It wasn't always this way. "Twenty years ago, Lijiang was poorer than Heqing," both the cab driver and bus driver say. "In 1996 there was a large earthquake in Lijiang with lots of destruction. Some of the officials from Lijiang convinced the government to give lots of money to the city not just to rebuild houses but to turn it into a tourist site." This is definitely believable. Visit the ancient city and it's clear that it takes a lot of money to keep the place running. Willow trees line the streets and fresh flowers are piled in every courtyard. The place is sparkling, and reeking of cash.
Lijiang is a sizable city of 1.1 million people. The 7.0 earthquake in 1996 caused over 180,000 houses to collapse and displaced many more. I imagine the damage was just as extensive (relatively) here in Heqing, but Heqing is the same old place that it always has been, the locals say. Yet, since the earthquake the economy of Lijiang has skyrocketed. With the help of government money and the world bank, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. Never doubt just how far a little 关系 will go in China.
Not far from Heqing village you can catch a glimpse of what Lijiang might have looked like 20 years ago. Hop on a bike and ride ten minutes north from the town center and you will bump into 新华, or Xinhua village, Heqing County's effort to carve a tourist destination out of the countryside. Xinhua is renowned for it's silver - historically it is an ancient city of silversmiths famous for it's intricately engraved chalices and figurines. For many years the silver was mined locally, but now much of it is shipped in from other provinces in central China.
I had been wanting to visit Xinhua for a while, and as luck would have it my eleven year old buddy, Lichao, wanted to take me. I met Lichao when he knocked on my door one day asking for an English lesson. At the time I had no idea where he came from or how he found me, but I decided to give him a 20 minute lesson anyway. It turned out his mother is one of the school lunch ladies and that he lives no more than a stones throw from the front gate of the school. I would see him often, sometimes as a suprise after opening my door and sometimes walking back from school on the dirt roads that lead to the open rice fields that I often jog through. On this day, Lichao did not want to study English, but to hang out.
Lichao lent me a family bike and we set off northward. It wasn't long before we passed the giant gate straddles the road to Xinhua, marking the end of the narrow concrete roads that are characteristic of the villages here. Like Lijiang the roads of Xinhua are cobblestone and like Lijiang, there is a giant water wheel that was once used to grind wheat. There is a beautiful lake that is refreshed with mountain water, lined by small shops and willow trees.
The centerpiece of Xinhua is a giant hall used to showcase the silver and jade goods that can be purchased for a price. The building is enormous - easily a few football fields - and contains more jade and silver than all of the tourist pit stop jade factories I have ever visited put together. Outside of the silver hall on both sides of the road, workers are busy constructing a swanky wood and stone hotel. Up on the hill, more workers are building a gray-stone castle, literally, and other high-priced homes for Heqing's wealthy orchid traders. (I can't confirm this, but someone within the school's administration once related to me that the richest people in Heqing were orchid traders. "They are just too rich.") Lichao I and take advantage of Chinese construction workers apathy towards un-helmeted bystanders walking through construction sites to walk through their construction site and climb the building. The castle, small perhaps by the standards of German kings, is a massive Heqing abode. The view from the castle's precipice is stunning, as it looks down on the old, Bai style roofs of the village below.
It's clear that a lot of money has been dumped into Xinhua with the hopes of it becoming the next Lijiang. The place is charming, if not a bit small. The problem is I don't think more than a day or two could be spent there without growing tired of the place, and the tackiness of the silver warehouse is a bit off-putting. There is also the problem of the unfinished sliver Buddha.
On the hill overlooking the lake, there is a giant concrete platform surrounded by an imposing steel scaffolding structure. It lays dormant. And ugly. So the story goes, the initial plan called for a giant, silver Buddha head on the hill to complement the new development projects on the other side of the lake. As sometimes happens with giant, silver Buddha heads, project costs overran estimates, and the project had to be shelved. Not until after the 刺眼 platform and scaffolding had been built, however. It's actually kind of hard to take the place seriously with the unfinished giant silver Buddha head, but I wonder to myself if it would be even harder to take seriously with a finished giant silver Buddha head.
Lichao and I head back to his house to return the bikes, and his family invites me over for dinner. While waiting for the food, Lichao teaches me an ancient Chinese board game that is strikingly like one of my all time favorites, Stratego. Chess, Othello, and now Stratego? What else have the Chinese invented that I'm not aware of? We sit down to dinner and his mother gives me the best fish head on the table. His father has business in Xiyi and apologizes for leaving the table early, but not before having a few sips of baijiu with me.