Thursday, 12 March 2009

A short drive in Gansu (1)

(I wrote this for the company's blog, but I don't think they'll use it, so I'll put it in here instead - all corporate references have been ruthlessy exterminated).

Driver Lee has a very loud voice. If he wasn’t Chinese he could be from Texas. I am sitting next to him, on the front passenger seat of this tiny van we've rented to reach Longnan city, in the remote southern part of Gansu province. When I saw the van this morning, parked outside the hotel in Longxi city where we have been based for the last two days, I was convinced there was no way the five of us and our bags could fit in it. It is one of those tiny city vans common in Asia – small wheels, little engine, only one side sliding door for the passengers. I was so sure that we could not fit that I bet 10 yuan with Weilin, who thought that it would be just fine. Of course I lost the bet – driver Lee managed to get everything and everyone aboard, and I must remember to give the 10 yuan to Weilin as soon as we stop – right now I can't reach my wallet, which is inside my bag behind my legs.

Driver Lee has been at the wheel since eight o’ clock this morning, and it is now six PM. He has never stopped talking for more than five minutes, except when we halted for lunch in a small village along the road. His high-pitched (and loud – did I say loud?) voice is about ten inches from my left ear. Now my ear hurts - for the last hundred kilometers or so I have been covering it with my left hand, trying to make a point. Not that Driver Lee is good at hints – perhaps I should just tell him to keep his voice down. But I am not going to. This continuous talking is a good thing: I know he's awake. He’s a good driver though: his eyes never leave the road ahead. On the other hand, I must rely on Weilin to translate the interesting bits for Claudia and me.

Weilin is a colleague, and she's sitting behind me, between Claudia, who has wrapped herself in her lilac pashmina and nodded off some time ago, and Yang, who does not talk much. They are all work colleagues.

Obviously, Weilin is also concerned with keeping driver Lee awake, so she keeps on a steady stream of questions about his past life as lorry driver in the rich southern province of Guangzhou. That must be the reason why driver Lee – an otherwise lovely chap – is so loud: he’s accustomed to the noise inside the driving cabin of a lorry, where you need to keep your voice high to be heard by your travelling companions. This tiny van is quiet, but after ten years of hauling goods in Guangzhou, his voice is still keyed on the lorry settings.
- So driver Lee, please tell us, why did you stop driving trucks in Guangzhou and came back to Gansu?
- Oh! Very sad story! My wife wrote to me my son was growing up unruly. A boy must have his father to grow up properly, respectful of tradition and of his elders, so I quit Guangzhou and came back to Gansu, which is my birthplace. I am very happy now! And my son is behaving properly!

At the back of the van, nested among our travel bags, is the last of our group, Hong. Road travel doesn’t agree with her, so she has taken some pills to ease the disconfort, but that made her sleepy. It must be bouncy and uncomfortable at the back - the road doesn't have a tarred surface, and it is a sea of mud because of the nonstop rain, but Hong has refused the offer of the front seat, and hasn't complained once.

Through the rain-streaked windows of the van, the mountains appear and disappear behind low grey clouds. It's not heavy rain but it hasn't stopped for days. This is good. It may have made our trip longer and difficult that it needs to be, but it is a blessing, pouring relentlessly over the parched soil of Gansu province.

The five of us have been on the road for about a week now. Claudia and I reached Kunming first, in Yunnan province, where our China office is. We spent a couple of days there, going over plans, budgets, reports – the usual stuff. Then we sat down with Weilin to plan how to bring forward an idea for work - the details of which are not really germane in here - but from that idea we ended up driving around southern Gansu. And I am stuck with driver Lee. My ear relly hurts now.

Longnan is a small district at the southern edge of Gansu province, not far from the northern border of Sichuan, at the foot of the Qinghai highlands, which rise, invisible beyond the edge of the valley, on the west. The city itself is, according to my map, further south along the banks the Bailong river – the same river we have been following for hours while it winds its way south between the sides of this valley. It is a really impressive sight, because it looks like every single mountain of this province has been terraced, by hand, from top to bottom. I did some research afterward and I found out that this has been done during the last ten years – a huge project funded by the Chinese government and by the Asian Development Bank. This section of the usually dry Gansu province is now green from the bottom of the valley to the top of the mountains, and, as I said, it has been raining for days.

The road itself is in really bad conditions. Apparently it is scheduled to be replaced by the Chinese equivalent of a motorway soon – or so driver Lee says - but in the meantime they have given up on maintaining it, but it is the quickest way in or out of the Longnan from Lanzhou. There are no airports, nor there is a railway in this part of the country. For China, that is really remote. The good thing is that there is not much traffic – mainly lorries, loaded high with agricultural produce, which in this season appear to be apples. The road surface is still visible every now and then, but most of it is gone, replaced by mud. Driver Lee is very cautious in negotiating the bends around the rocky hills – the rear wheels of the van slip sideways at anything faster than 30 kilometers per hour. Every hour or so the road climbs to the top of a low hill along the river, and there is a village – two lines of mud huts fronting the road. A few shops, selling what appears to be a range of agricultural implements, building materials and foodstuffs. Lots of wandering donkeys, some dogs and the occasional pig. Not many people – the children are at school and men and women are in the fields, tending to their crops. A few old people sit, sheltered from the rain by an overhang in front of a house. They are all dressed in black: black shirts, black jackets, black trous, black berets of the kind often seen in Europe. Some of them smoke a pipe. Their faces are deeply wrinkled by the harshness of life, but they smile when they see us. Some of them stare, open mouthed – it’s not a place where they see many foreigners. At the edge of each villages there is a tiny mosque.

Yet, the contradition of modern China is there for all to see: the houses maybe made of cheap local materials – mudbricks – but each one of them has a satellite tv dish looking up at the clouds. The roof itself may be a rusty expanse of corrugated iron sheets, but there is a gleaming (or even a rusty) dish on the top of it. And, reflecting the same shape but on the ground, near the front door of almost every house, there is a solar kettle boiler. I am surprised to see so many of these items standing like oversized flowers on the front yard of people's houses - I must have seen thousand of them since this morning. Of course with today’s clouded sky this contraption – which works by reflecting and focusing sunrays on the bottom of the kettle – doesn’t work, but the sheer number of them means that, when the sun is out, lots of tea gets made without burning any coal.

The sky is darkening fast and we are still some distance away from Longnan. The phone works – China has covered almost the whole of its territory with mobile service – so we are able to call ahead and tell our hosts where we are. We are told that they are waiting for us to have dinner together – mighty nice of them, one would think. I am afraid that by the time we get there it will be 9PM – much later than the usual Chinese dinner time of 6:30PM. I ask my colleague to tell our hosts not to wait for us, but it’s no use: of course they will wait. Basic politeness demands it, and – there’s a cultural difference trick – they probably think that we expect them to wait for us. There’s nothing to do if not drive on. Driver Lee crests a hill, and – surprise – the road ahead is blocked. There is a queue of stationary trucks in the middle of the roadway, and ahead what appears to be a passenger bus somehow stuck in the mud. The stop is a welcome relief from the piercing voice of driver Lee: I open the door and step out of the van to stretch my legs and have a fag. All the engines in the queue are off – this could be a long wait. I decide to have a look, and walk up the queue to the bus. The rain is light, and it’s not cold at all. One of the back wheels of the bus got stuck in a rut of the road, and the attempts to drive out of it have resulted in the whole back of the vehicle now stuck deep in the mud. A classic. They’ll need some heavy equipment to sort this out. While I am there, I notice that the passengers of the bus are happily sitting in small groups on the side of the road, sheltering under tarpaulins and umbrellas, sharing food and drinks. Nobody appears to be nervous, or in a hurry - travelling by public bus is a relaxing activity.

I think there is enough room on one side of the stuck bus for our small van to squeeze trough, so I walk back, get in, and I explain to driver Lee – with much gesticulation – that we can go. He seems to be very happy at the idea not to wait there – must be hungry too – so he starts the engine, and off we go. Slowly, we overtake the queue of stationary lorries, reach the bus, and among much honking of horns, waving of hands and other noises, we are through. Driver Lee leans out of the windows and yells something in Chinese. I look back at Weilin, who smiles and says 'He says ‘goodbye friends’.

We’ re on our way again. A few minutes down the road we cross a large tracked vehicle going the other way, obviously on its way to pull the bus out of its predicament.

By the time the sky is dark we reach Longnan. We find our hosts – a young doctor at the local city hospital – waiting for us at the hotel. A quick check-in, then off to dinner – apparently quite a lot of other people are waiting for us. The dreaded Chinese formal dinner.

(1 - end)

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