Admission Fees in China

We’ve long complained about Chinese admission fees, but our most recent experiences have raised our objections to the level of a post on the blog as a warning to travelers. China’s admission fees are high and seemingly increasing out of control.

I am writing this from Dunhuang, where a visit to the Mogao Caves costs RMB 160 ($24), plus RMB 20 ($3) additional if you need a foreign language guide. For two English language tours this adds up to around $54, or for a family for four Chinese, about $100. What does this equal in the local economy? A good hotel room in Dunhuang for two costs RMB 120 ($18). A terrific and satisfying bowl of noodles at a restaurant costs RMB 10 ($1.50), a more substantial meal for two perhaps RMB 50 ($7.50). This means that room and board for two adds up to perhaps RMB 180 a day–the same price as one entry ticket to the Mogao Caves. Where else in the world does one admission ticket for the local attraction add up to the cost of lodging and meals for two?

Some may applaud China for at least having a flat admission scheme, unlike many poorer countries that have dual/foreigner pricing, for example in India where admission fees for foreigners can cost up to 25 times the admission fee for locals. But, at Chinese fee levels, I wonder whether that’s really a virtue. A low-level Chinese worker makes perhaps RMB 1000 ($150) per month. Could such a person ever hope to see any of China’s principal attractions? I often think of the hypothetical rural Chinese worker on a trip to Beijing, who can’t afford to see the Forbidden City (admission likely around RMB 100, or $15, these days), because the ticket costs the equivalent of several days’ pay. Clearly, a place such as the Mogao Caves is totally out of reach of working class Chinese. Is there any other country in the world where the poor live without any hope of seeing the country’s greatest natural and historical treasures, because they will never be able to afford a ticket?

Well, so it’s sad for the Chinese poor, but how about for the (relatively) rich first world tourists? Chinese admission fees are now at such high levels that not only will a lot of younger travelers, such as students, skip key sites to save on admissions (after all, one ticket could eat up more than a whole day’s budget), but even many older, moneyed tourists will skip sites out of principle and because they are such poor value. The Mogao Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rewarding on many levels–after all, people come all the way to Dunhuang just to see them–and they are undeniably “worth” RMB 180. But “Grape Valley Scenic Are” in Turpan–could it really be worth RMB 60 ($9)? We will never know, since we thought it extremely unlikely. And all of the other secondary sites around Turpan that cost from RMB 20-50 ($3-7.50) each?

Schedule of admissions fees in Turpan

Some cases rise to the level of stupidity. Outside Turpan is a range of mountains called the Flaming Mountains, and famous not only for their unusual structure but also for the notice that they have received historically. It is in any case a pleasant drive outside of town. But, unbelievably, the Chinese (it is never clear to me which of these are set up by the government directly or by some sort of person who has bought development rights) have set up a fence in front of the “best” part, enclosing an area of perhaps a square kilometer, put up some stupid bronze statues and labeled it “Flaming Mountains Scenic Area,” with a RMB 40 ($6) per person admission fee. Further income for the project is derived from the camel, hanggliding, ultralight, etc., rides that are offered inside. Who would pay this admission, given that a view of the mountains is available from just outside the fence? (The answer is, hundreds of thousands of Chinese.)

Other cases seem almost immoral, or at least grotesquely greedy. Near Dunhuang are some giant sand dunes, rising hundreds of meters high. They are indeed an impressive site, especially seen from a distance against the city itself. But, believe it or not, the admission to these sand dunes is RMB 120 ($18), again with much additional income derived from camel rides (RMB 60, or $9) and such. What justifies such a fee to a natural site? [As with the Flaming Mountains, it is impracticable to “fence” the entire dunes, and so energetic and frugal travelers (or just plain stubborn ones like ourselves) can just walk into the dunes a couple kilometers west–although the famous lake is located in the fee area, it can be seen quite well from above by climbing one of the “free” dunes.] A few hours outside of Kashgar, in the middle of nowhere though on the Karakoram Highway, is a famous lake named Karakul. [See my post of 7.11.] While there is no fence or anything of the sort, tourists are hounded persistently to purchase tickets of RMB 50 ($7.50) each, and we were told that this fee is payable if you are within 10 kilometers of the lake. The only development that could justify such a fee is a rather ugly, obtrusive hotel and the framework of another that they are building–it is sad and a bit sadistic that those seeking to enjoy the pristine beauty of the lake are in fact paying for the marring of it. “National Parks” in China cost up to RMB 200 ($30) per person, along with additional fees for cable cars (RMB 80, or $12) and such. One New York Times article noted that a trip for four to a Chinese national park could very easily consume a month’s salary for a working class Chinese family. Should natural sites really turn into such huge cash cows? Or do such things really belong to the public, and not just for people who can pay?

Going past the fence at the Dunhuang dunes

Dunhuang brought to mind how admission fees in China have risen such that they are, now, expensive in absolute and not only in relative, local terms. The caves for $27, the dunes for $18. Do tickets for comparable sites anywhere else in the world cost as much? India, even with its foreigner pricing, charges 250 rupees ($6) for the Ajanta Caves, which are similar to and in many ways even more impressive than Mogao. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I imagine has a budget many many times that of the Mogao Caves, charges $20 (which is actually “optional” as it is a donation). U.S. National Parks charge $20 per entry for a carload of people, a ticket valid for a week. Exactly what multiple of that is China charging for its national parks?

We’ve heard Chinese admissions justified on account of shortage and crowding. The theory is that there are just so many Chinese people that admission fees have to be high to keep crowds to manageable levels. Of course, there are many other ways to control crowds than high ticket prices, and in many cases (such as Karakul) the attractions couldn’t possibly get crowded even if there were no admission charge. And to limit crowds at places by allowing access only to the rich? Isn’t that rather perverse for a nominally communist country?

At the time that the most recent Lonely Planet (published in 2007) was written, the Dunhuang caves cost RMB 120 and the Dunhuang dunes RMB 80. They now cost RMB 180 and RMB 120, a 50% increase in a bit more than a year. This 50% increase is of course enhanced by the rise in the Renminbi, resulting in an even greater increase in dollar terms. Ticket prices will soon be, if they are not already, at levels which foreign tourists will find simply shocking. I predict that it will be, soon, a significant deterrent for many from coming to China at all. Of course, this doesn’t matter to the ticket sellers, since domestic tourists far outnumber foreign ones and for whatever reason many Chinese people seem to have no problem paying outrageous sums for sometimes half-baked attractions. But what kind of message does it send to visitors about China, about how it apportions cultural and recreational activities for its people? What about the accessibility of such sites for travelers who have in fact come a long way, even if no-one asked them to?

Buddhist Cave Art

Buddhist Cave Art

Today we may think of Buddhism as an east Asian or southeast Asian religion, but of course Buddhism originated in now India, where Siddhartha Gautama received enlightenment in the 6th century BC. Buddhism spread relatively rapidly in India and became a dominant religion by the time of the Mauryan Empire of Ashoka, who reigned from 273 to 232 BC. Starting from around the time of Christ to the seventh century, Buddhism followed the Silk Road through Central Asia into China. While Buddhism has largely receded from the Indian subcontinent itself, it remains the dominant religious force in much of the rest of Asia, from the Himalayas to Japan, and from Sri Lanka to Taiwan.

The principal theme of our trip is the Islamic world, but by first visiting India and then entering China through the Silk Road we traveled on the same path as Buddhism, and I thought that a post on the marvelous Buddhist caves that we have visited was in order.

Retreat from the everyday, material world is a principal aim of Buddhism, and some of the monks of ancient India sought their refuge in a small river-cut cliff near now Aurangabad. From the second century BC to the sixth century AD, the monks of Ajanta carved small monasteries and shrines into the face of the cliff itself and decorated the rock-cut interiors with monumental sculptures and beautiful murals, creating a masterpiece of sacred art that has not been equaled many times since.

The Ajanta caves, set in a bend in the Waghur River, a day’s travel east of Bombay

The Ajanta caves are cut out of the cliff itself, with rock chiseled away to form spectacular interiors of monasteries and shrines.

Merely creating such structures into a cliff face would have been impressive, but the marvel of Ajanta is the level of ornamentation. Nearly every surface in the caves is decorated either with sculptural relief or painting.

High relief composition at Ajanta

Paintings at Ajanta

The rock-cut cave temples of Ajanta were imitated by later Buddhists as well as Hindus and Jains at a nearby site now called Ellora. The Ellora caves, dating from fifth to tenth centuries AD, are in some ways less impressive than Ajanta, but the art of rock-cut/monolithic construction reached a pinnacle with the Hindu Kailasanatha Temple, which clearly surpasses not only the caves of Ajanta but also the churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and, although we have not yet seen them in person, the Nabatean structures of Petra in Jordan. Seen from inside the structure or from above, the massive and complex task of carving such a building from one rock is simply awesome.

Ellora Caves

Statuary, Ellora

The idea of the Buddhist cave-temple, along with the styles of art first developed at Ajanta, followed the Buddhist religion into China through the Silk Road. There are numerous such Buddhist cave complexes in China, from the Kizil Caves of Xinjiang to the Longmen Grottoes of Henan, but the most famous are the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang in Gansu Province.

The Mogao Caves were begun in the 4th century AD, well after Ajanta. While as rock-cut structures they are not comparable to the caves of Ajanta or Ellora, Mogao surpasses the Indian caves in scale, with over 400 caves (compared to around 30 at each of Ajanta and Ellora).

Paintings at Mogao. The Mogao Caves were developed into the 14th century, and so represent a wide range of styles, showing the development of Buddhism and Buddhist art in China. The styles of some of the paintings are similar to those found in India, perhaps in part because Indian artists themselves may have been imported to do some of the work.

Buddhism is no longer a significant presence in mainland South Asia, but Sri Lanka remains a majority Buddhist country. The 5th century AD ruins of Sigiriya in central Sri Lanka, which we visited in 2005, preserve a style of painting that is remarkably similar to that at both Ajanta and Mogao.

Central Asians of Xinjiang

Xinjiang is properly known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and, however much real autonomy from Beijing it may actually have, Xinjiang is ethnically and culturally indeed a world apart from much of the rest of China.

The most dramatic distinction, as the name of the region suggests, is its ethnic makeup. Xinjiang is not majority Han, as China’s majority ethnic group is called, but largely Uyghur, a Central Asian Turkic people far more similar to Uzbeks (or even Turks) than to Han Chinese.

Even out of China’s many many ethnic minorities (55 I believe is the official count), the 8 million or so Uyghurs stand out for being particularly un-Asian. They are not like the southeast Asian peoples of Yunnan, or the recognizably east Asian Manchu or Mongolians of the northeast. The Uyghurs are not even like Tibetans, with whom the Han at least share some ethnic/linguistic ties. No, in Xinjiang, when you look around and see the Muslim Turkic Uyghurs, you wonder whether you’re in China at all, or should be. The Uyghurs look Central Asian, dress Central Asian, eat Central Asian and act Central Asian. And the Uyghurs are not the only Central Asian people in Xinjiang. Around the city of Tashkurgan near the Pakistani border is a population (40,000 or so) of Tajiks, at home in the high Pamirs. Just north, and near the border with Kyrgyzstan is a large Kyrgyz population (160,000 or so) tending to their livestock from their yurts. Further north, around Urumqi, is a large population of Kazakhs (1.25 million or so). There are even some Uzbeks about. Xinjiang is, in many ways, squarely a part of Central Asia, albeit one that is within the borders of the Chinese republic.

As unlikely a part of China as Xinjiang is, at least ethnically/culturally, there doesn’t really seem to me to be a realistic hope of Uyghur independence–China is much too strong and the Uyghurs do not even have the outside sympathizers that Taiwan and Tibet have. Also, despite the dissimilarities between the Han and the Central Asian people of Xinjiang, the historical ties between the Uyghurs and the Chinese are ancient. Living as they do due west of “core” China, right along the ancient Silk Road, the Uyghurs have had contact with China for thousands of years and were not only part of the same Mongol empire (the Uyghurs were central to the administration of Mongol-ruled China) but have been part of China since the 18th century. Even though the Uyghurs are Turkic, practice Islam and write in an Arabic script, this long history together means that, as one Uyghur man put it to us, the Uyghurs are “used to living with them,” them being the Han Chinese. (The man went on to call the Han the “bosses,” giving insight into how some Uyghurs view the nature of the relationship.)

It must be hard to be such a large ethnic group with a long, proud history and not have a sovereign homeland. To a certain extent, the Uyghurs probably feel like second class citizens in their own home, and no doubt face some discrimination in employment, especially in the public sector. But, being somewhat pro-China as we are, we also couldn’t help but think that the Uyghurs are still better off than their Central Asian brethren. However oppressive the Chinese government may be, it would appear from the Central Asian Stans that being part of the Soviet Union (the likely alternative had China not incorporated Xinjiang) was a far worse and more stressful experience, its worst effects still dominating aspects of Central Asian culture (e.g., alcoholism in Kyrgyzstan). Had the Uyghurs been part of the Soviet Union they may now have an independent state, but most of the Stans are hardly thriving, and the Uyghurs clearly benefit some from China’s prosperity. Evidence of China’s investment in the West is very visible, from the good state of roads in the Xinjiang desert to the (sometimes ugly) colossal architecture of Xinjiang downtowns (although of course much of this development is for Han profit, not for enrichment of the life for the Uyghurs). It’s possible that the Uyghurs may have done better than most of their Central Asian peers and matched or exceeded the level of wealth they have achieved as part of China, but it seems to me unlikely.

But at what cost economic progress? Is the Chinese government at the same time destroying Uyghur culture with its homogenization and Han migration policies? In the past I have been inclined to think China’s promotion of its ethnic minorities as mere lip service and an excuse for patronizing song-and-dance performances, but our visit to Xinjiang suggested that Uyghur culture is alive and well. Many parts of Xinjiang feel genuinely Uyghur, with all signs written in both the Chinese and Uyghur languages and many Uyghurs speaking little or no Mandarin. Uyghur pop plays on buses and as cell phone ringtones. To put it crudely, it does not feel as if the Han are pushing their culture down the Uyghurs’ throats, as some may fear. Yes, it’s true that the Chinese government is incentivizing Han colonization of Xinjiang, and in the face of the greater numbers of Han Chinese moving in the Uyghurs will face increasing challenges in maintaining their distinctive culture, but the Chinese are hardly trying to wipe the Uyghurs out–Uyghurs and Kyrgyz in China are even exempted from the one child policy and are allowed to have up to three children.

In some ways, the Central Asians of Xinjiang have held onto their culture better than their brethren in the now-independent Stans. In other parts of Central Asia, local scripts based on Arabic have been replaced with the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet; not so in Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs and the Kyrgyz still use the historical Arabic script. Uyghur musical instrument-making is thriving, largely due to all of the souvenir shops in Kashgar. Parts of old Kashgar are being maintained in their current state of preservation in part to entertain the hordes of domestic tourists, and despite the massive destruction in recent years, Kashgar remains one of the most atmospheric Central Asian cities, the Stans having also had their own demolition years. Kyrgyz yurts in China (of course I’m referring to the real ones, not the concrete “fake” yurts made for Chinese tour groups) seemed far more traditional and “authentic” than those in Kyrgyzstan. The Tajik in China wore traditional dress that we never saw in Tajikistan. Perhaps it’s just the effect of being a minority that makes you hold on to your culture more tightly–but some credit is due to the Chinese for allowing this to happen.

So for the sake of argument let us say that the Uyghurs are, materially and culturally, better off–does that justify Han rule?

Silk Production, Old and New

While in China on a “Silk Road” trip, we thought it obligatory to see some actual silk production, even though we’ve seen the process before in other countries. Around Hotan we were able to visit two different facilities, one, called the Atlas Silk Workship, using traditional methods, and another, the Shatou silk factory, using relatively modern technology.

Unwinding the threads from the silkworm cocoons



Shatou silk factory

Looking especially at the last image, it’s no wonder that nowadays so many of us are able to enjoy so many material comforts–the efficiency of the machine age cannot be underestimated.

Southern Silk Road

The Southern Silk Road, as the route along the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert from Kashgar to Yarkand to Hotan to Cherchen to Charklik to Dunhuang is called, is famous not only for being the most historically significant route into China from the west, but also for its rugged difficulty. Although many travelers consider traveling along the Southern Silk Road, it is an option that few tourists end up choosing, given that there are few major, easily accessible sites en route and that the modern expressways and railway from Kashgar to Dunhuang follow the “northern” route through Kuqa, Korla, Turpan and Hami.

We were also interested in traveling this southern route, and did the route research, including by enlisting a Chinese friend to read through Chinese language websites for transportation/sightseeing options. We were surprised to discover that the route was not only doable but not even very hard, with regular daily transport connecting the key towns. The roads are remote, yes, but arrival in one piece without being stranded or having to pay for expensive private transport seemed guaranteed. We definitely wanted to go from Kashgar as far as Hotan, with its wonderful Sunday market, but hadn’t made up our mind, when we set off from Kashgar, whether we would take the southern route the entire way to Dunhuang.

We decided not to, for many reasons. First, when we found out that it wasn’t so hard, it lost a bit of the appeal–what adventure is there really in getting on a series of long bus rides? Second, while Yarkand is in places quite rustic and Hotan a great place to see a modern Uyghur city in full swing (especially at the Sunday market or nightly food market), the central parts of these towns were, quite surprisingly to us, like “any other Chinese city,” as we had expected of Kashgar. Despite their extremely remote locations, the infrastructure, the economic development, the architecture, etc., made the cities, at least in their central areas, indistinguishable from, say, a poorer part of Shenzhen. I certainly didn’t see the need to “rough it” to see something that looks like Shenzhen. Finally, and perhaps the most important factor, we realized that the guidebooks weren’t kidding when they talked about sandstorms. For almost the whole time we were in Hotan visibility was horrible and fine sand was blowing about, making it unpleasant to be outside. If we could barely bear being outside, and it was impossible to take pictures, we didn’t really see the point in continuing. We took the 20-hour overnight bus ride across the Taklamakan Desert to Urumqi and continued east on the “northern” route.

We really did enjoy Yarkand and Hotan, however, and encourage others to do what we did rather than going more directly between Urumqi and Kashgar. The cross-desert bus ride really isn’t so bad. Or follow the whole “southern silk road,” especially if you are traveling in winter when we are told that the weather is clearer. A few photographs from Hotan:

Jade store, Hotan. Hotan has been famous for jade for thousands of years, and the industry is still going strong, especially as Chinese, growing ever wealthier, are willing to pay higher and higher prices for such luxury goods.

Local men selling discovered jade to dealers, Hotan

Melon for sale at night market, Hotan

It could be Shenzhen!

One of the reasons I wanted to do this post is to promote, a website I found describing the route and the cities of the southern silk road in incredible detail. As things in China are in a constant state of change, some of the information on the site is not totally up-to-date, but it is perhaps one of the most detailed guides to anywhere that I’ve ever seen (and certainly better than the paragraph in Lonely Planet on this route).