By NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
ON THE GRASSLANDS SKY ROAD, CHINA -- As dusk casts shadows over the terraced barley fields that line the Grasslands Sky Road, the touts emerge.
Their signs beg people to stay at the small hotels that have flowered in recent years along this thin strip of asphalt, which has quickly become one of China's most famous roads.
Drivers come to this place almost 200 kilometres northwest of Beijing from all over China, in such numbers that they regularly jam the 133-kilometre road: SUVs, sedans and even a few camper vans from Sichuan province in the south, Heilongjiang in the north and everywhere in between - more than a million visitors in 2016 and even more last year.
The automotive deluge means this can hardly be called hitting the open road. But all the cars are an unmistakable symptom of what Mao Peng, the editor of Road Trip China, one of the country's first such guidebooks, calls "road trip fever in China."
It wasn't long ago that the best - and sometimes only - way to cross the world's third-largest country was by slow train.
But China's decades of blistering economic growth brought a road-building spree that has left the country with almost as much paved road as the United States and almost twice as much expressway - more than 130,000 kilometres in total, enough to circle the planet three times. After about a decade as the world's largest car market, China also boasts the biggest fleet of registered vehicles on Earth, around 300 million.
Now, the country's tourists are embracing what has long been a staple of North American film and summer culture, shunning the bus tour in favour of long distances behind their own steering wheels.
Huang Yong drove 10 hours to the Grasslands Sky Road, filling the seats in his Toyota Highlander with his wife, their two daughters, a nephew and his mother, who compared time together in the car to the joys of Spring Festival reunions. On the car's back window, decals outline the route of another recent, 4,692-kilometre trip to Tibet.
Mr. Huang, a factory owner in Henan province, is determined to load up the car whenever he can, choosing as his destinations the prettiest spots he can find. He's convinced it's better for his kids, too, to be on the road.
"Their schoolwork is a heavy enough burden. Locking them indoors to study would make their brains rust and go dull," he said.
That attitude is part of a sea change in Chinese travel, as tourists abandon the group trips that once eased their first forays away from home in favour of navigating their own way. The percentage of domestic tourism trips organized by travel agencies fell by more than a quarter from 2012 to 2016, according to the most recent statistics published by a subsidiary of the China Tourism Automobile and Cruise Association.
Meanwhile, road trips doubled in that time, to 2.6 billion person trips in 2016. More than 70 per cent of the visitors to Meizhou, a southern Chinese city famous for mountain scenery and a walled Hakka village, now arrive in their own cars, state media has reported.
And tourism officials have begun to channel California car culture.
People "want to drive China's most beautiful roads and live as free as the wind, not asking where to go next," Dai Bin, president of the China Tourism Academy, said in a speech this spring. "There are many indications that China has entered the road trip era."
In a country with a long history and vast scenery, Chinese tourism leaders have even sought to make a single route, the 5,476-kilometre Highway 318 from Shanghai to Nepal, into a premier road trip.
China's sages offer their own reasons to explore. Mr. Mao cites 16th-century painter Dong Qichang, who wrote that the secret to art is to "read 10,000 books and travel 10,000 miles, so the dust and filth in your chest will be expelled and the glorious mountain gully on the paintwork will gradually appear in your mind." It means, he explained, that "while Chinese people may praise the idea of reading, they are also educated to go out and travel and find truth in the journey.
As travel motivation, though, ancient aphorisms pale next to the cash that has accumulated in a country where the upper middle class continues to grow quickly. One online survey last year found that travel was the second-highest priority for increased spending.
"People are getting more in touch with their own unique wants and needs," said Mr. Mao, who works for the state-owned China Communications Press and recently launched a website devoted to driving tourism. "And a road trip is a way for everyone to personalize their own experience."
It's happening abroad, too, with travel agencies offering starter packages - guided overseas road trips where Chinese take the wheel of their own vehicles but drive in a small convoy.
At home, meanwhile, teething problems remain. Tourism officials lament the state of roadside toilets, the quality of hotels in small centres and the propensity of drivers to flock to the same places. In 2016, the single busiest day on the Grasslands Sky Road was lined with 12,000 cars; last year, peak days saw 20,000.
At the same time, road trippers are bringing their families and their cash to places far from airports and high-speed rail stations. The owner of one farmhouse inn along the Grasslands Sky Road marvelled at the fact that her home, which she once considered a boring plateau, could become an object of tourist affections. Her guests all drive themselves and, with rooms that rent for $30 a night in the busy season, the road's popularity has lifted local fortunes.
Meanwhile, a new generation is growing up on the roads.
Xu Runze, 10, remembers his first road trip at the age of 4.
His family went to Rizhao, a beach destination. He can rattle off many of the destinations since: Qingdao, Ulanqab, Jinan, Beijing. On a late day in August, they arrived at the Grasslands Sky Road, eager to take it in before racing home to Shandong province in time for the first day of school, less than 48 hours later. "It might be crazy, but we just want to make the most of our time," said Ma Kun, Runze's mother.
Sun Shaoxian, a university student, has lost track of the number of road trips he has taken with his family, travelling in a Toyota Land Cruiser from his home in Henan province.
They don't book hotels or routes in advance, preferring to go where their whims take them. "When we come to a place we like, we find somewhere to sleep and stay a while," he said. He got his own driver's licence this summer and expects he will set off on his own road trips once he graduates.
With reporting by Alexandra Li
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
The Grasslands Sky Road has become one of the popular destinations for Chinese travellers taking road trips, with peak days last year seeing as many as 20,000 vehicles lined along the road in one day.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Above: Tourists take photos at the entrance to the Grasslands Sky Road. Tourism officials lament the state of roadside toilets and hotels in the country, and the propensity of motorists to flock to the same destinations.