By Jonathan Chandler
Exclusive to The Wild East
A couple of weekends ago, just after the Chinese New Year known here as The Spring Festival (which seems both erroneous and tedious), I was met by my mate, an expat captain of industry, in his Saab and driver, for a hike in the Tien-Mu Shan mountains straddling Anhui and Zhejiang provinces.
We zipped out of Shanghai early dawn on an empty freeway heading along the south shore of vast Taihu Lake. The highway turned south and then tunneled through mountains and slid over valleys atop huge aqueduct-style bridges. This was eye-poppingly lavish civil engineering on autobahn scale, but eerily devoid of traffic.
We did a small steep hike in the afternoon. The tiny villages clinging to the mountain were equally astonishing for the magnificence of their family buildings. I was expecting the “bitter earth” of poverty-struck, drought-ridden rural China, but this lot had made their money stripping the mountain of timber for the interior designs of Shanghai. It was weird talking to the multi-generational clans of peasants sitting on their balustrades under Greco-Roman pillars and facades. What was stranger though: all these huge buildings were painted in clashing bright shades of primary colors – violent blobs against the beautiful mountain backdrop – though let’s not quarrel with these folk’s aesthetics.
We spent the night in the small Anhui provincial town of Zixi. Small is a misnomer, in China this was a small town; back home in the Western world it would count as a fairly large city.
Anyway, after bargaining down our hotel room rate to a fourth, declining the KTV suites complete with white leather sofas, unappetizing stains on the carpet and the stench of fission-ed cigarette smoke, we sat ourselves down by the main drag and knocked back a few bottles of local brew and hotpot while the locals did their Saturday night thing.
Again it was the relative prosperity which was shocking. The gaggles of girls with their trendy Taiwanese-style haircuts and the boys with their Jay Chou post-punk shock-sprouts. All had the latest mobile phones, sneakers, jeans and winter jackets. New cars and scooters beeped around the town and neon and LED lights lit the town like a fairy’s grotto. The place was booming. Yet, according to the newspapers, Anhui was one of the hardest drought-hit areas of China, with massive unemployment and social struggles.
Not a bit of it. This burg looked a heckuva lot more comfortable than say Sheffield or Wolverhampton.
The next day we headed off down another immaculate but empty freeway cleaving Nature with apparent ease and panache, this one linking up the famed Yellow Mountain city to Shanghai via Hanghzhou. I recall that they had just announced that there would be a new high-speed rail link between Shanghai and Hangzhou cutting the trip to forty minutes and it would be ready by 2012.
Those sort of massive infrastructure projects just don’t exist in Europe or the States anymore.
We walked up the Tien-Mu Shan mountains that day and it was untouched, glorious mountain scenery. As we set off, we met of group of locals: they were wearing North Face and top of the line hiking gear. Out here the city seemed far, far removed, birdsong and the calls of wild animals, sweeter than the chirp of mobile phones.
We returned to Shanghai on another empty, brand new freeway hooking up with the world’s longest ocean spanning bridge from Ningbo to the metropolis of Shanghai. There was no rush hour on Sunday night, we cruised in and were home by eight in the evening after leaving the distant mountain at four in the afternoon.
The point – albeit having covered a just tiny corner of the Middle Kingdom – the interior of China is no dust bowl and the country is a lot richer and sleeker than one imagined.
Jonathan Chandler is a British novelist, currently based in Shanghai. Read more of his insightful perspective here, exclusively, on the pages of THE WILD EAST. For permission to republish contact the author at jonathan at jagchandler dot com