inside thoughts on China and beyond

Exit Xichang

clothIn America, striving for happiness is as fundamental as the Declaration of Independence itself. In China, it is the government’s worry number one, as it has been for centuries. To maintain a ‘harmonious society’, they are working hard to keep the people happy. But happiness doesn’t always come easy.  Take myself for example. I wasn’t sure what clothes to wear. Not that I have much choice though. On the top shelf where my neatly pressed chinos and jeans. Some new, some old, all brand-less. At the bottom of the pile was my well worn-and-torn pair of khaki trousers. That’s all. That khaki is 10 years old and one of those with giant side pockets. As a matter of fact, there are more pockets than trouser and just last week I discovered another one.

I wasn’t sure what to choose because there was so little choice. My wife tells me I have enough and should be happy with it, and of course she is right. It’s just that, at times, I want to be a bit more happy. Especially when I read in the papers about the many Chinese (and Russians, but they are too far away for me to compare myself with) who make regular shopping trips to Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin and happily spend tens of thousands of Euros on clothes and other gadgets. I can hardly lag behind. I’m sure you understand. I should of course have moved to Lhasa earlier this year, since it was declared to be China’s Most Happy City in 2012, but for that it is too late now. All that to say: happiness doesn’t come easy.

Anyway, after some ceremonial juggling, I chose the khaki, as always for occasions as these. It matches with my mountain shoes. Now I only had to select my shirts (I have 5 army-green button-downs, also with countless pockets, that go well with the khaki), socks (all differing in thickness and smell) and underwear (no comment).

We were going on a trip, my wife and I.  Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all: the busyness of work and life in the city; the millions of cars and even more people; the grey sky and cold weather and badly heated buildings; the kids. And when shopping in Germany is not an option, Xichang is the answer. It’s a small city with only half a million residents, just 400 km south of Chengdu and situated in a valley at 1500 meters altitude on the north shores of the  Qionghai Lake. And most importantly: always blue sky!

The brand new highway, with tunnels up to 10 km long circling up inside the mountain, offers stunning views from the long stretches of elevated roads hanging over lush valleys and dammed lakes, but no place to stop and admire it. It took less than 6 hours. Still a long time if you consider the distance. Not if you consider my car. My oversized China-made SUV is becoming more wobbly after every trip, reducing my maximum speed by approximately 20 km/hr each year. Right now, I’m comfortably going at 90 km/hour. On my road trip to Kashgar some years ago it easily did 130. The rate this is going, in 5 years from now I will be faster going by foot.

We arrived at the Qionghai Lake around 4pm, only to discover that the hotel we found online didn’t exist offline. Also online were 2 nice hotels in an old fishing village across the lake, so we drove around to check it out. Slow in learning and never giving up hope. But it is pleasant to circle the lake and explore the mud house villages with its narrow alleys and dark courtyards.

As in all China’s countryside, the younger generation of able workers had fled to find fortune in promising cities like Chengdu and Kunming or further away in Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen. Gone also were the fishermen and their boats. And, to our surprise, gone was the old village we were looking for, including the 2 nice hotels. Here, everyone was building. Because of the ideal weather conditions, its clean air and attractive surroundings, China’s nouveau rich are claiming this city for their weekend retreats, coming from Chengdu, Kunming and even from Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. While the poor are moving out, the rich are moving in. elderlyThey are buying every square meter they can get. And they can get it all. Leave that to the city officials. Resulting not only in constant land-picking, new jungles of construction and polluted air, it has also lead to a price hike that made an average apartment in town more expensive than something equal in the cities they come from. Leaving locals empty handed. Another reason to move.

We ended up in a 3-month old resort on the south shore, in a 5th floor room with lake view. If you are looking for a hotel in good condition in China, ask how old it is. Anything above 2 years is most likely a rundown to be avoided. So we were happy. That the hot air from the central air-con system didn’t reach our floor and the toilet was smelling between 3 to 7 pm was not a problem for us. We were happy. Service was friendly and there was a swimming pool. Outside; with the temperature just below 10°C. You learn to ignore the details. They played Christmas music. Their repertoire existed of only 4 songs (‘Jingo Bells’ being one of them), repeated forever and ever, amen. But what can you expect from a 3-month old resort? I do appreciate Christmas music, really. When played at the right time and the right setting, that is. Early October  I attended a meeting in Tianjin and stayed overnight in a local Best Western. With Christmas music. Early October. I tell you, there is nothing more depressing than being away from family and alone for diner and breakfast and having to listen to Christmas music.

On our second day we met up with Ping, who would bring us to a local mountain village. Close to his home, an old couple had build a shed from plastic and cardboard on the side of the road, leaning against the outside wall of an old apartment building. The real estate boom had pushed up the rental cost, and for this couple, far beyond their reach. Simple low stools were placed in front of the hut. Inside, some planks formed their bed. No electricity, no water, no heating. No second set of clothes to choose from. No Christmas music. And all I though about was a bit more happiness -for myself. What was I thinking?


2 responses

  1. Hi Steven. Once again a very nice post. It really depresses me to read things like this. I have seen this kind of thing over and over again in China. I guess this is one of the costs of modernization and an economy on the rise. It is getting harder and harder to find traditional Chinese architecture and values.


    January 7, 2013 at 11:28 am

  2. i know what you mean. i grappled with the same issues when i travelled to cambodia. it is difficult to be confronted with such hard issues, like poverty… we see it and have a hard time swallowing it… but then when we are not amongst it, it is easy to forget or dismiss the hardships of our neighbors. i too struggle with this.

    April 1, 2013 at 6:33 am