The city of Tongling in southern Anhui province is interesting because it is huge and almost no one has ever heard of it.
The same is true, of course, of so many of China's inland cities. It is said that there are more than 150 cities in China with a population in excess of one million, and they are mostly anonymous. But also powerful engines of economic growth, because the ordinary people, while behind the curve compared to Shanghai, are increasingly spending cash.
The busiest restaurants are the small street places where you enter through the back, past the cooks working the woks with the produce all laid out so you can inspect for freshness before you decide which restaurant to choose. In summer the tables are outside, but in the depths of an Anhui winter, people huddle together in the steam-filled concrete rooms, drafts blowing in through the thick plastic strips every time a waitress comes through the doorway with another plate of pork.
Unfashionable but rugged leather jackets, reminiscent of the attire of Eastern European hoods, are the norm for the guys. The girls are aiming for warmth – no skirts, little evidence of peacockery to be seen. This is an industrial town on the banks of the Yangtze River, a long way from fashion-conscious Shanghai.
I approached Tongling from the northeast, emerging from the hills into the north-south strip flanked on the east by mountains and on the west by the Yangtze. Tongling is at the northern end of the corridor, and I was puzzled as I passed it that the river was not visible. I had imagined a town on the water, with wharves and promenades in the center of the urban area. But Tongling sits way above the river, and it was only the following day, when I got to the Yangtze at a point 15 kilometers south of the town, that I understood why.
The river is huge. Even on a calm winter's Sunday afternoon, it looks dangerous. The prospect of floodwaters surging through the valley would definitely encourage me, if I were Tongling's mayor, to build the main part of the town well up the slope.
It appears that Christian missionaries were very active in this area a century and more ago, and the impact of their labors persists, for better or worse. Just north of Tongling, I had passed a building that looked unusual, and went up and discovered it was a Christian church. There were more than a dozen people in the courtyard, singing snatches of hymns as they pottered around. They were welcoming, said the church had been open only a couple of years, and that the number of worshippers had grown fast from a couple of dozen to more than 200. They urged me to visit the main Tongling church, and luckily enough, I passed it later. An extraordinary structure.
Tongling has an industrial history that is almost unique in China. The copper mines in the hills off to the east have been worked for well over a thousand years, and the name of the town itself includes the character for copper – tong.
Lining the road that leads to the bridge are huge murals depicting the role that copper plays in China's culture of the past and the world's economy of today. The murals, leading from arrow tips to cell phones, are executed in a socialist art deco format that both Stalin and Ayn Rand would have felt comfortable with. And which Chinese officials of the 21st century clearly still feel is very much appropriate.
So Tongling has always had another element to its economic life beyond river town trading. In the 1950s, it became a major state enterprise heavy industry town as the communists moved machinery away from the coast and into the inaccessible interior. It still is. Anhui Conch Cement Company is one of the main employers, and its Tongling plant is the biggest cement factory in China. I read that on a page accessed through Google, so it must be true.
One night I was having dinner with my good friend Mr. Xue in one of the restaurants described above – good beancurd and awful beer – when the four guys at the next table invited us to join them. They were state enterprise factory guys, two working for Conch, all drinking baijiu. After a while, they said they were going to a karaoke joint, and invited us along. It was easily the worst karaoke joint I have ever been to: cold, dirty, a one-floor conversion in a concrete box apartment building. One female-type person of indeterminate age was available for dances behind a curtain. We left after three tunes.
So I finally arrived at Tongling Bridge, a massive two-tower suspension bridge more than a kilometer in length, opened in 1995. I crossed the river, looking through the concrete holes at the murky waters far below. Only a handful of barges and river boats were visible. Somewhere in there, it is said, there are river dolphins. I don't envy them.
After many months of focusing on the river, I had finally crossed it and was now in unknown territory in darkest central China. As I stepped off the bridge into a parking area on the northern side of the Yangtze River for the first time, a policeman smiled. "Hello," he said in English.