West of Fengjie City, Chongqing municipality
Distance from Shanghai - 1,175 km
Distance from Lhasa - 1,759 km
The road heading down toward Fengjie town on the Yangtze River was busy with trucks carrying coal to be loaded onto barges as well as empty trucks heading back into the mountains. I passed through a number of small towns, all lively, with mounds of pork on street stalls, and a mobile seemingly on every ear. But the people I talked to seemed to be complaining more than usual about the state of the economy. The China story is getting more complicated.
One of the towns was called Stone Horse (shi ma), and in a little fruit market, I asked where the horse was. “It died,” replied one of the fruit sellers, laughing at his own joke.
On the main street of another town, there was a noodle-making place with thousands of strands of pale yellow noodles hanging on racks right next to the street, the dust and traffic providing that extra je ne sais quoi to the taste.
The valley flattened out, and I came upon a body of water, an outcrop of the great Yangtze Reservoir. Almost all of it had been farmland until just a few years ago. The houses above the water line were mostly recently constructed. Some were for farmers moving a few hundred meters from below, although my impression was that most displaced people were moved to the new and expanded county town of Fengjie.
“The majority of people moved ended up poorer than they were before,” said one man.
I passed the temple of Baidicheng, sitting on a hill that had become an island. This has been one of the main attractions of the gorges for well over a thousand years. I first visited it nearly 10 years ago. People said it had been completely rebuilt and was not as interesting as before, so I walked past the entrance bridge without stopping.
Just past that bridge, however, is a very famous view – the entrance of the Kuimen Gorge, sometimes known as Qutang Gorge, the most westerly of the Yangtze’s three gorges. It is possibly the most beautiful of all the gorges’ vistas. The bluish RMB10 note features the view, with the Baidicheng hill on the left, the perpendicular walls of the gorge on the right, and the hook-like Baiyan Mountain in the background.
A man asked me about how long I had been in China, and we talked about how the country has changed since I first came here in the 1970s.
“In the old days, we could not even sell an egg to anyone but the state, whereas now, business is basically free,” he said. “On the other hand, things have not changed at all politically. We elect the lowest levels of village officials, but all the other levels are chosen by the party. The so-called representatives to the National People’s Congress are not representatives at all.”
I am struck by how often comments like this come up spontaneously these days compared with the past. I guess it’s all part of the preparation process for whatever happens next in Chinese history.
I sat for awhile with a restaurant owner and his wife, eating beancurd and drinking a little beer as we talked. The wife had a cute three-year-old daughter on her knee. “Can I come to Shanghai to work in your company?” she asked. “I will do anything. I’ll be the cleaner. There is no work here at all.”
What about your daughter?
“She will be living in school, no problem,” she replied.
I hated the whole approach. Kids at this age should be together with their mothers.
I asked them and others about the employment situation, and my impression was that it is becoming more difficult to find work. I met many young guys who had no jobs. Why not go to the coast and get a factory job? I asked. They shook their heads. “There are no jobs out there either.”
This trend of migrant workers finding it increasingly difficult to get work could well be one of driving factors of China’s development over the next few years. It appears the US and European economies are heading into a prolonged recession that will inevitably have an impact on the Chinese economy.
There can be no argument that the economy is shifting toward domestic consumption, but export industries are still an important component of prosperity at all levels.
Export orders are down sharply this year for the coastal factories, and that means factories are closing, and cutting production and workers. The workers can wait for another opportunity, or go home. Some stay in place and turn to less savory pursuits. A senior official from southern China told me recently about how petty crime was on the rise in Shenzhen as a result of the growing number of unemployed.
But many do return home.
A taxi driver in Fengjie who had worked as a truck driver in Shenzhen for several years said he was back home to look after his aging parents, and to court his girlfriend, who I also met – a nice girl who had been taking a computer class for two years and still not found a job. But the taxi driver, Li Anyong, was a smart guy. He was doing pretty good business, using his blue Santana sedan as a small bus, with four or five passengers crushed in at any one time. I was lucky enough to have the front seat.
My dominant impression of Fengjie and its environs was kids. Huge numbers of babies and very young children. There is a population boom in progress there for sure. Every family had at least two children, and sometimes even four. I had never seen anything like it anywhere along the walk.
“The birth control policies are not strictly enforced here,” said one man, who happened to be a Communist Party member in his spare time.
I sat at a street stall restaurant in Fengjie and watched the coal trucks passing by. Other people joined me: A couple who ran a knickknack store down the street; an orange trader who offered me a farm girl at a cheap price; and an unemployed guy of 50 years who was smart, though rather bitter at the way life had treated him. He was interesting to talk to on topics including Chinese medicine and Marxism. But ultimately he had nothing to do all day, except bemoan his fate.
Fengjie is a dispersed mess of a city. There are bits of the old town were above the water line, a separate new town, and other disconnected pieces along around 10 kilometers of the river bank. It is much bigger than Wushan.
But a girl who stopped to talk to me in a restaurant asked: “Why would you come to a crap place like this?” I protested that it didn’t seem crap to me.
The center of the new Fengjie town is lively, and there appears to be money around. People say the local economy is supported by three dragons – the white dragon of tourism, the yellow dragon of oranges and the black dragon of coal.
Most of the money comes from coal. Coal prices have soared in the past couple of years and Fengjie is the heart of the gorges’ coal industry.
This coal roll will not end any time soon. China is faced with a massive coal shortage and the mine owners are making a killing on every bargeload they send off down the river toward Wuhan and Shanghai. I saw several Lexuses on the streets of Fengjie, and there are no doubt some very snazzy casinos somewhere in town.
I discussed investment in the industry with a couple of people. It costs RMB1 million (US$145,000) to open up a new coal mine and it takes two years to get a return on the investment. Those are great numbers, and I believe they are real. But the uncertainties and risks of the business are also massive. The coal seams can run out suddenly, officials and policies can turn hostile and mine shafts can collapse, killing and injuring the miners.
“It’s been quite bad this year for accidents,” said one woman. The reason is probably that the price of coal is so high that a lot of marginal mines up in the mountains are back in production.
I was still seeing slogans daubed on walls warning people not to plant and grow drugs in the forest, and I met a man who said he took opium occasionally. “It is great for toothache and digestion problems.”
I asked him about the preparation process and how it was taken. He showed me an opium poppy pod which was dried, brown and cracked, around the size of a small egg.
“First you heat some water, then break two or three pods into the water and let it simmer for a few minutes. Then drink,” he said. The beverage would make you feel relaxed and comfortable, he explained. I asked how often he drank the special tea, and he said a couple of times a week.
“I don’t do any more than that otherwise I might get addicted,” he said.
He asked me if I would like to try some of this special tea, and I declined. However, I met a person who had just tried the beverage for the first time. He said it looked, smelled and tasted just like any other boiled Chinese medicine – a dark brown brew. What impact from this special tea? Almost none, he said. How disappointing.
Later, I came across someone else who said they regularly put the pods in soups. “They make the soup really smooth and tasty,” he said. “You break a couple of pods into the tureen with the rest of the ingredients and let it simmer. Lovely. But I wouldn’t do it too often.”
What was clear to me was that the use of opium for low level medicinal and soup enhancement purposes is even now fairly widespread, and is a part of the rural culture that both preceded and followed the high profile British excursion into the market in the 19th century.
I stopped to buy water at a small store and sat down with several people enjoying the peaceful afternoon together in the shade of the little building. One boy in his late teens drew my attention and we chatted for a while about his life and hopes for the future.
Before I left, I gave him the name card I use on the walk, which includes the Chinese name for the project: Graham’s Travels to the West. This is a reference to one of the great classics of Chinese Literature, Travels to the West, in which the monk Tang Zeng travels to India to get the Buddhist scriptures. He is accompanied on the trip by the Monkey King and a pig named Zhu Bajie who offer him protection.
A hour after I left the store, the boy called my mobile and said: “I would like to come to Tibet with you. I will be your Zhu Bajie. I have no work, so I am available. I admire what you are doing and I have a problem with my leg too. Please let me come.”
I said, well, how about if we just walk together for a couple of hours tomorrow, and he said sure. The next morning, he called me just as I was starting out, but he had bad news. “My mother says I can’t come,” he said. “Sorry to have bothered you.”
Luckily for Tang Zeng and the future of Buddhism in China, Zhu Bajie’s mother had not objected.