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Letter from Dongxiang: Hardships on the river of life
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The place is out of this world. All over China, people love to flatter their guests. But the Dongxiangs - or Sartans - are so hospitable that they leave no autonomy for people like us (and to think that we are in an autonomous county in Gansu). Some can be hospitable to the point of annoyance, as my colleague Hu Yinan discovered the night before. Nevertheless, I've fallen in love with the place by the second morning of our stay. But love or no love, neither of us is prepared for what is in store.


The rain has not stopped: fifth consecutive day of downpour (or was this the sixth?) in a place known for being high and dry. The mountains are not rocky on the surface. Instead, they are full of clay: good for digging small caves to grow potatoes, a staple in Gansu and most of the county. The rain has washed this clay onto the road between Dongxiang Township and Rotary Club-China Daily Hope School in Yanglin Township.


We drive on a river of slush. The 8-km stretch seems more like 80 km. And rain keeps pouring. We wait more than an hour for the Rotary Club Mid-Level (Hong Kong) members to arrive. I think they will be devastated by the time they sail the entire stretch of "river slush". I am wrong.



Children stand in seven or eight rows on the school compound. The rain hasn't stopped, but it has slowed down a little. Deputy County Chief Xue Chaohua, a gem of a person (and not just because he is a good friend), is at work. He asks all speakers, including the principal, to cut their speeches short. Even so, the program seems long - blame it on the rain, I guess. A couple of charming ladies and agile gentlemen from the Rotary group open their umbrellas and try to shelter the kids from the rain. Some teachers and school staff are already on the job. The result: a riot of colors - the red, orange, green, gray and black of the umbrellas play hide and seek with the white and blue of the kids' uniforms, with the women's dresses completing the montage.


Shifting to classrooms, the Rotary group has brief interactions with the kids, hands over gifts and wishes them well. The club has already done a lot here, and plans to do more in other impoverished areas.


Time to pack. We leave in three SUVs. "Is there a short cut, or can we take another road to Dongxiang Township?" Hu asks the others in the Mitsubishi Pajero. He turns around and smiles. I get the message. We are on "river slush" again. The county chief is waiting for us for lunch (albeit a late one by Chinese standards).


Our Pajero is in front. We are only 15 or 20 minutes into the voyage. A small four-wheeler, used in these remote parts to carry goods as well as ferry passengers, is stuck in the mud right ahead. An SUV tries to pull it out. Fails. Our friend Ma tries to pull it back. The metal rope breaks. Phone calls. We have some county officials with us. A pick-up truck is requisitioned. It comes, it sees, it surrenders. After almost two hours, a bulldozer comes and yanks the vehicle out.


"Our SUV can get stuck, too," I tell Hu. He says: "No way". Rain has washed a good part of the road down the slopes. Only a narrow stretch remains for drivers to maneuver. "But our driver is excellent, and Pajero is a four-wheel drive," Hu hits back. I have full faith in Ma, but there are limits to which a four-wheel SUV can go. Still not convinced.


The Pajero starts, moves ahead, and gets stuck. Thankfully, the bulldozer is still there.


Rain has brought a bumper harvest to Dongxiang, but it has also made life difficult in other ways. We in the comfort of our SUVs cannot even think of soiling our feet. We can make even the county chief wait because we won't walk through that slush.


But what will the sons of the soil do? Can they afford to have any such excuse?


(China Daily by OP Rana September 30, 2007)


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