Photos show China’s most surreal tourist spot – an Instagram-worthy fake town full of fake farmers and fishermen

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  • With breathtaking seashores and bucolic farmlands, Xiapu County in southern China is perfect.

  • The trap ? Most of these photos are staged by teams of tour guides who fish for quick cash.

  • Angry critics have complained that Xiapu is nothing more than a staging area for a rural photoshoot.

  • Visit the Insider homepage for more stories.

Xiapu County in Fujian Province is almost a little too perfect.

Xiapu County is a small town in southern China’s Fujian Province. It is also a high place of photography. ReLvXing / Weibo

An idyllic sunrise rises over Xiapu County, a rural town in Fujian, China. From the beaches of Xiapu, you can see a lone fisherman rowing his boat towards the endless horizon. And as you venture deeper into the county, you might catch stumps of buffalo and spot chickens scurrying over the lush farmland.

Photos of these county scenic spots abound on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

The trap ? Most of them are made.

Buffaloes? Farmers? Mist? Xiapu has it all for a price.

Buffaloes and farmers walk under a tree in Xiapu, Fujian.
Staged snapshots of farmers plowing the land with buffaloes are commonplace in Weibo posts on Xiapu. Career Travel / Weibo

As Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Xiapu is reminiscent of what rural China looked like in the past. It’s still a largely agrarian town, but much of its picturesque landscape – and the people in it – are created by photo crews posing as fake farmers and fishermen.

Before this masquerade took off, Xiapu was best known for its seafood. But years of bad harvests from the sea hurt the region’s economy. Then the local government had a bright idea: to take advantage of rural tourism, he aimed to make Xiapu the rural seaside village of his dreams, according to local reports. The problem with this plan was that it wasn’t.

Now Xiapu is known for something else entirely. For the right price, Chinese and foreign visitors can get the perfect photo for their social media profile, with “special effects” courtesy of local businessmen who fish to facilitate photo ops.

Fishermen wave colored nets at the right angle for photographers to take the perfect shot.

Three fishermen standing in colorful nets of shallow water waves.
Models dressed in wave nets in rural fisherman’s clothes for the benefit of tourists. ReLvXing / Weibo

According to The New York Times, the promise of stunning photos from staged photo shoots is what really draws the crowds to Xiapu County. The Times detailed how hordes of photographers lined up along a bridge to take a staged snapshot of a model in a traditional hat rowing her boat toward the bridge.

The model was paid $ 30 for her problems, the Times noted.

Teamwork is at the origin of a dream job. The fishermen who offer the staged photo services wait for the signal to cast their nets.

Fishermen are suspended over the water in Xiapu Bay.
Weibo posters say that most of the Xiapu fishermen in the photos are mannequins just waiting for tourist buses to pass before setting out their colorful nets. ShuYuShideChuanShuo / Weibo

The Times spoke to Liu Weishun, 40, who runs an attraction where gigantic unused fishing nets are deployed for staged photos. Liu told the outlet that some 500 visitors come to his site every day and pay him $ 3 each to take pictures of people casting the nets. Some even fork out extra for a model wearing a straw hat to row in front of – led, of course, by Liu, who gives her stage directions via a walkie-talkie.

“Photographers have expectations for their work,” Liu told The Times. “They need someone in specific positions, in a way that meets their composing needs.”

Behind the scenes, this “farmer” and his buffalo don’t do much farming at all.

A man dressed in traditional Chinese agricultural clothing stands with a hoe on his shoulder next to a buffalo.
Between shoots, “farmers” sit idle, hoe in hand, next to their animals, Weibo posters told Insider. The man and the beast are also resting, after having paced for hours in front of photographers lined up with their tripods. Sina / Weibo trip

Farmers don’t just show up from the morning mist either. Snapshots on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, showed a man setting straw on fire as two middle-aged people trudged through the mud, pulling a buffalo behind them.

This reconstructed pastoral scene is also one of the county’s most popular venues for social media connoisseurs, some of which show up at hanfu, or traditional Chinese costume.

Xiapu’s filtered photos often show geese peering quietly. The woman in this photo is a model, however, and the geese are trained to perform in front of the cameras, tourists told Insider.

A flock of geese flaps their wings in front of a standing woman in a sunny forest.
These filtered, well-lit snapshots of flocks of geese are the result of a painstaking process to craft the best shots in the area. LvXingZhecareer / Weibo

Wrong or not, rural tourist spots like Xiapu have recently seen a resurgence in popularity. CNN reported in May that city dwellers were heading into the countryside in search of interesting places and alternative local travel destinations after international travel was restricted due to the pandemic.

The boom in rural tourism has also been fueled by the popularity of Li Ziqi, a online superstar who has become one of the country’s top influencers on Weibo due to her bucolic depictions of the Chinese countryside.

Smoke and mirrors – the “haze” seen in the photos of the area is generated by a sweaty man furiously stoking a burning pile of straw

A woman guards geese in Xiapu County while a man lights a fire with plumes of smoke in the background.
The geese and the woman posing as the farmer must walk through the thick smoke, to give photographers and visitors to Xiapu the chance to secure money from a rural worker emerging from the mysterious haze. Sina / Weibo trip

Eager to put on appearances, some visitors in the county even have compared his landscapes to scenes from “Spirited Away, the Oscar-winning animated film by Japanese author Hayao miyazaki.

“Heaven on earth,” wrote a Weibo user, ShenghuiFashi, who posted a 30-second video of the farmers pacing the buffalo in tow.

But the angry accounts on Weibo disagree.

A plume of smoke next to a row of geese and a woman.

The reality behind the photos of the area on social media is actually a man fanning a burning pile of straw to create a mystical ‘haze’ and a pissed off worker trying to keep his geese in line. YuanFangXuedeShiJie / Weibo

“This place couldn’t be more wrong. Fake fishermen throwing their nets and fake farmers with sad buffaloes posing for photos,” a visitor disappointed. wrote.

“I no longer know what is true or false”, another noted.

Some Weibo critics say they were scammed into visiting Xiapu thinking it would be a wonderful and unspoiled rural environment. They were very disappointed.

A crowd of Chinese tourists with tripods and cameras watch a sunrise over the Niu Yu mudflat in Xiapu.
Xiapu is a major draw for budding Chinese photographers drawn to its striking imagery and traditional way of life away from the skyscrapers and bustle of the country’s megacities. Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images

Another Weibo poster named Feel wrote: “It’s a scam. Teens are tricked into going to this hot spot thinking that everything is real. they prefer to post pretty pictures. “

“Behind a brilliant picture of a rural landscape, I guess there are 10 tripods. It’s so artificial, but people will be willing to pay for it.”

Another visitor to Xiapu went so far as to warn other tourists not to visit the place at all.

Fishermen on a boat in Xiapu were casting their nets.
Xiapu fishermen have to cast their nets over and over again so that tourists can take pictures of them at the right time. HeiHeiYingYouJi / Weibo

“First of all, the so-called rural people in social media photos are all actors, and the county itself is pretty much like a staging area for a photoshoot. In reality, without the filters , the place is extremely ordinary. The beach is dirty and the seafood restaurants are notorious for ripping people off “, the critical noted.

But if you like staged photos of farmers and fishermen, then Xiapu is the place for you.

The sunset casts a golden light on the water of Xiapu.
Whether the photographs are staged may not matter to some people who just want a social media-worthy snapshot. ReLvXing / Weibo

But some were content to embrace the veneer of artificiality enveloping Xiapu County.

“Under the trees the old people were walking and it looked a bit like a movie. But the haze was just smoke from a burning pile.” wrote Weibo OuQiDeBao poster. “Ah, but in this world, it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong or not, as long as it looks pretty in the photos.”

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