CHINA JOURNALMonday, June 3, 2002
Post Script from June 2. I should know better than to mail anything off until I'm truly climbing into bed. At 7:20 p.m. I was going back and forth between packing and proofreading on the computer when in popped Zhang Jie and Ding Bai. Zhang Jie said, ``Hurry. Bring camera. We go.'' I asked where we were going (trying to figure out if I needed to change clothes) and all I could get was, ``Party. Hurry. We have car.'' I finally figured out I needed to put on a skirt (as it turned out I would have been okay as I was.) After a quick change, we went out to the waiting car with a driver man and a lady, both of whom were friends, and Gao Tian Hui, the singer friend. We picked up others along the way until there were ten of us in the car. By this time I had gotten that we were going to hear Gao Tian Hui sing, which I was anticipating delightedly. Eventually they asked (Ding Bai and Zhang Jie were the only ones who spoke any English) if I was hungry. I wasn't, but we piled out at what looked like a neighborhood restaurant and were greeted by a wonderfully outgoing man who is married to one of the women in the car and manages the restaurant. We walked through all the rooms, up the stairs, to an upstairs room, and.....into an Amway makeup party! It was a riot. I never go to these in the states, but I'd be willing to bet it was a carbon copy, though I wonder if, in the states, there would be as many men in the room. I don't have time to describe it all now (I'm about to leave for the train) but it gave the big pitch to about 40 people sitting around the edge two deep on plastic stools, they made-up of half of one lady's face, and, after the official party was over, the real party began with singing to VCDs, dancing, and gathering in a standing group of about 10 with each one having a chance to say something and the leader responding to each. There was entertainment...and that was where Gao Tian Hui came in. There were three, one man and two women, who sang to VCDs. Gao Tian Hui sang one to a VCD and one to a tape. She really does have a powerful, well-trained voice. They had a fashion show, including some males. They also have fixed up a ``Make-up Room''... glamour style, upstairs with two make-up chairs, lights, and displays. Straight from Glamour magazine, or something of that sort. 'Twas entertaining! Our host has sold Amway for four months; his supervisor has sold for one year.
Now...on to the trip to Xian. This train car was older but less crowded than the one during the spring break trip. We were in car 6. The water for the toilets and wash basins was only working in car 5 and 7, so we were glad there were fewer people to accommodate. I was in a lower bunk and Zhang Jie was right above me. It was a very hot day so the men quickly got down to undershirts and bare chests, and I must say I was a bit jealous. (I did learn that the soft-sleepers are air-conditioned.) We had all the windows open so you got a good breeze, which was a lifesaver, but you also got everything that was in the air outside blowing in too. This was a trip from northern China into central China, all of which has bad air pollution. The color and the odor change from location to location. The coal processing area had chunks of cinders blowing in the windows (akin to the old coal burning trains, of which we actually saw several in operation.) The lime producing area had its own smell. There was another chemical smell and orange smoke coming out of smokestacks that I never did identify. Along with that we passed at least four nuclear power plants, each pretty much nestled right in a village with houses right next to the reactors and the train tracks right next to that. I saw three kinds of train engines, the coal burners with their tenders, the diesel, and the electric. Going out we had an electric engine; coming back we had diesel.
The China Daily gave the pollution record for the 30 largest cities in China for the last week. Sixteen of the thirty were even worse that Tianjin. That's hard to believe. The highest was Nanjing. And all the central China cities including Xian were high.
On the last train trip, I was impressed with the clean sheet and cover for the pillow carefully folded on each bunk. I've revised that impression a wee bit. In the course of our 24 hour trip from Tianjin to Xian, four different people in succession occupied the lower bunk across from me...all using the same sheet. The third woman was sick and, if I had been able to explain in Chinese, I would have said something to the fourth woman before she snuggled up in the sheet. I was reassured a bit on the trip back when I watched the lady change every sheet in the car just before we reached Tianjin. (I also got a good look at the special way the sheet is folded so I can tell in the future if the sheet has been used.) The pillow cover isn't changed, so the extra towel or cloth to go over that is important. Zhang Fu Ling had sent a special pillow cover for each of us to use in the hotels, but I was also glad to add it on top of the train pillow.
Riding a train really is a wonderful way to get a feel for a country. This trip took us through plains and up into the mountains to Xian, about 500 miles southwest of Beijing and 1,000 miles inland from Shanghai. The overall impression, besides vastness, is that China is country of farmers. It is a good thing, given the size of their population. The feeling is that, given favorable weather, they have always been able to live and always will be self-sufficient because they can feed themselves. In America the farmers make up such a small proportion of the population that most of us would not do very well if we became dependent on our little home garden and gardening ability to feed us. The other big impression is that China is a society still very dependent on coal burning which is a major contributor to its pollution problem.
Let's look at the coal first. We went through major coal processing areas. I would guess that the mines are close by, but I don't know. (I do know that the China Daily reports the abysmal safety record in the mines, which they are working to improve.) These coal towns have gray air that smells like coal. There are trains with many, many freight cars loaded to overflowing with coal. They even put up a little bamboo fence to extend the sides of the coal cars higher so more can be piled on. You see coal in all shapes and sizes in big mounds and big piles all over the towns. In the smaller villages that are involved with this, each house seems to have its own private pile, as if that is the nod to individual ownership. (The same is true with little piles of wheat in the wheat growing areas.) There are small kiln operations that look as if they may be making coke. I never did understand all the different forms of coal. There would be large mounds, one story high, of coal in maybe walnut size chunks. Two or three trucks would be parked on top as if they had driven up and dumped their load. In another spot six men would be standing in a coal freight car of a train with shovels, apparently unloading the car by hand. The availability of manpower is evident in all work in the countryside. Meanwhile everything in the town was gray...probably even their lungs.
In the lime processing towns, everything was covered with white. The smokestacks are very active and spread the dust over a wide area.
The wheat harvest on the other hand was such fun to watch. Now is right in the height of the harvesting season. We think of the Chinese as living on rice, but wheat is also a staple. I'd be curious to see comparative figures. Much of the wheat is grown in the small strips, interspersed with strips of other vegetable and grains, that I have described before. It is also grown in large fields. Unlike ours, the fields may have several levels in funny size patches. It would be interesting to know the origin of the differing levels, almost like terraces but not that deep. Their fields may have a burial mound in the middle or a series of power poles, which is okay since they don't have to plan for machine harvesting.
We must have gone through the bread basket of China with huge fields, but, in around 16 hours of daylight watching, I counted only six large harvesting machines. Of those, all but one looked as if it could make a bid to roll with the antique farm equipment in the Paso Robles Pioneer Day parade. This means that a large proportion of the wheat is harvested, threshed, and winnowed by hand using a variety of techniques, all interesting. I did see two very small, individual threshers about the size of the smallest trailer you could rent for a car. Men and women were in the fields, but everyone is in pants and sunhats so I was not able to determine if certain jobs were sex selected. The farmers would cut the wheat with hand sickles, not the long handled scythes. (My farming relatives can straighten me out on proper terminology when I get home.) Anyway, they wouldn't cut huge sections at a time, but a relatively small area, which is easier on the back. Then they would gather up big armfuls of the cut wheat and hand tie them into one stook (thanks to the Internet for that word). The stook then gets leaned against other stooks or bundles, building up a little stack. These are piled into a small three-wheeled truck or a donkey or person drawn farm wagon. Either way they get carried to what must be very old threshing areas. These are large unplanted areas where the dirt is packed so hard and smooth from years of use that it almost looks like concrete. These would be ringed with large hay mounds and piles of the stooks. In a few cases the threshing took place on a section of a farm road. A variety of threshing methods was used. Some used big-pronged tools or backs of rakes to bang the wheat. I saw one man sitting in the middle of a spread out wheat pile with a heavy stick, banging it down over and over. As you can imagine, this is very labor intensive. The next thing you see is using large pitchforks to throw the wheat into the air and winnow out the chaff. People with large brooms would be gently sweeping the grains together. There was actually some bagging go on too. When we awoke on the train this morning, I could see that some people who had gotten partway through the process slept on their pile of threshed wheat, whether to protect it from animals or people I do not know. In several villages, each flat rooftop had a pile of wheat. These may have been their family allotments, which they would then individually thresh and winnow.
The grain here is about thigh high, which didn't look very tall to me, and they don't cut it as close to the ground as I would have expected. I did notice after the wheat had been gathered into stooks and removed from the field that one time a woman was walking the field and occasionally picking up a stalk of wheat that had been missed. I thought of Ruth in the Bible story gleaning from her relative's field. After a field has been cleared, even a small portion of it, it is burned. I was surprised that they got around to that so quickly. I'd be afraid the fire would get loose, but they seemed to take it right up to the edges and no farther.
In previous travels through the countryside I noted that there were not large groups of people in fields working, mostly just one or two individuals. The wheat harvest, however, is obviously a village cooperative enterprise. I hope there is an after-harvest celebration that they all get to enjoy. They deserve it!
Other sights along the way included a donkey or an ox pulling a single hand plow. A new looking large mosque towered over an old one-story village. Graves were more prominently marked with upright, flat, arched steles at least twice as tall as our usual grave markers. In one area these steles were framed as if they were the entrance door to a house (that didn't exist). These could appear anywhere...out in the middle of a field or by the side of the road. Lots of hollyhocks grew by the villages. At every train station a trainman or woman stood at attention, after waving the red or green flag, while the train passed. One place there were six cows enjoying river bottom feed and two other places where I saw two or three cows. Otherwise they must be in mini feedlots by the houses in the villages. One flock of domestic goats grazed on a mountainside. Brooms were made with the handle being the stem parts of the plant bound together. In the mountains, the railroad workers had hats of the strong, lacquered bamboo shaped like hard hats with no sun brim; it could be they were accepted in lieu of a hard hat. Many caves in the mountains had arched openings and it was obvious that people lived there. Some even had a window or door put in. (This is getting close to the area where Mao Tse Tung and companions hid out in the caves after the Long March in 1936.)
At one point the train went over a very long bridge which spanned the flood plain. As it started into the mountains, the train went through a number of quite long tunnels, long enough that I wish I had figures on them. The scenery in the mountains was unlike any I have seen before. I did not see alluvial plains, but flatter areas seemed to start at the bottom of the mountains. All the land seemed to be terraced, but in shallow little terraces lined with bricks, that took the contours of the hillside. Every spare spot is planted. There may be an area just big enough for five fruit trees or a long narrow space that had three rows of wheat about twelve feet long. It is the same irregular pattern that is visible in the wheat and vegetable fields.
Pearl Buck's book called this The Good Earth. As I saw the fields with these different levels and odd shapes, and with tall mounds in the middle holding a telephone pole or a little temple, I had the feeling that the Chinese have been farming here for thousands of years and that each year, with the plowing and the rains and the floods, a little more gets worn away...but it is the good earth that runs deep and it is still always there.
Cities are cities the world over, though China's cities have the old sections where disintegrating tile rooftops seem to be a major challenge. But villages are different. They are the heart of a country. We passed some charming villages that looked as if they had been there for centuries and had arisen from the dirt of the ground with probably nothing new built for a long, long time. The Cultural Revolution villages, on the other hand, are a series of cookie cutter brick houses that look very sterile. In between are the hodge podge villages that have grown up through the years with a combination of slanted roofs and flat roofs, of mud and brick, of Chinese looking trimmings and plain finishings. In the mountains a series of about five villages all had the same stone decoration running the length of the roof ridge...a rooster on each end and what looked like doves, but were probably chickens, in between. Another village farther down had door lintels with Chinese characters on the lintel and down the two door posts, which we had not seen before. Another series of old villages had big double metal doors into the houses. Five or six of these were made as a single unit, which then went around the back for more buildings and enclosed a courtyard into which they all opened...a cooperative unit of protection.