Sunday, 6 February 2011


Sitting on the bus from Xi'an airport to the city centre, Tiger's first words are, 'Has there been a war?'

I've been thinking exactly the same. The yellow clay is churned over, as if by caterpillar tracks of heavy tanks. The dips and hollows in the flat land, gouged out like bomb craters, hold pools of still, grey water. Between the holes and spoil heaps, the broad flat lands are marked by shelled out buildings. We can see, interspersed along the wide, empty highway into town, windowless, grey concrete blocks, standing in half-state. I'm unsure if they are part way through construction, or part way demolished. There's no visible building equipment to put them up, or knock them down.

The bus turns to the prestige, Soviet-style highway that rolls straight into town. We pass a line of maybe twenty drooping trees, each trunk held upright by four large logs. They could be dead and rootless Christmas trees that some planning director agreed could be lodged in the ground, maybe not in the blind hope of renewal, but more as a political show of some future intention for the six lane highway.

'It's New Year' I tell Tiger, although I doubt it. We're looking at everyday in one of China's rapidly industrialising cities. 'All the builders are on holiday. When the festivities are over, they'll come back to finish the buildings.'

I think, but don't say, No they won't. I can't imagine any plan here. There's no architectural vision, no planning control, no strategy for satellite towns or urban living. The brutality, from airport to city, is blasted earth and infill. It is a bleak, post-war landscape, confusing and chaotic.

I have a point of comparison. I travelled in Xi'an twenty years ago. I remember flat lands, sure, but not this savage scarring, this ripping apart of the earth to expose its innards. I see nothing green, no grass, no crops. The scattered trees are leafless.

'And it's winter' I add. But I don't think a cold season explains this sight either. Here's the education. I tell her, 'China, it's going through the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution. Manufacturing needs factories, energy, utilities, transport. People come to the cities for work. They need somewhere to live. Xi'an is zoned for development.' It all sounds too cruel, so I say, 'Maybe if you travel back here in twenty years, perhaps you'll find the building rubble has gone, and the planners added parks, and street trees.'

I doubt my words, but I can't tell her what I really think. There isn't any plan. China's industrial explosion is without any coherent vision. It's a huge gobbling up of land in manufacturing, urban expansion and limitless construction. It's industry, technology, advancement. Ruthless, it's without rival, and we're witnessing it happening, raw.

The consequences for your future, my little girl? You can join pressure groups, urge environmental awareness, use your voice to question governments. You can't tell people in other countries that they are not allowed to aspire to lifestyles of easy transport and comfortable homes. Maybe you can tell them, they should try and avoid the damaging impact we already made.

In truth, facing this bleak vision of the future, I feel pretty much hopeless. I don't say that. We pass a Buick showroom. It stretches out, gleaming white frontage. I realise it's clean, shining, unlike every other building around, dusted in yellow earth. Then, as we pass a dirt track to the left, I don't point out the battered and dirty road sign, North West Institute of Nuclear Technology. Some observations are simply too fearful to utter.

As we approach the town centre, the buildings congregate closer along the roadsides. Low level, they close up the gaps and hug up next to each other, until they swell in dense clusters. Occasionally, sturdier building with severe lines and regular shuttered windows rise above the rest. I don't know what these buildings are for. They're all closed, shuttered with metal screens. Maybe they are local government offices, maybe administration centres. A few bear titles in English. I'm not much the wiser, although I can hear the brutal honesty of Chinese authority: Canadian Embassy Child Friendly Centre; Food Industry (Eastern); Middle School Number 83; National Base.

We've seen very few people in this extended suburb. The scale is too vast, the distances too far on foot or by bike. But as we approach the ancient city walls, Xi'an is thronging with people. Night is falling, and brilliant red letters illuminate the route. Inside the walls are the buildings that somehow escaped Mao and the cultural revolution. I'm unsure how; I guess they were useful to someone.

As the bus slows, we pass a huge TV screen. Orwellian, it pumps out a loop of advertisements: a giant woman, smiling, blowing a bubble into a bright blue sky, children running over a field. Around us there's thick air pollution, smog and dust. This, I remember from twenty years ago too. I left Xi'an with my throat burning. I blamed the thick stew of gases, chimney output, vehicle exhausts. Then, it was so much smaller, but I guess it was the beginning. Dig says, These days, they're trying. China has some environmental input. The vehicles can run on LPG, so something's being done, right?

The roads are congested, the pavements are filled with people, our bus stops and we alight, while Tiger holds my hand. She says, in the time we've been away from England, she's not seen a single sheep, or cow, or goat, or pig. There were chickens in cages, but we wondered if that was an illegal transport. She asks, 'Where are the farms?' I say, truthfully, 'I don't know. I guess they're somewhere.'


ladybirdcook said...

some Grist for Grit's mill: a link about farming in China

Big mamma frog said...

omg :(

Photos reminded me of parts of must be the 'wasteland with concrete shop' scenery.

MadameSmokinGun said...

It's making me appreciate my war-torn garden. At least we have signs of life.

L. E. Cove said...

I lived in China for a while over twenty years ago. Back then, while there was some green, I remember being horrified by the general rape of the land ... The things I've read of China in all these years since -- the ramping up of the industrialization, for instance -- hasn't surprised me really. It has seemed commensurate with how it was then ... Back then, too, there weren't animals (save the odd gecko), though once I did visit a dairy farm, though I remember it being oddly empty of people, and it feeling surreal. It was so unlike anything remotely resembling farmland I'd seen and lived amongst in the US and Europe.