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Friday, August 12, 2005

A thought on China

[From your editor: I was away from St. Louis, home in Cincinnati for a couple of days and so am behind on posting Alan's missives. Please be sure to scroll down after this article to catch "From Langmusi to Lanzhou." Thrill to tales of Alan the visiting dignitary, Alan the mahjongg addict, Alan the mystic, and of course, Alan the "when the hell will these roads be paved, my butt is killing me!?!" bus passenger.--David]

I am in Lanzhou right now. [I'm also including this link to the cities of the Silk Road since that is roughly Alan's route at the moment. I'll shut up now.--ed.] It occured to me as I was showering this morning that the people I am with right now might give a pretty good idea of where China--at least the parts that are modernizing at breakneck speed--stands today.

Both the man and the woman come from Linxia, the town I talked about last time. [Not sure what Alan is referencing here; will check with him.--ed.] The woman's childhood house is at the end of a short, narrow lane. It is built around a small courtyard and is very much like what you might see in a movie set in the early part of 20th century or earlier China. The toilet is a squat toilet, there are separate rooms off the courtyard for the different people in the family, clothes hang across the courtyard to dry, and there is an insulated peace that stops as soon as the front doors open and relations with the neighbors begin.

Now the couple lives in Lanzhou, a bustling city which I think I said has about 2 million people, but may be more like 3 million. There are too many cars on the streets, and the sound of honking horns is endless. Yesterday afternoon, a haze reminiscent of the worst of Taipei days clung to the city until late afternoon, and now, on this rainy day, I can just make out skyscrapers maybe half a kilometer away. At night, the streets are alive with people, eating, sitting in gardens drinking tea or beer, playing drinking games. Many people head to the Yellow River, a dirty chocolate color by day, by night black, or purple in the glare of the neon lit ZhongShan Bridge. There are carnival-like games set up along the path by the river, and tables for sitting a chatting and drinking. Vendors sell juicy peaches for unbelievably cheap prices, or cotton candy, or nuts. There is a water show in the Bellagio vein (but much less impressive, and set to classic Muzak artists like Lionel Richie). You may even see something a bit on the strange side, like a man corraling and forcing a snake into an empty water bottle (like a 20oz Coke bottle).

The apartment I am staying in is modern, with a laundry machine and internet access and western toilets. The man owns a factory and the woman works as a secretary. Their mei mei (little sister, who is actually a cousin) lives with them and attends university and dreams of going abroad someday. Asked if they prefer to live here or in Linxia, the couple say Linxia, where it is quiet and slow-paced. At this point, though, it seems that for now, there is no going back.

I will be off tonight for Zhangye, as I head west on the Silk Road.


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