DALI, China, 14 May 2019: Brian Linden a China railway buff and a heritage hotel founder in the ancient town of Xizhou, just north of Dali, stands on the station platform and answers TTR Weekly’s email questions on his Ipad while waiting for the next high-speed train to arrive.
A couple of days later he responds to a follow-up email and you guessed it, he’s standing on a station platform in a faraway city waiting for a train.
An American who settled in Xizhou just 37 km north of Dali in Yunnan province, Linden restored a protected building in the ancient town and runs the ‘Linden Centre The Commons’, a small 14-room hotel in the heart of this heritage market town that stands on the banks of the Erthal Lake.
That’s his first passion and a close second is travelling and exploring China on its vast railway system.
He knows the railways, both the slow overnight trains and the high-speed variety, like the back of his hand having made hundreds of trips annually.
He will present his observations on rail travel as well as address the opportunities and challenges facing tourism in Yunnan province at the opening day session of the Mekong Tourism Forum 28 May in Dali town.
A travel veteran who gained his spurs on the old Chinese train system Linden says he never “expected such dramatic changes in China in such a short period of time.
“I love trains, and proudly have spent over 250 nights on trains (3/4 of them in China). Unfortunately, overnight train travel in China is a thing of the past for many travellers because of the convenience of the high-speed train network. I still try to sneak in five to 10 overnight rides per year.”
We posted questions asking for a few sound bites on his keynote address that focuses on rail travel.
Q: Tell us about the impact of high-speed rail travel between Kunming and Dali?
A: “The high-speed trains between Kunming and Dali are constantly full. I was concerned that it would be difficult (for demand) to meet capacity because of the number of trains added to this route (almost every 45 minutes there is a train). Instead the seats are filled up for a ride that takes about two hours.”
Q: But can Yunnan’s ancient towns cope with popularity?
A: “Many of China’s most pristine destinations remained so because of difficult transportation links. Carrying so many travellers in comfort and so efficiently means that some of these areas, to accommodate this wave of tourists, must build their infrastructure quickly, often without long-term and more sustainable plans.
“The easiest strategy is to copy and replicate what worked elsewhere in China. Many sites are now indistinguishable from each other, and the tourism model they copied has become obsolete because of its over-commercialism. I am worried that parts of Yunnan are following the aforementioned model.”
Q: While the trains are fast is the booking process user friendly?
A: “For many non-Chinese-speaking foreigners, purchasing train tickets can be very difficult. Buying online requires passport details and passports must be presented to pick up tickets at the station. When checking in at the station to board a train foreigners are usually directed to a single queue where an official checks their documents.
“The nice thing is that foreigners will often find someone in the line who speaks English and is willing to help. For guided foreign groups/individuals and Chinese-speaking foreigners, the high-speed connections have made travel so much easier.
“Purchasing tickets would be easier if the tickets were sent directly to one’s phone or computer. Because foreigners cannot scan their documents into the automatic ticket dispensers at the station, they currently have an extra step of waiting in line just to get the paper version of the ticket. This part of the process can be complicated for many foreign guests.”
Q: What are the chances of a rail link between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar?
A: “For international travellers, the border between China and Myanmar has been difficult. Sometimes it is rumoured to be open, but more often it is closed. A rail link between the two countries would open an exciting new overland route that would connect places like Dali and Tengchong with Mandalay and Bagan.”
Q: And what impact will the high-speed rail line have on Laos? Are there any parallels with the Kunming-Dali line?
A: “Laos and Vietnam have been more easily connected to China via road and rail. The number of foreigners crossing into China from these countries is still small. It is difficult to attract a foreign visitor who prefers beaches and the tropical climate of Southeast Asia. However, China’s tangible and intangible culture, its diverse physical landscapes, and dynamic cities make this country one of the most interesting places to visit in the world. I have travelled to over 100 countries, and I still find myself forever charmed by China.”
Q: what are your goals for the Linden Centre and what’s the outlook for Xizhou historical village and other ancient towns?
A: “We firmly believe that the travel industry should incorporate values that go beyond typical businesses. We must create social entrepreneurial models that provide benefits to both investors and the community. Said models require time and energy, something that many investors are unable and unwilling to share due to the get-rich-quick business environment in China.
“The travel industry deserves better and our projects have proven that a value-driven model can preserve tangible and intangible resources, train and employ local neighbours, and inspire curiosity in and respect for a destination’s soul.
“Many of China’s more commercial tourism ventures have focused too much on short term gains for investors without considering the benefits for the local people. Financial gains do not outweigh the long term negative impact on a community’s social, cultural, and environmental resources.”
Linden has worked on four sites in Xizhou and is now involved in similar projects in Shibaoshan National Park, Tengchong and the garden city of Suzhou.
He notes: “Each one of these projects demonstrates respect for the tangible building traditions of the region and incorporates the community into the spirit of our hotels. By preserving the traditional, in the face of a gimmick- and trend- driven architectural designs, we are able to inspire a renewed reverence for each regions’ history and traditions.”
“Our buildings are classical and will remain so for hundreds of years. They represent the wisdom of the local people and not the design sense of outside architects. We believe that our model empowers the locals to require more from outside investors than just money, most importantly respect for their social and cultural traditions.”