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The 'Real' China Is Surprisingly Near
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The "real" China is closer than you think, and Jenny Hammond finds it at the end of a seven-hour train trip to Anhui Province. There, villagers of remarkable endurance and spirit are rebuilding after the battering by torrential rains and flooding.

One often hears that Shanghai is not the "real" China, and it's not. But the real China isn't far off. Those who want to see the very real China, it (and certainly others as rewarding) can be found by a train journey of little over seven hours.

Rarely visited by foreigners, Anhui Province in eastern China has become known worldwide over the summer as part of the area battered by torrential rains and flooding.

Now in the disaster's aftermath, however, people are getting on with their lives and trying to rebuild what was destroyed - a huge task.

Litang Village near Wapu Lake was in the hardest-hit area. The lake rose nearly four meters in July, inundating the area.

I was fortunate to go with a couple of girls who were returning from Shanghai to visit their families. They live in small clusters of houses, 20 or 30 in a group.

Vivid green foliage and sodden surroundings that are quickly being dried by the scorching heat look lush and pastoral, but the damage caused by the flood is obvious from the clogged dirt tracks and dilapidated dwellings.

Life for many people is hard, most the population are farmers with an average yearly salary rarely above 3,000 yuan (US$395).

However, in spite of their disadvantages, people remain warm-hearted, honest, respectable and selflessly hospitable to anyone who may pass by.

Though they endure daily hardships that many people could not begin to comprehend, as soon as they see a new face, their own faces crinkle into a genuine welcoming smile before the inevitable invitation, "Come dine with us."

Indeed, there is something to be said for a family who welcomes strangers into their home and offer them a banquet, when they have so little themselves. Six dishes - spicy chicken's feet, beef and vegetables and glass noodles, including as much fried rice and mantou their weary travelers could eat - when normally they themselves would just eat a bowl of rice.

The food in this area is delicious, sweet, fresh and unintentionally organic (with many of the farmers unable to afford pesticides).

Sweet corn being the year's main crops, it is offered as a snack, later utilized in the breakfast rice soup before ending its journey as swill for the pigs and roughage for the roaming poultry to peck at. Everything is utilized.

Drinking water is pumped from a communal well, boiled then consumed while washing is done in the nearby ponds: since the floods they are numerous.

The scenery is magnificent: lush vegetation, high rows of corn swaying hypnotically in the lazy breeze.

This rural community is surprisingly harmonious and peaceful despite the locals' ordeal over the past couple of months. It is filled with the chorus of dogs barking, pigs snuffling and cockerels crowing.

Farmers tend to their surviving crops as children run around gleefully, while a foreigner is observed with awe and fascination.

Children crowd round visiting foreigners as many have never encountered such strange-looking humans, giggling hysterically when they try to speak broken Chinese.

The children in Litang Village all play together and know each household by name. The entire village shares the same last name Liu, and all the youngsters call every adult either auntie or uncle, in their familiar way.

The local school is very close to the village, and although basic, it is breathtakingly picturesque.

As a former temple building, after the monks had moved on, the villagers made it into the local school as they wanted this generation of children to have a good education.

Its circular entrance leads to a courtyard filled with flowers; the classrooms are around the outside.

Although the facilities are basic the village children fill the space with excited squeaks: this is a place they want to be.

Similarly the importance of education is shown again by tattered posters that are pinned to many of the people's homes, displaying basic characters and numbers.

"Yi, er, san," one of the smaller children proudly reads before reciting the red welcome message taped to the front door.

On a typical afternoon, many people gather around the local shop-cum-restaurant, men play mahjong while women chatter and children either shuffle their feet in impatience or flick stones at the vivid dragonflies that buzz busily along, the children never hit their targets.

The wife of the shop owner in Litang Village is well known as the village beauty. Her wedding portrait is displayed on the wall above the restaurant's table.

In the evening as night has shrouded the surroundings, the village goes still, crickets sing a chorus, the faint hum of television sets fade as each household switches off their lights for bed.

It's a truly humbling experience to see the Litang people demonstrate such strength of character to withstand their hardships and still be able to open their hearts and homes to strangers.

(Shanghai Daily by Jenny Hammond September 4, 2007)

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