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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Will the "real" China please come forward?



A nice evening in downtown Nanjing
Recent moments and conversations have made me question whether my Chinese experience has been complete. Nanjing, the city where I reside, is essentially a globalized metropolis with most of the comforts and conveniences of back home complete with Subway Sandwich shops, grocery stores where I can buy Starbucks ice cream, and a new fancy French style bakery chain selling bagels right in my neighborhood. Admittedly, I have fallen prey to these new ventures and as a result am apt to forget on some days that I even live in China. Also becoming more prevalent in Nanjing as well as other wealthy Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are the shocking and ostentatious displays of wealth. It hit me hard in February after returning from a vacation in the third world surroundings of Laos to the glitzy streets of these Chinese cities where fancy BMW convertibles and Hummers roar by at high speeds. Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Coach stores take up entire city blocks while beautifully dressed women hurry by in their Manolo Blahnik heels chatting on their iPhone 5s. 

Hustle and bustle in front of one of the Apple stores in Shanghai

Our local Louis Vuitton store in Nanjing
I think before and even after living for some time in China, I have had a romantic notion in my head of how China should really be. Somehow, a China developing at breakneck speed with its people fully embracing and emulating trends and lifestyles of the West, is not how I imagined it. Now that I have been entrenched in this modern, affluent side of China, I at times overlook that there is another, very different China out there that I have witnessed only briefly on previous trips but have mostly been missing. So when my friend Cyrus asked if I would like to travel to Guizhou, a far away, poor province in Southern China that I had never even heard of, to visit a new women’s hospital, I accepted.  I hoped that the trip would be an adventure (it was), would be a crash immersion session in Chinese (it was), and that I would see a unique part of China vastly different from my wealthy corner of Nanjing (I did).

A rural town in Guizhou Province
An isolated province tucked in south central China, Guizhou is rich in natural resources. Where we traveled in the western part of the province, karst mountains and jagged formations made up the surrounding landscape both in the cities and the countryside. The mountains provided a beautiful backdrop until seeing them being excavated for coal mining or the building of new city developments. Thanks to its coal supply, Guizhou also exports electricity to richer nearby provinces such as Guandong, home province of wealthy, booming cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Indeed, Guizhou is quite poor and underdeveloped in contrast to Chinese provinces on the East coast and those provinces to which it supplies energy.  

The view of Liupanshui
Our trip to Guizhou brought us to Liupanshui, a secluded city 270 km from the nearest airport in Guiyang, Guizhou. Looking out to a hazy, smoggy sky from my hotel room, I took in the surrounding view of the city. Only built in 1978, the city’s skyline donned ugly, drab, plain looking buildings on my left view and half demolished buildings and rubble amidst semi-quarried hills on the right. On the streets, dirty children ran loose and had the large dirt piles and rubble as their playgrounds. Yet, integrated among these third world living conditions were also the occasional marks of progress and indications of the city trying to slowly fight its way into a higher economic niveau. Newly paved sidewalks were lined with freshly planted shrubs and baby trees to provide a more pleasant, residential feel. Classy, apartment buildings with balconies and manicured gardened courtyards surrounded the women’s hospital we attended. The hospital itself had state of the art surgery wards equipped with the latest technologies. 

Also, in contrast to Nanjing and other more developed and wealthier Chinese cities, there were refreshingly very little outside commercial interests and influences in Liupanshui- thanks probably to the fact that it is so secluded. Where were the large, garish shopping malls? The Starbucks, McDonalds and fancy English language schools called Baby MBA that will promise to get your 4 year old into Harvard? The billboards advertising the perfect diamond engagement ring? All of these signs of modernity and “progress” seemed to be missing from the streets of Liupanshui. Perhaps in due time those type of places will slowly start to creep into Liupanshui as well. Cyrus spotted a KFC and we noticed a few people with iPhone 5s- both telltale signs that changes are indeed a coming. But for now, Liupanshui seems relatively untouched by large, outside, foreign influences. 

But with all of its apparent steps in progress and its slow acquisition of new riches, who in Liupanshui and the surrounding Guizhou countryside will be able to benefit from them? Will the average Jane or Joe be able to afford the top medical services provided at the women’s hospital we visited? Cyrus offered that many families, including poorer ones, will toil, work hard and save for years so that their expectant mothers can have the best care for when their one child, therefore their sole future hope, is born. Even well into the countryside, miles away from Liupanshui, we saw road signs and posters for the hospital, indicating that it was indeed trying to cater to the poorer rural folks. 

In spite of people perhaps saving for their offspring’s future, it seems it may be difficult for many residents in rural Guizhou and even in urban Guizhou settings to afford decent medical care, education, housing and transportation. Data reveals how hard it might be for many Guizhou residents to make ends meet compared to their counterparts in wealthier, urban, developed provinces in China. In 2011, for example, Guizhou ranked LAST in China for its per capita GDP of 10,258 RMB (1,502 USD). Comparatively, in Jiangsu Province, the province in China with the highest per capita GDP and where I live, the per capita GDP was 52,448 yuan (US$7,945). 

Sunday market day
Data aside, scenes driving through the countryside on the 270 km stretch between Liupanshui and Guiyang also exposed a whole other China where people still live simpler lives, living off the land and its resources. Caught in the early afternoon traffic of Sunday market day, we witnessed farmers selling their own produce on the street; middle-aged sun-wrinkled men herding fat pink pigs into a truck to be taken to market; freshly killed meat being sold by the butcher on the side of the road; and even large chunks of Guizhou coal being sold in a family’s store front. Transformed to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, I witnessed in the far off distance farmers plowing with oxen in their fields. Family grave plots on the hills next to the highway revealed communities who found their homes on the same land of their ancestors several generations back. These communities have clung to and carried on the long standing traditions and methods of livelihood of their ancestors.


Got coal?
 Returning from my weekend trip to Guizhou to the modern comforts of my home in Nanjing, I congratulated myself for finally witnessing the “real” China. But what an unfair judgement to bestow on either Guizhou or Nanjing! While it’s true I briefly witnessed firsthand the gap in income and lifestyles between rural and urban Chinese communities; wealthy east Coast provinces and an isolated, poor, undeveloped province, this does not mean that either side represents the “real” China. In order to fully understand the “real” China today, I’ve learned that it encompasses all of these sides- rich and poor; glitzy and rugged; urban and rural; developed too quickly and left behind in the dust of 100 hundred years ago. I have tasted both and found desirable aspects of both.  The real challenge lies ahead for China and how it can continue to build its economy so that more people can reap its rewards; how it can develop and progress without depleting its resources and without destroying its rural landscapes as well as the livelihood and age old traditions of its inhabitants.

Two contrasting images of vehicles. Two very different faces of China.

For related reading:

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Buses, sawng thaews, and tuk tuks

A guide to public transport in Laos

In Laos, the land of tranquil scenes along the Mekong River, ancient Buddhist and Hindu ruins, fragrant frangipani, and friendly children waving and calling out “Sabaidee!” (“Hello” in local lingo), transport and travel can be an eye-opening and adventurous cultural experience in itself. It can come in several different forms of both land and water vessels including buses;  sawng theaws, pick-up trucks with seats fitted along the length of the truck beds that travel to nearby regional locations (and usually managed by a family); tuk tuks or jumbos with seats fitted around a motorcycle frame and for local destinations in a city; motorcycles; bicycles; and your own two legs.

With two and a half weeks to explore Laos, my partner Nick and I started off from Laos’s capitol city, Vientiane and then headed south. We decided to break the trip up into several increments, limiting bus travel to no more than four hours a day. Even then, some trips ended up being six to eight hours. We learned that this is a normal occurrence in Laos as travel happens on “Lao time”. The three best things to bring along on such a journey are bottled water, toilet paper and patience.

Buses can come in both the VIP form and the “public” bus form. I suppose the VIP buses in Laos evolved for the mostly foreign tourists who may not desire to be squeezed into tight, hot, un-air-conditioned spaces for hours on end. If I’m not mistaken, we were primarily on the non-VIP form which definitely added some color to our travels. Settling into our seats, sometimes next to each other and sometimes apart depending on seat availability, the bus’s TV screen then flashed and blared out the trip’s on-board entertainment of Lao and Thai music videos and variety shows as well as 1920’s Charlie Chaplin films (who seems to be all the rage in Laos, even 90 years later!). Our fellow travel companions on the bus journeys are some other foreign travelers but mostly Laotians- young families traveling with their little ones; single men traveling from one work site to another; mothers or grandmothers traveling with a child; as well as the occasional Buddhist monk. I was bemused by the attire of most of the local travelers- long jeans or woven sarongs covering the legs and even thick faux leather jackets. This is clothing I would find entirely hot and uncomfortable for a cramped bus with no air-conditioning. Nevertheless, such attire may likely be dictated by conservative and traditional Buddhist culture.  



Upon departure, a bus typically coasts slowly out of a town, honking its horn to draw attention from additional prospective passengers from the side of the road. More and more passengers file on, occupying all remaining seats. The bus attendant, usually a boy of about 12 or 13, directs newly arrived passengers to sit on make-shift seats of plastic stools in the aisle. Certain etiquette seems to rule seating arrangements among Laotian travelers. During one of our bus journeys, a monk hopped on board an already full bus. What then ensued was something like a game of musical chairs- seat reshuffling and rearrangements until the monk had a seat and a displaced young man found himself downgraded to a plastic seat in the aisle. Similar arrangements were made for a grandmother and a young girl who boarded at the side of the road from a rural village.
Passengers filling up the aisle on plastic stools.
During the course of a bus journey, a bus may make several pit stops for food and calls of nature.  Sometimes the buses stop at small roadside restaurants with basic toilets in the back. I was impressed with the total cleanliness of the toilets which are basic porcelain squat toilets enclosed in tin shacks and supplied with a bucket full of water with a pail which one then uses to rinse out the toilet following its use. Other rest stops are sometimes just fields along the side of the road. We women folk have to walk back out of view and behind some trees or brush. The long, woven sarong skirt that many a Laotian woman wears typically goes to her ankles and is a practical and useful cover for roadside calls of nature if she can’t find shelter behind a tree or bush. Pit stops are short and brief and anyone hoping to finish a cigarette will find a horn blasting in his ears to beckon him back on or be left behind.

Roadside pit stop
Some dusty road stops will find female vendors rushing out of the woodwork to swarm onto and next to the bus to sell snacks and drinks to the peckish and thirsty travelers. Depending on the region, they might sell bottled water, sliced mango, barbequed and skewered chicken, cooked eggs on a stick, or dried fish. They all seem to be chanting the same thing as they clamor to get the attention of prospective customers. They too sometimes get shooed off the bus as the irritable driver begins to push off and the vendors are left in the dust chasing after the embarking bus. 
Roadside vendors


Many Laotians rely on the use of buses and sawng thaews for transporting not only themselves but also for transporting goods and necessities for their homes and businesses. All buses and sawng thaews are rigged with large racks on top for transporting suitcases, large sacks of rice and animal feed, washing machines, bicycles and even motor cycles.  At one stop along the side of the road, two of the bus attendants seemed to effortlessly heave a motorcycle to the top of the bus for further transport. 

A shadow of a motorcycle being lifted onto the rooftop of the bus.
How can you tell?

It’s an unwritten code that some transport vehicles, especially sawng thaews,  may leave when they’re sufficiently packed and are only there to help you and your goods get from point A to point B. Comfort is not a priority but this doesn’t seem to be an issue for many locals. On one of our short sawng thaew journeys, we crammed into the back with twenty rice sacks covering the floor and the other passengers complacently squeezing their way around the traveling goods. Before the start of the journey, I exclaimed to Nick, “Cool, this will be a fun adventure!”  Twenty minutes later sitting in the idle vessel, in the hot, dusty parking lot of the market station (and waiting for what?), I was already whinging. Meanwhile, squeezing and packing into tight, cramped and stuffy vehicles seemed to be an art form for the local travelers sharing the ride. Looking up at the back of the t-shirt of the boy sitting on the rice sack in front of me, I had to chuckle to myself as I read the strange albeit fitting English expression that was thrown together on his t-shirt. It read,  “Y’all ain’t from round here..is Yall?” 
Trying to get comfortable in my travel surroundings.

Crammed into a sawng thaew.
Our travel in Laos also included some river crossings across the Nam Ngum (a tributary of the Mekong) and the infamous Mekong itself. One of the crossings across the Mekong found us on a cramped minibus. We watched with a little dismay as our bus eased onto what seemed like an already overloaded and overburdened, worn plywood ferry boat. Sitting in the back of the bus behind other passengers occupying foldout chairs, we eyed the width of the back window we were sitting next to and made escape plans in our head if the boat should either sink or our minibus should roll off the back into the depths of the Mekong. As visions came into my head of my mother reading two days later a small excerpt on the side of page 11 in her local morning paper, “Small Ferry Craft in Laos Sinks”, I quickly realized that I was of course exaggerating the precariousness of the five minute ferry crossing in my head. We safely made it across and were in good hands all along. Such occurrences are helping me be not only more patient but are also helping me learn not to press the panic button so early, as I often do.
Crossing the Mekong.
What was more significant during these various trips in Laos? The trips themselves or the destinations the different vessels brought us to?  I would say they were on par. Traveling by bus, sawng thaew, and a wobbly ferry may not be for everyone but I think my trip to Laos and the glimpse I got into the world down there would not have been complete without these experiences. 

For further reading:
During our trip we ran into a young woman from Canada who is traveling through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by bicycle! I was really inspired and impressed with her unique journey and how her transportation mode is taking her way off the beaten track. Read and see for yourself about her journey!