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On the Road, Interlude 1:

Interview with a North-Western Taxi Driver

At half past five on 10 August 2006, we boarded a plane from Urumqi in the far north-west to Lanzhou, capital of the mid-north-western province of Gansu. After a few hours we found ourselves on the road from Lanzhou airport to Lanzhou city, a distance, we had been told, of more than seventy kilometres, which was likely to take us over an hour.

This motorway coiled its way in a long, unbroken line between the yellow-earth hills. All we could see in this expanse of unbroken wasteland was row upon row of small saplings struggling to survive. According to Mr Li, our driver, these few small trees had been planted seven or eight years previously by Party and government offices and the masses who were on organised unpaid "voluntary" projects – an attempt to add some greenery to the scenery beside the road from the airport to the city. Looking at these little saplings which were still less than a metre and a half in height, I felt an inexpressible pressure within me. Somewhere between here and Xi'an was a place called Shouting Hill, which I had once visited on a reporting trip (and written about in The Good Women of China). The yellow-earth hills and cogon grass turned my mind back to the people in that place, and I saw again the desperate hopes those starving people pinned on this sparse, unpromising plant: on yellow-earth hills like these on the edge of the Gobi Desert, the roots of this cogon grass are the local people's one source of survival, cooking fuel and warmth. I could still remember how the men of Shouting Hill village would trudge long distances in search of this cogon grass. Due to increasing demand, cogon grass is becoming scarce, so people have to travel ever greater distances in order to find it, which takes up more and more of their time.

I hope the planting of forests along the airport expressway can bring some hope to this region of yellow earth. I also hope that this swathe of green will be a single spark that sets all the land aflame, reaching all the way to Shouting Hill.

The following day we were scheduled to take a minibus from Lanzhou to Hezheng county, where we were going to interview one of China's oil experts and his wife, the head of a female prospecting team. The results of the last few days' reporting had far exceeded my expectations. In those few days, the heaviness and depth behind the old stories, the memories that had never been opened or touched, had trickled their way, a little at a time, into my records.

I did not know how future generations would judge the fifty or seventy years' sacrifice of Double Gun Woman's family and the five thousand people of Huaying Mountain and the millions in the Xinjiang Construction Corps, but I knew that what I was doing now might be the most worthwhile act of my life. It was also a very painful experience, because as each of them was telling me the story of their past, there was suspicion in all their eyes, to a greater or lesser extent – could I understand these experiences? Nobody knew how many painful experiences I had lived through in the Cultural Revolution, nobody knew the humiliations I had suffered, nobody knew how much courage it had taken me to live on to today. I longed to reach the age when it would be permissible for me to tell, because I was afraid that my courage would not hold out to that day.

Again, Mr Li was our driver. From the way he stowed our baggage and his polite manner of giving way to other users of the road, I could see that he was a calm, conscientious person.

Chinese drivers in long-distance haulage and public transport have often been some of my best teachers when I am on a quest for knowledge, because they have seen so much – how this country has changed, the huge difference between west and east China, and gaps between cities and countryside, along the thousands of kilometres of highways they drive every day. I started with a question about the weather, the safest topic in any country to open a conversation with a stranger.

*

XINRAN: Do you know today's temperature?

LI: Today's report was thirty degrees, the last two days have been Autumn Tigers, very hot. It'd be nice to have some rain – Lanzhou's desperately short of rain.

XINRAN: What special products are there in your region?

LI: There's Lanzhou pulled-beef noodles. They're very famous, you can find them all over the country.

XINRAN: And apart from Lanzhou pulled beef noodles? Is yang-rou-pao-mo [stewed lamb with breadcrumbs] also a local thing? Do you think that Xi'an's yang-rou-pao-mo is more famous, or Lanzhou's?

LI: They're eaten in different ways, you can't compare the two. Lanzhou uses soft, leavened bread, clear soup, bean noodles and slices of meat, you soak them yourself in the soup, and crumble your own bread, it gets soft as soon as it's in the soup. Over in Xi'an you have to soak your own breadcrumbs too, but they're very hard to crumble, the bread's very tough, and once you're done crumbling them, you have to boil them as well, or they're inedible. In all the times I've been to Xi'an, I've never once eaten Xi'an yang-rou-pao-mo.

XINRAN: And is there anything else? Aren't there some Treasures of Lanzhou – or is that Gansu? [Gansu is one of the poorest provinces in China, but I always like to give people the chance to tell me what they are proud of locally. Their answers give valuable insights into how local people see themselves and why.]

LI: There's the Lanzhou lily, you might have heard of it, it takes three years to mature, it's a very good tonic that soothes coughs and moistens the lungs, a real, genuine Lanzhou speciality. Then there's Lanzhou's White Orchid melon, that's a Lanzhou speciality too, but that variety hasn't been doing very well the last couple of years, you don't see so many of them these days. And Anning in the Lanzhou area has a kind of peach called the White Phoenix peach, it's a kind of very, very sweet peach, all the Anning peaches are flown direct to Hong Kong. And then there's that magazine the Reader, do you know it?

XINRAN: Yes, I know it. It used to be called Reader's Digest, then there was a court case, and they changed it to the Reader.

LI: That's right, the Americans took them to court. Anyway, that's produced in Lanzhou as well. It's a big name all over the country, must be one of the top five, no question about it. There's a "Reader Street" in Lanzhou, after the Reader magazine. And a bridge called the "First Bridge over the Yellow River", the only bridge to span the Yellow River in this place. It was designed in America, and made in Germany – they guaranteed the bridge would last eighty years. Construction began in 1907, and in 1910 it opened to traffic. I've heard that half the total investment went into the building materials. They were shipped from Germany to Tianjin, then transported to Lanzhou in carts, because they couldn't be carried by water. It cost them 300,000 taels of silver. In the 1980s, a German bridge-building firm sent its people specially to inspect the bridge, and it's still here today, after ninety-seven years. Now the government has preserved it as a cultural artefact – it's been converted into a footbridge, and motor vehicles aren't allowed on.

XINRAN: Is there a historical museum in Lanzhou?

LI: I'm sorry to say that I've never been inside the history museum, or taken any customers there. But we have the Horse and Swallow motif, the one that's the emblem of China's tourist industry, which was unearthed in Gansu. The original Horse and Swallow is a bronze statue of a horse galloping on the back of a flying swallow. It was dug up in Leitai in Wuwei county, which is in Gansu province.

XINRAN: And what else is there? Carry on . . . I'll make sure you get proper tuition fees.

LI [laughs]: Well . . . China's Four Great Caves are the Longmen Caves in Luoyang, the Yungang Grottos in Shanxi, Dunhuang's Mogao Caves and the Maiji Grottos, both of them in Gansu. Half of them belong to us!

XINRAN: As a driver you must have felt the changes in Lanzhou more deeply than people in other professions . . .

LI: That's right! Look at all the 1980s buildings that used to line the street here, more than half of them have been pulled down already.

XINRAN: What do the inhabitants of Lanzhou think of the local government's policy these days?

LI: I couldn't say.

XINRAN: They aren't too deeply opposed to it?

LI: It's the corruption. Many government officials and civil servants are very greedy, they always think the people above them take more than they do, everybody thinks they take a bit less than the others. Don't get me started on that – as soon as they're mentioned I lose my temper!

XINRAN: All right, let's not talk about them. What are Lanzhou's latest population figures?

LI: The official figure is over 3 million, but that must be far short of the actual figure. There are so many outsiders doing temporary work here, the streets and lanes are full of them, nobody knows how many there really are. There's a lot of Zhejiang people in Lanzhou, they run a big shopping centre here, it's called the Yiwu Trade City, and it sells nothing but top-quality goods. Zhejiang people do a lot of business here, Lanzhou has a Zhejiang village in the eastern wholesale market, where practically everybody's from Zhejiang.

XINRAN: It's not just here, you find Zhejiang people doing business all over the world. They have a real eye for making money, very quick brains.

*

Zhejiang is in south-east China, a coastal province with a history of migration going back to the twelfth century. New Zhejiang migrant workers can be found almost everywhere on earth since China opened up in the 1980s.

*

LI: I don't get it, we're all people, we're all part of the same national system, how come they get to make a living wandering all over the world, while all we can do is bury ourselves in poverty here?

XINRAN: In Lanzhou city, do you see more rich people or poor people? Is there any help for poor people?

*

Before my journey, I had heard state officials announce that China's central government had failed to restructure social systems including health care, education and pensions since the 1980s. On the one hand I am happy to know the leadership are learning how to be honest in the face of problems. On the other, I would like to know how people feel about this. Obviously, Mr Li hadn't heard about it.

*

LI: I can't say for sure. A fair few people are living on the government's social security money, 202 yuan a month.

XINRAN: About what proportion of Lanzhou people are drawing that basic living allowance? Twenty per cent? Ten per cent? Five per cent?

LI: It's not a big percentage, I don't know the figures.

XINRAN: So how do all those rich people get their money?

LI: Property, running work gangs on building sites, investment, private businesses, that sort of thing.

XINRAN: What sort of incomes do Lanzhou government civil servants get?

LI: Civil servants' incomes are very high.

XINRAN: Over a thousand a month? Over two thousand?

LI: Over a thousand isn't that much; at least two or three thousand, I should think. I haven't had anything to do with civil servants. They're not paid according to results like us, where you get a percentage of the profits if you do a good job; if we were to sit there just waiting for customers to come to us, we wouldn't make much. Drivers like me are doing pretty well if we get 1,100 or 1,200 in the high season.

XINRAN: The winter is the slack season, so how much can you get then?

LI: In the slack season I just go home and sleep, and I do casual work; at most I get 800 yuan.

XINRAN: So do you have any minimum-wage security?

LI: No, I have to go out and find other work – they give you 800 yuan a month, how long can you feed a family of three on that? They calculate that the minimum average income should be 170 or a bit more per person, this 800 yuan will feed your family for a bit over a month. When you haven't got a job, they do calculations about you, put in requests, examine and approve them. What with all those endless forms to fill in, all that running around and getting yourself obligated, it's so much hard work you'd be better off looking for a job!

XINRAN: The government has a specialised service for that, don't they?

LI: Well, they do, but the leaders in some of the backward districts . . . let's just say that if you've got connections they'll sort it out for you, but without connections you'll have to wait a few more months. And if you're drawing the basic living allowance, you have to do what they tell you, and do labour for them once a week. If you don't do the labour service then you don't get anything, it shows that you have work to do, and they strike you off the list.

XINRAN: What labour do the people collecting the basic living allowance do?

LI: They have to sweep the streets, or spend a day patrolling the area.

XINRAN: How much is the average income for a peasant in Gansu province?

LI: Peasants who don't live too far from the city have a pretty good income, they all grow vegetables, the government's bought up all the land close to Lanzhou, so they've all had money from that, and houses and living expenses too, so they just do a bit of business on the side to stop themselves getting bored.

XINRAN: So how about peasants who live further out?

LI: Life's very hard. Places with water are a little bit better, you can plant a few food crops, a few vegetables, some melons and other fruits, enough to feed the whole family.

XINRAN: And what about the places without any water?

LI: Without water? That'd be like our Dingxi, where the government's doing all that poverty alleviation work. Have you heard of the Two Xis? One is Dingxi, one is Longxi – it's so poor in those places, your heart aches to hear about it. A family of seven with just one pair of trousers between them – whoever goes outside wears them.

XINRAN: Even now?

LI: Yes, now! They really are that poor, because there's no water in the mountain areas, and every year they can't even get back the seed they've sown. In the past you weren't allowed to leave to find work, that was even more cruel! Now it's a bit better, as the ones who can do hard labour – and dare to climb over the mountains, cross the rivers and trek long distances – can do casual work away from home, to give the family a bit of support. What with that and emergency rations from the government, a lot less of them starve to death than before.

XINRAN: And what about the ones who can't go out to do labour?

LI: The women, old people, little kids . . . well, they just have to stay at home and put up with it.

XINRAN: So from what you know, how does the state help them?

LI: Every year there are emergency grain rations and work-for-food schemes. The government pays your board and lodging, exchanging the work you do for food for your family. And the last resort is migration, moving them to places where there's water.

XINRAN: Are they willing to go?

LI: The younger ones must be – in those places you can't even keep body and soul together. The older ones always think that it's better to die in their own homes, die in the place they know. The poorer a place is the more ignorant and foolish the people are, they just don't believe the world outside exists!

*

After we got out of the car, and I paid Driver Li his "tuition fees", he said, "You didn't have to be so polite! You've seen the world, how could you still not know about Lanzhou?" You hear things like this very often in China: "He's a provincial-level leader, and yet he can't read a blueprint?" "You can't even look after your keys, how can you be in charge of all those people?" A very typical piece of Chinese folk logic.

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