Longnan, Gansu (陇南, 甘肃)

17th March 2018

Let me give you an image. In the mountains of Gansu the valleys, steep sided and meandering,  guide me in, my road curving round every spar. Alongside a highway follows a straighter course: tunnel, bridge, tunnel, bridge. Over the course of the day I weave around the highway:  veer away to rural villages – pigs, pony ploughs and cherry blossom – snap back to modernity.

Sometimes the loop is bigger, wider, steeper; sometimes the valley widens and the roads accompany each other for a stretch. No matter, just as you get used to one or the other, away it always swings again.

Thus too has been the pulse of China. It all creates rather a likeable rhythm.

To get to the hills you must first leave Chengdu and this takes longer than you might imagine. Not because of the roads which are of course wide and fast and thrust far away from the centre, instead urban life stutters on in ever more sparse satellite towns. Each time the new towers stand as tall but the surrounding buildings get lower and lower until the urban hold finally collapses into a more rural balance of asphalt and field.

But only for a a few beats – Perhaps 10km of the 110. Then a short climb and descent and the city of Mianyang appears before you. Another 10km of urban avenue with stylised street lamps and manicured flower beds and you’re back into another city centre.

The surprising thing isn’t how big the cities are or how numerous but rather how likeable they have been so far. Each of the half dozen or so I have stayed in has a notably different feel, as do, say, Bristol, Manchester, Exeter and London, I suppose. Mianyang is my favourite so far. It has a European feel with a reclaimed riverside park, and tea terraces next to a stream, tree branches weeping alongside. But the rhythm persists here too:  the evening reveals a heavily illuminated pagoda and a Hong Kong style light show over the riverside high-rises.

But just as I relax into the idea that this is China, the melody elaborates, not another city but a national park (both the scenery and the hills unexpected!) and within the life of the small town appears: 4 men eating, smoking, drinking baijiu in a plastic-table eatery, a chat, a toast, a photo and my dinner is paid for, my protests falling on overly generous ears.

Change tempo again up into these mountains where there is still a link to a not too distant past. One more familiar from India: a high pass where the road becomes more pockmarked. A narrow valley. I see orange houses of mud brick and people stooped, collecting firewood for stoves and hearths. A man urges on a bull with clicks and threats as he manoeuvres the plough through heavy soil.

But it’s only a trill, like the views from the top of the pass. The valley descends quickly and the mud brick houses quickly become mere storerooms. Their walls merge with a newer concrete shell alongside creating strange hybrid homes. The motif of the Chinese flag appears again, though a more muted red than in the plains below, and before long, reprise that highway theme!

How often have I mentioned the valley yet never the river itself? Because the river barely trickles. Once strong enough to carve out this oh so convenient pathway through the mountains the river apparently has no more use. Its valley has been commandeered for highways, expanding towns and productive fields and in a poignant mockery the river now dribbles through little man-made tunnels while the highway enjoys the wider arcs with dry feet.

As with the river, the old rural life now only trickles around the edges it seems. There in pockets this life persists – but idyllic or underdeveloped? China seems to have decided. As, less conciously perhaps, did we. Maybe it will regret develoing so fast? We often look back on childhood with a tinted nostalgia – but only once we are adults; at the time we are all too keen to grow up.

And as for me, my thoughts too have been somewhat in harmony. I think of home, life before, life after. I wonder which of the two roads through this valley I am on and which I should be on. I wonder where my valley is leading and whether, naturally, all the blossoms must fade. I wonder what is in all those other valleys and whether it is too hard to climb between them: Are the higher pinnacles too cold, the lower plains too monotonous? Should I pause along the way to admire the view? Or cycle faster to reach the destination sooner? But what destination am I trying to reach anyway? And why?

Today, allthemore: it is one year to the date since I left my job. Though then it was a Friday; Now it is Saturday.