December 9, 2009 – Harbin
Biofuel compressor machine, Qinlao
An early flight from Pudong into Harbin, in Heilongjiang, where it was -10C. The airport is equipped with small cabins where disembarking passengers can change into warmer clothes. The sign on the outside was in Chinese, English and Russian. In the airport cafe, two tables of blonde Russian ladies sipped tea and ate bowls of rice.
From the airport, we went directly to a small village which the People’s Daily had earmarked as a model project to pioneer the use of biofuels. According to the report, the entire village would try not to burn coal during the winter, and would instead use plant stalks.
It sounded unlikely in print, and over the phone earlier in the week the village chief had admitted to Elyn that they “didn’t have enough plant stalks”. When we arrived, the smell of coal was heavy in the air and the first door we stopped outside had a large sign on it offering coal at 490 kuai a ton.
The village was very neat and seemingly more prosperous than some of the rural villages we have seen in the past. It turned out that they are indeed using the plant stalks, but the People’s Daily may have jumped the gun. Coal is still being used because there are not enough plant stalks to go around. By next year, the village chief promises, Qinlao will have abandoned coal altogether. This year, they simply can’t make enough to keep up with demand.
We clamber into his Hyundai, which smells of baijiu, still has the plastic covers over its sun-visors in the front, and has been tricked out with fluffy white seat covers and fake Louis Vuitton monogram floor mats.
He took us to the old village school, which has been converted into a factory. One machine makes corn stalks into animal feed pellets and another turns them into compacted briquettes for fuel. His grand plan is to start exporting the feed to South Korea and the fuel across China. Although the corn burns up faster than coal, it also ignites more easily and creates a fiercer heat.
His sister-in-law shows us the inside of her house, complete with a multicoloured kang. I felt the platform in the hope that it might be warm, but sadly it was off. They heat the house for two or three hours every night before bed, and that’s enough. One or two tons of corn, which would cost around 450 kuai a ton, is enough to power them through the winter.
The village chief seems like a feudal lord, although he peppers his speech with enough reference to Laobaixing, the common people, to show he is at one with his constituency. Still, his house has ornate ironwork, including bright orange leaping deer, the thickest double-glazing any of us has ever seen, and he tells us that he paid for the village road after striking it rich in the construction industry in Qingdao. He also paid for the plant stalk compacters. The fuel compactor, which threw up huge clouds of dust as it made its bricks, is a design the village came up with itself, with the help of some local engineers. They’ve been perfecting it since February.
Departing, we made our way to a “business hotel” in the nearby town. I get a larger room than Adam, our photographer, and Elyn. In fact, the room is the size of two tennis courts but empty of furniture. It looks like you could use it for ballroom dancing. It’s the second cheapest room available. I wonder if the suite is a whole floor. Or maybe the suite costs more because it has more fittings. The room is 280 kuai. Elyn and Adam are paying 180 each, but there were only two of the cheapest rooms available so I took the ungentlemanly step of upgrading myself.
After check-in, dinner. A classic example of how helpless I am without my assistant. Adam and I descend to the lobby but decide it is too cold for a drink there. We ask about a restaurant and are pointed to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, there is a large spread of plastic dishes, each piled with the raw ingredients to choose from. Since, however, we don’t know the Chinese names of any of these dishes, we resort to smiling and pointing at a whole range of mismatched courses. The helpful waitress warns us not to order too much, but we ignore her and end up with a mountain of food.
We then start looking for a table to sit down, but it turns out that there is no dining room. We are asked to get in the lift and go to the second floor, where we are ushered into room 208, which has had a table and chairs installed. Adam and I drink a couple of warms beers. Because it is freezing outside, the locals don’t want their beer chilled too.
On CCTV, as I sit in the giant hotel room, there is a show discussing the Telegraph’s website report about a fish that was boiled in oil and was still gasping desperately when served. A video of the fish had made its way onto Youtube and been picked up by our web reporters in London.
There’s a particularly gruesome bit when the Chinese diners start poking their chopsticks into the fish’s maw. The story became the most-read item on the website, but I was a bit ashamed of it and under the microscopic scrutiny of the Chinese talk show hosts, who debated the differences between Chinese and Western culture, it came across as yet another attack on Chinese habits from the foreign media.
Telegraph story: http://twurl.nl/v413qn