Finding Nemo

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Emei Shan III: The Tragedy of the Traveler

 NOTE: Emei Shan part II will not be published until I figure out to make it password protected due to its content regarding China.  If you are interested in this post, send me an email I'll forward it to you

I dub thee "Snubby"
As I mentioned in Emei Shan Part I, the Steps of Endless Pain had claimed a new victim.  I was a total mess.  After a brief rest at the Elephant Bathing Pool Monastery (apparently Puxian liked to ensure his albino 6-tusked elephant had a lovely view of the mountain while getting his tusks waxed), we continued on.  Finally, looking up and down at another endless stairway, I gave up.  My achilles was threatening a divorce, and I was starting to realize how out of shape I had become with my injury.  I was also starting to get that diabetic coma feeling.  I'm not diabetic, but sometimes when I push too hard I get that familiar weakness that means I need sugar and need it very soon.  Eventually a snack shop appeared only to be closed.  I had officially entered donkey mode.

Donkey mode is that state a person reaches when they they are so tired their brain stops, their legs move but don't feel connected anymore.  They don't even know why they are moving anymore, only that they can't stop.  Its the same as a beast of burden, struggling under its load, moving only because if it doesn't it will feel the crack of a whip.  When we reached a 2nd snack shop, Camila looked down and gave me a sorry look.  I knew it was also closed.  That was it.  Mentally, I had needed that shop to be open.  I told Camila that I would see her later, I had to rest for 5 minutes.  She took off, and I was sure I would never see her again.

My attempt was over.

I sat and laid on a bench.  My bowels were threatening to erupt again for the 4th time and my toilet paper levels were entering the twilight zone.  Through the fog of sickness, altitude, low blood sugar, and pain, I closed my eyes and tried to think.  What would happen if my achilles ruptured?  How would I get off this mountain?  The nearest road was on the other side, and I was in the middle of a miles-long vertical staircase.

After a few minutes, I sat up.  I couldn't just sit here and rot.  It would either snap off or it wouldn't.  I stood up gingerly, it popped and settled.  And I kept climbing.  In another 15 or so minutes, I emerged at a little snack shop.  And it contained a wondrous sight.  On tables were displayed bunches of fresh bananas, ripe apples, oranges with the stem still attached.  They practically glowed with heavenly light.  I slapped myself to make sure I was really awake.

Camila was there waiting, and watched in amusement as I stuffed an orange and 3 bananas in my mouth and chugged it all with a Sprite.  It was like Popeye eating a can of Spinach, just a few minutes later strength flowed into my body and I was back in action.  My achilles started to behave, and we discovered to our surprise that we had already reached the top of the Steps of Endless Pain.  We cruised along a flat section and then suddenly we came upon an amazing view.

Tune in, Drop off
A narrow crack in the hillside showed that we were standing at the edge of a massive cliff.  In fact, it was so massive that the bottom disappeared into clouds below.  After a moment we continued on, and more views of the sheer cliffside appeared.  Finally, we found ourselves at a parking lot.  We had reached the packaged tour bus road.  Crowds of Chinese appeared, milling around, killing time before their "summit attempt" tomorrow where they would board a cable car.

Unfriendly Monastery
After another hour up we reached Taizi Ping, our monastary for the night.  The guidebook, written in 2005, had promised friendly monks and "atmospheric" accomodation.  We found noone at the main temple, but there was a desk marked "reception" in Chinese (thanks to Camila's fluency).  There were voices over by the kitchen.  Camila wandered over.  After 15 minutes, she came back.

"Unbelievable!  Wow.  Those were the rudest Chinese I have ever met."  I stared.  Camila had been in China 3 times, was fluent, and seemed to get along well with every Chinese person she met.

"I asked for a room, and at first they just ignored me.  So rude!  They acted like I wasn't there.  I asked again, I mean I was asking in Chinese so they knew what I was saying.  Finally, they looked at me and said we couldn't stay here.  I said there was a reception desk, and there were obviously rooms.  Then they changed tactic, they announced that we couldn't stay here because we hadn't pre-booked.  But there were 6 Chinese students who had just arrived yesterday, and they were staying there without any problems!!"

It was all just bullshit.  They just didn't want any foreigners staying there.  I have come up with a theory that I will call the Tragedy of the Traveler.  Its modeled a bit on the Tragedy of the Commons, where if there are too many people using a shared resource, the resource becomes ruined and everyone suffers.  China had recently opened itself up to travelers, and the first trickle of foreigners who came in all reported what a wonderful and exotic place it was.  Demand increased, guidebooks expanded, and finally travel agents got word.  When travel agents got in, that's when the flood-gates opened.  And, just like Vietnam 10 years ago or Thailand 30 years ago, China is entering that post-discovery boom.

In travel there is a phrase that is very over-used, ironically, because it describes overuse.  It is this idea of "Getting Off the Beaten Path."  Why is there such a quest for getting off the path?  After all, a path exists for a reason.  Animals create paths because they provide routes to important places.  And, likewise, the Path described in Lonely Planet provides routes to beautiful places.  Special places.  Backpackers use Lonely Planet because it shows them the route to the Treasure that intrepid explorers before them discovered.

Yet, something perverse always happens.  The backpacker trickle becomes a backpacker stream, then a river, and then a flood.  This is followed by their friends on 3-week vacation from work, and finally the honeymooners on holiday.  In Nepal I learned with horrid fascination the plans to build a road through most of the Annapurna Circuit.  The reason for the road was to supply all the new teahouses to support the flood of trekkers.  But the very reason trekkers were coming there was to get away from roads!!!  The Tragedy of the Traveler is this: the act of going to a unique place in the world contributes to its very destruction as someplace special.  I am guilty of this, as are all my fellow backpackers.  And it leads to an inescapable, selfish conclusion.  People like myself have decided we must see all these places before they are "lost" to the avalanche of humanity waiting to descend upon them, as soon as word gets out.

If you really want off the beaten path, try this site
Yet here I am, blogging away, announcing which places I liked.

So I think I understood why this monastery, which clearly a few years ago when the last Lonely Planet came out had welcomed travelers, was now so unfriendly.  It was simple.  There had been too many travelers, just like myself, who after reading their guidebook had decided to stay there.  The monastery, run by monks who had to attend to their spiritual practices, were a bit overwhelmed.  So they outsourced the accommodation and kitchen to regular Chinese.  The Chinese workers didn't give a rat's ass about loving-kindness or spiritual tenets or their commons bonds with all humanity.  They cared about money and not getting in trouble.  So, they decided that foreigners were too much paperwork and liability and tried to get rid of them.

Blood Falls: definitely off-the-beaten track
The whole experience of the traveler had been ruined.  And this is happening everywhere, in the Philippines and Nepal, Costa Rica and Mexico and Peru and all the quiet special places that may soon suffocate under the human tsunami waiting to discover them.  I suppose I should feel guilty; after all, I am helping their demise with this blog.

But then, I think of the Tragedy of the Commons faced by surfers in California and everywhere that the ocean's waves must be shared.  Some surfers who grew up near a particular wave feel they own that wave.  Only they are allowed to surf it.  They feel this way because when there are too many surfers, the experience degenerates into a fighting sausage-fest for every scrap the ocean coughs up.  But what do they own?  What is a wave after all, but a transient bit of energy, traveling across thousands of miles, that for a brief moment hits a shelf of earth and transforms into something beautiful and special?  Who gives that person the right to own something like that?

I guess the answer is this ... Perhaps there are Special Places of the Earth that should not be banned from everyone else.  They are too important, too good.  Perhaps everyone, come what may, has an equal right to experience them.  But, there is something equally important called a Barrier to Entry.  Sometime barriers can be a good thing.  For instance, not everyone can play guitar.  Its hard work to learn.  You have to dedicate yourself for many years before you become proficient.  And thus, when you do become skilled, you have paid the price to play in front of others and deserve the recognition that comes with it.  You earned it.  So, even though I feel that everyone in the world has an equal right to see the Special Places, I also hope that the best ones will remain hard to get to or outright secret, at least a little longer.  The world is a very big place, and the more I see the more I realize how little I've seen.  There are plenty of these hidden jewels left, jealously guarded by those who know them.

A special place (hint: Canada)
And maybe that is how it should be.  If you go to a place in a guidebook, where someone else put in the work to find the place, be prepared to share.  You have no special claim.

If you want to visit someplace truly special, you have that right as well.  But first, you must put in the work to find it.

No comments:

Post a Comment