Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Changing Landscape

It seems trite to say that China is changing, as it has been for the past few decades - and while the direction of the changes has remained similar to the past (towards urbanization, modernization), the scale of the change grows exponentially.

Last time I was here in 2010, in order to get from Changsha to Shenzhen I had to take an overnight train ride in a "hard sleeper," with 6 beds squeezed together in one train compartment. I slept on the top bunk in such a tight space that I couldn't sit up during the ride but had to remain lying down. Now the high-speed train system has opened, and the same inter-city journey only takes three hours.

The train runs so smoothly, despite reaching speeds of over 300 kilometers per hour! It was really interesting to look outside the window, though the ride was definitely comfortable enough to nap. We rode through mostly rural countryside, around hills and mountains, into deep tunnels. Despite these regions being far from the dense cities, no piece of land remained untouched. There is agriculture or construction everywhere, vast pieces of earth being cultivated or developed. 

We later visited a park in Changsha where we could observe the high speed trains whizzing by. They go by in a flash, it was so difficult to get a good photo! You hear a faint low rumbling and then whoosh! the sleek white train passes. 

Downtown Changsha is also being unearthed. The government has been developing a subway system for awhile (I remember construction happening from my last trip), and it's a massive operation, disrupting the flow of downtown vehicle and pedestrian traffic. I can't imagine how much work it must be to create underground tunnels in such an old and established city. Hopefully the subway system will help to alleviate the intense traffic jams that choke the city everyday. 

The city has also expanded on the outskirts with the housing boom. Large suburbs and units of apartments and condos have sprouted up, catering to the well-to-do who want to live outside of the hectic city. The housing estates are private, gated communities, sometimes themed in a particular architectural style. The community where my uncle lives has a Spanish theme - the houses are designed similarly and the street signs have Spanish words next to the Chinese. There are also perfectly manicured little paths and parks threaded throughout the suburb, dotted with plots of palm trees and elaborate fountains.  

This particular suburb was mixed with stand alone homes and condos in high rises. There were many empty units, as many residents have invested in real estate without renovating and moving in. You can tell when a house is lived in by whether there is a trash bin on the curb, and a condo unit by whether there are clothes hanging outside the windows to dry. The streets almost reminded me of a movie set, with fancy well-maintained houses but a vague unsettling absence of people.

Even though most well-to-do families own washing machines, most still prefer to air-dry clothes rather than buy a dryer. It's the original solar power! Even though temperatures were chilly, in the low 40s and upper 30s, there was a good amount of sunlight in the afternoon.

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