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Getting Down and Dirty with China's Masses

Illustration for TIME by Keith Bendis

When Mao Zedong said China's strength lay in its peasantry, he didn't mean as a tourist attraction. But these days more and more visitors are eager to drop in on the masses. Just ask Clarence Guo, who specializes in taking foreign tourists to see the inhabitants of a group of terra-cotta caves a half hour northwest of Xi'an, China's ancient capital. "I want to show visitors how the real people in China live," says Guo. The amiable Xi'an native stumbled upon the cave people three years ago. His first reaction was amazement at how entire multigenerational families could live in 6-m-deep caves whose only modern amenity is a lone light bulb suspended from the cave's roof. Guo's awe soon gave way to a practical streak, as he reasoned that foreigners might also marvel at this rough lifestyle and, more importantly, be willing to pay for the privilege.

For $50 a head, Guo not only takes tourists to see the famed terra-cotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shi-huang, but he also throws in a cave village of their choice, a convenient stop on the way back to Xi'an. "A lot of people say that their favorite part of the tour is the caves," says Guo as he flips through stacks of photos depicting smiling Westerners towering over bewildered locals.

Getting Down and Dirty with China's Masses
When Mao Zedong said China's strength lay in its peasantry, he didn't mean as a tourist attraction. But these days more and more visitors are eager to drop in on the masses

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To the cave-dwellers, the tourists are more amusing than intrusive. "I'm not sure why people like to see where I live," says Wu Shuyue, 45, whose great-grandfather first hollowed out her current home more than a century ago. "I don't mind the foreigners taking pictures," Wu says, though she doesn't understand why they find her wooden pillow and mud-covered floors so interesting. "It would be nice if they said something, though." In the three years that her home has been a tourist attraction, she says, not a single visitor has ever bothered to make conversation. "They just take their pictures and go." Guo gives Wu and her family gifts of food and clothing, but they don't get paid for accommodating tourists.

Still, Wu should perhaps be grateful that she doesn't live along one of Beijing's hutong, the old alleys that feature courtyard-style homes. In recent years, hutong have become favorite stomping grounds for tourists searching for a glimpse of the real China. Hutong tours, offered through many upscale hotels in the capital, take visitors to within inches of where ordinary folks slop their pigs and live without the luxuries of indoor plumbing. Most tours charge from $35 to $65 for the pleasure of witnessing the simplicity of the urban Chinese lifestyle, though visitors can probably manage on their own. "The hutong aren't closed off, so people could really just wander in anywhere they like, without going on the special tour," concedes the concierge at a Beijing hotel. "It's a bit strange that they're paying all this money just to see how poor people live."

Even affluent Hong Kong is not averse to capitalizing on some of its less fortunate citizens. Yet where mainland tours offer genuine poverty, the capitalist haven has only its public housing estates to showcase. The Hong Kong Tourist Association runs a Family Insight Tour that takes visitors to see a standard 30-sq-m apartment, generally home to a four-member family. "It doesn't look very impressive," says tour guide Howard Chan. Nevertheless, the trend toward voyeuristic tourism doesn't appear likely to subside anytime soon. Next year, Guo plans to open a cave hotel outside Xi'an. Tourists will be able not only to visit China's cave people, but to sleep like them as well.

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