Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Thursday, 23 September 2004 13:00 UK

China diary: Wild West

Tim Luard
Former BBC Beijing correspondent Tim Luard is back in China, 25 years after his first visit, to write a series of articles for BBC News Online on how much the country has changed. He is also writing a diary during his trip, and this is his latest instalment:

It was sad to say goodbye to Beijing - for who knows how long. The traffic jams may have made me late for almost every appointment - including the Foreign Ministry dinner, which probably put back Sino-BBC relations for several years - but there's still a certain magic about the place - perhaps just the feeling that you're in the mysterious but quietly confident heart of a huge and chaotic empire.

And now here I am, far away in the wild west.

I keep hearing about what a headache the provinces are giving the central government by refusing to rein in their runaway growth.

I imagine a city like Chongqing would be particularly hard to keep in line.

Cloaked in a thick cloud of smog, it's known as the biggest building site in China.

As you come in from the airport, ghostly high-rise housing estates and sprawling factories loom up all around.

You can barely see the two enormous rivers that conjoin here, even when you cross them.

Chinese women practise martial arts, Chongqing
Martial arts and music fill the squares of downtown Chongqing

In the city itself life goes on with careless abandon.

I find myself in a lively Chinese businessmen's hotel - with a bunch of plastic flowers waiting on my bed and exotic lotions in the bathroom for "rubbing inside and outside of your private parts" - in a humming downtown district of cheap bars, cafes, shops and universities.

Groups of women of all ages gather in the square outside to perform dancing exercises - some with swords - to Chinese pop music, while porters known as "bangbang men" charge around with long poles loaded down with anything from piles of newspapers to fridges and TV sets.

Everyone else is busy talking on their mobiles.

If I gave the impression the other day that this was an even bigger city than Shanghai I shouldn't have. Although the municipality of Chongqing has as many as 34m inhabitants, most are out in the countryside and the city itself has a more manageable 10m or so.

Growing wealth

It was China's capital itself for a while, back in World War II when Japan had taken over much of the rest of the country. And it's still probably better known to most English speakers as Chungking.

My last visit was in 1979, when I spent a couple of days here, wiping the spit and chicken feathers from my shoes after a long night's standing on a hard-class train from Xian (site of the newly found terracotta warriors) and wandering up and down the steep, dark streets looking for somewhere to eat that would take foreigners' exchange certificates rather than Chinese ration coupons.

I then had my shoes covered with who knows what else as I slid, one early misty morning, down a long broad flight of steps to the Yangtze, to become one of the first of many tourists to sail through the Three Gorges and on to Shanghai almost 2,000 kilometres away.

Much of the old steepness has gone, since the new building work has involved much levelling out, along the Maoist lines of Man moving Mountain.

Chinese men drinking
Younger Chinese men are taking to beer

But with the world's largest hydro-electric dam now about to allow big ships to get this far upriver, Chongqing is poised to become a major port, opening up the whole deprived interior.

Money is pouring in - and for many, at least, life is a lot better.

I had lunch with a friendly teacher, who reminded me just how hot real Sichuan food can be, then showed me round a Hong Kong-style housing estate where she and other young professionals have bought flats on easily-obtained mortgages.

This evening I've been taken out for yet more excellent food at a bijou strip of restaurants on the far bank of the Yangtze. The city looks a lot better by night, particularly when you're seeing it across one of the world's greatest rivers.

We finished up at a bar run by Scottish and Newcastle breweries, who have a joint venture here.

The band was good and I noted that Chinese men, at least, are getting into Western-style drinking.

But I'm not sure about whisky mixed with cold green tea.

Or the box of "magic briefs" in my hotel room which says on it: "10 Yuan will be charged if any use".

Are you in China or have you visited recently? What do you think about all the changes China has gone through in the last 25 years?

Though Westerners may lament the unceasing demolition of the cluttered and gray hutongs, most Beijingers are more than willing to be placed in a modern apartment tower with modern amenities. Sure, the hutongs are quaint and picturesque, but their demolition enables people to live more comfortably and privately. Having a proper courtyard to oneself is indeed comfortable, but the reality is that many a Chinese family is crowded into a dilapidated and ailing environment. It's nice to play the tourist and romanticise these hutongs, but while we take our pictures, we must also ask ourselves if we could live in such conditions. Remember, Chinese have become thoroughly modern in their tastes and are eager to embrace McDonald's or high-rise apartments.
Jason Adams, Hawthorne, New Jersey

As American expats based in Hong Kong and Guangzhou in the mid-90s, my husband and I dragged our daughter around Beijing (she was eight at the time). Thank goodness we did! She and I poked around every alleyway and shopped in the markets... I will never forget the unique, ethereal beauty of the Beijing neighbourhoods at that time. I have a lump in my throat to think that the remaining hutongs are being turned into amusement parks for tourists.
LB Callahan, Sydney, Australia

It is true that most of Beijing has been torn, down remodelled, renewed. And indeed, we, the Chinese do have a sense of our place in the world that we feel hasn't been realised yet. But China is still a developing country and, when sitting and chatting with locals it is obvious there is distrust for the new engine of change, commercialism. While half the country embraces change the older more traditional still sit back sceptically.
Jia Li, Ann Arbor, USA

I think China has a good chance in being a superpower in the future. You can easily see that development in Qingdao, Shanghai, and other cities. But when travelling in other parts of the country, you see that they have a long way to go. I was in the areas of Shandong and around the city of Xi'an. The pollution in these areas is horrible. I think pollution is a huge obstacle in China's development and unless they do something (anything) to fix this problem, the future of China can't be good.
Robert, Asheville, NC, USA

I travel to China frequently with my Chinese wife and daughter to our second home in Chengdu, Sichuan. We bought our flat five years ago on a complex reserved for Chinese. The past 5 years have been an education to me with regard to the increased prosperity of our neighbours and the surrounding neighbourhood. New buildings and businesses are being developed at an alarming rate to Western standards and one wonders where all the finance is coming from. My wife's family are investing in new business ventures with their pooled resources and so far it has been a success. I first went to Shenzhen in 1987 when they were in the initial stages of creating a new city. High rise blocks for one million people, the majority of them empty. Last year I returned to Shenzhen and was shocked how it had been transformed into a huge vibrant city with many Disney-type theme parks. China is building and investing at an alarming rate but at a terrible cost to most of its people in the countryside. Communism is working for most people in the cities but I am saddened to see beggars in the street ignored by affluent city dwellers. Democracy will be along time coming, if ever.
Alan Keysell, Kidderminster UK

I returned from China recently after a celebration of my mother's 80's birthday. China has changed so much since I first left her in 1980. All the roads were not the same as they were then. There are cars everywhere. There is no doubt that the living standard has improved so much, but at the same time it has brought problems to the country. Greed, corruption, pollution and, of course, traffic jams - it took me 40 minutes to travel 1.2 km on my way to the airport - seem to be the biggest problems. People with power of placing contracts can make millions via illegal means. I know the government is trying to tackle the problems, but it is so widespread that it would be impossible to control the problems if party officials cannot be held accountable for their actions due to the deficient political system. But at least China is moving in a right direction, albeit slowly...
Lang Zhu, Widnes, UK

I was just opening my eyes to see the wild world when Tim Luard first came to China and Mr. Deng Xiaoping launched his reform and opening-up policy. At the age of 25, although I only have perhaps less than 20 years of memories, I do witness the huge changes happening in China, particularly in my hometown Yichang-a small city in central China alongside the Yangtze River where the Three Gorges Dam stands. We've gone from a one-room chamber in a three-story gray building to a four-room apartment in a beautiful residence; from a black-and-white small TV box to a flat TV-set; from seeing Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind on TV to wandering around all the new Hollywood-made movies in cinemas. Someone may argue that, yes, China may have achieved a lot in economic reforms, but political reform and free of speech are still taboos. For me, however, the changes are obvious too: Fifteen years ago, as a little boy, I asked my father what happened in Tiananmen Square and why and I got no answer but a nervous warning. Nowadays, even the cab driver can tell you openly the details of the incident. Thank you so much Mr Luard for this series of reports on China.
Sun Ling, Montpellier, France


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