The badlands of Panzhihua

March 9, 2009: Being a tourist city, people don't really stare at the foreigners in Lijiang. But the moment i set foot on the bus from Lijiang to Panzhihua, i was out of the tourist zone and back in "real China" (i.e. the sort of China that 90% of China is). [Update: see comment 2 at the bottom for notable Panzhihua history i neglected to mention]

Every head turned, every eye on the bus burned into me, and in an attempt to express my exasperation good-naturedly i decided to say "Ni hao" loudly to each and every starer. Most turned out to be peasant kids from Sichuan who work in Lijiang.

The road across northern Yunnan Province to Panzhihua on the Sichuan border is not particularly long, but it's a steep and winding 7-hour journey. Probably 2-3 hours max if they built a superhighway. In my second pleasant China roads surprise in 24 hours, the bus driver was an absolute legend: not too fast, not too slow, drove carefully around donkey carts and peasants on foot, used the horn reasonably, and made no outrageous overtaking maneuvers. He even drove slow enough to take photos out the window, and witness the process of urbanisation:

20 years, my guess, and the towns and villages will have joined up.

Quite abruptly the country turned scrubby, reminiscent of Shanxi, as the brown haze that seems to blanket most of the Chinese countryside returned, meaning we were now in Panzhihua's atmosphere of influence. It's an iron ore city, a young one by Chinese standards, only founded in the 1960s. A far-flung outpost among wild mountains on what was traditionally the edge of Chinese civilisation, i must admit Panzhihua's noise, grime, crammed buses and predominance of massive dump trucks was a rude shock after a few days in the tourist wilderness. The signs of what i would term backwardness were pretty abundant in Panzhihua: compulsive staring, "hel-lauwww?", quite a few unfriendly gawks and glances - and, of course, the obligatory touching warmth and hospitality to a total stranger. The ticket sales lady at the Panzhihua train station, for example. She helped me work out what random station i needed to get off at to hike through and see some of the Sichuan countryside and when there would be a train, and whether there were any seats, all the while simultaneously selling tickets to other people. She finally came up with a train leaving at midnight that would allow me to avoid spending the night in the city, going instead straight through to Emei, named for the famous Emei Mountain.

I had 6 hours to kill, to which end i went for a walk into the back alleys, and the further i strayed from the train station, the stranger the stares became. I chatted to a family in their drugstore for a couple of hours, the highpoint being a strikingly Japanese-looking hot-blooded youth who ranted and ranted against (who else but) Japan, completely in Chinese of course but with the occasional, "Nnnnnnaw! Fucka!" thrown in, accompanied by much manic finger-pointing. People told me there were foreigners in Panzhihua, although the amount of staring really kinda suggested otherwise.

The Chinese today are keen to label most places in China, and indeed China itself, as "backward" (the essence of the usual shutdown of China democracy). Presumably this is a post-Mao phenomenon because as far as i'm aware Mao-era propaganda portrayed China as the luckiest country on earth. (Meanwhile Australia was proclaiming itself the, uh, "lucky country".)

A lady waiting for a train even asked me, "Is Australia or Panzhihua richer?" At last! Someone in China who, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, knows their unknowns: I'd never heard this as a question before, only blanket statements along the lines of, "Australia is a rich country, China is very poor."

The next day the brushes with Chinese mass philosophy continued. When i arrived at Emei town it was raining and foggy and i very decisively abandoned the hiking idea in favour of a day on the internet. My next train, this time to Chengdu, was at 3am. Being just a 4-hour ride i was happy to go on a hard seat (25RMB, the equivalent of $5), and somehow i unwittingly set off a hardcore anti-Cultural Revolution, anti-Mao struggle session. These guys, two middle-aged and one quite old, were all of the opinion that Mao's only good point was that he united the country.

Actually I've always felt it much easier to talk politics and history with older Chinese people than young. I seem to remember that night in Tiger Leaping Gorge the Granite Studio blogger made a point to the effect that he is disappointed to see so many Chinese students overseas seeing complex issues like Tibet or the Western media in black-and-white, with no interest in mutual understanding or consideration of opposing viewpoints. The Grace Wang case being a prime example, in which a girl was mercilessly vilified on the internet, and subsequently "Human Flesh Searched", for trying to get Tibetan independence and Chinese government supporters to talk to each other. I would almost extend his point to cover young educated Chinese in general. From my perspective there seems to be total unawareness of the possibility that things might not be as they seem. A recently-graduated student saw me reading an article about Tibet and asked me what i thought. The article claimed the Tibetan independence movement had the "full support" of "the West" and i told him that as a "Westerner", it certainly wasn't consistent with my own experience of "the West". Credit to him for caring to ask, but he appeared to have been only fishing for agreement in the first place because he immediately replied, "No, the whole article is true."

It reminded me of the mindless absolutism of the girl in Songyuan whom i asked about the Communist Party's 70/30 judgement on Mao, to which she replied, "Nnnnaw. He was 99.9999999999 per cent right."

Older people, on the other hand, in my experience at least, tend to be much more cynical about the Chinese media and what the government says - they've witnessed the Cultural Revolution (or at least heard people talk about it), seen the 180-degree backflips of the Deng reforms. As these older people are less educated, it would seem that education may be closing, rather than opening minds - which stands to reason really, given what we know about the Chinese education system when it comes to history and politics. The irony is the kids' ignorance isn't just due to schools' political correctness, it's the old people's fault for not TALKING about this stuff with their kids. A few days later a lady told me of how her daughter complained to her that life was better in the Chairman Mao times, and how she had snapped back, "I'm going to cook you cabbage and nothing else every day for a week, then you'll know what life was like back then." But how did she let her daughter come to such a misguided conclusion in the first place, when she herself had first-hand knowledge she could have imparted? This might simply be an intrinsic part of being Chinese - you generally just don't talk about the bad shit. If something's dark and terrible, why would you talk about it when you can talk about something positive? That said, Chinese people generally respond well it when i bring up the idea of learning from the past by studying its mistakes (particularly when i talk about Australia's historical darkni). It's a part of western philosophy that they can understand and, it seems, even respect. Whether China will at some stage face the past head-on is less about the Communist Party than we assume, and more about the people themselves.

We pulled into Chengdu just after 6am - plenty of time to connect with the 8.11am express train to Chongqing. But the train stopped just outside the station and waited. Why, no-one knew. And then it continued to wait until someone decided the time was right and we finally entered the station 8.10, just in time for me to see my Chongqing express roll gracefully out in the other direction.

With another 3 hours to kill, i sat down front of the rather impressive new Chengdu Railway Station, ate some dumplings and watched as a team of security guards issued fines to peasants en masse for spitting or littering.


Sichuan photos
Yunnan photos


slowboat said...

Panzhihua. ha!

i was attacked by a mob in downtown Panzhihua (rather far via bus from the train station) and then detained by police there back in 1999.

that place is the pits.

Cup of Cha said...

Panzhihua is an odd city. It's essentially a created of the Mao government, which, in an effort to protect itself from foreign attacks, built up inland locations for things like steel production and military technology (the Third Front). By the time Mao died they had dumped huge sums of money into places like Panzhihua that were so hard to get to that they made no sense as production hubs.

After Mao, the leadership realized what a waste of money it was and cut its losses, leaving half finished projects all over the place. In 2002 I participated in the Great Panzhihua International Boat Race. It primarily consisted of well-trained Chinese nationals competing against surprised Westerners with no rafting experience. On the upside, I met the mayor and was on television constantly for three days. That's a good thing, right?

chubb said...

Josh: Josh: Thanks for the vital history, for some reason i actually never made the connection between Sichuan, "founded in the 60s" and the 3rd Wave. I just thought it was because there was iron in the ground nearby. Almost makes me want to go straight back there. Almost.

How (and i realise i'm probably asking the wind here, just on the off-chance you come back...i'd email you but i can't find your email addy) how on earth did you come to be in a Panzhihua rafting race? Was it international in any sense other than the fact you were there?

slowboat: Would you mind doing us the favour of reliving your trauma publicly? - it sounds like a cracking story!

Let's start with why were you there in the first place?

Kay said...

Hi Chubb - Kay again! Rushing off out, but just wanted to explain how I (and almost certainly some others, like "slowboat") found you - didn't you know your Panzhihua article was featured on Danwei?

...under "From the Web" at the top there. It could be gone from the list soon but that's where I found your blog. That's, like, China blog world celebrity, man!

Chat later :D