Part 4: Impressions

I took another night bus from Dali to Kunming. The fellow in the bunk above mine played his radio fairly loudly much of the trip; the songs were amazing. They seemed to be mostly 1970s era pop songs to the glory of Mao Tsetung, sung by bubbly young women. Cultural Revolution retro. In the middle of the night I woke up from the sensation that the engine had been turned off. The driver was talking heatedly in dialect with the people sitting up front; occasionally the engine would go back on, would rev for a while, the driver would curse, the brakes squeak, and the engine die again. "Is the bus broken?" the fellow lying next to me kept yelling. "The bus is broken! Is the bus broken?" I lay back down and grunted in annoyance; if we didn't get back to Kunming in time, I'd miss my flights home. A few more times we inched forward, engine revving, brakes squeaking, only to come to a sudden halt after a few feet. Finally I sat up, put on my glasses, and looked out the window.

I was on the left side. In the dark just beyond the window, there appeared to be an infinite row of trucks, buses, and trailers, facing the opposite direction from my bus but stopped dead in their tracks. Each time we inched forward a few dozen feet, we passed more and more, an endless procession, nose to nose. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I began to make out the faces of the truck drivers, lolling lazily out their cab windows, smoking cigarettes and looking patiently, lazily, ahead into the night darkness. When we passed buses, the faces of weary and anxious travelers, not as lucky as I to be on a sleeper, peered uncertainly back at me. It gradually dawned on me that we weren't having engine trouble--we were somehow caught in a massive traffic jam. And then I realized that, since we seemed to be moving a few feet every now and then, while the opposite lane hadn't moved once, the blockage must be _behind_ us. What was holding us up? It was simply that, frustrated, some of the drivers moving in the other direction had tried to pass vehicles ahead of them, or had not stayed perfectly in their own lanes. Since the road is just barely two lanes wide, these vehicles were blocking _our_ way as well. The progress we were making had to be due to vehicles larger than us, ahead of us, finally squeezing their way through narrow openings in the road, or to vehicles facing the other direction moving aside to let us pass. Indeed, after an hour or so, we emerged into the clear and picked up speed. For about twenty minutes thereafter the long, dark, silent line of waiting vehicles, a dormant army, still stretched along beside us. I'd have to guess that several thousand vehicles were held up, and for all I know they are waiting there still.

I can't really complain about the climate. I loved the dry air--it kept me cool and comfortable no matter how hot the temperature--but after Taipei's humidity, my throat wasn't used to it. I woke up most mornings with a sore throat, gasping for water. When I stepped off my plane in Hong Kong on the way back, I could feel my throat and nose rehydrating in the humid heavy air. And foolish me, I enjoyed it! Little did I suspect I would return to Taipei to find that winter had ended and summer had begun ... hot, humid, sticky, unbearable. Yuck!

In a week it's not easy to get a sense of what a country, or even a province, is going through, where it's headed, what its people are thinking. But I had several impressions.

First, the people in Yunnan seemed so _nice_. We were never given an unfair price for anything. No one tried to cheat us. People were open, warm, and friendly. Maybe it's the climate. Maybe it's just that the shock of economic reform hasn't quite reverbated fully into this remote corner of China. But whatever the reason, it's a welcome difference from other areas my friends and I have been to.

What about socialism and the communist party? In Dali and Lijiang, and the many small villages about and between them, there were numerous propaganda slogans painted on walls in large white letters. They basically fell into three categories. Some urged population control ("give birth less, but do it better", "controlling the population is the key to a brighter future", etc.). A large number touted the virtues of irrigation ("Irrigation is the foundation of agriculture"). But by far the most urged conservation and sensible use of natural resources, or warned against forest fires. "Save the woods for future generations" they said. Nowhere was socialism or the communist party mentioned. The government seemed to be promoting very basic, practical, and sensible policies for improving and protecting the lives of the citizens.

Another thing that struck me was that the entire area was fully electrified. We went to some very small, poor, primitive and remote areas ... none were without electric lines. Getting electricity out to all these people is no doubt a massive and impressive task, and was clearly a major priority of the provincial government.

On my bus ride from Lijiang back to Dali, I met a young man and we had a long conversation. He was extremely knowledgeable and had a keen and insightful mind. We talked about music, basketball, China-Taiwan politics, social organization, travel, differences between East and West, etc. He was a graduate of Kunming University and had never been out of the country--he'd never even been to Beijing. I was extremely impressed with his broad knowledge of and interest in international affairs. I don't know how many people there are like him in China--perhaps not many--but if they can find an outlet for their ideas and creativity then they will be a big help to their country.

On my last day in Lijiang I had wandered into a record store and my eye lit on a cassette tape called "Red Rock". The first song on it was called "Socialism is Good". Other tracks included "The Song of the People's Liberation Army" and "The People's Volunteer Army Marching Song". The man behind the counter said the tape was very popular and pointed out a large poster of the group hanging on the shop wall. I asked him to play some of it for me ... rock. I was amazed. Chinese rock. There is no such animal in Taiwan, where everything is soft pop. I hadn't heard Chinese rock, and it sounded great. I bought the tape on the spot. "Do they really believe in socialism, or is this just the style?" I asked. "Just the style," he said. The first song on the tape, "Socialism is Good," is a conglomeration of old Chinese slogans shouted in a hoarse, almost goofy voice. Laid out end to end, heard in the context of the bustling, vibrant economy, they sound stupid, naive, idiotic. If the Chinese have lost all their idealism, at least they become reasonably sophisticated in the process.

Well, anyway, I've rambled on far too long. I've surely left out some interesting details and left in too much long boring narrative. If I think of something important, I'll let you know.


[Note: The area of China around Lijiang was hit with a devastating earthquake on February 4, 1996. I read in the American newspapers that the hotel my friends and I had stayed in, located in the modern part of the city, had completely collapsed. Many people died. I have heard, though, that the wooden old town, so precious and vulnerable, had largely survived the quake. I've been told that villages in that style, so often in Hong Kong period movies, are actually quite rare in China now because of their great susceptibility to fire and other natural disasters. -Zev (December 5, 1997)]

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This page last modified January 13, 1998.

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