Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Monday, 29 November 2010
White Horse Village - changing China

Al Go (left) and Warwick Harrington

By Warwick Harrington
BBC Newsnight producer

Four years ago, when we made our first journey from the Yangtze River to White Horse Village, it took us eight long hours.

Poor dirt roads, steep mountain passes and banks of thick, rolling mist meant that White Horse Village was cut off - separated from China's economic miracle by wall after wall of jagged mountain peaks.

China map

This is now our fifth visit and today the same journey is easy - it takes less than three hours. We speed along a motorway that is alternatively tunnel or bridge for the entire route, gliding through the landscape as if the mountains and gorges no longer exist.

The motorway is almost finished, and the village we knew is gone.

High up in the mountains, there is a whole new city. Neon signs blink from apartment blocks. Clean, white supermarkets sell the same range of goods you'd find anywhere in the world - on one shelf I even spot Britain's greatest ever export, milk chocolate.

But best of all, there is a new hotel that is quiet - at long, long last.

Challenging schedule

The villagers greet us like old friends, an awful lot has happened in the two years since our last visit. We have six days to catch up on their lives, six days to document the upsides and downsides of living through a period of such rapid change.

It also means a lot of journalism on the ground, long filming days, frayed tempers and little sleep.

We have tried our best to ring the changes too. Cameraman Al Go is shooting on a new camera. Every night when we look through the rushes the pictures are simply stunning.

Road to White Horse Village
The road to White Horse Village used to make for a torturous journey

Effectively a stills camera rather than a TV camera, it means learning to shoot video in an entirely new way. Using it is hard. It is heavy. The focus requires constant attention, Al has had to build a sound rig on top of it and almost all of the action is handheld and unpredictable.

By nightfall, Al is the most worn out.

But at the end of each day comes the highlight - scripting discussions that take place over plates of deliciously spicy Sichuanese food.

Almost every dish brought to the table has been cooked with flaming hot red chillies. Anything that hasn't is soon poured into a bubbling hotpot which is filled with yet more angry, boiling chillies.

It takes a couple of days for your body to get used to the heat in the food, but once you have adjusted, the evening meal can become the moment in the day to relax a little, stand back from the story, think straight and plan for tomorrow.

Internet age

When we were last here in 2008, each night ended with scrambled phone-calls from the office updating us on the near-collapse in the international banking system.

Back then, it may as well have been happening on another planet, so great was the distance between the farmers and the outside world.

Three Gorges road construction
China's engineers are transforming access to the interior

Now that 3G, broadband and flat-screen TVs have arrived, everyone knows all about what is happening in the global financial markets. Indeed several of them gently comment that events in the West are proving the superiority of the Chinese economic system.

Whether that's true or not is a very big question indeed. There are some signs of an emerging Chinese middle-class here.

Subsistence farming is gone, the new shops look busy, white goods are appearing in homes, rice-makers are replacing pots and pans. But there is one other sign that a middle class economy is emerging, and it is not a good one.

There is a property bubble in White Horse Village. Everyone's on board. Property prices have doubled. People are buying off-plan.

Timely reminder

Many of the villagers have not moved into their allocated new homes because they do not trust the quality of the construction, but they are still investing in other projects where they believe they can make a profit.

Al Go
Our new camera gives spectacular HD quality shots

If White Horse Village is anything to go by, an awful lot of Chinese people have invested their family savings in property. So far, the returns have been good, but property bubbles do seem to have a way of imploding. It remains to be seen whether China can insure itself against the consequences if that happens.

On the way back, the filming is done and we are gliding down the highway that whizzes through the Middle Kingdom landscape. I am quietly lost in admiration for this monument to Chinese engineering when suddenly the driver steps on the brakes and we all lean hard into our seat belts - a farmer is walking his cattle across the motorway.

His straw hat looms large in front of us and we swerve to avoid the water buffalo in the fast lane.

Our driver swears into his mobile phone and then resumes his conversation as the farmer reaches the central reservation. There are still plenty of reminders of that other China, the China we've seen disappear in White Horse Village.

Watch the latest film from White Horse Village on Newsnight on Monday 29 November 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer, or Newsnight website.

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