China The Great

So, far we’ve traveled from the sleek megalopolis of Hong Kong,
through the exponential bleary eyed industrial giant Guangzhou and
moved through the hills and fields and vast countryside of Southern
China where every inch of space is jam packed with farms or new
buildings. We have been in constant motion since we arrived, as it
seems most of its inhabitants are as well. China is a strange place to
talk about because it is somewhere in between what we would expect
from our early industrial age in the late 19th century and the early
20th century and yet it lands somehow in the here and now moving at an
untenable pace towards a future ripped from a an early 90’s Science
Fiction novel.

In the streets, people drive like they just found keys on their
sidewalk, tried a few cars and drove away never looking back. They
drive as if they haven’t the slightest idea that there is such a thing
as danger. Yet, in the city, in the countryside, in China, danger
lurks far and near. I get the sense that every trip’s survival is
given up to the gods or pure luck. And from my western perspective
their approach to buildings and architecture does not stray far from
their driving sensibilities, where functionality towers over fine
tuned controls or a sense for aesthetic appeal.

In the architecture of the cities that we have ventured there seems
not a hint of attention to detail or deliberate care taken towards
location, function or form. New buildings scream up out of piles of
rubble surrounded by shacks or rough hewn houses that hold together
just long enough to finish the enormities that bury them in shadows as
time goes on. It often seems, not only that they build or make
something because they can but also because someone told them it would
be good.

Cut across the countryside as we did on the road heading to Jiuzhaigou
National Park and at every turn there are buildings that seem merely
functional and semi-durable at best. China’s push to bring its peasant
class to wealth and prosperity is evident everywhere we have been yet
so lies the consequences of the rampant pace and drive of the
development.

On the road to Jiuzhaigou National Park we passed town after town
under major upgrading or building vast sprawls of new buildings and
infrastructure. The road follows river after river through the
mountain, perhaps the same river, and all along spaced at what seemed
like every ½ kilometer we would come upon vast spans of rock quarrying
and sorting. Quarry and cement factories spring up not just along the
river but in the river. They move mountains, carve them up and divvy
them out. This part for brick, this for road, this for farmland. There
seems to be no controls, no rules, and no regulation. As we passed up
higher into the ravines of the mountains, the water would go clearer
with little to no quarrying going on, only to find that they were
streaming out f the bellies of the great water-power turbine stations
all along, where clean water goes in and warm water comes out.

Stupefying beyond belief everywhere the growth is seemingly limitless.
China’s resources are vast but the effects are visible to the naked
eye, to our lungs, our skin, our bellies. Towns are buried in hues of
either dirt and smoke, pollution, or a combination thereof. Brick
crawl out of the crags in mountains and valleys,from town to town,
thrown up easing ready access to building materials. In the west, they
literally build a brick factory and then pour out bricks and throw up
vast rectangular structures. Rectangular windows, flat roofs with zero
drainage, large tiles are spread across their facades like icing.
Buildings sit awaiting companion buildings’ completion, aging,
greying, sucking in the deep residues of pollution all easily absorbed
into the shoddy workmanship and roughly finished materials. It is as
if an entire country said “It works, who cares what it looks like?”

This attitude permeates the landscape and the culture, a nonchalance,
or lack of concern beyond their familiar ties seems the most obvious
difference between the western culture we grew up in and the child of
the Communist Cultural Revolution that China has become. It is almost
as if generations of people, and we are talking billions of people
here, lost their sense of pride for their work and decided that they
would be OK with just getting it done, getting it done as fast and
with whatever means possible. You see it in their skyscrapers, their
new bridges, their “Ancient Chinese Town” revivals, everything feels
halfhearted. It as if the United States all walked into Walmart and
outfitted our entire nation. Looking back at the USA from here, it
seems we are all too close to falling over the edge there ourselves.
We see how quickly a culture is subsumed in the move and push to move
forward. It’s as if we’re witnessing the Industrial Revolution for the
first time ourselves. Forget your history books children! Want
excitement, want to learn about how a country leaps into the 21st
century, take a train or bus trip through China.

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The Long and Winding Road

Right now I've been wearing the same outfit for about five days. We weren't exactly prepared to come up to northern Sichuan province, as the elevation is at least 2500 m and up – spring has barely sprung here and there's still snow in the mountains surrounding the valleys. Even though we've been freezing our butts off, it's been totally worth it. Including the torturous 11-hour death wish bus ride.

Jiuzhaigou is one of the most famous national parks in China, and we kept hearing about it since we started traveling – in  guidebooks, online, in a random National Geographic we saw in Thailand. Everyone agrees that it's a spectacular place of singular natural beauty, but there have definitely been mixed feelings on the hordes of tourists, the difficulty/expense in getting there, and the ridiculous entrance fee (it comes out to approximately $50 US PER PERSON. Yes. You heard me right.).

We debated for a while whether or not to come, and finally decided to pony up but save a bit of money by taking the bus rather than flying. The bus ride was…illuminating. It goes without saying that our bus driver was insane and I seriously thought we were going to die a few times. What person in their right mind passes a tractor trailer on a blind curve with a sheer cliff drop while it's raining? You guessed it! Our bus driver! Not to mention the very real danger of falling rocks. Regardless of that, we definitely found the ride to be fascinating, passing through the countryside and seeing what's been happening since the earthquake in 2008.

New buildings have sprung up everywhere, whole new towns have been created from nothing, and the rivers end up with tons of debris. Farther on, hydroelectric plants and dams divert the water and turn the river into a trickle. The road itself was being upgraded and repaved, with many workers hand-digging trenches for drainage and replacing broken barriers on the edges of cliffs. There just seemed to be a flurry of activity everywhere we went – the whole country should have a “Pardon our Dust” sign hung somewhere. What was strange though was that so many of these new towns are literally in the middle of nowhere and most of the finished buildings are empty. We couldn't figure out who these new buildings were for and why no one is living in them.

As we continued, the landscape became more and more mountainous and dramatic. Giant boulders were perched perilously close to the road, and tiny waterfalls snaked across the sheer rock faces. We began seeing Tibetan style houses with prayer flags that whipped dramatically in the wind. The road became a tortuous zigzag that wound its way up and over the pass, above the treeline and into the clouds. We couldn't see anything and we were praying that it wouldn't snow. As we dropped down into the valley, all traffic was stopped for an hour which we discovered later was because of road repair. We froze a bit outside of the bus, walked around and amused ourselves by making fun of the drivers who were all trying to pass each other but were just making a big traffic jam out of everything.

Finally we started up again, rain started coming down and night was coming on. We finally came into a valley where we saw signs that said “Jiuzhaigou”, and we were so happy we made it without dying/getting maimed in a head on collision. The bus pulled into a flooded parking lot, everyone made a beeline for the door, and we were unceremoniously dumped into a puddle and a group of touts trying to get us to stay at their hotel. I pulled out my cellphone and called Zhuo Ma, the Tibetan woman who we had contacted about a home-stay. And thus our northern adventure began!

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