China’s hottest tourist spot

A barbecue meat skewer mascot in Zibo. The town has been overrun with visitors after becoming a social media star for its distinctive barbecue style. — The New York Times

THE flame-shaped neon archway was visible from miles away, which was good since there was little other reason for anyone to be in that part of town, an expanse of fields outside an industrial city in eastern China. The lights flickered between icy blue and red-hot, leaping toward the night sky beside a jumbo sign: “Zibo Barbecue Experiential Ground.”

And what an experience awaited. Inside this Coachella for barbecue, visitors could pose with a mascot dressed like a meat skewer. They could watch a concert against an LED backdrop of radiating flames. They could eat from one of the hundreds of grills scattered across the grounds the size of 12 football fields – if they waited hours for a table, and if their chosen meat purveyor hadn’t run out of food.

Zibo, a once-obscure chemical manufacturing city in Shandong province, has suddenly strangely – thanks to, of all things, barbecue– turned into China’s hottest tourist destination.

This city of 4.7 million people received 4.8 million visitors in March, after it began attracting notice on social media. During a public holiday last month, a Zibo vegetable market was more popular than the Great Wall, according to a mapping service. High-speed rail tickets from Beijing sold out one minute after their release.

The local government has set up 21 buses to ferry visitors from the train station directly to barbecue restaurants. They erected the barbecue festival on the site of a sprawling seafood market, the only place big enough to host 10,000 people.

“We’ve all had good food before, but this kind of hustle and bustle, this warmth, is hard to find,” said Zhang Kexin, a college senior who, within half an hour of arriving in Zibo during the recent holiday, bought six souvenir tubs of pan-fried crackers, another local specialty.

Diners picking the food they want grilled at a barbecue place in Zibo, China. — The New York TimesDiners picking the food they want grilled at a barbecue place in Zibo, China. — The New York Times

Zhang had travelled 800km from Shanxi province – not a journey she had ever considered before, though Zibo was a friend’s hometown. “I thought it seemed like a very ordinary place,” she laughed.

The question of why, exactly, this ordinary place took off has absorbed seemingly all of China, with officials in other cities even sending research teams to Zibo to try and emulate its success.

Most explanations attribute the craze’s origins to college students, some of whom posted on social media about the joys of the local barbecue style. Diners grill their own skewers on tabletop charcoal stoves, which lends the meal a DIY feel, and wrap them in a local specialty of tortilla-like shells, alongside a sprig of raw green onion and a smear of hot sauce.

The cheap prices were also a draw – skewers start at US15 cents (70 sen) at the most popular restaurants – so other young people began flocking to town. Influencers followed.

But perhaps most crucial has been the very fact of how unexpected Zibo’s rise was. As a result, locals – seemingly unable to believe their luck – have done all they can to keep the frenzy alive.

For many visitors, the crazy crowds are the point, after China’s prolonged Covid-19 lockdowns. At one of the most popular barbecue restaurants, where hundreds of diners perched on tiny folding stools around outdoor grills, officials had designated an elevated viewing platform just for tourists to watch the people below eat, through a cloud of cumin-scented smoke.

Li Yang, a local, snagged a table around 6pm, after having lined up at 3am. His commute to his job at a steel company was now clogged with traffic. But he didn’t mind.

“To see all this liveliness, after three years of the pandemic, my heart feels pretty warm,” he shouted, over the sounds of maracas shaken by four men, seemingly unaffiliated with the restaurant, who were gallivanting between tables serenading diners.

Several tables away, Bai Lingbin, 25, was already digging in, having waited since midnight. His grill, shared with four other men, was piled with toothpick-thin skewers laced with crispy pork skin, sweet potatoes and wraps.

“The atmosphere here is the best,” Bai, who had travelled from Anhui province said raising his beer to his table mates, whom he met in line for his spot. — The New York Times

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