recognised it or not.
At least the karaoke meant that the driver had to take off his only cassette, which had been on permanent rotation. There are two songs you hear everywhere in China. One is "Wo ai ni" (I love you) by various Chinese singers; the other is "Take me to your heart" by (and I'm pleased to say that I had to look this up on the internet) Michael Learns to Rock, a Danish band much of whose output is in flagrant breach of the Geneva Convention. It's difficult to say which is the most annoying.
Anyway, back to this day trip. I decided to use the same agency but the experience was quite different. Tianchi means Heavenly Lake and it's the scenic highlight of the Urumqi area. All I can say about the tour is that it was cheap and the guides were very attentive. The main problem was that we spent more time driving around Urumqi picking people up (and then dropping back off those that we had picked up accidentally) than we did at the lake. And that just wasn't enough time. Some travellers spend a night or two up at the lake: a good idea, although it would be cold at night, and transport back would mean finding a tour bus with an empty seat and bargaining for it.
The lake was very pretty, although no more so than alpine areas of Switzerland or Slovenia, say. There are snow-capped mountains at the far end, and trails through pine forests along the side. Of course, I wasn't given time to venture very far, which was a shame because the area around the bus park was rather spoiled by a concrete dam (no river in China is permitted to do its own thing), speedboat jetties, tour parties and a rusting half-sunken dragon boat. Even though this was a Sunday, there weren't that many tourists. Internal tourism is still in its infancy in China, especially away from the richer coastal areas. When it takes off, there simply isn't going to be room for everyone at places like Tianchi. Go now, or go at least ten years ago if you're owed any favours by Doctor Who.
They are quite soon going to have to educate people that litter doesn't tidy itself away, or employ a lot of people so that it does, if places like this and the grasslands I had visited earlier in the week (soon to be an "international" ski resort) are not going to become little more than scenic rubbish tips.
I was passing some local tourists on the walkway by the lake and one woman threw an empty soft drink can onto the ground beside the path. I suppose she could have thrown it into the lake, and that not doing so was her concession to local ecology, but the fact that she (a wealthy and, therefore, educated Chinese person) did this publicly and apparently without any embarrassment, was worrying. You see this all the time in China: rubbish is routinely thrown out of car, bus or train windows. It then becomes someone else's (or nobody's) concern. To be fair, there are a lot of street sweepers in China, employed mostly to move all the dust around, but there was no one at Tianchi or the grasslands to pick up litter and it's only going to accumulate.
I wish I could speak enough Chinese to learn more about the Chinese attitude to nature. It's an intriguing aspect of the culture. It's easy to believe that they have no interest in it so long as they can have their picture taken in front of it. Also, they've been brought up to think of the developing cities as the best things about their country, and of the rural areas as backward. The Chinese mainland culture certainly has no visible interest in country walks, let alone trekking: indeed no one in China walks anywhere if there is a bus, moped or even bicycle that could carry them. If you walk somewhere, it suggests that you can't afford the alternatives. So here there are golf buggies or a cable car to ferry you the short distance up to the lake and speedboats to take you across it.
(My theory about the Chinese and nature gains momentum on the (later) flight to Urumqi when hardly anyone watches our crossing of the massive, Tian Shan mountains and their beautiful valleys, but everyone gazes on the factories on the outskirts of Urumqi as we come in to land. The same effect can be seen on train journeys. The locals can sit for hour upon hour with the curtains closed as dramatic scenery passes them by.)
As for animal conservation, you're having a laugh. They eat almost everything here, of course, and what they don't eat they grind down into medicinal powder. (I exaggerate, slightly). The animal skin trade is profitable and you can very easily buy a snow leopard pelt if you really think it would make your home look nicer or you want to show off how much money you have. So when we stop at one of the (usually tedious) extra stops on the Tianchi tour and it's called something along the lines of the "United Nations Preservation Ecosphere Centre", I'm straight in there. I couldn't quite believe what I saw, though.
The first part of the exhibition hall consists of stuffed animals and birds that were indigenous to the region when they were still alive. There is (among other things) a deer, a wolf, a bear, an eagle, a mountain goat, a marmot, and (get this!) a snow leopard. They've actually gone and shot a snow leopard - one of the world's most endangered species - to teach the conservation of nature. I expect they're still out there hunting down pandas.
And I don't know what the poor badger did to offend them, but there are two of those. Why do you need to shoot and stuff TWO badgers to show people what a dead badger looks like? (Rather more snub-nosed than the European variety but with the same markings, badger fans.)
But the hypocrisy doesn't end there. There's much more to come, with a large dose of breathtaking cynicism added. The next stage of the visit is to a small room where we are lectured briefly (in Chinese, but I got the gist of it from the items being held up and the hand gestures) of the benefits of deer products for your health. There is a distinctly unhealthy looking deer kept in close captivity just outside the window. Then you go to the final part of the building, taking up a third of the floor space, and it's a big hall full of people in white coats selling deer products and general deer snack items. I can only assume that the UN is unaware of what is being done in its name in the interests of conservation and ecology.
There's a lot I like about China (not that you'd know it from reading this website!) and much more that I find fascinating. But there is a lot that is detestable. The trouble, as I've mentioned before, is how to tell a billion people that they're wrong. If anyone can do it, the (almost)-all-controlling Chinese government can.