Thursday, May 22, 2008

New Socialist Village

The BASE program is comprised of several different courses under one umbrella. One of which is the Socialist New Socialist Countryside and Village, which is a government sponsored program to enhance rural life and make it more attractive to offset the massive migration to the cities. The term for migrant workers in chinese cities is the "floating population" (migrant, meaning they have come from the countryside). Part of our class went to visit one of these remote villages two hours outside of beijing. We will then develop a proposal to improve the village (probably a single project). There are over 200 hundred villages that are affected by the latest 5 year plan of the chinese government. 

The journey begins @ 7am

We hired a small bus to drive us out of Beijing. There were 16 of us (including the driver) packed into a bulbous van on steroids. The initial push off was crazy. To get onto the airport expressway, there is a shortcut you can take, which requires one to drive the wrong way up the exit ramp and then do a U-turn into oncoming traffic. We left during rush hour. A few of on the bus who noticed that we were in fact going the wrong way spoke up, in a last ditch effort nervous pleas were yelled, and then countered by "no it's okay, they do this all the time". I sat so that I was facing traffic during the U-turn, and from my judgement this task seemed impossible, but nonetheless he swung out into two lanes before straightening out into one, horns going off everywhere, the driver got the old diesel up to speed and we were off. Jesus. 

Within an hour we were out of the city, and the terrain became mountainous. We wound our way up switch backs through steep, lush-covered mountains, honking at every turn and at every person who the driver thought was not paying attention (everyone). The sun blared in the blue sky, and the air was hot and dry. People stopped and stared as we drove through neighboring towns and villages. Along our route we stopped at the great wall of china where the road intersected the wall along a river and a dam. We walked along the top of the damn, crossing the river, and paid a man on the other side 2 RMB to climb the side of the mountain up to the great wall. We were the only tourist here, so it was probably one of the best ways to see the wall, even though it was just a quick stop. Our presence attracted a few local merchants who were selling fireworks. We bought some and lit most of them off at the dam. They're fireworks are essentially black-cats ranging in size. Ted bought a huge string, lit it, and threw it off the 80 foot dam. It landed in the water and popped a couple more times before going out. The merchants loved it. We also picked up a variety that explodes when you throw them on the ground. A similar concept to the small, white "whipper snappers", but along the same magnitude as a black cat. I wish I could get these back to the states, but there is no way.  
We arrived at the town outside of the village and met with the "leader", as it translates from chinese to english. One of our chinese classmates, Sen, translated the conversation between the group and the mayor over loose-leaf tea in the city building. We talked on the third floor of the city building in a room with a big conference table. The air was cool and reeked of cigarettes. 

After our conversation, we walked up the main road to one of the many traditional chinese courtyard homes lining the streets. Inside the modest home was an elaborate meal set on two tables. We ate lunch, and then drove to the village, and met with their leader, again over hot loose-leaf tea. An hour later, we walked around the 200 person village, investigating each narrow street, and peering behind the courtyard walls. The homes were made of brick, and sometimes a combination of stone, mud, and straw. The roofs were covered in traditional tiles. Each home had a small garden within the walls of the courtyard, and several smaller structures to house chickens, rabbits, and goats. Many of the fences were made using tree branches, but were arranged so neatly they looked very nice. The streets were newly redone, and were one of the worst things in the village. They basically smothered everything in concrete, and smoothed over the embankments and topographical changes into one continuous flow. 

We took photos and made some sketches, then headed down to a tea house shrine, which was nothing more than a few traditional residential-like buildings. A few us hiked along a small road that led into the mountains. There was a communication breakdown along the way because Ted and I thought the tea house shrine was nestled somewhere back in the hills, not at the base of the trail (which is telling to how unassuming these structures looked) After 15 minutes the rest of the group wanted to turn back. Ted and I decided to jogged the rest of the way (it was supposed to be 3-4km away) We took off at a steady clip, and ran for 10 minutes. We never found anything, except for two pheasants that suddenly emerged out of the brush, eliciting screams. The trail continued, but we were quickly running out of time and needed to be back for the dinner. We turned back to catch up with the rest of the group, but our guides who became worried at the base of the trail met us half way between. They were not interested in jogging, so we caused the group to wait for us at the bottom. 

We drove back into town and ate dinner at a restaurant in town. It might have been a hotel or someone's house, it's hard to say. Dinner was another iteration of the lunch we ate earlier with many of the same dishes, like hard-boiled duck eggs sliced in half (very salty). A new dish was rabbit stew that was very good. We drank tea and beer, and did the best we could to eat all the food. Under the cool florescent lights we talked about architecture, representation, and Robert and Mary Ann's olive oil business in Italy. 

After dinner we collected our things from the bus and Sen showed us where we were staying. Most people stayed in the same house where we ate lunch earlier. Several beds lined the walls of two little rooms, and in the main living area was one huge bed that sleeps six people. Traditionally, the whole family would sleep on the large bed, and it would be heated from beneath with coals to stay warm in the winter. I think the modern versions have radiant heat, but they still maintain the same form. About five of us, including the bus driver, slept in another house on a large bed. My only complaint was the snoring, but I had my earplugs with me. In the courtyard I brushed my teeth in a sink, and then got ready for bed. The bathroom was typical, a little porcelain thing punched into the ground summoning the squatting method. 

We ate breakfast at 7:30a, which was another iteration of the same meal we had for lunch and dinner. We drove the bus back the village to do a final read of the place, taking measurements, more photographs, and some sketching. Ted and Sen and I hiked up one of the mountains and got a nice view of the village from the ridge. We left at 11am, and made a pit stop at one of the satellite cites along the way, picking up snacks and some souvenirs at a hardware store. We wound our way back through the mountain, and arrived at BASE around 2:30p.

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