April 8th, 2021.Chongqing
It was a lazy weekday afternoon, the morning classes, big lunch, and a few hours at the gym behind me when I got a message and an offer to get out of the concrete jungle, my new home of Chongqing, a city with a larger municipality roughly the population of my native Canada, only much more densely populated. A journey to the countryside always means colorful views, bright blue skies, fresh air, and a chance to stretch my legs. The problem is that I'm busy, highly scheduled, and there's always a part of me that resists taking on new jobs. Nonetheless, Xiaosu Yu, or Sue, is patient and unrelenting with me. She's flexible; when I've got a few hours, she'll pick me up. She is a writer for the Chinese national media Xinhua News, who interviewed me last year about my COVID-19 book release. She wants to do a story with the Canadian author of Kai's Diary, the COVID-19 pandemic account of Chongqing's great handling of the virus, to discuss how Chongqing and, by association, China in general, is working hard to raise hundreds of millions of rural people and communities out of poverty, not just creating urban opportunities, by association as they move to the cities, ghost villages. With the 100th anniversary of the CPC this year, poverty alleviation is a hot topic and addressing a long-standing social issue of rural-urban economic inequality and I'm curious to see it for myself.
With a father who's a geographer, and myself a curious people watcher, I've always been interested in urban and highly developed China and the rural and historical villages. My previous trips with my school to escort my own high school students to teach English to junior school rural kids, previously an annual week-long affair in rural Tongliang Village, inspired my forthcoming magical fantasy series Amos the Amazing, somewhere between Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia and the Lord of the Rings series in my imaginative scale and scope of my world-building. Plus, Sue agreed to plug my book, which I'm sure the publishers would enjoy and might even sell a few copies.
We agree to do it on a Wednesday after lunch, with the rest of my day wide open. I finish morning classes, meet Xiaolin at the campus dining hall, and we relax after a hearty buffet lunch until Sue's van and crew have arrived to pick us up. We're headed to Da Tianchi, in the Yubei district. It's about an hour away, traffic depending, and has been revitalized by recent government and tourism initiatives as a new destination for people to enjoy on the weekends or when they have time off from their daily grind.
The trip is relaxing and easy, as I listen to a podcast and stare absently out the window as city streets turn to highway roads, forest, and mountain views, and before I know it, we have arrived. We get out and stretch our legs. I'm awkwardly holding a copy of my book as Xiaolin has encouraged me to show it on camera. I sit by a large lake and read the back, remembering the year and how far we've all come since January 2020. I remark at how interesting it looks, and not in a tooting my own horn kind of way. Still, after letting it settle for months and picking it up, it does look like a book I'd want to read, and I let my imagination go as I skim through sections and Xiaolin takes a few pictures. She notices a colorful field of yellow flowers and encourages us onward. Before I know it, I'm squatting amongst pollen and bees, trying not to offend them with my encroachment as we smile and snap photos that remind me of very similar squatting and trying not to get stung amongst the lavender fields of Provence in France on my last international vacation before the pandemic grounded me inside Chinese and mainly Chongqing borders. I smile, trying not to appear concerned as buzzing bees buzz around me, investigating and manufacturing consent within the bee community to escalate their buzzing into a more concentrated 'shoo' with the possibility of a stinging. That's how bees do.
Thankfully, Xiaolin has a few satisfactory couple shots and is happy to take a few selfies while I lumber out of the flower patch. This de-escalation momentarily satisfies the bees, and they go back to their bees nests.
It's getting close to the time we agreed to loop back around and find Xiaosu to record a live podcast and video about the village, so we loop around a large lake, seeing several fish floating up to the surface - supposedly still adjusting to new water, PH levels or new conditions, but all in all, as we walk past extensive hydroponic gardens full of plump red strawberries, this is a colorful, fresh, and relaxing place to spend a day.
I sit on a wooden deck next to a small lake and read a few pages, feeling the warm sun on my skin and enjoying the fresh air. It's peaceful and quiet, and I am glad I decided to spend my afternoon out here. Xiaosu approaches and asks if I'm ready to go, and we walk around and pregame a little. I want to talk, but she is determined not to surprise me, so she sketches out an idea for a path until I ask that we be a little spontaneous and we decide to hit record. Without being pushy, I have found when doing media videos in China that we tend to linger on this 'pregame' period longer than I'd like when the digital tape is literally endless and free, press record, see what happens, capture the magic, and let's get back home for dinner and all that. That's probably me, patience has always been something I struggle with, but I am getting better in my old age.
Sue introduces me to Wu Xianli, a recent graduate from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Rather than take a job in metro Chongqing or stay in Beijing, she has returned to her childhood village and has been appointed the leader in charge of overseeing this tourist operation. She feels very proud to be offering quality and well-paying jobs both in agriculture and tourism. We look at a small tourist center building showing old farm implements of the historical rural area, pictures of cave tours that are possible to take by foot or by boat, and then around the lakes that she says are full of tourists on the weekends. In the name of conservation, China has put a 10-year ban on fishing in the Yangzte and other major rivers, so this opportunity to come fish here, and take the fresh fish home or clean it and cook it in their onsite restaurant and feed it to your family is a relaxing and fun one that many urban families will gladly spend the day enjoying. There is a hotel on-site for those with the time to stay over. I could see our Wang family enjoying it here, and in fact, over spring festival, we spent time at another yet somehow similar rural village center with some similar properties. We walk over and through the organic strawberry grow houses. Xianli is proud to tell me no chemicals or pesticides are used to grow them and encourages me to pick a few to try them, and to my delight, they are sweet, succulent, and delicious berries. She hands me a basket, and I get to work picking some to take home.
Later, she shows me some green vegetable grow houses and others for Chinese medicinal products. When we finish, some of her people happily present us with baskets of big, juicy red strawberries and boxes packed full of locally grown healthy green vegetables: spinach, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, and other Chinese greens. We say fond goodbyes, and I wish her well and much success as the leader of her revitalized Da Tianchi, or "Big Heaven Lake" village.
The drive back always takes longer, but my mind wanders again, and I feel lighter for having made the trip.
A few days later, with another day off for Qingming festival, Xiaolin's good friend Helen invites us to the countryside, this time to Nanchuan, again about an hour away, to where she's bought a summer home or weekend getaway. She brings the two boys, and I've packed my canvas Eiffle tower shopping bag, a nice souvenir from days in Paris with Xiaolin, with Emmental cheese, ham, salami, and black olives, a contribution to our picnic. Helen does not mess around, as I see she's packed her large van with camping supplies and gear, a stove, and tent, and I wonder if indeed we are heading back tonight. After all, I have work tomorrow.
The drive is nice, and only 40 minutes despite the holiday and everyone having the day off, and with our early start of 9 am, we arrive before 10. We enter the village, and it seems strange - Western. It's modeled after a Swiss village, Helen tells me, and we walk down the main street, buy a few vegetables from what seems like a small western supermarket, walk past flowers to a steepled church. We take some pictures atop a carriage the reminds me of a similar photo I took with Xiaolin and my father in Quebec a couple of years back. I miss my family, but being here is comfortable and nice. I suppose at a time China is COVID-free looking out in horror at the world that is still struggling to deal with what China licked with hard work and cooperation, the ability to take a simulated European vacation within the safety of Chinese borders does have an appeal and sensibility that fulfills something in them, and myself. I imagine the experience could have more verisimilitude, or as Colbert would say, 'truthiness' if I could recruit a dozen families from Marseille to operate the bakery, cheese shop, and ice creamery, and with the way the pandemic is going in France, I think it wouldn't be hard to recruit them, but these are idle thoughts of a contented mind on a peaceful walk on a holiday free from worry and work. I enjoy the fanciful affair, and we get back in the van and drive to Helen's place. She bought a small flat inside a small building, across from villas and larger estates. She said the flats and villas sold fast, ranging from half a million to 2-3 m RMB, but the estates, from 5-10 million RMB, are slower to go. They do have a very European look to them and remind me of lovely adventures from the days before COVID ravaged the global tourism trade.
We stop in at what looks like a large international hotel, and it's in fact a sales center, with a model of the area and a large cafe and library, ideal for both playing children and relaxing adults. It feels comfortable, and Helen gives us the soft sell, a great place for weekends, holidays, even retirement. We're not convinced, having our own idea of a summer house in beachfront Sanya on the ocean, but it is nice, and she welcomes us to come up anytime, with or without her.
We stop to pick up her mail, 20-30 boxes, and packages, and haul it up with the two kids, aged 2 and 4, to her flat. I offer to help assemble something, and she lets me crack open a shelf. I almost immediately regret it, as it's essentially 100 metal bars that clip together without instructions. I look at the box model, and it looks pretty simple, and I try to imagine how it could all work examining the individual pieces. No nails, no screws, just a hammer and 100 pieces of metal that clip together, and four wheels for the bottom. It's wild and overwhelming.
We drink some tea, and the boys scream and smash things, as boys do when they play, and we decide to take our picnic and camping experience and get back to the shelf later. We drive a few minutes and stop at a park overlooking a large lake and forest. The view is excellent, peaceful and the air is fresh and clean. The scent of BBQ fills my nose and makes my stomach rumble. I am excited to eat and only slightly discouraged as we load out 20 or 30 bags full of tents, chairs, tables, stove, and other camping gear... it seems like a lot for the afternoon, but without complaint, I do the heavy lifting and get it to the site. I'm reminded of so many music festival gigs and camping trips of my youth, something I've always enjoyed. An hour later, we've got an excellent camp set up and could spend days here if we chose, in our tent, with our kitchen, living area and more. We say we'll return for the May long weekend, and I look forward to it. I make up a tapas plate of olives, meat, and cheese, some sandwiches for the boys and grandma, and then Helen cooks some spaghetti bolognese and some green vegetables. It's very yummy, and we clean up a little, and Xiaolin and I take a walk around. There is a wedding photo area with a convertible car, a few very picturesque props and sights, and a boat rental center, and we enjoy the walk around. It's a cool spring day, a rare period between the tepid winter and Chongqing's grueling hot summer. At 800 meters, and on the large lake, this village called Peace Blossom in Nanchuan is a cool retreat from the urban area that can reach an average of 40 degrees celsius for months at a time.
We return from a long walk to find Helen, and the boys are ready for a boat ride, so we walk down to the river, get life jackets on, and onto a small motorboat. I am a driver, and it's an easy enough system, like a scooter accelerator for an engine, forward one way, reverse another, left-right steering, easy enough. Still, somehow the motor goes off every minute or two, and they wonder how I'm mucking it up. Am I too fat? Too demanding? The motor is small and putters us along and catches on and off, but somehow we make it up and down the lake. As the afternoon sun bleeds into early evening, the air grows cooler, and we bundle up under our life jackets, but the view and the fresh air are amazing, relaxing, and comfortable. One way down the lake is endless nature: the other, a tour of the European-style villas, churches, and recreational centers of the village.
We make it back, and by then, our tent is the only one still left on the grass, and we pack up slowly. We drive to Helen's country house as the sun is setting, and unload the car and drink some more warm tea. Xiaolin and Helen both help me with the bloody 100 bars that are supposed to be a shelf. We have a few missteps, but slowly it begins to come together, and I realize this design is almost intended to make Ikea's legendarily difficult assembly look easy. I could not have done it by myself, but in an epiphany, I realize something about collectivism and Chinese culture as we turn the corner, and it begins to resemble a shelf. I excitedly chatter to the ladies about how this shelf has taught me an important lesson, how 100 iron bars together become more than the sum of their parts, how this shelf, while impossible for a single human to build, becomes achievable with teamwork and how China is much like this shelf to me, a remarkable assembly of individuals together being somehow something much more dynamic and incredible through their pooled creativity, dedication, and labor. Finished, we wheel it into the kid's room. I feel proud for teaching my brain that I am indeed a finisher, not a quitter, and know that lesson will help me bang out my next novel much better than if I had given up in shame, as I can admit now, had been my earlier plan for some of those difficult early moments.
We get back in the car and drive back to Chongqing, a quiet drive, and I nap along the way. These rural diversions are healthy and naturally attractive for city folk like me, and studies show that while just a day trip can improve moods for days afterward, a 2-3 day trip into nature can boost immunology, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine levels, happiness chemicals for up to a month. It's also a remarkable achievement of China to leave no one behind, for while the focus for some years was on developing unparalleled infrastructure, high-speed trains and subways and buildings in the cities, China has lifted nearly 800 million mainly rural people out of poverty and into the 21st century, 69 million in the last five years alone.
Follow Jorah Kai Wood （王凯） on Twitter, his blog, his COVID diary site, or buy his book, Kai's Diary: A Canadian's COVID-19 Days in Chongqing, here.
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