You will probably be surprised to discover it but authenticity is often difficult to find while visiting China. I am in no way saying that China is not authentic or that the Chinese are anything but genuine. But if you go where the tourists are (and let’s face it that is why you are travelling in China in the first place) things are often a but surreal. Take the Great Wall in Beijing. It is amazing but if you go to the wrong spot it has been overly restored and is being patrolled by sullen teenagers in period costume. It can feel a bit like the idea of China rather than actually being China. A little bit like when you go to Disney World and walk down Main Street, USA. There is this heightened/idealized quality to it.
The Chinese government has been pushing development of the Silk Road for the last few years. This part of history has tended to be ignored since the revolution and China is now ready to explore it’s past. That has meant developing tourism and funneling money into restoration. All well and good. But sometimes you need things to look a little imperfect in order to fully take them in. That impeccable wall in Beijing is hard to reconcile with the 2000 year history that I know that it has.
Tourists in China are mostly domestic. There is now money to spend on travel and people are anxious to see their country outside of their own part of it. But there is an aspect of “on the bus off the bus” tour group mentality that seeps over into the sites themselves. Shuttle busses, queue guides, and actual piles of accessories that some women are carting around to be photographed with (not exaggerating. It is surreal)
That is why the Night market in Zhangye was such a delight. There were no other tourists. Not only other foreigners but no domestic tourists. Zhangye is supposed to have 1.3 million people in it (a small town by Chinese standards) but it felt deserted. Row after row of strangely empty apartment buildings and wide streets with no traffic.
By this point in our journey were were all desperate for something that wasn’t the same Chinese food over and over. I don’t know if you have ever had Chinese food 15 meals in a row but we were looking for something different. Specifically, we were looking for something familiar that we didn’t have to think about.
We found a café that didn’t serve coffee (we seemed to have left that luxury back in Beijing) but did seems to boast some western fare. There were six of us and we ordered steaks and pizza. It wasn’t the best meal of my life but it wasn’t the worst. The wait staff was so nervous about serving us and there was a couple of boys eating outside the window next to our table who pretty much stared at us the whole time as if we were zoo exhibits.
We wandered up and down the two streets of the market winding in and out of the locals dining out and the vendors preparing for the evening. This was real life. There weren’t actors playing the part of locals or tourists taking endless selfies. These were just normal people going about their normal lives. And for a moment we got to be part of it.