Chinese City Folk Throng To Ancient Shangli With more disposable income in a booming economy, Chinese tourists head to the city of Shangli to see a 300-year-old bridge and pay homage to their ancestors. Peasants and longtime residents welcome the attention.
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Chinese City Folk Throng To Ancient Shangli

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Chinese City Folk Throng To Ancient Shangli

Chinese City Folk Throng To Ancient Shangli

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And finally this hour, I have a postcard from China. The economic boom means there are now millions of urban Chinese with disposable income and with cars. For them, trips to the countryside have become regular diversions, giving the city dwellers a taste of rural life. You'll see ads touting the peace and tranquility of mountain escapes.

While the Sichuan earthquake in May showed that the countryside could also be anything but tranquil; whole mountainsides sheared away, rural retreats were flattened. For more than a month after the earthquake, the Sichuan village of Shangli watched its thriving tourism business evaporate. Before the earthquake, on a peak weekend, the village might attract 10,000 visitors. After the earthquake, nobody came, even though Shangli sustained no damage.

But then, news reports named Shangli as a destination that had escaped the destruction. And now, more people are flocking there than ever before because so many other tourist areas are closed. So, once again, tourism is booming in Shangli. It's in the region of Ya'an, about 80 miles southwest of the provincial capital, Chengdu. I visited Shangli before the earthquake in April and watched two very different worlds collide.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

BLOCK: Go to Shangli and you'll get a raucous wake-up call. The village is marketed to nostalgic Chinese as an ancient town. On Shangli's bustling pedestrian commercial strip, visitors from the city can buy cowboy hats, plastic toy pianos, magnetic beads that dance like magic in the air. They can wield a mallet at Whack-a-Mole or pick up a poster of Chairman Mao.

And then, the tourist can hop on the stones across the Yellow Thatch Creek that runs through town and take pictures of peasants, like Li Shi Long, hard at work. He's up to his knees in mud hoeing, getting a small patch of land ready for rice planting. When I asked if the tourists bother him, Li says no.

Mr. LI SHI LONG (Farmer): (Chinese spoken)

BLOCK: We're happy to see them, Li says. The more visitors we have, the richer we'll get. The more people, the better.

The contrast is jarring - visitors in miniskirts and heels jabbering on cell phones cross paths with wizened farmers doubled over from the weight of the vegetables they carry in baskets on their backs.

Xie Zhi Hui from Chengdu brought her four-year-old daughter to Shangli. The air is clear and fresh, she says, and the people are rustic. It's great to bring my daughter here to see this way of life.

(Soundbite of firecrackers)

It was a holiday on the April weekend when we visited, Qing Ming or tomb-sweeping day, a day to honor your ancestors by visiting their graves, lighting firecrackers, burning incense and candles. And with so many tourists visiting on that holiday weekend, it was also an opportunity.

Seventy-year-old Liu Guanglian bows before her husband's ancestors' graves. And she asks some students who've come to visit to donate a little money, about 15 cents, at the tombstones. In return, she tells them, her ancestors will see to it that they have prosperous lives.

Mr. YANG PING (Tourist): (Chinese spoken)

BLOCK: Twenty-four-year-old Yang Ping, a student from Chengdu, tells me, I wanted to come to Shangli to see the ancient landscape. It's said there are relics here dating back to the Qing Dynasty. Those of us born after 1980, we don't know much about this. So we can come here and learn from the experience and get a taste of ancient times.

Down in the village, Liu Guanglian's husband, Yang Ji Quan, picks up a megaphone and urges visitors to tour the Yang family's ancient home, about 150 years old.

Yang raises the stakes, come see the well in our backyard. The water can be used to make tea. If old people drink it, they'll have a long life, he promises. If young people drink it, they'll earn more money. If students drink it, they'll get the top score on their exams.

At twilight, I wandered down to the stream that runs through Shangli. A few oil painters had set up easels on a flat stone. They were painting the 300-year-old Bridge of the Immortals. The bridge on that April day was crawling with tourists, but the painters left them out entirely. The Shangli captured on their canvases was idyllic — an ancient stone bridge, a waterfall, an untouched, perfect landscape.

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