Shuanglang : the other face of Yunnan’s tourism development

In this blog, I have tried to introduce slightly off-the-beaten path travel destinations and a few alternatives to famous ancient towns like Lijiang 丽江 or Fenghuang (凤凰) which have become overcrowded with tourists, mainly historical villages.

A short article about the Miao village Dehang (德夯) was the first one  about a place I did not like. If you are in Hunan and looking for authencity, I have already warned you not to go to Qianzhou (乾州)In this same spirit, let’s talk about Shuanglang (双廊), on the banks of Erhai lake (洱海), just 45 minutes by bus from Dali (大理).

View on (slightly polluted) Erhai Lake in Shuanglang

View on (slightly polluted) Erhai Lake in Shuanglang

“Don’t go there, you won’t like it”

In an article from the China National Geographic, Shuanglang was loosely presented as a base for a new type of trendy Chinese bohemians who escaped  the toxic environment of the country’s megalopolis. Meeting the Chinese bobos in their rural escape sounded like an interesting experience.

When I told a few Yunnan-based expat friends about my plan to go to Shuanglang, they were very blunt : “don’t go there, you won’t like it”. I was also told that “Shuanglang represents everything that went wrong with the development of tourism in Yunnan”.

I was curious to see how bad it was, and it wasn’t sad.

A Bai temple behind a concrete house in Shuanglang

A Bai temple behind a concrete house in Shuanglang

So, why go to Shuanglang?

Many Chinese and foreign tourists are disappointed with Lijiang (丽江) or Fenghuang (凤凰), because of the year-round crowds and  over-commercialisation. In spite of that, they are places worth seeing because there are enough narrow streets and hidden alleys. Shuanglang however is bad on a whole other level.

Over the past couple of years, I have become more aware of the consequences of mass tourism may have on historical villages. So, it’s precisely to see how chaotic tourism development can be that I decided to go to Shuanglang.

Glass and concrete on Erhai Lake in Shuanglang

Glass and concrete on Erhai Lake in Shuanglang

A taste of chaos

Shuanglang is a dusty and noisy little town. Since 2008 – 2009, a crowd of entrepreneurs from northern China and Guangdong province have come and built concrete hostels and guesthouses on the lake’s shores.

Honestly, Shuanglang could have been an ideal town where travellers could wake up with an impressive view on the lake. However, the town is the antithesis of sustainable urban planning . It seems as though there was no oversight from the local government.

Parts of the lakefront have been de facto privatised by guesthouses which have been built along narrow streets perpendicular to the only car-jammed one-way street that runs through the village. Further down, another part of the lakefront, a boardwalk is lined with trinket stores and expensive restaurants (imagine Lijiang near a polluted lake).

Beyond the chaos, the noise, the dust, the deafening honking, what shocked the most was the pollution of the Erhai lake. My guess is that the wastewater coming from all the guesthouses in town go directly into the lake. Algues, plastic bottles and papers thrown by tourists who are off to the Nanzhao island (南诏岛) blankets the lake.

Hidden in back alleys, ancient courtyard houses, which contrasts with the fast-and-cheap concrete guesthouses, are home to a few impoverished locals. Preservation of cultural heritage is a foreign concept.

In the middle of all of that, a slogan in red characters ironically proclaimed “建设新农村,倡导新生活” (Build the new countryside, Start a new lifestyle).

Find the only one guy who was fed up of honking

Find the only one guy who was fed up of honking

Shuanglang Mon Amour

Yet, judging by the amount of fashionably dressed girls whom I saw trying to walk with their insanely high heels land looking for a hotel at the same time, it seems that Shuanglang is THE place to go. If you have been to Dali (大理) and have waited for a bus on the lower-main road (to go towards Jianchuan 剑川,  Shaxi 沙溪  and Lijiang 丽江 for example), you have seen lots of buses heading to Shuanglang (双廊).

If your time in China and Yunnan is limited, of course, do not bother, there are enough villages worth of a visit and that are far better than Shuanglang. There are enough villages that are on the verge of radical change in the province and nice places on the Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) where you’ll get a taste of history.

If you are a scholar looking for a research site for your comparative study of the development of China’s domestic tourism or simply curious after reading this, then go … who knows, you might fall in love with Shuanglang (but I have my doubts).

Don’t get me wrong, I kinda enjoyed this trip to Shuanglang. Had I not been warned about how bad it is, I would have been terribly disappointed though.

Breathtaking view of Erhai lake from Shuanglang

Breathtaking view of Erhai lake from Shuanglang

Have your say

Have you been to Shuanglang? How did you like it?
Heading to Yunnan? Would you venture to Shuanglang?

There are 22 comments

  1. Chloé

    Thank you so much for this article! I was in Shuanglang about 4 years ago but couldn’t really explore the village because of the crazy traffic. We decided to skip it and I was considering going back this year, but after reading your article and the comments, I think I’ll give it a miss 😉 As far as villages around Erhai go, I really like Xizhou- still touristy, but it managed to keep most of its authenticity (at least when I last visited).

    1. Gaetan

      Yes, unless you are conducting research on the impact of the development of tourism in the Erhai Lake region, I do not really see the point of going to Shuanglang. But who knows, situation may have changed.
      Xizhou is getting a lot more attention and it’s getting more touristy. Yet, compared to Dali or Shuanglang, Xizhou has managed to keep its authenticity … unless situation has changed! Let me know what you find during your trip.
      Happy travels in Yunnan

  2. Namfon Natrakul

    Just passed through Shuanglang two weeks ago, while riding a bike around Erhai. Vehicles are now prohibited from entering Shuanglang. The traffic leading to town was horrendous though. There seemed to be an unusually large number of posh cars right around the town, so it certainly does attract those sort of crowds you mentioned. However, there were just as many tourist buses. We saw a long line of middle-age businessmen in suits pushing their luggage towards the town entrance. Apparently, like Dali and Lijiang, it is now the go-to destination for everyone.

    Shuanglang aside, those “chic” hotels seem to be popping up everywhere around the lake. The rise of Shuanglang perhaps gives false hope to other villages. I stopped for a night at a village after Shuanglang but before Wase (we thought it was Wase) with the intention to stay in a place run by the locals. What we saw was really sad. All of the 10+ hotels in the village were closed down. Yet, there were constructions of new hotels right next to the brand new hotel that went out of business. Eventually, after asking around, we found a place to stay. The hotel run by a local Bai family has a floor-to-ceiling glass window with views of the lake, WIFI connection, hot water, hot/cold drinking water dispenser and even a jacuzzi, but it looked like it had been ages since there were any guests there. It was clear that lot of investment and effort had been put into it, but they were clearly fighting a losing battles.It seems logical that the villagers should try to gain something from the thousands of tourists that come each year and they more than deserve it, but there was no way they could compete with all the lakeside villas built with massive investment from big cities.

    We also saw other hotels and hotel constructions inside many villages around the lake. There must be some sort of government grant that encourages villagers to renovate their homes into a hotel/hostel. It’s really sad that most of those will go out of business in no time and leave the locals with pile of debt.

  3. Dachi Tea Co.

    Your honesty is wonderfully refreshing. So many travel blogs out there seemingly written by airheads with an ulterior motive of earning money in some veiled way or another. A common theme among these people is almost zero contemplation of the very impact of their own presence in that place, or any concern for how that area has been affected by the development of tourism… It’s a tricky industry. Of course it’s never going to bring only positive benefits to a place, but you can see clearly how badly it goes in a country as chaotic as China. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more of your posts in time

  4. The Beijing Deva

    I read this blog a few nights ago before visiting and thought ‘it can’t be that bad’. Well it wasn’t ‘that’ bad, it was nightmarishly horrible bad.

    We stayed at a new hotel called the shard mansion which was new and quite well tucked away in a quiet corner. Room balcony had amazing views of the lake. Had to walk through a building site to reach it.

    I just dont understand how this is a tourist destination. One long dirty, busy main road with little in the way of shopping, eating or drinking.

    As the author alluded to there is minimal access to the lake unless your hotel overlooks it. There is maybe around 500m of boardwalk which is ruined by hawkers selling awful fried food.

    So yep, don’t go there, you won’t like it!

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you very much for your comment. I’m sorry to hear that you had a bad experience in Shuanglang. It’s true that it is not a very attractive travel destination in Yunnan (this is an understatement) and there are other places that are far more better (Shaxi is one of them – personal opinion). Yet, if there are any scholars who are conducting research on the development of tourism in Yunnan, Shuanglang makes a very good case study.
      Anyway, I hope you got the opportunity to discover other places in Yunnan.

  5. Into the mild

    I always feel odd travelling to places as they’re being built up. I try to be responsible and commit to sustainable tourism, but they also wouldn’t be pricing locals out or transforming the city without me and people like me coming in. It can be difficult to find the delicate balance of exotic but approachable places to see.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi there! I understand what you mean and I agree with you.
      Tourism as leisure is a relatively new concept. Tourism is part of a wider scheme to have people travel, spend money and therefore fuel the economy of the country. When tourism takes place in non-urban region, like in Shuanglang, it also has the value to improve the ‘quality’ of local people (who are less educated than their urban counterparts) and give them the opportunity to make money (this is not me saying that, it’s the underlying stance from the government).
      Yet, there are examples (very few though) of ‘sustainable’ tourism (whatever that means, because I do not think that a ‘sustainable tourism’ exists in absolute …) in China.
      A lot of places are ‘made up’ and deliberately developed as tourism attractions. One of the best example I found while travelling in China is Zhaoxing in Guizhou. The government and private companies have built a highway directly to the village, rebuilt roads inside the village … they now charge 100 RMB (18 US$) entrance fee to get their ‘return on investment’ and locals do not get a dime … but they started selling trinkets to tourists.
      Happy travels anyway! 😉

  6. yprh

    They are destroying all the charming places they had. I liked Shaxi and Baisha the most (although, it seems they are doing a brand new old city), but, Shuhe was a horrible stop.

    1. Gaetan

      You are right! Chinese tourists have a very different perception of “authenticity” and since tourism as leisure is a relatively new thing in China, they have developed their own way to enjoy themselves while travelling their own country.
      I saw the hotel complex that is (was) under construction in Shaxi and wonder how it is gonna play out once it’s open. Like you, I enjoyed Baisha (some locals told me that it is the ‘Lijiang of 10 or 15 years ago’) and did not find any interest in Suhe either.
      I do have to admit that Shuanglang was an oddball in all the places I have seen during my travel in China. Although most of us have somehow a love/hate feeling after visiting Lijiang or Suhe or Fenghuang or Shangrila, these places still have charms hidden in the back alleys. Shuanglang is somewhat very unique, not pleasant at all for most foreigners, but it seems that Chinese tourists love it …

      1. yprh

        I will not go Shuanglang… But, the Northwest Deqin and Shangrila are a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Best trip ever in China! And, in winter there is nobody.

      2. yprh

        Yes, it was amazing freezing. The water tubes were frozen in my hotel, and the wc water too… They live without heater, just with an electric blanket on the bed. They neither never switch on the heater in the car. Even, Shangrila airport was freezing. It shouldn’t be so bad if at least they have a place were to warm up. Only way to warm up in the North is hiking or drinking. But, it is so beautiful that the suffering is worth.

    1. Gaetan

      I agree with you. Unfortunately, it’s gonna take some time to change this kind of behaviour and I don’t think there is any clean-up effort scheduled any time soon …

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