All along on the drive through China I have been most fascinated by the vast stretches of agricultural farms growing rice, wheat, fruits and vegetables. Polyhouses and modern means of farming has reduced input costs increased productivity per capita, thereby making agriculture the mainstays of the economy. Wherever I have been to in the country I have had fresh vegetables and fruits served with all meals. Despite being an overwhelmingly meat eating people the Chinese have a large share of vegetables and fruits in their daily diet. The quantity of rice intake per person is quite high. And as long as demand remains so high amongst the local population farming will remain attractive and is actively promoted by the state.
Another feature that struck me is the population. Population control in China influenced and enforced strictly by the state was a subject of study during college days. Hence, I was prepared to see large number of people everywhere I went. That has not been the case. In fact, the ‘sea of humanity’ that one sees and feels in India is larger than even in large cities like Beijing! I feel that it has all to do with infrastructure. When there are wide open roads, humongous parking lots, well maintained subways and sidewalks, huge shopping malls, large schools and colleges, etc. one does not have to bump into another. The other is about discipline. People respect rules and regulations which makes daily life more peaceful. The way people drive on the road is a classic case in point. Of course, in larger cities there is wanton weaving of lanes, with taxi drivers the most offensive. Otherwise, on the highways and main roads lane discipline is a given.
Pollution is what China is most accused of in the western press. I did see evidence of that during my visit to Shenzhen in 2003, where manufacturing added to noise and air pollution. However, during this expedition what I have seen has completely amazed me. Scooters and carts are almost entirely electric. I was told that the state has promoted this initiative so much that the price of these machines is kept low and affordable. Thus, in one stroke emissions and noise pollution are addressed. The condition of vehicles on the road is scrupulously monitored for emissions and their capability. Those that do not stand the standard test are taken off the roads.
Public toilets and garbage cans are almost everywhere. People do not litter and garbage collection is most efficiently organized. I saw roads being kept clean by people using battery operated carts and roads are regularly cleaned using water jets and bobcat machines. On the highways there are comfort stations at regular intervals. The comfort stations have clean and well maintained toilets, restaurants, supermarket, accommodation for overnight stay, fuel station and parking facility. Very large freight transportation and leisure travel ensure that these facilities are regularly used.
Development has been at the center of China’s focus over the past few decades. And they have built magnificent infrastructure in their country. Even in the smallest of small towns one can find decent places to stay at affordable prices. Moreover, it is a safe country to travel in. Maybe, the environment has been altered in the process of the development programs in the country. But what I saw where large swathes of social forestry initiatives along the highways. Millions of trees have been planted and nurtured in place of those that gave way for development.
The city of Shenyang, which I left this morning, attracted me a lot for its vibrant life and warm people. I am a day ahead of the original schedule. I could have moved across to Russia on the 1st instead of the 2nd had it not been for the strange requirement to move my car in a truck between the Chinese and Russian borders. Nobody has been able to explain to me why this is so. With such a requirement already factored in I have no option but to follow the original schedule. With this in mind, I decided to take the Shenyang-Hunchun leg leisurely. During the course of the drive we decided to halt the night in the small nondescript township of Dun Hua. Andy was able to find a great hotel deal too, which was inclusive of breakfast. I had covered over 6oo km in about 6 hours of driving.
The northern part of China is very different from the south, naturally. It is drier in the north and winters are harsh here. Somewhere along the way from Shenyang to Dun Hua I drove into the last Chinese Province I would be in, Jilin, of which Changchu is the capital. All along it was extremely windy and the landscape was small green mountains and pine forests on both sides of the road. It was not just cool, it was cold in Din Hua, with the wind adding to the discomfort. I wore three layers to keep out the cold.
Initially, since I would have an extra day in Hunchun I explored the possibility of doing a day tour into North Korea. Andy found out the options that spiked the very thought. Apparently, the tours are arranged from Tumen, the city short of Hunchun, and they are normally two day tours. The tour from Hunchun is merely to climb a tower and look across to the North Korean side. I was not particularly interested in driving over 100 km to climb a tower! Moreover, Andy found out that it would take at least four days to complete the paperwork for a foreigner! The Chinese could permits in a short while based on their identity card. While nearing Hunchun I noticed that even the signboards carried the Korean language. Since the region had a fair sprinkling of them with Chinese passports this arrangement was adopted. In Hunchun all shops and establishments used both Chinese and Korean languages.
Once we had checked in done some documentation we drove out to the outskirts of the city where a tall golden statue of the seated Buddha overlooked the Moudunchiang River from a small green hill. Entry to the statue was regulated. The guard merely said that we could not go up there! The city of Dun Hua has its old and new parts, again divided by a bridge over the river. The old part had ill maintained houses and buildings and even pot holed roads. The newer part, where there seemed to be more life, was where all the action was. New apartments, shopping complexes, eating joints, etc were all here. Andy and I returned to the hotel and walked to Dicos, the Chinese fast food joint, for dinner.