Photo essay: In China, down by the river
China is a place of visual delights and olfactory offenses.
Particularly when it comes to rivers — murky and polluted by day, sparkling and glowing by night — the traditional Chinese penchant for over-the-top, bright colorful displays comes to play in the evening hours, washing away the grim grayish green realities of unchecked rapid industrialization.
Here are some views from three of the cities that I visited last month: Shanghai, Suzhou, and Zhenyuan… each a special place, each with its own approach to lighting up the night.
Let’s start with sparkling Shanghai, looking at Pudong from the Bund side:
…and here’s a panorama showing the two sides of the Huangpu river facing each other. Note the dimly lit romantic Bund promenade, with the comparatively subdued (but in any other city, bright and fabulous) up-lighting on colonial era buildings. London ain’t got nothing on this.
These pictures are taken on an iPhone instead of a “real” camera and so the night time shots are grainy and overexposed. That said, it’s nice to be able to snap a picture in the spur of the moment in order to capture the overall atmosphere of a place. For Shanghai at night, it’s all about the city lights bouncing off plate glass, marble floors, plastic lanterns, crystal chandeliers, taxi cab doors, wine glasses, retail shop windows, and blinking roller skate wheels. These next two pictures show the nocturnal borrowed views that show up everywhere this city, with windows framing collages of scintillation.
All of these electric lights require lots of electricity, which in turn requires lots of coal-fired plants. The same river that sparkles at night also provides an easy avenue for a non-stop (really, non-stop… literally, all day long) parade of boats carrying loads of coal, ore, and everything else needed to keep those turbines turning and high rises rising.
While I was there, the official smog index reached somewhere in the orange-to-red “unhealthy” zone… at times my eyes hurt when walking around outside. At least it’s better than having, say, over 16,000 dead pigs mysteriously float down the river for the better part of a month. But hey, who’s counting?
In complete contrast to the flash and frenzy of Shanghai, the placid canals of Suzhou offer a more relaxed and soothing atmosphere, apropos of one of China’s most famous scholar towns. During the day, it looks like this:
At night, it looks like this:
A series of tyrannical emperors helped nurture the heritage of Suzhou by having the masses dig out the Grand Canal, one of the greatest civil engineering projects in world history. The city did very well with its canal system providing easy transport of people and products… although sometimes the visiting people decided to sack the city, here and there. In the last century, single tyrant almost wiped out Suzhou’s heritage by having the masses launch the Cultural Revolution, one of the most violently self-destructive moments in world history. All of that history and turmoil translated into a deeper meaning for this place, and a beautiful patina on its walls.
Suzhou’s stone and clay brick construction readily reveals centuries of flooding, wear, tear and war. I could stare at these buildings for hours, reading the stories imprinted onto them, noting the traces of prior occupants and different uses that accumulated over time.
Here’s what Pingjiang Road road looks like from water level, in the early evening. Crouching down on the river steps had a bonus effect: I could avoid the pervasive smells of nearby food vendors, their shellfish and fried tofu searing my guallo nostrils.
Onwards to Guizhou province, to the remote town of Zhenyuan,a former nexus of the southern Silk Road. This yin-yang shaped city is home to unique blend of local and not-so-local cultures, the religiously eclectic temples of Black Dragon Cave, the crumbling edge of the Miao Southern Great Wall, and many dramatic views of the Wuyang river cutting through the limestone karst landscape.
Zhenyuan also provides a fine example of how the rest of China can live well, outside the bustling metropolises. The Wuyang river defines the life of this town, by day…
…and by night:
The ridiculous amount of lighting on the riverfront of Zhenyuan Old Town – these photos barely capture the sheer luminescent fervor – creates a vibrant, welcoming and festive feeling. Music and laughter echo along the shores well into the night… and it’s not even a weekend night, just an ordinary working evening. It’s not unlike the vibe of the Christmas season (or Winter Holiday, if you prefer), except all year long and in a more casually civic spirit.
Here are some square dancers – a group of locals doing open-air aerobics in a manner that resembles a flash mob.
You can find groups of people doing this everywhere in China, often under highway underpasses within the bigger cities. In Zhenyuan, the electro pop tunes of the square dancers combine with the din of street vendors and restaurants serving up shellfish and fried tofu.
What’s the price of all this? Once again, tragedy of the commons be damned, or should I say, dammed. The flow of the Wuyang river slows to a halt in Zhenyuan, where it accumulates into a mirror-like sheen of algae, and gives off the musky scent of rotting wood planks… but I guess the downstream hydroelectric dam is better than having yet another coal plant.
China’s network of rivers – the winding watery dragons that give this land its powerful fertility, productivity and central control – provide views into the opportunities and challenges of its past, present and future. Where Shanghai is glitzy and glamorous, Suzhou is subdued and solemn. As for Zhenyuan – a genuine gem of a town – I hope the ever-changing China can keep and nurture more places like it.