Giant on the move
China’s third-tier cities
They’re fascinating, and I’ve been trying to go to as many as possible before leaving China for my next post. Places like Chifeng, Ulanhot, Ankang and Golmud.
The Lonely Planet and other guides for foreigners either give them a passing mention or ignore them totally.
Why I like going to these cities is still a bit of a mystery, even to me. I suppose it’s for two reasons, and my friends think I’m crazy for it.
The first is I love going to places where foreigners are few and far between. It gives you a chance to talk to people who are not jaded at the thought of seeing yet another “lao wai” (the Chinese slang term for us) on the street, and sometimes the answers to the questions I pose surprise me with their honesty.
“Why on earth are you here? There’s nothing to see in Chifeng,” a taxi driver told me as she drove around the Inner Mongolian city, which has been picked as an Olympic tourism city for this summer’s Beijing Games, though nobody in Chifeng quite understands why.
The second reason is the architecture. Lots of people think the building style that marked a 30-or-so year period starting in the 1950s in China is very ugly. Lots of sharp angles, big windows and pale colour schemes.
Not me. I think they are startlingly beautiful. And less and less are being preserved in the big cities in the rush to develop. But in the third tier cities they are still going strong. Chifeng has quite a few left, including the train station and tiny airport.
Chifeng airport is perhaps my favourite building in all of China. For a long time a photo I took of it was the wallpaper on my mobile phone.
Yet it’s not always much fun in the third tiers.
Upon arriving in Ankang, a 40 minute flight south of Xian into yet another beautiful airport, it had just finished sleeting. The air was crisp and fresh in a way you almost never experience in Beijing, but the streets downtown had turned into black sludge.
“I’ve surpassed myself this time. Ankang is truely horrible,” I texted to a friend in Beijing, promptly getting back an “I told you so” reply.
Ankang did have its highlights. The food was great, especially the flat rice noodles they fry in a sharp chili past with lamb and bean sprouts, and the air was at least clean (local people joke it’s because Ankang has no industry).
There are lots of other cities on my list I want to visit. Chaoyang and Jinzhou in the rust-belt northeastern province of Liaoning, Dazhou in Sichuan and Ganzhou in southern Jiangxi.
I just hope that the buildings I’m so passionate about don’t get demolished before I get there.
Pictures of Chifeng (top) and Ankang (below) by staff photographers