Cities you’ve never heard of make up a huge part of China
Last week, a colleague told me she’s from the same hometown as Zhou Enlai (周恩来 the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China): Huai’an (淮安) in Jiangsu province (江苏省). I had never heard of that place, and it’s the same thing when people tell me they’re from Kaifeng (开封) or Weifang (潍坊) — or when I’m looking at the high-speed train map of China. I know Shanghai and Nanjing, but not the six stations in between. I look these cities up on Wikipedia and discover that millions of people live in each of these, I feel ignorant, but also intrigued. Each day life is lived there; photographs are taken, dinners are eaten, and children are born.
The unknown side of China
When you search for lower-tier cities on Google or Baidu, you get nothing but grey skies above a wide river, a park with leafless trees, and maybe an aerial photo of a new harbour project or monotone residential area.
I look these cities up on Wikipedia and discover that millions of people live in each of these, I feel ignorant, but also intrigued.
These cities are often described as “dingy”. The main attraction on TripAdvisor is a local park or pagoda, and sometimes there’s a blog from an English teacher that sums it up as: “I taught a year of English in this city, wouldn’t recommend it.”
Trying to break preconceived notions
I picked Danyang (丹阳) in the Jiangsu province. It’s under the administration of Zhenjiang (镇江). China has 388 county-level cities like Danyang, and 293 prefectural-level cities like Zhenjiang.
I left the new train station, turned a corner, and stopped dead in my tracks: I’m looking at those same grey photos from Google and Baidu now. I see a canal occupied by a caravan of cargo ships. The whole scene is rather… grey, dingy, and just like those Google images I saw.
Is it going to be hard to get a fresh impression of lower-tier cities?
Each city block seems built in a different decade (and different philosophy) — with odd buildings here-and-there.
But there is life in Danyang, alright. The park is one of the top attractions and it’s well-maintained. There’s a pagoda which seems to have been built only a few years ago, and exercising seniors, young parents with their kids, and middle-aged guys photographing fauna with SLR-cameras.
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