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19th January, 2004

James Naughtie in China

China is the coming superpower, from which astonishing statistics emerge daily. We know the facts; but what is China like today, and how is it facing the problems that come with success and openness?

See reports and pictures from Shanghai , Yichang, Lanzhou , the train journey to Lhasa and Tibet.

Read Jim's final thoughts on his stay in China.



We arrive in Lanzhou rather late. There are no night-time flying restrictions, it seems. Arriving from Yichang in the early hours we drive about 40 miles to Lanzhou, crossing the Yellow River on the way, once famous as a trading post on the silk road from the middle east into China, more recently notorious as one of the dirtiest cities in the country and, in one list, one of the top 30 most-polluted in the world.

Jim outside McDonaldsLooking out from the university in the morning, where we’re talking to an economist and an environmental scientist about that problem, the surrounding hills are grey. The city is sunk in a kind of ravine, so the output of its factories tends to hang over it. The regional government is promising to spend tens of millions in the next decade to clean things up, but it’s a long job. The rapid urbanisation after ‘liberation’ in 1949 meant that the town expanded too quickly. In a way, it’s a microcosm of China’s contemporary national problem – how to move millions of people from the land to the cities without increasing pollution and the demand for ‘dirty’ energy.

Jim tucks into some local foodLanzhou is a city of about 3 million people. Walking round the shops, it was striking to see how westernised life is becoming. Leave aside the Mcdonald’s and Kentucky Fried chicken outlets (which I’d rather do, to be honest), one shopping centre boasted a sizeable number of western clothes outlets, just as we’d found in Yinchang. It was selling fashionable clothes of very high quality, all made in China, which were attracting crowds of shoppers with affordable prices. There is prosperity in the air. Although in the streets there is still the ramshackle bustle of bicycles and food-sellers at the side of the road (roasted sweet potato seems a favourite in Lanzhou), the Asian cacophony, this is a city that demonstrates how fast Chinese urban life is changing.

Jim eyes up the local cuisineOur translator said that shops like these wouldn’t have been here three years ago. Not far from that mall, we saw advertisements for another new development which was going to have outlets from some of the best-known names on western high streets. Stand by for Harvey Nicks, whether you like it or not.

The trend is unmistakable, and so is its pace. Last time I was here ten years ago, road signs had no English translation – now the main roads all do.

The Market in LanzhouSome things are slower to change. I visited the only foreign language bookshop in town (in case I was caught short without reading matter on the day-long trip to Tibet) and found a traditional mix – all of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, a smattering of Walter Scott and Wilkie Collins, all of Shakespeare. I found nothing at all written in English after the first world war. You can have McDonalds but no Graham Greene.

Jim waiting for the train to TibetIn the later afternoon we went to the station to catch K519 train to Lhasa. The place was packed with locals making the long journey. We stocked up with water, fruit and energy (chocolate) for the high journey –  we’d be rattling along on one stretch at more than 15,000 feet, and the altitude gets to you quickly – and headed for the platform.

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