Originally posted on Nov 11, 2013
This summer I traveled to Fuling, a district of the vast Chongqing Municipality in central China. It was disappointingly easy to get there: flight from Shanghai, then van ride from the Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport to Fuling. A former colleague and her boyfriend greeted me at the bus stop where the van left me, and that was it.
Getting to Fuling was a little tougher for the noted American journalist Peter Hessler, who taught there for the Peace Corps from 1996 to ’98 and wrote a lyrical memoir about his experience, called River Town. For him, the journey involved a seven-hour ferry ride down the Yangtze River from Chongqing, at the time administered as a separate city. As you might imagine, people in Fuling didn’t leave much.
Not long after Hessler finished his Peace Corps service and left Fuling, a new highway was built, reducing the journey to an hour-and-a-half transit over smooth asphalt. Fuling now has an abundance of highways and train lines linking the once isolated town to the outside world.
Many other things have changed too. The absolute poverty that Hessler witnessed in the ’90s is receding fast. The students he taught at Fuling Teachers College were the children of peasants and they wrote essays describing the indignities and hardships of rural life. But the middle-class students I met in Fuling seemed to belong to a different world, both materially and psychologically. Whereas most of Hessler’s students went on to become rural schoolteachers after graduation, many of the students I met were aiming for comfortable civil service jobs. One guy, whose English was excellent, enthusiastically questioned me about the U.S. (he seemed to know more about American pop culture than I did). Another student complained about having lost her iPhone on a bus.
With a group of students at Yangtze Normal University – the new name for Fuling Teachers College – I strolled around the university’s new campus and headed downtown to explore. We toured the Underwater Museum of Baiheliang (White Crane Ridge), which bills itself as the first subaqueous museum in the world. Visitors descend a 300-foot escalator to a viewing gallery 130 feet below the surface of the Yangtze River. Through three-inch-thick portholes, we peered at the White Crane Ridge, a long strip of sandstone celebrated for its ancient fish carvings and calligraphic inscriptions.
The White Crane Ridge used to surface during the winter season, but it’s now permanently submerged under the waters of the Yangtze, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam, the colossal barrier a few hundred miles downstream that has tamed the world’s third-longest river. Now the ridge and its inscriptions can be seen only through murky water, like a sunken shipwreck.
My Fuling friends and I ambled around the town, where we played a street ring toss game, checked out the wares on display at a bustling outdoor market, and ate lunch and ice cream at KFC. The poor and sleepy river town of Hessler’s teaching years now has a clean and modern town center, an upscale department store, and cars crowding the streets – visible signs of an exploding GDP. Fuling does not yet possess that important benchmark of development, a Starbucks (Shanghai has well over a hundred), but it will – I’m fairly sure of that.
Unsurprisingly, foreigners are still a rarity here, and I received my share of dumbstruck looks and excited greetings on the street. The manager of the guest house near the university where I stayed burst out laughing the instant he saw me. “Foreigner!” he shouted with delight, pointing at the comical figure that had just walked in. (As it turned out, he and his family were extremely hospitable and, on the day of the traditional Dragon Boat Festival, they cooked lunch for me – one of the most delicious meals I have ever had in China.)
The students took me to their university’s old campus, which has the feel of a ghost town. It’s apparently up for sale and is mostly deserted, though we saw a handful of students playing basketball and using the library. Thick vegetation grows everywhere and some of the rundown buildings have windows missing or are choked with weeds. It occurred to me that the campus would be an apt setting for a post-apocalyptic movie.
But across the street from the main gate, new buildings are rising under red construction cranes. On the opposite side of the campus, huge concrete walls are materializing on the banks of the Wu River (a tributary of the Yangtze), along which a new road will soon appear. I took it all in, carefully, because I know things will be different whenever I come back.