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Letter from Dunhuang: Former Frontier Now a Boomtown for Tourism
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There is a saying that goes, "The most precious thing in the 21st century is talent."


It was with a similar vision and confidence that Icy Wang and seven others came to Dunhuang, Gansu Province, on a one-year volunteer teaching course.



The graduate students from Jilin University are a talented bunch. Wang is the eldest, a 24-year-old law student and deputy head of the student union. She is also an accomplished singer, clarinetist and keyboard player.


They are determined to bring changes to the ancient city, a western frontier in the Han Dynasty (BC206-AD220).


They are housed in sub-standard conditions. The six women stay in two overcrowded motel rooms, while the two lads bunk down in another room.


But they don't mind too much. Ironically, perhaps, it is Dunhuang's economic development and booming tourism industry that is overwhelming them.


I think the neatly decorated city streets are reminiscent of Denver, in the United States, during Christmas. Its country roads are far better than the wild highways of Utah.


The city appears to be highly developed and is a magnet for tourism, but it is a disappointment for the group, who are more interested in exploring the supposedly impoverished Chinese northwest.


"We thought cities in the west were extremely backward," student union chairwoman and team leader Sun Linna says. "Overall, Dunhuang isn't anything like that."


Since Dunhuang isn't short of teachers the group has been assigned to government departments and offices.


It hasn't taken them long to realize that what their advisers claimed was a "high working tempo" is anything but.


They found most of the local authority employees were over 40 and had little knowledge of modern-day offices. Computers, for instance, are mostly broken and rarely used, computer science major Wang Zhen says.


Zhang Tingting says it is difficult working at a radio station because her programs on cultural sensibilities are poorly received.


"Not only has tourism overwhelmed all the other industries, Dunhuang's history has overwhelmed its future. They're relying on past glories to support growth," she says.


On the whole, Dunhuang desperately needs talent to sustain development. You get the feeling just eight people cannot do that.


Zhang says the group is interested in "going to some of the poorer rural communities to observe what their life is like."


Alas, I think to myself, Dongxiang Autonomous County is where they should go (see stories yesterday and Monday).


(China Daily September 20, 2007)


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