18 May 2016

Some time spent discovering the middle of somewhere in the middle of nowhere

I was recently invited to LiuBaXian to visit with a gang of wheelerdealers about their plans to develop a poorly defined notion of a woodshop that would focus on educating local youth and drawing tourists to a very difficult to reach region of China and, youknow, other stuff that might get tacked on later at some time without warning nor clear explanation.
Mr Wei gives a tour of the woodshop construction site
The project is under consideration now in anticipation of a highspeed railway link, China's progressively expanding GaoTie, to the city of Hanzhong. Hanzhong is a reasonable 1 hour drive from site where the woodshop will be built. By contrast and to exemplify the distance of this region, the most expedient way to travel there now is by flying into Xi'an airport and trekking through the Qinling mountain range for five hours of twisting and winding narrow roads and perilous road construction zones. Much of this route follows the course of the Bao River.
This river also defines much of the path of the enormous paired piers that will support the railway lines above the valleys and through the mountains in an astounding number of tunnels. The degree of Hanzhong's isolation can be seen in this map of the proposed lines, situated at the hub of three spokes connecting is to the cities of Xi'an, Guangyuan, and Bazhong. In contrast to the well spaced cities along the other GaoTie routes, Hanzhong requires so much more poured concrete to connect it to its nearest neighbors. And as far away as Hanzhong is from other cities, this new woodshop is yet another hour away from that remoteness.
reinforced embankments

The elevated railway, tunnel, and temporary castellated guardrail

Turbulence and concrete facility

Circuitous and wending

Prefabricated concrete beds

Temporary railing overlooking valley

Confluence of railways and roadway, stop for a smokebreak

I watched only a few years ago these same design of concrete towers and lintels lay shadows across the Nanjing landscape under the route that now connects Shanghai and Beijing. They seem appropriate in an already densely inhabited urban landscape that was already getting reshaped with new multilane roads and subway lines. There is something jarring about seeing so much concrete repeatedly poured in such a wilderness area with so few people seemingly to benefit from its construction that stood out in my mind.
I was the only one of my peer group who bought a copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue and spent much of the idle time of my youth getting inspiration from its pages. To the best of my recollection, there was where I learned about nightsoil, perhaps from a review of Farmers of 40 centuries. There was a blurb that mentioned farmers who built roadside latrines to be availed by passersby in order to collect the valuable soil amendments. On this trip I finally witnessed one of these permacultural wonders. The only indication as to its function are the characters indicating that one side is for men and the other, for women.
Roadside service station
The landscape is ruggedly hilly with more trees than one sees in the rest of China and yet none of these trees appear to be very old. Even the hard to reach trees on the peaks seem to have only been recently restricted from indiscriminate harvesting as I witnessed in TianTaiShan. I learned later when asking about some very short sections of oak in a lumberyard that there were vaguely defined enforcement efforts and that I was looking at some confiscated samples that had been taken from a man fleeing on a motorcycle with the logs.
The purpose of this event, from the Chinese perspective, was to woo me into trusting the intentions of the organizers [sic] as they plied me with copious amounts of alcohol, toured me through their previous venture, and made lots of spoken promises. I am familiar with the methods. I wondered about the environmental damages resulting from so much increased silt due to mountain removal and distirbances to the riverbed so I asked whether there were still any giant salamanders in the region. They asked me, in turn, whether I wanted to eat one for dinner.
We were given a tour of a rather small village than the one in which we were put up for the night. Getting there required a white knuckle excursion up twisting mountain roads with scant enough space for two vehicles to pass each other. The previously completed project there appeared to be a kind of summer camp resort for schoolchildren although in their absence it was hard to understand with any precision. It seems that the success of this project is what motivates Mr. Xie, the most loquacious of the gang, to siphon off more from the governmental coffers to build the woodshop facilities.
I was indifferent to the barracks for student groups and the fairly new playground equipment that already appeared to need replacing. There was on display a large amount of recent heavy construction, especially along the riversides.
Rive Gauche

Rive Droite

I was however more interested in the remaining examples of rammed earth dwellings. I had seen what appeared to be examples of this building style along the journey. Upclose I could authenticate.
an agricultural building(?)

A residence in what might be the original downtown

With applied mortar shield at the foundation

I worry for their survival, however, as can be seen with this sign painted on one that still seemed to be in a sound state.
Awaiting its demise

This character, chai2, is one that one learns to spot early since it signifies that a building has been slated for demolition. According to my wife, this character, 拆, is miswritten, lacking a necessary stroke. I tried asking about the village: the age of these buildings, the occupations of its inhabitants, and its intended future. I didn't get any answers but that's not unusual.
I observed many examples of timberframed structures during this visit. The modern examples belie the loss of a practical skillset to produce these structures. The tradesmen are learning as they attempt to recreate their ancestor's technology. It's essential that they find steady employment in this field, which is the only way to preserve even a semblance of this vernacular architecture. Concrete construction has displaced nearly all other methods. In this case, even if anybody still exists who knows how to build and maintain rammed earth buildings, as long as nobody is willing to hire such workers, the buildings will be subsumed by nature or more expediently through demolition by directives.
Back in the main village, we were housed in a new hostel fronted by a bookshop owned by Mr Wei and managed by a sister on Lao Jie, or old street. This name usually means that this part of a city has been designated for tourism and to be subjected to minimal, by Chinese standards, changes to the original structures. At times, this can be complete razing and rebuilding according to modern methods merely to appear in an old style, which can be little remembered since so few authentic examples have survived and are seldom studied by other than amateurs.
Propane aged pine

Pastel portrait of the owner
Mr. Wei stood out among these gang members as both a competent businessman and concerned local activist. As the story was told to me, he was invited to open a branch of his bookshop chain which he had developed in Xi'an. I didn't see a lot of customers but there were a few small groups there to chat over a coffee and a few mothers brought in their sons to choose an early reader from a large selection in a children's section. The titles here struck me as more progressive and illuminating than what is typically found in China.
I confirmed my hunch about Mr. Wei when he pointed out to me an inscription on the front wall of the restored building, indicating the date and the authority by which the communist party had confiscated the house from its owners. 
"By order of the CPC..."

This can be read as a poke in the eye of the local party apparatchiks who helped fund this venture or an acknowledgement of the building's colorful history. And it can be both, which goes far to explain how such remnants are allowed to remain on display.

Maintained/ neglected urban fabric
Lao Jie does exhibit some good examples of urban architecture from days past. At least, the fronts of the buildings, newly built and older, maintain a unified facade. There is newly fabricated main gate that acts as an entryway into this walk of nostalgia that, perhaps ironically, diverts the eye from what is undoubtedly the last remnants of a city wall.
The new entryway to the old street

The citywall foundations

The view from the top floor of the newly built hostel behind the bookshop. The restoration and repurposing of the confiscated residence exhibited some attempts at sensitivity to traditional construction methods, (there is a section of the original interior wall that has been preserved behind a glass partition) but in many ways, the buildings weaknesses are even ore on display. The locally made windows failed to close tightly enough to keep out a species of stinkbug.
View from the 3rd floor of the hostel
Preservation efforts
I didn't take photos of all the rookie timberframing mistakes but I did want to highlight one problem that I saw in hopes that they don't build the same problems into additional construction.
The eaves of the buildings have no gutters and neither do they have any dripedges.
Miscut mortise on post top

Poorly protected fascia boards

This thin strip of metal delays much of the problems associated with rotting fascias. I don't think the local tradesmen have ever heard of it. It can very difficult to explain better ways of doing anything in China to workers who often insist that they have 5000 years of history to tell them how to do things. This is just one of the 5000 obstacles in my way.