The LookOut columns
What I Say About Frank Gruber

Email Frank

How I Found China

By Frank J. Gruber

The cool thing about Air China's nonstop flight from Beijing to L.A. is that thanks to the International Date Line we arrived home before we left -- we departed China at eight p.m. Saturday, and arrived at LAX around five p.m. the same day. As my son said, it was like we flew home from the future.

Call it future shock, then, but writing this column on Sunday, I am a little groggy, which is probably a good thing because otherwise I might be inspired to make sweeping generalizations about 1.3 billion people based on a ten-day visit.

That would be a bad idea. China overwhelmed me. Humbled me, actually. What goes on in Santa Monica, the problems what we have, the issues I write about, or even what the issues are in vastly more complicated Los Angeles and California, seem quaint in comparison with what is going on across the Pacific as a rural nation of villages rapidly modernizes and urbanizes.

I'll try to focus on the things I noticed, and let the photos do most of the work.

Our trip took us from Beijing, to two historic cities in Central China (Pingyao, one of only two cities in China with its traditional architecture intact, and Xi'an, a former capital and the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, and now known worldwide as the home of the terra cotta warriors), and ultimately to the far northwestern province of Xinjiang, to visit a friend working on a movie.

To start with something perhaps trivial in the big scheme of things, what surprised me the most about China that is how much the Chinese love trees. They are planting them everywhere. In Beijing, Xi'an and Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) they are planting them on streets. Outside Pingyao, a country town that is rapidly expanding outside its Ming Dynasty walls, they are planting them along roadsides.

Newly-planted trees outside Pingyao (Photos by Frank Gruber)

Along two-lane highways cutting though the steppes in Xinjiang, they've planted them as windbreaks. From the Great Wall and in Xinjiang, we saw big reforestation projects.

Reforestation in Xinjiang

The trees may have surprised me, but I was prepared for the cranes I saw everywhere. I had read about them. Even so, the number stunned me. China seemed like one big construction site.

In Beijing, high-rise offices and apartment buildings are rapidly replacing traditional neighborhoods, the urban design of which go back to when Kublai Kahn made Beijing the capital of his Chinese empire. Beijing is also preparing for the 2008 Olympics by building new subway lines, new streets, sewers and other infrastructure.

There won't be an Olympics in Pingyao, but on the road from the town to the nearby Shaunglin Temple, apartments are replacing fields.

Apartments under construction outside Pingyao

In Xi'an, a regional capital with a population of 6.6 million, every kind of growth seems to be happening at once. Offices and retail are replacing apartments in the historic center, as more apartments rise in the north and south, and industrial development occurs in the east and west. Xi'an is building a subway, too.

Notwithstanding advertisements we saw for some American-style suburban developments north of Beijing, everything we saw being built were modernist style high-rises. Modernist towers are out of fashion among American urbanists, but frankly, they seemed inevitable in China. It's hard to imagine how the Chinese could otherwise house all the new city dwellers.

Many of the towers, especially the older ones, do not appear to be well built, and they will probably not survive future iterations of development, but for a poor society pulling itself up, they were undoubtedly cost as well as land efficient.

The Chinese are building a lot of roads, too. They take particular pride in cloverleaf freeway intersections, which, as a Californian, I found ironic.

A billboard in Xi'an

But the basic unit of transportation planning in China appears to be the multi-modal boulevard, the kind Paris is famous for. This combines fast lanes in the center with slow lanes on the sides. In China, the slow lanes usually are dedicated to bicycles, and these boulevards give the Chinese more opportunity to plant trees.

The only negatives happen at the corners, where the cyclists merge into the stream of traffic. When I say traffic, I mean something different from what we complain about in Santa Monica. I mean a mass of trucks and buses and taxis and (relatively few) private cars, all driven by people with no regard for the rules of the road, with bicycles, mini-bikes, motorcycles, pedicabs, hand-carts, three-wheel carts, and pedestrians thrown in for sport.

Fueling China's growth are rapid increases in income as people urbanize. We saw this in reverse in rural Xinjiang, where the local economy still operates to a great extent on a non-cash, do-it-yourself basis. The three of us had a meal of grilled lamb and nan bread at a two-table "restaurant" owned and operated out of their house by a Uighur family. They slaughtered and butchered the lambs themselves and baked their own bread. The total price for the three of us was twelve yuan -- about a dollar and a half. (I should mention that they did have a TV.)

Baking nan in Xinjiang

In the cities, globalized consumerism runs rampant. Xi'an has two huge and glitzy malls next to -- and under -- its historic central square, not to mention multiple McDonalds and KFC's. Walking down the main street was like what I imagine State Street in Chicago was like in its heyday -- sidewalks packed, shops still open and doing business at ten.

A mall in Xi'an

With the constant bustle on the streets, I never once felt unsafe in China, although there must be crime because the lower story windows and terraces on apartment buildings always had bars on them and taxi drivers sit inside protective cages.

Another thing that struck me in China was how fit everyone looked. I am not exaggerating when I say I did not see one overweight Chinese person on the street. And don't make any jokes about anyone starving -- these were urbanites, mostly, who looked as prosperous as the average person strolling the Third Street Promenade.

It's nothing genetic, either. On our flight back there was a group of young Chinese-Americans from La Crescenta and Pasadena, and they were as pudgy as any other group of American teenagers. It probably has to do with the fact that per capita consumption of sugar in China is less than one-sixth of that in America. And the Chinese walk and bike a lot more than we do.

Cyclists (and trees) in Beijing

Based on my short visit I am not qualified to say anything deeper about the Chinese zeitgeist or politics, but I will recommend two books that helped me put what I saw there in context.

One is a memoir, Red Dust, which was published in 2001 but takes place in the early 1980s. The author, Ma Jian, a disaffected photographer living in Beijing, dropped out of his Beijing life before an unrepentant "self-criticism" got him into serious trouble. He left Beijing and took a Kerouac-style road-trip. The book is an account of what China was like before Deng Xiaoping's "Reform and Opening" had its transforming impact.

The other book came out just this year. It's New Yorker writer Peter Hessler's Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present. The China Hessler is writing about is mostly the China that is transforming itself not only economically, but also in terms of the personal choices that people can make for themselves, at the same time that political change is glacially slow. Hessler also places the events of today in an historical context that includes not only thousands of years of culture but also the lingering impact of the Cultural Revolution.

The one thing I can say for sure about China is that I can't wait to go back.

Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon