10 July 2004

Dateline Dunhuang: Old Silk Road discovers new prosperity

10 July 2004
The Times of India

Old Silk Road discovers new prosperity

Times News Network

DUNHUANG: Every new visitor to China has his one overpowering moment of wonderment and envy. Mine occurred not amid the oceanic spaces of Beijing or the mountainous skyline of Shanghai but in this small and gentle oasis town in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Weary travelers from East and West once used to rest here as they moved along the Silk Road but today Dunhuang, on the western edges of western China's Gansu province, is home to around 80,000 people, mostly agriculturists.

As China opens up, tourism too is a major industry.

A short distance from the town proper lie the spectacular Mogao grottos, consisting of wall murals and statues painted and carved inside hundreds of caves cut out of a sheer cliff face by devout Buddhist monks more than 1,000 years ago.

And then there are the legendary sand dunes where every evening hundreds of men, women and children trek up several hundred feet in order to "ski" down towards a magical lake whose waters have remained untouched by the blowing sand for several millennia.

On paper, Gansu is one of the poorest of China's 26 provinces. Water is scarce and rainfall patterns asynchronous with the agricultural calendar.

A visiting group of Indian journalists on an official tour of China came here expecting to see at least a touch of the dusty, familiar hardscrabble in our own arid rural and small urban landscapes. What we saw instead was an elegant, leafy and well-laid out town brimming with confidence and commerce.

There was almost no poverty, and none of the clutter and chaos of the average mofussil Indian town. There is, of course, prostitution (as everywhere in urban China masquerading as 'massage') but no street crime. Families and young people shop and linger on the streets till late.

The quality of civic infrastructure - proper pavements, parks, pedestrian zones - is superior to that of any Indian town and modern housing seems, to the casual visitor at least, to be in ample supply.

If one tires of walking, motorcycle rickshaws will run you from one end of town to the other for as little as Rs 12.

In the two days we spent, the electricity went off just once, that too for 10 minutes.

Dunhuang airport would put Lucknow or even Kolkata to shame but the Chinese are not satisfied with it: they plan to build a new international airport to accommodate the tourists they hope will arrive here in large numbers eventually.

In a country of China's size, regional disparities in the level of development and prosperity are to be expected. Certainly, many in India are fond of arguing that visitors should not be "taken in" by the prosperity of Beijing or the coastal cities of Shanghai or Shenzhen.

But Dunhuang and other parts of Gansu that we visited are proof that the country's model of growth - of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" - is having a profound impact in the farthest reaches of the country.

Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, is a bustling modern city of some 1.4 million people, including more than two lakh Muslims. Its wide boulevards and sidewalks provide ample space for cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians.

In the evening, people converge on the large square which dominates the centre of the city to exercise, drink beer or simply hang out. Though there are no policemen in sight, no one tramples on the well-manicured lawns.

At the northern end, the pavements are full of vendors selling cheaper goods late into the night. The huge crowds are testimony to the fact that many locals cannot afford to shop in Parksons, the large department store overlooking the square.

The city centre and skyline of Lanzhou - one of the poorer cities of China - look as impressive as Nariman Point, but when the vice-governor of the province modestly asked us over a banquet whether his city compared well with a mid-level Indian city, our pride got the better of us. "Yes, just about," we replied.

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