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The Lijiang Tour

by Bill Aitchison   - Mar 21, 2015
 
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This is a necessarily incomplete account of the other tour I undertook in Lijiang for COART festival. This is partial because I was leading just one part of the tour and did not get to see the other parts of it as the public did. The tour of the village was organized by Chinese performance makers Xiao Ke and Zihan Zhou who delegated sections of it to different artists featured in the Now Theater Program of the festival while they took care of the overall system and providing two additional points on the tour, too. 
 
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Unlike some of the chaotic performance stories you hear coming out of Chinese festivals that Western artists tell with a kind of pride, this event was very well organized, well attended and began on time. It started with the public being invited to join a Wechat group set up for the tour. Wechat is the essential app in China right now and it is like Facebook and Skype rolled into one. There was a lighting designer I met at the festival who said he doesn't use name cards anymore, he only works through Wechat. He is far from alone I suspect. It was through this group chat that the instructions and suggestions for the tour were passed onto the public. The messages were both practical telling people where to go and also artistic suggesting things to think about or look at.
 
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These messages brought the public to different points around the city where they might encounter a performance such as this dance improvisation on a bridge.
 
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I know a little more about this performance as it was the one that led directly into my part of the work. A theme of the festival was the different ethnic minorities and a sense of this area being their home. Throughout the festival there were many music and dance performances as well as documentary film screenings about the various ethnicities in South West China. My personal favorite was the film Yak Dung (at first given the rough and ready translation 'Bullshit') that seemed to suggest this plentiful residue could be used for absolutely everything. The young man on the horse is from the Naxi minority that is local to Lijiang and he sang a Naxi song while riding one of the stout horses that drag tourists around the village in decorative carriages. We saw him a previous night singing karaoke in a bar and he is a proper entertainer telling nightclub jokes between numbers so I'm sure he did a good job here. The bar was notable for the drinking games already laid out on the table for guests, which of course we played, but I digress.
 
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I awaited my tour group alongside super-translator Zhu Miyi, both of us standing on the same plastic stools that I used for a performance the previous evening. I like recycling in general and artistic recycling in particular so these were an ideal portable stage lifting us above the heads, and inevitable phones, of the public. 
 
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The performance was essentially a miniature tour of all tours. I introduced the idea of it and then stopped in three locations to talk about different tours that might be had in Lijiang. It had to be necessarily short as I was part of this larger performance and was given in two languages: English and Mandarin. I gave some performances in Mandarin myself the previous days which, with proper preparation and working to a pre-written script I can just about do. Something more improvised like this is quite beyond me right now however, so it had to be translated, which of course slowed things down considerably. I was blessed with excellent translation and by keeping things to a modest length brought a new energy to the procession without hijacking it and keeping the crowd hostage.
 
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I began with an account of ascending Jade Dragon Snow Mountain a tour I had a taken a few days before. When giving a tour like this where I project other location's tours onto the site I always like to make sure I include at least one actual tour from the place. That gives me a better sense of the location and how the others stories I tell might fit in. It also gives me more material for future tours and I should admit it is a nice way to mix business with a bit of pleasure. As the mountain was out of sight from street level I very fortunately spotted a painter's studio by the side of the street and he had a large, not so subtle, painting of the mountain which he was willing to exhibit outside. This formed a suitable backdrop. 
 
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The other two tours I covered were Political Tours' China at the Crossroads Tour, one which I have not taken myself but have pieced together from internet research and a very curious one which I took in Fujian province back in 2011. This was a tour of a Hakka ethnic minority village which, upon arrival we discovered was on strike. The village was in a dispute with the Chinese tour bus operators who wanted to replace the local guides with their own. As a small group of Westerners we were not a part of this story so were quietly allowed in round the back and shown around by ourselves. It was a exceptional moment of peace and quiet in a normally bustling Chinese tourist site. 
 
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My mini tour completed I handed over to another musician who serenaded the group onwards encountering another performance before we rushed through the crowd to the village square where there was a musical finale and much swapping of Wechat contacts. It was a great opportunity to test out how I might approach a Chinese tourist destination and l found, like so many things in China, it quickly became political and I needed to exercise discretion in how to tell the stories and which features to highlight. A pattern I've started to notice in Chinese tourist resorts is that they are all a bit the same: the same selection of small shops and restaurants which finally crowd out everything else turning the place into a tourist consumption zone. Whilst this pattern has its obvious shortcomings it does mean I can insert myself into it relatively easily providing my ironic and critical descriptions of the tours on offer, which are also somewhat standardized yet also diverse in their formats. I saw , for example, horse tours, carriage tours, 4-wheel drive buggy tours, shopping tours, trekking tours and historical tours without even looking. The particularities of each of these tours, especially when they go a bit wrong, can be quite revealing and are anything but standardized. Lijiang proved every bit as rich in possibilities as a tour of a Western tourist location like Bath so I will definitely have to make a point of developing a tour for a location like this in the not too distant future.
 
 
 
 

About Writer

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Bill Aitchison is an artist and writer from Britain who has shown his work in galleries, theatres, festivals in Europe, Asia, America and The Middle East. He has a special interest in travel writing and in tours and he has created a number of highly acclaimed tours that arts events around the world. He holds a PhD from the University of London, has published in several countries, has worked in radio and is associate research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. 
 
 

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