Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The new Tibet travellers: 'influencer' vloggers raising revenue from livestreaming channels: Are they for real?

 During the last three year pandemic 'exile' from hiking in China I've been doing some armchair travel via video channels, trying to see what the locals are doing in the corners of Yunnan and Sichuan that I used to visit. And what I discovered [as I've already posted about] is a whole new trend for young Chinese travellers to post regular daily video diaries of their Tibet/Qinghai/Yunnan/Sichuan/Gansu/trips on channels such as bilibili and ixigua. But these are not videos of hikers yomping and camping across the forests and mountain passes of South West China, rather they are a rather unique form of road-trip-with-Chinese characteristics. 

Firstly, most of the 'hikers' are literally road bound - they stick to the highways. Secondly, while some post images of bike, car or motorbike trips, many of these video diaries are from people - usually females - who for some reason have decided to pull a trailer or handcart with them to carry their supplies,  and even as a cramped sleeping quarters.

As this blog post [in Chinese] explains, this handcart hiker phenomenon has taken off in China because of the unique arrangement of China's fenced-off internet. Rising prosperity and personal freedom among young people has encouraged travel within China. This has combined with the rise of the 'self media' [Zì méitǐ '自媒体'] business model in which Chinese have aimed to make a fortune by creating their own content on video channels and social media sites. In China, many social media and video sites are structured to incentivise building followers and views - and they have inbuilt payment/funding/sponsorship systems. This has led to a wave of China-based travel livestreamers trying to become influencers or wanghong (网红). Since their content is all in Chinese and almost wholly on Chinese sites such as ixigua/weibo rather than Youtube/Tiktok etc, they are not on the international radar.


Let me give you an example. 'Wandering Wan Wennuan' is a young woman from a small town in Sichuan who has 1.3 million followers on ixigua alone. Her channel has hundreds of daily and weekly updates of her various trips into Tibet and other parts of by road/bike/hitchhiking. The video clips get between 50,000 and 500,000 views each. How much revenue she derives from all this content and views is not clear.

Her most recent mode of transport was a hand pulled cart along the 'Qinghai-Tibet' line. Prior to that she has posted videos of her trip in RVs and a motorcyle and sidecar rig to places such as Hainan. 

She has been posting videos for several years and they appear genuine, depicting the many encounters she has had with other travellers and locals along the way. She talks to restaurant and hotel owners, local cops, truck drivers who give her lifts, local families, Tibetans working in the fields, shopkeepers and a range of other people travelling by motorbike, 4WD etc. Sometimes she hooks up with others and travels with them for a while. At one point she adopt a stray puppy and takes it with her.

Bizarrely, she claims that her hiking is motivated by a desire/compulsion to lose weight, even though she appears throughout to be of normal weight and quite healthy. 

It seems to be for real. It would be hard to fake all the ups and downs of being on the road: tyre punctures, cooking plain meals in the rain, flooded and muddy campsites, not getting to your destination by nightfall - and the worries of being a solo camper when things go 'bump in the night'. It also seems to be posted in real time rather than prerecorded. But you can never tell if there is any outside support or creative editing. Or outside sponsorship and perhaps co-operation from business and local governments, not to mention [self] censorship. Some of the video make reference to [or feature] her 'fans' who greet her or who turn up to assist through contributions. Some just want selfies.

Wen's videos also cover her between-trip interludes in her hometown, where she provides regular updates on her 'real job' as a sausage-making entrepreneur (this stuff is not for the vegans). Wan also occasionally posts videos that give clues to her 'travel influencer' activities and revenue - she has bought four wheel drive 'tanks', motorbikes and a nice apartment.

Wan is just one of hundreds of Chinese travellers who are now posting videos online. Some of these other video travel bloggers are seen in her videos on the road, and the comments suggest that at least some of the are not genuine travellers but people doing it in pursuit of social media/livestreaming fame and fortune. One young woman she meets, for example, claims to have hiked 50km along a Tibet highway in one day - which is further than I do on some of my cycling days. The commenters also point out that she has a soft and fair facial complexion, at odds with the brutal wind and UV burned faces of real travellers.

And this is where 'Wandering Wen' lets the mask slip in one video. In response to similar accusations that she is a fake vlogger with a film support crew and backup truck, she posts footage of what she looks like with the beauty filter turned off - a more realistic vision of reddened, sunburnt and freckled skin and mouth sores!

Well, real or not, it certainly makes for interesting armchair travel viewing and an insight to the unique young Chinese influencer style of travel in the 21st century. 

But there are downsides, without even going into the whole Tibetan politics question. The Chinese blog decrying the rise of the travel vloggers on Tibetan roads points to a more tragic aspect. One such young female called Meimei from Henan was killed in May 2021 when she lost control of her handcart and was crushed.

Is the travel vlogger/livestreamer/influencer phenomenon here to stay? Who knows. I guess my point is that this is the new wave of 'self media' travellers you will encounter on the road in South West China.


John Holmes said...

Well, I guess some of these vloggers must be exaggerating their hardships, but it's hard to tell at a distance.

If they don't have anything interesting to say, no matter the scenery, I'm sure their popularity will wane.

I'm told the new online visa application process is cumbersome for us foreigners, that's a hurdle I'll have to overcome before I get back to those parts.

Anyway, interesting post, as usual !

mutikonka said...

Thanks John ... I might be back in Sichuan or Gansu in September if the visa requirements and PCR testing aren't too onerous. Quite fancy taking a look at the Zhagana area of south Gansu if that's possible - another Joseph Rock area to tick off the list!