Cities without Souls: Datong and Chongqing

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Flowers outside Datong’s new walls

Even when you go searching for nature in China, you get hit around the head with development and the signs of a growing and increasingly affluent population. In two places where seeing nature was not our main aim we found that the development had been taken so far that the cities were like soul-less shells. They were, though, two entirely different cities, with one “pushing forward” and the other “pushing backward”, developing architecture with diverging visions.

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The almost completely empty “ancient” town square.

Datong was like a ghost town or an abandoned theme park. The newly built ancient city housed endless buildings for new businesses and yet most of them remained empty. Few people were on the street, every café we found seemed devoid of anyone but a few bored looking staff. This eerie atmosphere had been created through the investment of a mayor who has completely transformed the city and even had a film made about his approach and the transformation of the city (The Chinese Mayor came out earlier this year). Geng Yangbo was faced with the difficulty of watching the city’s only industry, coal, in decline and decided to increase tourism to compensate. His strategy seemed cruel to many- the city forcefully relocated most of the people living in the city centre, completely demolished it, and rebuilt a replica of the ancient city in its wake. This was to serve as a new source of income and attract visitors (it worked on us!) and the citizens were (eventually) compensated with new homes, new shopping malls, new and working plumbing, electricity and a better transport network.

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A view from Fly by Knight hostel to where six years ago, fields and farms still lay.

From Datong Fly by Knight Hostel, a wonderful, clean and quiet place high up in one of the new apartment buildings, the development is clear and breath-taking. Hostel owner Daniel can point out the window and tell you that when he first stood in the apartment, farmland started there. Now, there is not a farm in sight. Over the last five years, the countryside has been gobbled up by development projects. Daniel seems happy with the changes, as do the people on the street. Here, outside of the city walls and away from the synthetic heritage site, people meet up and chat on the street, fruit vendors peddle their wares, dancers practice on the square and music blasts out of speakers. It is only central Datong that is devoid of life, soulless, empty and eerie.

Different building styles in Chongqing
Different building styles in Chongqing

Chongqing old quarter and new, in contrast, is filled to the brim with people, mopeds, cars, trucks and rubbish. The old town and houses on stilts have disappeared in piles of broken buildings (cleared away for new developments) and piles of waste. People still live here though, in what looks to be extreme poverty. Some homes were made in houses where the walls had crumbled away, giving us a clear view inside. Chongqing feels run down, under the weather, struggling to get by. To top it off, our visit was improved with nearly constant rain and a perpetual grey sky when it was not raining. Somehow, the city with its oppressive heat, poor weather and grime became a hell hole. People come here to take a cable car over the river and to get a cruise boat out. Very few linger here, and for good reason. This was reality-check central: development is not always good.

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Chongqing at night.

The only nice photographs I have of the city are taken in the evening, where the lights manage to disguise the grime and the city looks reasonably fancy. It’s as if the city adorns its neon finery and paints out its blemishes. On the platform overlooking the city from across the river, hundreds of tourists mill about, trying to get an image of the city at its best. Datong, my gut says, has a far better chance of achieving a new soul. Sure, it will be artificial and largely based on consumerism, but it seems that there some issues of citizens welfare have been addressed. Chongqing is so large, there are people falling through the gaps, and no amount of architectural beauty will hide social illness.

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