Behind The Bamboo Curtain

In the forests above us, pandas eat the tops of the bamboo. We enter another tunnel. This time, there's light at the end. And rich greens and browns. And blue sky. As we drive, I wonder what the future holds for this place. Will development come this far? Will this one day be a maze of smokestacks and coal trucks?

"Is this what Shanxi used to look like?" I ask Singing Songs and Austin.

"I guess so," Austin says. "I guess before the coal."

She tells me, 40 years ago, songwriters wrote about the beauty of Shanxi — home to Linfen and the mines. I look out the window, at these little pieces of old China, these wonderful anachronisms. Progress is coming. A recent World Wildlife Federation report about this area warns: Economic development continues to creep up the valleys. One piece of prime panda habitat outside the reserve is about to be split in two by a 10-kilometer-long reservoir behind the planned Fujiang hydroelectric dam. The dam will power Mianyang, a city recently earmarked as China's very own Silicon Valley, and the provincial capital, Chengdu.

Our destination, almost the last of the trip, is Mianyang, with its sparkling clean streets and electronics factories. We drive along the narrow road, which disappears into the mountains behind us, getting smaller and smaller, the crenellated guardrails making it seem like a long section of the Great Wall, winding, twisting, snaking, stretching further and further into the past.

Mianyang, 2,404 kilometers from Beijing

Maybe it's the streets clean enough to eat off, or the cops who issue tickets for dirty cars, on the kilometer-long Chonghang factory — the folks who made the entrepreneurial gold miner's television. Could be the local celebration they had when Mianyang was named one of the cities that the Olympic torch will pass through on its journey from Athens to Beijing. Maybe it's the downtown lined with billboards from each official Beijing 2008 sponsor, the streets canopied by lush trees. Or maybe the fact the city changed the name of the local sports academy to the Olympic Sport School.

Whichever clue works. It's not hard to figure out the people in this bustling tech-town are jacked about next summer's Games and the rising China they represent. It's what they're talking about in the trendy cafes.

"China hosting the Olympics is an opportunity for China to show the world its strength," says Mr. Li, the deputy secretary of the local Communist Party. "And the torch passing through Mianyang makes the people very proud. It's proof of the country's power."

He's sitting at his desk on the second floor of the sports school. His office has hardwood floors — a seldom-seen luxury. Talking to a foreigner about something as important as the Olympics freaks him out: He spills tea all over the floor trying to pour some for his guests, and his leg taps a mile a minute beneath the heavy wooden desk. Giving out his first name makes him uneasy.

In the classrooms down the hall, students finish up their work before practice starts for the day. They are training the next generation of Olympians here. Two signs in the lobby watch over the athletes. The first tells them their task: "Carry on the Olympic Sports Spirit." The second lays out the goals for this entire community. It lists the 10 steps to becoming a "civilized city."

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