Trekking Through China
How has development progressed in coastal versus inland China?
- I witnessed the China based on rural values — and not yet so comfortable with materialism and commercialism — and a China seething with history and culture.
- The southern reaches of the Yangtze Plain were a feast for the eyes with their green carpets of rice fields.
- A walk down the parallel street would hold many a surprise. It was often a world apart — but only a hundred meters away.
- Despite so much unemployment, one never felt unsafe, even for a moment. The level of honesty of the average Chinese is truly remarkable.
- In many places, once I had gotten off the bus, I would take a short walk down the main street, reminiscent of a European boulevard.
As a Singaporean, I have had a deep interest in both China and India, especially since the economic tsunamis triggered in their wake have been lapping this tiny island’s shores for the better part of a decade.
Since the early 1990s, I have made several visits to both countries. Though I have traveled extensively in India, my visits to China had been only to the major cities.
This was never enough to satisfy my deep cultural interest in the country — having been moved by Mao’s Long March in my teens and being a practitioner of Qi Kong and Tai Chi.
Armed with modest Mandarin speaking skills and an insatiable curiosity for its history and civilization, I took a month-long trip to soak in its culture and explore the heartland of China.
My starting point, Guangzhou, was a postcard gateway to the country. Within 15 minutes, I was out of the spanking new airport and into a waiting air conditioned public bus with a hostess serving snacks and water.
Orderly traffic glided through the clean and green streets. Smartly dressed people wearing the latest fashions filled the immaculate shopping centers of Changshou Lu. Bright neon lights pierced the night sky and every shop had a thriving business.
The city was filled with foreigners, as this was the time for the renowned Guangzhou Trade Fair. In short, this was the China we so often hear about — and have come to expect.
My next stop was my pilgrimage to Mao’s birthplace, Shao Shan, near Changsha. Leaving Guangzhou city, the countryside was vibrant. Smart villages with beautifully tiled three- to five-story buildings stretched out for miles.
Many of these were rented out to migrant workers in the factories nearby — and added to the prosperity of rural Guandong province. Our bus hurtled down the perfect highway at more than 100km per hour, zipping past fields overflowing with all types of vegetables.
Small tractors, scooters and irrigation pumps dotted the landscape announcing the incipient mechanization of agriculture.
At Shaoguan, I switched to a train. The plains gave way to an incredibly ribbed hillscape. The long journey was one of peek-a-boo, going through hundreds of short tunnels drilled right through the endless hills.
Emerging from a tunnel, the eyes would be teased for a moment with the sight of a remote mountain village only to plunge into another tunnel. These bored-through railway systems are one of the unsung engineering achievements of the Maoist era.
Approaching Changsha, the southern reaches of the Yangtze Plain were a feast for the eyes with their green carpets of rice fields. The approach to Changsha, however, is telegraphed by ever-graying skies.
This China surprised me by the marked contrast it had to the China of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. It was a China of warm and friendly people.
I encountered taxi drivers giving free rides, fellow passengers inviting me to their homes and strangers buying me tea for an idle chat.
In short, I witnessed the China based on rural values — and not yet so comfortable with materialism and commercialism — and a China seething with history and culture.
At the same time, it was a China not quite in pace with the epochal changes transforming the coastal cities, and a China of frustrated rising expectations.
My subsequent journey took me to Wuhan, the industrial city on the Yangtze, and to Xiangfan, home of the Three Gorges Dam. Wudang Shan is the home of tai chi, Ankang, Xian, the home of the terracotta warriors — and Yanan was the revolutionary headquarters of Mao’s army after the Long March.
Moving north, I visited Luoyang, which is the home of Shaolin Kung Fu and the Longmen grottoes, making my way towards the capital, Beijing. Shenyang was the home of the Manchu Qing dynasty, and Dalian, the Russian treaty port, is near Qufu, the home of Confucius.
The second capital of China, Nanjing is the site of Sun Yat Sen’s mausoleum and of the infamous Japanese Nanjing massacre. China has its own Venice in Suzhou, and it is also the home of the Singapore industrial park. Also in the south, Hangzhou is a delicate country town with the ethereal beauty of the peaceful and famous Xi Hu lake.
And eventually, I made it to Shanghai, the poster city of modern China.
This journey encompassed the bulk of Han China and the five key economic regions of the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze Plain, North China Plain, North-east China (Dongbei/Manchuria) and the Yangtze Delta.
The journey was long, the pleasant memories too many and the details too minute. Apart from the cultural richness and the scenic beauty of the country, what struck me the most was the contrast between the cities of the coast and those of the interior.
Beggary and homelessness were not rampant, but not uncommon either. Being a foreigner, I was often a target for beggars.
The most extreme incident was when I was making a phone call outside a train station and I felt a tug on the back of my thigh.
I turned around to find an ancient woman kneeling on two legs and with her palms open begging for alms. Next to her was a small boy fully prostrate at my feet.
It was a heart-wrenching scene, although I have seen many beggars before, this was surely the only time anyone prostrated themselves for alms.
Despite so much unemployment, one never felt unsafe, even for a moment. The level of honesty of the average Chinese is truly remarkable.
In many cities, and particularly Xian, there were beautiful boulevards with an endless number of boutiques and consumer shops.
But very little shopping seemed to be done, and few of the people seemed to be wearing these clothes — very unlike Guangzhou or Shanghai.
Another unsung wonder of Maoist China was the virtual reconstruction of all Chinese cities.
Most cities seem to have been built from the ground up and have similar layouts — a large square with the train station, bus station, hotels and taxi stands on the perimeter.
A square grid plan of wide streets then extended around the square. Main streets were lined with shop houses of two or three stories, interspersed by residential blocks of four to six stories.
Many of these blocks were of an identical square design and often tiled in light blue, white or grey.
They had a certain Soviet feel to it. Most had no elevators and for those living on the highest floors, the climb could be trying.
Inside, the stairwells were dark, dank and rundown. Many apartments were smallish — about 600 square feet for a family — and very often without toilets. The apartment blocks without toilets had communal facilities usually on the ground floor. In the cities, the facilities were quite well maintained.
In the countryside, traditional old courtyard country houses were the norm. They were spacious and fit the needs of farm life, even though they were usually rundown. Some hamlets had communal toilet facilities too. The condition of these was quite beyond description.
In many places, once I had gotten off the bus, I would take a short walk down the main street. It would often be reminiscent of a European boulevard.
Tree-lined streets, artistic lampposts with European designs, bright neon-lit shops, well-tarred roads and smooth flowing traffic.
But a walk down the parallel street would hold many a surprise. Completely unlit streets, potholed roads, choked drains, sidewalks blocked by uncollected rubbish. It was often a world apart — but only a hundred meters away.
This was particularly true of tourist facilities, train stations and highway toilets. All of these were of such an impeccable standard. But once outside of these visible high-profile locales, the difference in standards was quite dramatic.
The systematic high quality of high visibility locations and the systematic low quality of local areas left one with the impression that this was a deliberate practice across the nation to create a very favorable impression for the casual visitor — whether foreign or Chinese.
This brought to mind scenes from Chinese movies of the age-old habit of creating an impression for the mandarins of the imperial court on their inspection tours of the empire.
In summary, despite the unquestionable progress the country has made, so self-evident even in the most remote places, the Communist Party and the economy have not been able to deliver satisfactory progress to vast swathes of China’s interior.