Heading out of Shenyang (population 6.3 million, capital of Liaoning province) on board the high-speed train, we rapidly cross the industrial outskirt of the city. Within a few minutes we are in an empty countryside, as it is November and the cold weather has already been here for a few weeks.
Harbin is 540 km away. At 305 km per hour, it will take us slightly more than 2 hours to reach our destination. This will allow sufficient time to observe the environment as we speed through the countryside.
Journey by train from Shenyang to Harbin. Source: Google Map
In no time, Shenyang is a distant memory. We only see empty fields except for the dry stalks that are the leftovers of the corn and wheat harvests. The earth is dark colour indicating rich soil. Sporadically we see a person manually tending the fields. The occasional tractor shows that mechanization has reached this part of the country. But the small fields indicate that no large equipment will be used here until the fields are much larger. Horses are seen pulling small wooden carts. There are no barns where equipment would be stored. There are no animals as it would probably be too expensive to feed and house them during the long winter.
The corn collected is air dried in wired cages. No metal silos here where corn could be stored until it is taken away by trucks to the nearest scale and then shipped to market. No mechanization to handle the crop is seen.
The occasional roads that can be seen are paved, but there are few cars on them. Side roads are in hardened earth, which the rain will turn into mud. At times, a lone highway follows the train tracks. Cars and trucks trudge along in both directions. Trucks are heavily loaded with goods that are destined for the few large cities of the North-East.
A few gullies emerge to accommodate small brooks with minimum flow. No trace of any rivers here. The fields must be watered with the randomness of the rains, as there are no traces of water wells. In between fields we see the occasional row of trees that will dampen the effect of the winds on this flat land. Fields carry on as far as the eye can see. There are no traces of forests or any discerning features, with the exception of the occasional cellular phone tower.
Small villages appear every few kilometers. Their size is almost uniform, with 30 to 60 houses located on a few streets that run parallel to each other. All houses are of the same design. They are rectangular, roughly 7 meters by 12 meters. All have the same sloping rusted corrugated roof with two chimneys. There are 4 windows at the front, 2 or 3 at the back, and none on the sides. A solar water heater is located on the roof. An electrical wire is connected to the house, but no trace of satellite dishes. Smoke is coming out of many chimneys as people have already taken refuge inside.
Fields and villages in Heilongjiang. Source: Google Earth
A small plot of land at the front or the back of the house seems to indicate a garden that provides vegetables for the family. There are no traces of cars or pick-up trucks that one would expect to see in the countryside. Maybe people have gone to work away from town, but there are no factories around. No large buildings are to be seen in these villages. Where are the schools, hospitals, stores, gasoline stations or other institutional buildings?
Suddenly in the middle of fields, twenty residential high-rises, all identical, at least 8-floor high appear. Many seem empty. There are no cars around, no activity, only lonely buildings. A few kilometers away, another series of high-rises appear, and then 10 kilometers further is Changchun, the capital of Jilin province. There was only a short transition between the fields and the city. We can’t see this city of 4.1 million people as we are in its outskirts.
After a brief stop, we are back in the countryside. We pass within 300 meters of a coal power plant that seems recently built. Its belching chimney and two cooling towers dominate the fields. There are a few piles of coal nearby; a few kilometers away, another coal power plant.
The monotony of small fields and villages is back. Some fields have been set on fire to burn the left over dry vegetation, which will fertilize the fields for the next growing season. Unfortunately, these fires will also increase the pollution, mainly particles in suspension in the air, for which China is well known.
One hour after leaving Changchun, the train rolls into Harbin (population 5.3 million, capital of Heilongjiang province). The transition from fields to the cityscape is instant. Low rise buildings surround the brand new station that remains to be connected to the subway system. The countryside is long gone, but never far from any city as almost 50% of China’s population still lives in a rural setting.
Over the coming years, the migration of tens of millions of people from the countryside to the cities will continue. It is obvious that the countryside is overpopulated to take care of the existing fields. Mechanization will progressively be used as the standard of living continues growing. What will happen to all these small villages? How will the people who migrate to the cities thrive? So many questions remain.