I revisit Changsha, in the heartland of China, and come away with a very different impression.
“If you wake up in the morning and you find yourself in Changsha, you know you’re a loser!” my father proclaimed with a laugh after taking a look out the window of his hotel room in Changsha.
It was the end of 2006, and he was in China with my mother to adopt a little girl that I named 美丽. They did not particularly enjoy their foray in to the heart of China — travel is not their thing — but I can remember not really being disposed to disagree with my father’s analysis. Changsha looked busted.
I remembered the city as a wash of grey — a real communistic monstrosity of big, rectangular blocks for buildings, straight streets, 90 degree angles, with little of interest and even less to brag about. I remembered the people wearing dour grimaces on their faces and a depressed feel that hovered over everything as thick as the smog.
Now, nearly seven years later, I’ve returned to Changsha. I think I may have remembered it wrong. It is still the same uber-typical, big Chinese city that it was the last time I visited, but something about it feels different. I stepped out of the train station and into a street that was full of life and color. I jumped on a bus and road through an overtly kinetic downtown area to a hostel that sat right near a couple of big parks and a lake.
The discrepancy between my memory and present reality was absolute, and their incongruousness was disorienting. It seemed as if I was in an entirely new place. But I have to admit, with the rate that China has been revitalizing their cities, I may have been. Perhaps this place developed for the better in the intervening years? Perhaps it was I who had developed and became more appreciative of the subtitles in my surroundings over these past seven years of travel?
It’s difficult to find something to like about Changsha, and that’s what I like about it. It is a raw, real, halfway between hell and heaven sort of place. It is typical China, and shows a mix of the temporal, cultural, economic, and political influences that are spinning the country today as though it were a kaleidoscope.
If you’re hanging out in Shanghai for your time in China, you are only going to know Shanghai; the same goes for Beijing, Shenzhen, and a host of other very vibrant and very unique urban centers. The impressions that these places give off are very particular to themselves, and have a look, swagger, and vibe that is incredibly different from the rest of the country. If you spend your time hanging out in Changsha, you’re getting a real taste of China. It is sort of like living in Louisville, St.Louis, or Memphis as oppose to NYC, LA, or San Francisco. Changsha, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Chengdu: this is the heartland of China, the cities stuck somewhere between bumfuck and the 21st century.
All countries are composites of their unique and more mundane places, but there is some line of commonality between a good number of the cities on the latter side that can be called typical. In China, this is Changsha. This is China’s random mundane, the baseline from which the more economically and culturally vibrant cities diverge, and that is what I like to see as a traveler.
I walked through the streets of this place and felt at home in the normality of it all. I went down by the Xiang river one night and watched a friend play music. There were literally thousands of people walking up and down the embankment. There were street performers performing, hawkers hawking, and beer drinkers drinking.
It was the place to be in this city at that time, and I leaned on a railing that separated the crowd from the river bank and just watched the scene. This is where the people of this place come every night to stroll and socialize. People were sharing the news of the day, reestablishing social bonds, watching the performers, and just hanging out.
A city of people doing nothing down by the river: that’s good stuff.
The next day I returned to this river. By daylight I could see that it was one of those colossal rivers so huge that it appears to crawl slowly and steadily through the landscape, its power somehow magnified by its lethargy. Big rivers are always mysterious.
The Xiang river starts in on Haiyang Mountain in Guangxi province in the south of China, and then flows north 856 km to Dongting lake, and the Yangtze River beyond. The Xiang is Hunan’s river, as three quarters of it is within this province.
Like so, the region’s folklore and history are intertwined with this river. Legend has it that the two wives of the former emperor of Chu committed suicide in the river in despair after their husband’s death. They then became the river’s deities. The first emperor of Qin, the enemy of the Kingdom of Chu, traveled in a boat down the Xiang river. When near the point where the deities are said to have committed suicide an incredible wind overtook their boats, forcing an emergency landing. Upon finding out the story of the vanquished emperor’s wives, he retaliated against the goddesses by sending 3,000 convicts to cut down all of the trees on a nearby mountain and then paint it red.
I guess this is what emperors did back then.
Today, around 20 million people live near the Xiang river. The people here depend on the river for water, many taking it directly from the banks. This river also ranks as one of the most polluted in the country, being chock full of heavy metals and other types of industrial waste.
Today’s emperor’s no longer strip mountains bare and paint them red; no, they’ve move on to killing entire river ecosystems.
It might take a hundred million years for the land to create a river; it takes ten thousand years for a river to nurture a group of creatures; it takes a thousand years for these creatures to build a city beside the river; but, it might only take a hundred years for a river to be destroyed.
There is something about big rivers that captivate me. There is something about river cities that I like. There is natural motion in these places: the river moves through, bringing in the new and taking it right back out with it, leaving the places they pass somehow timeless.
Changsha now has all the modern shopping centers, posh areas, and new districts of any provincial capital in China, but something about it seems suspended in time. One night I walked down the main commercial drag and turned off on a side street. Suddenly, I was in an area of lopsided old brick buildings with dilapidated plank board fronts. This was the China of another era rising up like a bush that refuses to be uprooted within the glossiness of the modern age. There is something about this jarring temporal contrast that shows the deep resilience of culture.
It was dinnertime and I stopped off at a crowded little curb side restaurant, got a packed bowl of rice, vegetables, and meat for a buck, and sat down with a large beer. Laborers, street vendors, and beggars — the bulbous underbelly of China — poured in through the door and took seats
Nobody called me laowai. Nobody gawked at me eating my food. Nobody debated with their buddies if I could understand Chinese or not. At one point a man with severe burns all over his body looked as if he was going to start a conversation, but then held back. They let me feel typical in a typical restaurant in a typical neighborhood in a typical city. There is something about Changsha that I like.