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Going Home to Neijiang: A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to find his Sichuan town transformed
Going Home to Neijiang: A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to find his Sichuan town transformed
Going Home to Neijiang:
A former Peace Corps volunteer returns to find his Sichuan town transformed
by Mike Meyer
Nejiang, often dubbed "Sugar City," straddles the Tuo River in south central Sichuan and is the kind of place where you would want to do little more but refill your gas tank. Lying at the midpoint of the Chengyu Expressway between Chengdu and Chongqing (about 177km from each city) it is also nearly equidistant between Chengdu and Yibin. Since the expressway's opening in 1995, Nejiang has enjoyed an upsurge in industries servicing vehicles and their drivers, although not all of this commerce is legal. Journalist Zhang Chengwen's 1998 book Tianfu Zhiguo Mou Yu Dao (Sichuan's Battle Between the Devil and Virtue) documents the rise and fall of a Neijiang crime syndicate in the 1990s.
The speedy coaches ferrying tourists between Sichuan's cities don't even stop in Neijiang anymore. The few foreign travelers who do make it into town tend to be lost, in search of nearby Zigong, home to museums for dinosaurs and salt. Instead they find locals pointing at them and yelling, "Laowai!" (foreigner) and worse. Neijiang seems to be destined for truck stop status for many years to come.
After living in Nejiang for two years from 1995-97 as a Peace Corps volunteer, I returned there this summer for the first time expecting to find that little had changed -- as naïve an assumption as you can make in China. But "Planet Neijiang" (as I used to call it) never felt like it played by the same rules as the rest of the nation. After all this was a land that time seemed to have forgotten -- where movies were shown in VHS, not VCD and the post office weighed your letters on a hand-held scale and you pasted on the stamps with fish glue.
On the bus ride from Chengdu I replayed these memories in my head like on old movie. Since the local expressway and buses are now sponsored by Lanjian (Blue Sword) Beer, every kilometer or so we'd zip by an ad for the alcohol posted on the traffic divider in between lanes. Some cities have billboards that welcome you and list the town's sights and achievements, but Neijiang has a towering, three-sided advertisement for Wuliangye Baijiu -- a potent sorghum liquor.
I hopped in a cab and noticed it had a meter, a new thing for Neijiang. The flagfall was three yuan, and the meter counted jiao -- tenths of yuan. The cabby dropped me in the downtown area, which looked cleaner and more orderly than before. The road had been resurfaced, traffic circles replaced by stoplights, and pedestrians were confined to bordered sidewalks. A disco had opened. More clothing, VCD and music stores filled the main road. The stock exchange had gone digital: I entered a room full of individual computer terminals filled by middle-aged aunties who ate rice from a box with one hand and manipulated their life savings via keyboard with the other.
But some things had not changed: The narrow, pedestrian-only cobblestone passage that tumbled downhill to the food market was still lined with stalls. I revisited a favorite jiaozi (dumpling) parlor, and then an old teahouse to chat with the boss before wandering past sacks of blood-red chili peppers, stacks of sugar cane and hooks laden with halved cows. The damp, humid air drenched me in sweat. People smiled, pointed, and called me laowai. It was good to be home.
I made my way to the college where I had taught, but already the road signaled that I would not like what I found. The once narrow, winding road covered by the sagging boughs of willows and plane trees and lined with temples, fish ponds, farms and colleges had been widened and straightened into a four-lane highway. The trees had been chopped down, replaced by a painted slogan reminding the neighborhood that economic success depended on maintaining the population through the one-child policy.
My college wasn't even there, in the form in which I knew it. It had passed an inspection and been elevated from a three-year to a four-year institution. Although this meant great prestige to the students and staff, it was not a good turn of events for the merchants who had operated the succulent restaurants, well-stocked stores, and rollicking video game/movie parlors on the border of campus. They were told to vacate and their shops were demolished to make way for a new school building. Some relocated nearer downtown while others went to other towns or provinces.
I was able to find a few friends who had stayed on. One cooked me the best baozi (meat filled steamed buns) I've ever had, and then we went and got our hair washed at a salon. It was just like old times, the two of us gabbing in our chairs with towels wrapped around our head.
When I tried to flush the toilet in my room at the zhaodaisuo (guesthouse) where I used to live, I learned that the college had added a swimming pool. There was no water. I tried the shower and sink. Meiyou shui.
"They're filling the swimming pool, so there's no water today," the receptionist said.
Instead everybody jumped in the pool, nearly the entire campus, in lieu of a bath. (Imagine the dirt ring around the rim at the end of the day!) I wanted to go in, but was told that baggy trunks were not allowed. I'd have to purchase and model a Speedo that left nothing to the imagination. I declined and instead rejoined my basketball team for an afternoon of hoops.
When people ask me what I did in Peace Corps, I tell them I averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds a game. The college had asked me to join the team when I arrived, and on weekends we traveled to other colleges for matches. My job was to look tall. Real tall. "Don't shoot the ball, Eastern Heroic Plum Blossom!" my coach -- nicknamed Emperor -- would scream. "Just look tall! Real tall!" Staffed by the PE department, who majored in basketball, we averaged 95 points and never lost. My teammates would light up cigarettes at halftime, gulp Nescafe jars of hot tea, and then retake the court and continue the clinic. Female spectators would go wild. The men would take us out to dinner. Majoring in basketball seemed much more useful than majoring in English or sociology.
The team was still there, and finished with the pool, so we played again. Only this time, nobody smoked at halftime, and everyone gulped down bottles of water. We'd lost more than a few steps, and ended up recounting our glory days that evening by the riverside, sitting by candlelight over a plate of river snails and downing a case of beer. The point guard had married, and his wife joined us. A forward had to help his daughter finish her homework, and arrived late. Our shooting guard had graduated and now ran the new promenade's first and only restaurant. His beer was cold, his candles bright, and his river snails tasted like the spicy slime they were supposed to. Or so I was told. We ate them with toothpicks, teasing the steamed meat from its shell, and listened to the sound of skiffs puttering up stream in the darkness.
The next couple days were spent in the same way -- relaxing in the small-town atmosphere, reuniting with old friends and struggling to remember Sichuanese. The gossip flowed quickly. My weiqi (go) instructor, a former soldier, had changed his English name to Sniper, because he wanted to take out Chen Shuibian, Taiwan's newly elected leader. The under-appreciated star teacher of the foreign language department had been rewarded with a one-year exchange to England. The next-under-appreciated instructor took his place this year. And everybody had stories about my activities in Beijing. They were so overblown and exciting, and far from reality. At night we dined on regional specialties like mayi shang shu (Ants Climbing Trees), hupi qingjiao (Tiger-skin Peppers), xiongzhang doufu (Bearpaw Tofu), and shuizhu niurou (Water-boiled Spicy Beef). Neijiang still had fantastic cuisine, best appreciated with plenty of cold beer and around a heated finger-and-drinking game of luanpi yaocai (Chaotic Guessing), the local dinnertime sport.
Everyone seemed happy except the ferry boat captain. He still charged three jiao for a crossing, a price he was able to keep low thanks to additional revenue generated by the snack stand he now operated on the boat. But he knew his time was running out: Within months, workers would build a new bridge connecting the college area with downtown. His job, and the pastoral tranquillity that the far side of the river provided, had already begun fading like an old photograph.
When I lived in Neijiang, there were no sights to see except the hallmarks of a rural, underdeveloped area like meandering footpaths through the countryside, scenes of herding animals, and old sections of the city rife with the clacking of mahjohng tiles and the steam of jasmine tea. But just east of the largest bridge in town, on the north side of the river, there used to be a ramshackle temple made of wood. I crept inside one day and came face to face with a 20- meter-high Buddha carved into the cliff face. The nun in command of the structure could tell me only that it was very old, and that they were accepting donations for its refurbishment. This time around, I returned to discover a gleaming, nine-story pagoda-like temple made from wood encasing the Buddha. They had apparently acquired the funding. "We did it with donations," the same nun said smiling. The work was to be completed this fall, when the order planned to open its doors to tourists.
I walked a few hundred meters east, along the river, and saw that the barges that dredge gravel from the bottom of the river were still at work. Further ahead, the floating bridge still forded the waterway, and still charged a toll based on what kind of animal you were. A handwritten sign showed its usual traffic: people cost three jiao, pigs and sheep four, horses six, oxen eight, and students 1.5. The stones of the walkway into the Old City were rounded smooth from so much traffic. I doubled back and headed west along the river road, past the Forest Temple and cave where the fortuneteller used to live. She was since gone, but the long stairway which cut diagonally through thick tufts of bamboo still led to the former home of painter Zhang Daqian. Mr. Zhang vacated the mainland toward the end of the civil war, and lived out his days as an internationally-renowned traditional painter based in Taiwan. Picasso was a friend and an admirer, and admitted to stealing some of Zhang's brushstrokes. Zhang hailed from this little Sichuan city, and once lived in a courtyard home atop a hill on the far side of the river.
The grounds were thick with miniature trees, potted plants, and soaring pines, and still remained the perfect place to sit quietly in an antiquated setting (all for only four yuan). Although few of Zhang's original works are on display -- he took most of his lot with him -- there remain linmo (copies) by his students and a few prints hanging amongst photos of him with flowing, knee-length beard, postcards from Picasso and letters of praise from then-President Reagan. Zhang liked painting lotus flowers and court scenes. He liked using blue and green in his mountain landscapes, which he would often paint from his imagination, not direct observation. One of his loveliest paintings has more white space than ink. A simple sketch of a woman leaning on one hand in thought fills the bottom of the scroll, while emptiness takes up the remainder. I couldn't help but reflect on what she is thinking.
A propaganda poster hung nearby -- a jumble of Socialist Realism watercolors that showed three cherub-faced youth straining to contain their joy over Deng Xiaoping's mandate that students cultivate themselves through lixiang (ideas), daode (morality), zhishi (knowledge) and tili (fitness). Next to it hung a wall-size display showing apprehended criminals, drugs, and guns, along with statistics on the war against vice. Apparently even at the art museum for its most famous son, the battle between the devil and virtue continued. On Planet Neijiang, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Buses for Neijiang depart every half-hour from Chengdu's Chengyu Expressway bus station, in the far east of the city. A ticket for the two-hour ride costs ¥30-40. It's worth buying the more expensive ticket, as it puts you on a bus that will go to Neijiang directly, rather than call on all ports in between.
From Neijiang, it's easy to get to Chendgu, Zigong, Yibin, Dazu and Chongqing, with buses leaving frequently from the efficient main bus station downtown. Tell your cabdriver to take you to the qiche zhan (bus station).
Neijiang's train station (huoche zhan) is a stop for the Yibin-Chengdu line and the Chengdu-Chongqing line. Taking the bus is much more efficient, as you will save two-three hours on your journey.
Neijiang's sights and downtown are all within walking distance. Cabs and motorcycles patrol the streets for fares -- cabs begin at ¥3, while a ride on a bike shouldn't cost more than five. The ferry landing is on the road to the train station -- ask for the duchuan (ferry).
Places to stay
The zhaodaisuo at Neijiang Teachers College (Neijiang shizhuan, or now Neijiang shifan xueyuan) has double rooms (one bed) with a sometimes-functioning bath for ¥80/night.
Places to eat
Hands-down, the best boiled dumplings (shuijiao) in Neijiang, and maybe Sichuan and even China, are at the Beiping Jiaozi Dian, located just southwest of the traffic circle that fronts the bridge on the south bank of the Tuojiang. A plate of ten is only ¥4.
Around the college, there's a series of dumpling shacks that will also serve noodles, fried rice, and vegetarian cuisine. Dumplings are served in aluminum steamers (leng) and are ¥1.5-1.8 each with eight in a steamer.
Several good restaurants line the gate to the college, with a meal for two with beer setting you back ¥20 to ¥30 (beer is usually ¥2 a bottle, mineral water ¥1.5-2).