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Out of the dark in rural China

While urban areas may be the most visible sign of the refashioning of China's economy,  rural villages are being wired with electricity, altering the way people cook, work, secure cash and pass the evening.
Image: Bala Village in China's Yunnan province
With the arrival of electricity last year to Bala village in the high mountains of province in southwestern China, television has arrived via satellite in one of the most remote parts of the country.Peter S. Goodman / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Inside the stone house, a woman stirs greens over a wood fire, the smell of smoke infusing the straw baskets piled along the walls and the slabs of pork drying from the rafters. The sound of cows and chickens filters through the floorboards from a pen beneath the house.

In this ethnically Tibetan village in China's southwest, life seems little changed from generations ago. Terraced fields carved into the bend of the Ganjo River sprout yellow wheat. Villagers haul water from the river for cooking, washing and drinking. They walk a full day down a dirt trail to get to the nearest market town for tools.

Yet as the sun drops below the mountains, a bit of modernity emerges. Atop a pile of rocks set on the riverbank, a hydro generator the size of a coffee can, freshly installed last year, kicks to life. Single bulbs cast dim light through the five houses of the village.

Changing way of life
In one home, two dozen villagers sit on the floor, their faces flickering blue with the light of a television. As a donkey keens outside, they stare transfixed at a drama beamed in by satellite from Beijing: Two men compete for the love of a woman. When an ad for bottled water comes on, someone changes the channel.

As China seeks to secure sufficient stocks of energy to fuel its industrial expansion, most attention is focused on coastal cities, where power is being rationed in the face of voracious demand from steel mills, auto factories and skyscrapers. But while urban areas may be the most visible sign of the refashioning of China's economy, the scene here in Yunnan province, some 1,500 miles from the coast, underscores a subtler change reshaping poorer, rural areas: Villages are being wired with electricity, altering the way people cook, work, secure cash and pass the evening.

Television now penetrates the most remote corners of the country, giving people who have never traveled beyond a day's walk from their homes an inkling of the world beyond. Isolated farmers are seeing for the first time how a growing nouveau riche lives in China's largest cities, recognizing at once how quickly their country is developing and how little new wealth is reaching them.

Some 98 percent of all Chinese households now have electricity, yet that leaves tens of millions of people without, according to a recent report in the official China Daily newspaper. As the government tries to close this gap, it is leaning heavily on hydropower. By the government's reckoning, China has potentially exploitable hydropower capacity of some 87 million kilowatts -- more than any other country.

Huge projects such as the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam -- the largest such undertaking in the world -- account for much of the plans. But giant dams have displaced millions of people from their homes and raised environmental concerns. The Ministry of Water Resources is now pressing a campaign to subsidize the construction of small-scale hydro projects.

Here in the mountains of northwestern Yunnan, such works have particular importance because of limits on logging imposed after a series of disastrous floods on the Yangtze River in 1998. Deforestation in these upland areas of the Yangtze is blamed as a key culprit in the floods. Villagers dependent on firewood for fuel increasingly must find other sources.

'It's more convenient'
On a recent three-day walk through the Ganjo River gorge, which flows into the Yangtze and traverses parts of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, the changes brought by electricity to this predominantly agricultural area revealed themselves like geologic strata: Each new village reached was less touched by the modern world than the last.

Gonjo village, a settlement of 200 people, is connected to the rest of China by a highway paved in 2002. Though wheat and cornfields encircle the houses, many residents supplement incomes as truck drivers, hauling generators, tools and diesel oil from towns that lie to the south for upriver villages that use Gonjo as a commercial hub.

Gonjo has had electricity for more than 15 years. It runs seven days a week at all hours, fueling refrigerators, electric stoves, televisions, water filters and washing machines. Winter chill is eased by electric space heaters, summer heat by cold drinks. Still, plumbing has yet to arrive, necessitating the use of outhouses.

Three hours' walk upriver, over brittle land dotted by flowering prickly pear cactus, the village of Gangshui feels like a place straddling two eras. Five families occupy whitewashed mud houses set beneath a Buddhist stupa adorned with flapping prayer flags. They spend their days tending to the grain fields or in the surrounding orange groves, harvesting fruit they can sell in towns after carrying it on their backs in baskets to Gonjo. Most families live on less than $1,000 per year.

Firewood still sits stacked up outside every house, but a satellite dish now occupies a prominent mantel over the river. Where once this village was cocooned in its isolation, the electrical system installed seven years ago has brought nightly television news from the Yunnan capital of Kunming and from Beijing.

Sonam Phtso and his family have gradually acquired modern conveniences. Three years ago, they put their savings from the orange groves into the purchase of a washing machine and a refrigerator. Thanks to the latter, they can harvest their vegetables now at the ideal time of ripeness and keep fresh meat on hand.

"Before that, we had to dry our meat with salt," he said. "We had to keep our vegetables in the fields until we were ready to eat them and some would rot."

Significant changes
Two years ago, they installed a rudimentary plumbing system to bring water up from the river, ending an arduous era of hauling heavy containers up the steep banks. They hiked out to the road and rode a bus two hours south to the town of Zhongdian to buy the pump and pipes, paying about $35.

"Carrying water was exhausting," Sonam said. "Now we can rest more, watch television, play mah-jongg, visit family."

Two hours' walk farther upriver, in the village of Shuizhuang, the age of hauling buckets lingers. Electricity did not arrive here until last December. The five families of the village pitched in about $10 each to buy the tiny generator. They limit its operation to minimize wear and tear: Electricity is strictly an 8 p.m.-to-midnight affair.

Still, the changes have been significant. Once, villagers devoted about three days of every month to climbing up into the mountains and harvesting pine branches they used as torches.

"It took a lot of time," said Tashi Phontsok, 29, reclining on the floorboards of his home. His grandmother leaned against the mud walls, chanting as she shifted Tibetan prayer beads with her weathered fingers, hacking occasionally amid the smoke of the cooking fire. His mother ladled batter into a skillet for Tibetan bread.

Now, the family has more time for farming, no longer needing to rush back from the fields to cook before dark. More time for gathering the mushrooms they sell in Gonjo, giving them more cash to buy goods such as the tape player on their shelf, the television and the DVD player.

The township government supplied a satellite dish, bringing in nightly entertainment such as kung fu movies from Hong Kong. A bust of Chairman Mao occupies a mantel over the fire between two vases of dried ferns. The opposite wall sports a Jackie Chan poster.

"It's more convenient now," Tashi Phontsok said. "We feel our lives are improved."

'We have nothing'
But if electricity has elevated material conditions, it has also heightened awareness of how poor this area is.

Tashi Phongtsok, 46, a father of three, has two teenage children studying at a school in Zhongdian. He pays $750 per year for their tuition and boarding. It is more than his annual household income, forcing him to borrow from relatives. Though he has faith this is a good investment in his children's future, the nightly television broadcasts rankle, the images of Shanghainese riding around in new cars and buying designer clothes in steel and glass malls.

"It makes us frustrated," he said. "We are so far away from the development. In the city, they have everything. Here, we have nothing."

A full day's walk upriver, on a trail blasted into the cliffs towering over the river, the village of Bala occupies a muddy plateau beneath snow-capped peaks. Electricity arrived here last June. It runs only between 7:30 and 10:30 at night.

The Niyi township government donated the diesel generator -- the village is too far above the river for hydro -- but keeping it running is the responsibility of the locals. Twice a year, each of the nine families of the village must trudge down the gorge to the road to buy diesel fuel, then carry it home on the back of a donkey. Each household contributes about $4 per month to cover the costs.

Here, too, pine branches have been replaced by light bulbs. But sawing logs for new houses remains manual labor. Water comes from a rain collection tank.

"If we had more electricity, we could use an electric stove, tape players, a rice cooker, a washing machine," said Tsering Lhazom, as she ran a wooden rod through a churn to mix yak butter tea, the creamy, salty concoction that is a staple in these mountains.

Bala is so far from the road that villagers are limited in their access to the cash markets of Gonjo. Household income here hovers around $300 per year.

Still, the lone teacher at Bala's school, Lobang Tashi, sees the arrival of television as a potential force of economic ascendance. Educated in town, he is one of the only people in Bala who can speak proper Mandarin Chinese, the national language that students must master in order to pursue advanced studies. Most here speak only a unique Tibetan dialect. Now, his students -- who range in age from 6 to 11 -- are parked nightly in front of the television, absorbing entertainment in Mandarin.

"It has improved their listening comprehension and it helps them understand life outside the village," the teacher said. "They see airplanes, cars, things they would never see here. It broadens their view."