From my seat on an over-turned flowerpot atop this half demolished building, I can see all of Kunming. The surging crest of the steel and glass waves of modernity that silhouette themselves with light against the mountains to the north; the villages, markets and dilapidated apartment buildings that ooze out in organic, meandering lines across the flood plains.
This rooftop is the first real island of quiet that I have found since touching down in Yunnan two weeks ago. The first real peace.
It has been more than 4 years since I was last in China. A lot has changed. I’m no longer a bumbling Beloit College junior looking for my first experiential impressions of the Middle Kingdom. Impressions that I could superimpose on the dozens of hours of academic research and writing I had done on this ‘communist’ juggernaut. I’m still searching for insight, but this time it is of a different sort. The kind that is not chained to a grade or a desperate search for validation and legitimacy.
China has changed too. Things are more expensive. People are a little less impressed by tall, balding foreigners mumbling at them in Mandarin. Things seem to be moving faster and with more confidence. Like me, the country seems a little more self-assured. A little more aware.
Up here, on the rubble-strewn roof, the wail of this New York City-sized metropolis has become a distant hum. It feels like the city’s screams for attention are, for the moment, directed at one less person. Even 5 days ago, when I was 15,000ft up on a glaciated peak, it didn’t feel like this. This dark space. This in-between. Alone and forgotten.
Though aged and decrepit, the husks that litter the city’s southern flats are anything but empty. The hodgepodge of added balconies, clotheslines and window dressings give testament to the living force that is the thousands of human lives that grow and move within their walls. It is the people in these hives- with all of their creativity, love, hate and, more than anything else, ambition- that drive this country forward.
It was that intense ambition that forged the city to the north. The steel and glass that, despite its technical and aesthetic advancements, still has the same feeling of transience that bleeds from the fissures running through the broken-down apartment blocks.
All the buildings that I see in both directions are shells, not homes, impermanent and disposable. A means to an end. One more stepping-stone along the way to an unseen bank.
That chaotic, messy, little-understood ambition is a motive force alone. A river that is racing downhill but hasn’t yet found a sea.
I couldn’t see any of this from the streets; it’s all too close down there. I saw the rush and felt the drive, and couldn’t help but be swept up in the hustle and bustle, but it’s like trying to see where that river is heading while getting half-drowned in its torrent. I had to get away from it first. To step back and separate. To pull myself free so that I could glimpse it in its entirety. It’s now that I see that the seething mass of humanity, the one that seemed to be racing in a million directions, all seems to be moving the same way.
The half demolished sanctuary under my feet shares the same ephemeral quality as all the other buildings around it, only in a more immediate sense; in a few months it will look just like all the other bare, rubble strewn patches blotched across this provincial capital that I biked past to get here.
But for now it sits in the shadow of the city. A dark patch that, for the time being, is of no real use to anyone but me. An acre at most, visible only by the reflected light of the city and the almost extinguished memory of what it once was. The building is checked often enough to keep out the vagrants, but this skeleton is no longer important enough to anyone to station a full-time watchman.
Stepping out of the torrent of China seems to only be possible so close to its beating heart. Only here, in the ambiguity of its masses, are things moving and changing fast enough that there are pockets of peace. Places that have outlived their use and not yet been reconstituted into the ameba of modern, urban China.
No one was with us at 15,000ft on Mt. Haba –me, the 25-year-old British baker and the 24-year-old American musician who had, after a 15 minutes conversation in a café 10 days ago, agreed to let me come on their ascent – but up there we were on a well-used trail at the end of an active conduit of tourism; we were supposed to be there. Kunming’s many parks are filled with enormous trees and beautiful flowers, but they are all planted in neat rows. The only thing wild and unchecked in this city seems to be the fanatical drive of its residents.
Only on the remains of this cell that has out-lived its purpose to the organism does the specter of meaninglessness scare away enough traffic for quiet to pervade. For an island, however impermanent, to exist that allows space for the questions of why and where. Where does this force lead? And why is there such a perceived imperative in the Chinese psyche for them to throw themselves into the surge?
I have read a great many books and articles over the last 6 years written by experts and China watchers who have tried to answer this, and maybe some of them will end up being right. But from my vantage point on this fractured flowerpot, it seems that the people in this flood are the only ones who can truly answer those questions. And that they haven’t yet.
Until enough of them can extricate themselves from the flood for long enough to really ask what it is they are working towards, their collective howl will answer ‘just a little bit more!’ Until that changes, and not just here in China, the result will continue to be blind, reckless, unchecked and unsustainable growth, for its own sake.
In a few months, maybe less, the short life cycle of this already half-destroyed apartment building will come to its end and a new edifice will replace it. The lives and stories that made it more than just the sum of its parts, more than just a mass of rebar, concrete, aluminum and glass, have moved on, and what remains will be reduced to filler to be dumped into the fresh foundations of new buildings. New fabrications that will undoubtedly be equally short lived.
I rise from my seat and let my eyes rest, one last time, on the hazy line that is the northern shore of the lake, floating at the southern horizon. My eyes trace the line of a highway from the waters edge up through the heart of the city, watching it twist through the forest of 70-story mirrors, then finally disappearing into the darkness of the northern foothills.
After picking my way down the steps and past the chunks of concrete littering the hallway, I retrieve my borrowed bike from behind a graffiti-etched wall. Through an empty window frame I see a different view; the sun, sunk below the steel arc of a massive Ferris wheel, as it slowly traces its endless circles into the orange sky.
Peddling away from that dark island and through the small alleys, lined with garbage and rubble, onto cleaner avenues, which in turn merge into broader boulevards, the noise of the city rises in volume and becomes more accusatory. More demanding. The pull of the city becomes stronger and stronger, until I finally reach the highway and swing the bike into the crowded, motley stream of commuters moving north, coming back from work to their temporary homes.