China’s rural county seats, those scruffy one-KTV market towns where farmers go to sell their chickens and buy their flat-screen televisions, are where we normally switch buses en route to somewhere else. But for several days here along the back roads of southern Yunnan, somewhere else for us has remained just another bus connection, another county over. Our final destination in China is Xishuangbanna prefecture, actually just 14 hours of windy road travel from Victory Village via Lvchun, but a one-bus-every-afternoon slow journey of three days for us. So in a string of unremarkable little towns along the way, we’ve had some time to kill.
Things are changing fast out here, it would appear. We rode partway with an Yi man returning home from Kunming for Spring Festival. In pouring rain, he got out along a little gulch in a deep valley, along with his two giant bags of gifts to bring home and his carrying pole. His village, not connected by any road, would be a three-hour walk up the mountain, he said. We wished him a Happy New Year. Then, thirty minutes of bumpy gravel road later, we were at the county seat of Lvchun, where a brand new residential area of 8-storey apartment buildings covered one of the hillsides. Cranes and bulldozers indicated there’d soon be more. And below the twisting, unsealed road we’d arrived by, a strip of graded earth and the mouth of a tunnel made it clear that the new road would go through the mountains, not over them. Already, here atop a narrow ridgeline in a far-out corner of Yunnan province, was a traffic-choked, featureless town that looked like every other one its size in China. But with the Yi man in mind, I kept thinking how nice it all looked.
In anticipating (and encouraging) the re-settlement into towns and cities of rural residents, like the man whose village was too high for a road, China’s government is tackling a number of massive social and logistical challenges. In this hugely disruptive process, the priority is stability. Aesthetics and originality? Not so much—especially in the county seats, those bus station-and-market towns that mark the final frontier between town and country. No matter whether you’re travelling across the dusty grasslands of Inner Mongolia or the lush mountains of Fujian, at the end of that long, bumpy bus ride you’ll step off into a scrappy little town that closely resembles all the other ones you’ve passed through: on one end of town, a bus station surrounded by cheap hotels and greasy spoons; down at the other end, the People’s Government building, surrounded by a nicer (read: smokier) hotel or two and some fancier (also smokier) restaurants; and in between, a repeating sequence of street-level shops selling cell phones, farm equipment, hair styling, appliances, Chinglish-splattered clothes, motorcycles, medicine and smokes. The only thing left to chance will be the placement and layout of the main public space, either a small People’s Park or a big People’s Square, and the choice of topic for the propaganda banners.
The buildings will invariably be ugly, although there may be some variation in how that effect is achieved. If the area is poor, then buildings except for the government’s will be crumbly brick or bare concrete; if relatively wealthy, those same buildings may be covered in decorative bathroom tiles—and the more wealthy, the more sides away from the street that will receive this flourish. If the place has a tourism industry, then funds may be allocated for various add-on motifs inspired by the local culture. But overall, the appearance is much the same–which is to say, ugly–from one town to the next, across China’s vast rural expanse.^
But this all is not to level some urban-planning or architectural critique against the Chinese people or their local officials. (That would above all be unfair, coming from natives of an even vaster land of commercial strips and big-box stores. It would also be well beyond our design-critic qualifications. And most importantly, it could easily be rebutted with some examples of notable creativity in China’s big cities.) Rather, my point here is to say this: despite how unremarkable they are, China’s small towns are high among the most interesting and enjoyable places in the country to see.
The reason is the inhabitants. They are riding the wave of one of the greatest and most rapid societal transformations in human history, and out here, they often live between and across multiple, overlapping worlds: the village and the city, the ancient and the new. They have amazing stories, and are still pleased to tell them to curious foreigners. And there are all types: the old locals, those who’ve seen their own town transformed; or the new arrivals, the nuclear families from Zhejiang or Hunan out here by themselves to open a restaurant or sell plumbing fixtures and hopefully profit a bit from those changes. And then there are the part-time inhabitants, those who ride in from their smaller, more remote villages on muddy motorcycles or backfiring tractors, intending to sell their chicken or upgrade their cell phone (or both), and sporting their faded old Mao jackets, sparkling Chinglish t-shirts, or the intricate adornments of their minority group (or maybe all three at once).
Yes, China’s small towns are, at first glance, drab, featureless, uninspired. But in many ways they’re also way more dynamic, colorful, and happening than just about any small town back home. History is being made out here—and if you just focus on the ugly buildings, you’ll miss it.