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Lost in awe of the progress of China's cities
By Inam Ahmed (China Daily)
2007-11-21 07:11

Ma Yi almost certainly saved my life.

"Why have you booked your ticket to Guangzhou? Is there no flight to Hangzhou," she wrote to my horror.

The travel agent looked a bit baffled, typed on the keyboard and then sheepishly said: "Oh, yes. Hangzhou. Harry George Harry is the code. We made a mistake. One night's stopover at Kunming."

That night, our plane touched down at Kunming airport at about nine. As soon as I went through immigration, I heard to my surprise a volley of Bengali voices: "Bhai, Kothai jaben? Amar hoteley thaken." (Brother, where are you going? Stay at my hotel).

Before I could think clearly, I was whisked away to a waiting taxi and in less than 10 minutes, we were outside an apartment building.

On the first floor is the "hotel" - a four-bedroom flat. A comfortable room with two beds, fantastic Bengali food, well-mannered "hotel owners" - two brothers - Kajol and Masum, the elder one's wife and child.

A Bangla drama serial being played on the DVD. The all familiar "Badna" in the washroom. Who says I am in China? I have never left Dhaka.

It was late when I went to sleep after having a long chat with the hoteliers. They have rented the apartment for Tk 30,000 ($300) a month and converted it into a guesthouse. Each night for Tk 1,000, inclusive of food and airport pickup and drop. A good deal.

Kunming has become a buzzing city for Bangladeshi traders and tourists and so business is good. Every month, 200 to 250 guests step into Kajol's guesthouse. When the rooms are full, the drawing room is turned into a makeshift camp.

I made a quick calculation - 250 guests mean Tk 250,000 a month. No tax.

Early next morning I sleepily reached the airport again and fell asleep as soon as I took my seat in the aircraft. Four hours later, I successfully managed to dodge the gastronomical treats of China Eastern Airlines and arrived at Hangzhou airport.

Until I stepped out of the airport building, I had not actually seen anything of China. And now China hit me with its full force of 11 percent GDP growth; I was floored.

What mental image did I carry to China?

Despite reading all the growth stories and feeling the crunch of commodity supply in Dhaka, I, for some strange reason, still clung on to that late 1960s and early 1970s image of the country:

People in strapped grey or bottle green coats and shapeless pajamas; soft, flat shoes like those of the ballerinas; happy farmers showing off fish out of ponds; dancers in Red Army dress holding the red flag with a proud look on their shinning faces and puffed up chests; roads filled with bicycles.

Those magazines used to pour into Dhaka streets in the good old days.

And now I was lost in the midst of Buicks, BMWs, Ferraris, Chryslers, Citroens, Volkswagens and Fords zooming past me.

Sitting in the backseat of a Chrysler, I wondered where have those good old bamboo houses gone. Instead, the competing swanky high-rises dotting both sides of the roads glean back at me, almost mockingly. Their huge glass windows reflect only more vertical graphs.

I have heard of Beijing and Shanghai as great cities in China. But Hangzhou? A city that even the travel agent mistook for another.

At a five-star hotel, the smiling staff greeted me with all the warmth but not in a language that I fully understand. I communicated in broken English and finally secured the card to my room.

Later, I wanted to use the business center of the hotel, and again it took me a gargantuan effort to make them understand my desire and it took them a similar amount of time and energy to sink into me the price of using the Internet.

As I surfed the Web, I wondered how a five-star hotel could operate with such limited language skills.

Later that cool afternoon, I strolled the city streets in awe and wonder. I took in deep breaths of fresh air. The spacious roads and pavements were immaculately clean.

The mystery became clear as soon as I found uniformed men with vans every few hundred yards. They would not let a single leaf remain on the pavement. A cigarette butt would not escape their eyes.

And every now and then lorries with water tanks would slowly pass through the streets spraying water, and ringing out music. At midnight the litter collectors were still busy at work. For the next few days as I traveled from one city to another, I found the same kind of cleanliness.

I finally found my cyclists. But alas, their cycles have been mostly converted into electric-powered two wheelers, cruising noiselessly through special lanes.

At low speed, the riders travel side by side, gossiping. At road crossings, they use their pedals to generate more power to quickly get over to the other side. A pollution-free solution to commuting.

I was looking for the China Eastern office. On the way to the hotel, I had noticed it was close by. But I got lost. I asked a man, perhaps the 50th on the street, for directions to the airlines office, showing my ticket.

There was no variation in response - he smiled, shaking his head from side to side and saying something in Chinese. I found a kiosk and thought the owner might know the area better.

Among the hundreds of glitzy magazines on the shelves - at least 90 percent of them were fashion and lifestyle ones splashing pictures of scintillating women.

The kiosk owner could not help me. Finally, a man on an electric bike nodded and signaled me to follow him. I walked on the pavement as he rode.

After 30 minutes, I was definite he was taking me to the wrong place. But I kept on following because I just could not ignore his willingness to help. We finally reached a bus stop to the airport. I tried my best to thank him for his help and started walking toward my hotel.

I recalled my experience during dinner with a Chinese lady and mentioned automobiles.

I asked why I couldn't find any of their products on the streets since the Chinese have many large automobile companies.

The lady winked and said: "But they are so cheap. We want to spend on costly cars."

Money, it seems, is no problem for many Chinese people. The cities are awash with funds, and at every corner you see a bank. Costly clothes hang in the show-windows of shops.

I witness another awe-inspiring site. In the distance, I see a whole city, or at least it looks like it, growing up out of nowhere. The skyscrapers, clouded by a thin layer of brown dust, look eerily science fictional.

Later, I see more such development that made me understand why the commodity market is so heated. China today has become a guzzler of iron and other construction materials. And when a butterfly flaps its wings in China the wave must hit Dhaka in a globalized world.

I was sitting by the West Lake as lights from the shopping malls across the road reflected on its water. Dusk was setting in on this tourist city and the din of the office goers returning home drowned the peacefulness of the lake.

A tourist boat in the shape of a temple, or at least what it looked like from a distance, was mooring. I turned my head to the voice of an infant. A couple were showing flowers to their baby. The baby looked at me and smiled and I waved back at China's future face.

The author is a news editor at The Daily Star in Bangladesh

(China Daily 11/21/2007 page11)


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