Rural tourism in China is increasingly being threatened as “slow trains” became more of a rarity when the country embarked on a series of “speed-up campaigns” to introduce faster express trains and cut back on local ones. Xiaochen Su takes a deeper look at this vanishing cultural tourism brand.
Outside the windows, the mountains seemed to rise out of nowhere. Heading out of each tunnel, passengers are suddenly blinded by the bright colors on the slopes. With not a single piece of dirt, the golden yellow and the bright green leaves of well-preserved old growth are dotted by the occasional pink blossoms and uncharacteristically fiery red ones of the late spring.
The focused eyes of travelers are forced to refocus to take in the kaleidoscope of colors inundating the rural landscape.
The joy of travel in rural China often starts with the slow trains that criss-cross it. Urban travelers hoping to see a different way of life are drawn to the relaxed speeds at which the slow trains chug along the country’s vast distances. Different climates in different parts of the country mean that for longer train journeys across rural China, even a single trip allows a traveler to see different landscapes, which can be more easily appreciated when the train moves slowly and stops often at the many small stations serving remote villages.
Slow Trains at the Center of Rural Tourism
These slow local trains, colloquially known as the “green carriages” after the color of their paint, long provided access for those seeking firsthand experience with rural China. Many train enthusiasts seek out the green carriages running along rural train lines, in the process producing romantic accounts of simple lives in remote corners of the country no longer observable in its bustling major cities.
While bigger cities get brand-new high-speed railway stations, some smaller towns and villages are no longer served by trains at all, as high-speed trains skip over them.
The accounts of rural train travel form just one aspect of what can be called rural tourism among the urban middle class in contemporary China. Chinese agritourism, characterized by the nongjiale (农家乐) business of a rural household receiving paying guests from urban areas for several days at the time.
Roughly translated as “farmhouse joy,” In these nongjiale experiences, urban residents experience cooking and eating meals cooked with ingredients directly plucked from the field, sleeping in farmhouses, hiking around rural areas, and even helping with the housework. The goal is to simultaneously provide rural areas with a means of economic development, while urban residents with firsthand, albeit romanticized as exotic, experience with a part of the country they rarely interact with.
The green carriages are both a part of and a facilitator of Chinese rural tourism as a destination brand. Like nongjiale, the slow trains provide a means for city-dwellers to access a sanitized version of rural China, characterized by a sense of simple happiness stemming from a lack of the stress associated with rushed urban living.
The allure of rural tourism as a destination brand lies in being able to provide urban residents with a convenient means to observe this contrast.
The slow trains, at the same time, makes rural tourism more mass-market, providing the means for urban residents who do not have cars and large budgets to access nongjiale and other remote rural destinations.
Rural Tourism Dying with the Slow Trains
But rural tourism in China is increasingly being threatened as a viable business model as green carriages are being rolled back. Slow trains have increasingly become a rarity in China as the country embarked on a series of “speed-up campaigns” to introduce faster express trains and cut back local ones.
The speed-up campaigns culminated in the country’s decision to construct a brand-new high-speed railway network using imported technology. Branded China Rail High-speed (CRH), the network has reached more than 37,000 km as of mid-2021 despite the first line only coming online in 2008. With trains running upward of 350 km per hour and more than 200 trains per day on the busiest lines, CRH has dramatically closed the vast physical distances among the country’s largest cities.
But frequent services and fast speeds have come at the expense of the country’s rural regions. While bigger cities get brand-new high-speed railway stations, some smaller towns and villages are no longer served by trains at all, as high-speed trains skip over them. The prevalence of CRH means that conventional, non-high speed train lines that run parallel to high-speed ones see passenger services cut back, opening up more capacity for freight trains. The reduction of train linkages has made it all the more time-consuming and expensive for urban residents to get to rural areas using public transport.
As public transport skip over rural areas, it has become more and more difficult for rural areas to maintain their geographical destination as the essence of the tourism brand. Many operators of nongjiale found that more and more establishments, set up in the middle of bustling urban areas, can replicate rural foods, visuals, and even firsthand farming experiences. As urban nongjiale becomes a reality and public transport to rural areas becomes more inconvenient, remote villages can no longer attract a steady stream of urban visitors.
The Loss of Rural Tourism Entrenches Urban-Rural Inequality
As nongjiale becomes less and less popular among city-dwellers, villagers that depend on rural tourism for income suffer, further increasing already grave economic inequality between urban and rural regions in China. Chinese government data show that urban residents earn close to three times in average disposable income compared to their rural counterparts in 2020, with the gap widening by 57% in seven years. This is also reflected in regional inequality, exemplified by Beijing and Shanghai having average incomes four times higher than that of the more rural Gansu province. China’s Gini coefficient rose from 0.16 in 1978 to 0.385 today.
The widening of the economical inequality between major cities served by CRH and towns that are not is particularly illustrative. A 2019 academic study estimated that 11% of local economic growth in major cities in China can be attributed directly or indirectly to their access to frequent high-speed rail services. A separate 2019 study showed that CRH led to greater population mobility and higher quality of urbanization, defined by upgrading of industrial infrastructure and added value for the tertiary sector, in the cities that it serves.
The green carriage train is not convenient. It takes three hours to make the same journey that a CRH train can do in one. But many passengers chose the slow train for recreation.
It is easy to foresee growing inequality between CRH-served cities and more rural regions leading to further depopulation in the latter. China’s urbanization rate has continued to climb in recent years, rising from 16.2% in 1960 to the halfway mark in 2011, and 61.43% in 2020. A 2019 study found that a 1% increase in the rural unemployment rate leads to an additional 16,000 people leaving for major Chinese cities every year. As CRH brings economic benefits to major cities at the expense of rural areas, China’s economic and demographic weight will continue to shift to its CRH-connected urban cores.
Rural Existence Disappearing with Rural Tourism
As passengers continue to glance through the rising landscape outside the slow train, insignificantly little yet respectably resilient human habitations come into view. In front of old brick houses, hardy veteran farmers picking through their fields. The train continues to move forward at a comfortable speed, allowing the onlookers to soak in every detail of China’s rural hinterlands.
The green carriage train is not convenient. It takes three hours to make the same journey that a CRH train can do in one. But many passengers chose the slow train for recreation. In a country where modernity has always been equated with speed and efficiency, there is just no other way to better observe the contrast between the modern city and the largely untouched rural heartland. The allure of rural tourism as a destination brand lies in being able to provide urban residents with a convenient means to observe this contrast.
But the contrast is disappearing as rural residents move into cities to seek better lives. Only in just a few more years, many small villages may be washed away by materialism a few hours away, as more residents move away to secure a brighter economic future. As they emigrate from villages, rural residents will become accustomed to physical modernity, with its cars and electronics, leaving no one to maintain the rustic nature of rural tourism intact. Urban residents will find themselves less and less able to find their romantic rural adventures as villages wither.
Featured image by Yue Iris via Unsplash