“Don’t go there, it’s not authentic.”
If you’ve traveled for any length of time, you’ll have heard this phrase — in guidebooks or from the mouths of fellow travelers. It makes sense. Most people go overseas to experience another culture, to see how local people live their lives.
But at what point do expectations of authenticity clash with the reality of living in the modern world? Nowhere was this contradiction more obvious than in China, a country steeped in mystery and Western fantasies of the Orient, but which in reality was often very ordinary.
My visit to Jianshui, an obscure town in southern Yunnan, was symbolic of this. Selita and I arrived by bus from Puzhehei and then took an electric tuk-tuk from the bus station to the hostel. The battery died after two minutes, so the driver rang her son who was driving nearby in a new SUV. He took us the rest of the way while a movie played from the LCD screen on the dashboard.
I was hungry so we went to find some food, looking around the modern part of Jianshui we were staying in. A nearby restaurant offered dog hotpot, a photo of a golden retriever on the sign outside. We continued on to a night market where other food was being sold.
Fermented tofu, bowls of noodles, duck feet, coconut juice. A number of Chinese Muslim dishes were offered from women wearing hijabs. Most of the vendors didn’t accept cash, so Selita paid using her phone.
The next morning we visited Jianshui’s old town. It was flanked on all sides by huge gates, imposing Ming edifices that guarded the entrances. The tunnel that ran beneath was filled with elderly men and women who had gathered to play cards.
We walked by them and into the old town itself. The central road was wide and paved with stone, old buildings lined it and were painted in gorgeous detail. But their condition seemed almost too good. “These were probably all built or renovated just a few years ago, I doubt they are original,” Selita said to me.
To make matters worse, every single building seemed to be a garish shop selling tourist items. Herbal tea, rose cakes, beef jerky, “traditional” paintings, durian icecream. Large tour groups were being led around by guides with loud speakers, herding people inside shops for a kickback.
So while the old town looked lovely, there was no feeling that normal people were living out their lives here. It was more like Disneyland. Traditional arts and crafts were not flourishing in this old town.
But did this make it unpleasant? No. I still enjoyed looking around the Zhu Family Garden, a 20,000 square metre complex of immaculate Qing architecture. There were countless courtyards, gardens and ancestral buildings, created by a family that eventually lost everything in the political revolutions of the 20th century.
After this we sat beside the road and ate the fried tofu that was local to this area, paying per-piece and dipping it in chilli. I was even surprised to find a Confucian temple playing Tibetan music.
The next day Selita and I took an old wooden train into the countryside, a very touristic activity. We rolled past farmers working their fields, one of them was spraying his crops using a large drone.
The train stopped at a gorgeous old bridge, then a colonial French train station, before finishing at a walled village that we had to pay to enter.
Unlike Jianshui, there were no giftshops or cafes ruining the village’s ambience. It seemed to have retained its character, large slogans from the Cultural Revolution were scrawled on its walls. But the place was lifeless, the populace either missing or hidden in their homes. I doubted whether any young people would choose to live here over escaping to the big city.
We boarded the train back to Jianshui, and returned to the old town for dinner. Jianshui is famous for its barbecue, and Selita was desperate to try it. I followed her down a maze of alleyways, before we arrived at a hidden cubbyhole restaurant.
As we waited for our food to arrive, I asked Selita how she’d found this place. “Oh, there’s a Chinese app which ranks and reviews all the restaurants,” Selita informed me. “In China there’s so many options, you have to use this just to find a good place!”
She was right though as the barbecue was delicious. We dined on fried liver, chicken skin, bone marrow, duck gizzards, and juicy mushrooms. We returned to the hostel by walking through the old town. A number of bars were open, abhorrent Western pop music blasting from their interiors.
Jianshui was not the idyllic China that I’d expected. But that fantasy did not exist anywhere. If my travels taught me anything, it’s that how people currently live is the most authentic thing you can experience in a country. Whether that’s by ploughing a field with an ox, or selling tacky souvenirs to tourists, it’s all valid and real.
The traveler who denies this and keeps searching for a truly “authentic” place will never find it. They are searching for an idea that exists only in their head.