Behind The Bamboo Curtain

"We feel sorry for ourselves," he says. "We see wealthy people eating fish and meat, but we only have corn and potatoes. Of course we feel bad and feel jealous."

The television also brings breathless accounts of the coming Olympic Games. Sun had never heard of the Olympics until Beijing's bid was successful. Now, he has a vague notion of what will actually happen in a year's time. He is certain of one thing: It will not benefit him. Like so many things in a country he recognizes less each day, the Olympics live in the city. Meat, fish, games — these are things for people with money.

"This is a very poor village and if people get by, that's a good day," he says. "Nobody cares about the Olympics."

The peasants only eat what they grow. Sun's grandparents, in their 70s, still work in the fields. His grandmother is a short woman, with white hair and a sturdy frame. She has lived her entire life in this tiny place. When things seem hopeless, she remembers when the Japanese occupied the area in the 1930s and '40s. That was worse.

"When I was young," she says, "I had to go to other villages to beg for food. Some rich people would have extra food and throw it into the plate for dogs, and we'd pick it up."

People still go to other, wealthier places looking for a way to live. Life can't be sustained much longer in rural towns like San Lou.

"If people have money," Sun says, "they will move to the city. People without money, they stay."

He stands up in the darkened space that serves as living room and bedroom. He wants to walk through town. Outside, the last few rays of sunshine light the narrow alleys. Flies move in bunches like paparazzi. First, he points to the town well. It's by the big cement roller that can turn rice to flour. Without this supply of water, San Lou would likely dry up and blow away. The village's entire future is down that hole. History suggests it won't last long. But Sun still holds on to hope.

"This well will never dry up," he says, at once both defiant and naïve.

He keeps walking, stopping in a small courtyard by a walnut tree with flags hanging from the branches. This is sacred ground.

"Magic tree," he says quietly.

The villagers believe the spirit who lives in this tree will give them a peaceful life. And when a day seems especially hard, or they feel especially left behind, the villagers of San Lou come and stand beneath these broad branches and ask for help. As Sun looks up, a small girl throws something at the tree. He wheels around and glares. It is foolish to anger the gods.

Road Diary, entry 2: MIDNIGHT IN THE APOCALYPSE Driving between San Lou and Xin Zhou

Nighttime on Highway 108, we're bound for a gold mine deep in Shanxi Province. To my left is Singing Songs, our driver, the son of a People's Liberation Army soldier, a veteran of Tiananmen Square who, in the flush of this new China, changed his name from Forever Revolution. Behind me is my interpreter, whom I call Austin, because she has a master's degree from the University of Texas.

Trucks line up for a kilometer, then two, then three, most carrying coal to power the cities. Some are loaded with bricks and steel. Where does all this stuff come from? It comes from here.

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