Erstellt am: 24. 3. 2017 - 04:20 Uhr
Alternate Hallstatt: an Austrian village in China
CC-BY-SA 2.0 - Reisender1701 @ Flickr
The first time I heard about Chinese Hallstatt, I was actually sitting in the café of the Hotel Grüner Baum in real Hallstatt, Austrian Hallstatt, up in the Salzkammergut region. I had traveled there, like many other tourists, having heard stories of the spectacular natural beauty to be found surrounding this little mountain town.
On the train over, I'd met a talkative tourist from New Zealand who had read all the guidebooks and knew considerably more about Hallstatt than I did; he was about to go on a trek up to the Five Fingers viewpoint (whereas, I, being lazy, had considerably more humble plans for the day), and we'd decided to have a quick breakfast coffee together before he left.
"Did you know," he mused sleepily as we gazed out at the majestic mountain lake in front of us, "that in China, they took this entire village and made a replica of it?"
This village, right here, has its own replica?
"Yeah," he said, "just the buildings obviously, not the mountains and the salt mine and everything."
CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wolfgang Wildner @ Flickr
After he left, I dutifully logged onto the internet and verified his claim.
Chinese Hallstatt really did exist. But why, for God's sake?
To get an answer to this question, I tramped on over to Hallstatt's city hall, where I met with the mayor, Alexander Scheutz.
Here's an English-language paraphrase of part of our chat:
"I received an email from the Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. They wrote me that an investment group in China wanted to recreate parts of Hallstatt, and they wanted to introduce the project to us. What I didn’t know was that they’d already begun building it by that point!
"About a month later, the Hallstatter who owns the Grüner Baum hotel (Monika Wenger), came to me and said she’d had a guest in the hotel, who'd shown her the blueprints of a reproduction of her hotel, as well as of the main square, the church, and numerous other buildings. They told her a replica of Hallstatt had already been built by this architecture firm. She wasn't too happy, to be copied without even being asked first!
"From there it developed… [a few months later], it was suggested we should come visit, to see it. So, end of May or beginning of June, a small delegation from Hallstatt was invited, and we took a look at it."
Apparently, the visit went well, because the city of Hallstatt and the investment group Minmetals Land Limited, signed a friendship agreement shortly thereafter, one which would encourage cultural exchange and cooperation between the two parallel versions of the same village.
But this still didn't answer the question: why?
Could you imagine something like this in Austria? I'd asked the mayor at the time. Could you imagine Austrians creating a touristy China village?
"No, I think we're very proud of our architectural and artistic traditions over here in Europe, and we wouldn't need to borrow from the Chinese," he said, "and I wondered about this too! The Chinese also have a long history of their own cultural traditions, and nevertheless they choose to replicate Hallstatt. It's very interesting."
CC-BY-ND-2.0 / Kevin Botto @Flickr
Some years passed, and I slowly forgot about this surreal replica of one of Europe's oldest villages, and its as yet unresolved reason for existing.
I probably never would have thought about it again, if I hadn't found myself inadvertently within a hop and a skip of it, many months into a long trip around Asia, and well overdue for a Wiener schnitzel.
Call it a mixture of homesickness, curiosity, and hunger, but as soon as I realized I was so close, I knew I had to go...
Johnny Bliss, 2017
Until you're right in the midst of it, there's nothing Austrian about the scene. The buildings or landscape don't change gradually; one moment, you're deep in industrial China, the next you're at the outside of... well, what looks from the outside like a theme park. You even buy tickets to enter.
Once you pass through the gates, you board a small bus. The bus drives you up some forested, hilly terrain, and within a matter of minutes, you already see the first smatterings of isolated Austrian-village-looking houses. Near the top of a hill, they let you off the bus.
* the climate's a wee bit different than in Austria
Then, you must walk down the other side of the hill, at which point, through a curtain of tropical palm trees*, you see a familiar church...
Most of the town is off-limits to tourists (and looks largely unoccupied), but the village centre is a beehive of activity, with lots of souvenir stands, restaurants, cafés, street performers, and stern-looking police, standing guard to make sure you never stop feeling watched.
* back in Austria, I wear them as pyjamas
Pretty much every tourist there, other than us, was Asian; most were probably local tourists from China. Therefore, much like people dressed up as Mickey Mouse or Goofy at Disneyland, we were treated as part of the attraction by the other tourists, who regularly asked us to pose with them for photos. My only regret was, I'd forgotten my lederhosen* back home.
Unfortunately, there's nothing much Austrian about Chinese Hallstatt when you look closer: the cafés all serve bubble tea and durian ice cream, and the souvenir shops sell toys from Japanese anime series and model London buses.
I'd travelled there with an American friend, a resident professor at a nearby university. He was every bit as bemused by the place as I was.
"This never was an Austrian church," he mused, as we stood in front of the spitting image of an Austrian church. "Nobody has ever come to worship here. This was not built, stone-by-stone, in the middle ages. This is a symbol of an idea, one which arguably is not even alive in Europe today."
Later, we stood in front of a candle shop; that's what the sign on the front indicated it was. Inside, they were offering ice cream and candy.
"They went to the trouble of building the facade," he said, "but then, they ran out of ideas, because they didn't understand the inside."
Later, starting to feel a little hungry, we searched for a good Hallstätter restaurant that could serve us something that would remind me of home.
Actually, I already knew I wasn't going to find one, but I felt an obligation to at least try. At one moment, I felt a glimmer of hope. It was no schnitzel, but there was a menu outside on restaurant that offered pizza.
"Pizza!" I said, brightly. "This works. We eat pizza in Austria."
"This is a menu for a restaurant in Texas," my friend said, squinting at the menu. "This isn't a real menu here."
"What the hell," I said.
"My mind hurts," my friend laughed.
* - contrary to the impression this article gives, the Grüner Baum is NOT the only hotel in the entirety of Hallstatt!
It's just the one I happen to have visited, in both universes (I think).
Feeling a little bit bummed, we eventually sat down in the closest approximation to an Austrian hotel we could find (I thiiiiiink it's the building that in the real world would be the Grüner Baum*, actually), a restaurant or café facing the very small steppe lake that stands in for the Hallstättersee.
From outside it was the most compelling place; there were actual chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and comfortable-looking seats by the window. OK, so those seats were decorated with the British Union Jack and other out-of-place decorations from anywhere and everywhere western. There was really bad pop music blaring really loudly. And sitting down at the booth, you could not possibly confuse it for anything in the Austrian Hallstatt, but it was, still, somehow cozy.
Also, their menu featured the words "cappuccino" OMG we can get a real coffee at the Austrian café in Hallstatt and a picture of some breaded meat that looked suspiciously like schnitzel OMG here I come I'm gonna get my Schnitzel after all, and at that moment, we knew we'd arrived.
I wish I could conclude this web article with a paragraph about how delicious and authentic the coffee was it tasted like Nescafé, but sweeter and what a surprise it was to find a real Wiener Schnitzel at the other end of the earth it was more bread than meat, was sliced into small pieces, tasted like nothing, and gave me food poisoning but sadly, as it turns out well, duh! there is but one Hallstatt in the world, and it is in Austria.
However, it was a pretty interesting (if bewildering) daytrip!
(I still don't know why it exists.)