On August 18, the first commercial flight from Beijing Daxing Airport landed at the brand-new Xiangxi Biancheng Airport–a two-hour drive from Shibadong Village, literally “the Village of 18 Caves,” in Hunan’s Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. Yours truly was on it.
This opening flight was a milestone in the Xiangxi area’s infrastructure history as well as the local efforts to further expand regional tourism.
Shibadong Village’s 180-degree lavish panorama of lush green subtropical forest, in combination with the picture-perfect hotel, gives travelers the feeling they’re staying in a premium area. However, judging this book by its cover and assuming you’re roaming around a five-star resort might be jumping to conclusions, or even mean you’re being seduced by the pitfalls of picturesque poverty. This is because a sneak peek beyond the sensational scenery reveals another picture, one of rural residents trying to slowly catch up with the times–a process that will take, well, time. And lots of it.
Given villages like Shibadong are ubiquitous across China, on a larger scale, a very contemporary conundrum enters the narrative…
China: developing or developed? That is the question.
As eager urban beavers fly into the more unknown parts of China to catch their breath and enjoy a spot of nature, many probably don’t realize that out of a 1.4-billion-strong population, 1 billion Chinese citizens have never set foot on a plane.
Judging by the looks of wonder on some faces as the inaugural flight touched down at Xiangxi Airport, this author believes a whopping percentage of that 1 billion has never even seen an airplane up close.
In other words, China’s development is incredibly uneven. For instance, much of China’s economic growth is concentrated in the country’s coastal areas. In contrast, China’s central and western regions have seen much less growth and development.
But for this Beijing-based author, the faces of the people she encountered and captured on camera are mesmerizing maps of wrinkles that tell the stories of their lives, are still the face of China as a whole, a country that, overall, is very much still striving to catch up with its superbly developed first-tier bubbles.
It is the face of China’s magnificent, multilayered, multicolored, multiethnic culture.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELSBETH VAN PARIDON
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