Cheng Du

A dark, stuffy coach on the way from Cheng Du to Chongqing. The coach itself is of reasonable comfort, there is even a Chinese film playing. But the AC is non-existent and the last couple of hours have just crawled by. We left Cheng Du at 8:20 and I was under the impression it would be a two hour journey, but since we just made a services stop I guess I was wrong. It’s too hot to sleep.

After arriving in Cheng Du on Friday morning we found our transfer to the hotel and grabbed a quick shower before departing for a rehabilitation centre in Hanwang for victims of the Great Sichuan Earthquake in May last year. It was a bit of a ride out of town and the drivers had to stop to check their maps because the landscape has changed so much that the sat navs don’t correspond to the roads. While the drivers were checking their maps we parked up in the middle of a barren highway that was being reconstructed. When you look, signs of the devastation left from the earthquake are everywhere. It took me a while to see them at first, I guess because the effort at rebuilding the damaged parts of Sichuan has been so great that much of the area has been or is being rebuilt. I can’t imagine what the place would have looked like a year ago. But when you look, you start seeing derelict houses and shops around every corner, great big cracks in walls, unused land from collapsed buildings.

The rehabilitation centre was fascinating. Setup by the NGO Disaster Preparedness Centre, it was this huge expanse of land with long corrugated buildings split into small rooms for displaced victims of the earthquake. Leon volunteered here last year, when it was merely a city of tents. Now there are local shops along the main road, evidently very recent constructions. There appeared to be a good deal of spare capacity, I imagine because most people have relocated back to their homes or have found alternative accommodation. It’s certainly not the kind of place you would want to live for very long. But what the NGO has achieved here is a great example of a very effective initiative.

We had a chat with one of the guys manning the site office. He explained that they lend money to inhabitants for anything that is productive and has investment value, such as animals and pig stys. The NGO make loans for anything from 4,000 RMB up to 20,000, which are interest free and are not payable until the investment has made sufficient return. Much research goes into each case before the money is lent, and thus far they have had no failed businesses and people are already beginning to make repayments. They also provide free lessons on entrepreneurship and how to start small businesses. There are many other microfinance institutions as well, with interest rates between 5 and 10 percent.

We then had a conversation with some of the people living in the temporary accommodation. A Mr Yang had a PC setup in his room and was making a living from PC maintenance. He has to live there for fear of landslides back home and has a loan for 30k RMB from a national bank to rebuild his damaged house, although he needs 100k which he will try to raise from family and friends. It will take another year at least before he can move back. He does not feel comforted by anything the government is doing and feels lost. I can imagine, whilst the project seems to have been very successful at getting people back on their feet, I would hate to be trapped here in temporary accommodation for any length of time.

Before dusk we went a little further down the road to visit an abandoned area of Hanwang. It was literally a ghost town. All the buildings were standing in perilous ruin, old shop signs indicated what a busy little hub it must have recently been. There was a clock tower standing on one side of the road, in relatively good condition compared to the rest of the buildings. The clock was frozen at 14:28, the exact time that the earthquake hit. It’s also the time that school children were returning to their classrooms, and 700 students were buried at a school close by. The official death toll is 70,000.

Saturday was tourist day. A visit to the post-earthquake Wolong Panda Reserve, an essential stop on the tourist circuit. Then a few hours drive out of the city to see the still-functioning water irrigation system in Du Jiang Yan, the foundations of which were built 1,000 years ago. No mean feat, and some great views of the river and countryside, but I couldn’t help but feel ushered around yet another tourist trap. Still, a good way to fill the day.

The evening provided an additional source of entertainment as we went for dinner with Leon’s dad, his stepbrother and girlfriend, and a couple of guys from the conference team. I was the only person present with no Mandarin, so the lively conversation wasn’t especially meaningful to me. However, I learned more in that hour spending time with people and enjoying their company than I had the entire day trawling around on the tourist trail. We were treated to a massage after dinner. No complaints there.

Today was conference day, similar format to the other two. We arrived at the hotel a couple of hours before and the conference team had everything organised. It was a similar audience to Xi’an, mainly students. Again, the speeches were all mandarin so I kept myself busy taking photos and reading at the back. I repeated my talk on CSR, I hope that at least some people made sense of my English. Alas, Tony our TED guy from Guangdong helped out by interjecting with some translations and I actually got a few well-thought questions at the end. Nice to know I wasn’t preaching to myself. It’s such a difficult subject to broach in China, they just don’t really do CSR here. When I started my talk I asked for a show of hands who has heard of CSR, and not a single person put their hand up. Maybe some have heard of it and are just shy, that’s typical of the Chinese way, but I get the feeling this is an entirely new concept for most people. All the more reason for talking about it and supporting the SUCHEN cause.

We gained an expeditioner this afternoon. Charlie has flown in from the UK to join us on the remainder of the journey, and he will backtrack to do the bits he missed after Hong Kong. We also lost one this morning, she had to fly back to Shanghai, so we are still five. Having left Brad in Xi’an for his field work, it will be interesting to see how the group dynamic changes. Chongqing here we come.

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