This morning the city’s hotels and restaurants sprouted blow-up red and rainbow arches, each to frame the entrance of a wedding couple. Motorcades of various length and grandeur snake the city, some with girls in flouncy creations of bronze, red or torquise standing open from the roof of the car, like Onassis or Peron, for the benefit of the wedding video man. But the latest thing is blow-up elephants: giant beasts in red and gold, paired next to every air-filled plastic archway, shining where the spring sunlight shafts downwards between tall buildings. I know the drill: groom goes to bride’s house, bride is picked up from house with a series of ‘rituals’ performed in the spirit of a wild game, bride and groom tour a series of pre-set photo-ops, bride and groom host banquet with speeches and MC. Not a moment of solemnity or vowing will take place: this is family bonding, with all the fierce sociability and passionate sentimentality China can muster. I go out elephant-hunting with my camera, and remember some of the photo-ops: the palonquin with traditional band by the riverfront, in which bride sits on grooms lap and is bounced up and down ferociously while everyone cheers larily; the flock of doves kept atop the mountain in the city’s main park for the sole purpose of being run through by delirious bride and groom, so as to create album pictures of happy couple scattering white birds as they spontaneously chase each other through some luxurious parkland. But the elephants have gone: deflated as rapidly as they went up, herded by a man-and-a-lorry to their next appointment on this reasonably beneficient sunday to get married on. In the streets around me, a thousand firecrackers let fly, and another couple start a new life together.
I am expecting Dandong’s sole remaining oasis of silence, beauty and the past. But the taxi to the temple drops us at a building site. It seems this oasis is itself Under Construction. An enormous new temple of fresh concrete rears up behind the remains of the old, columns poured and hard awaiting a coat of red lacquer, golden plastic-sheathed buddhas await some ritual unwrapping and installation. Taped chanting encourages the leaving of a donation; a lone nun smiles beatifically beneath a parched hillside park I’ve never seen before.
Here, two years ago were the only surviving lanes of Old Dandong. They are gone. New towerblocks rear up around us, leaving only a single Danish-built villa and an abandoned hospital, also built by the Danes, caught in a vice between local campaigners and developers, quietly decaying. The Lutheran church nearby is spruce and neat, packed out on Sundays; the gothic Catholic church is now approached across a junction of dual carriageway and underpass that has appeared from nowhere, aged, and become decrepit, all within 18 months of speeded-up Chinese time.
Then I spot the curved eaves and brightly coloured brackets of a large traditional building: how could I have missed that in 20 years of exploration? We make our way through a building site, half completed skyscrapers and squatter’s huts with smoke rising stubbornly from chimneys. This ancient-looking temple, it turns out, is even newer than the buildings that surround it; there are fresh-as-yesterday mural paintings and more plastic-wrapped statues, this time of bearded dieties: this, it turns out, will be a great Taoist prayer-vat for the rich and wannabe rich of the city.
Not for the first time, I experience the disorientation of a country in which time often seems to run forwards so rapidly that it turns tail and runs back on itself.
The cemetery occupies a series of hilltops at the edge of the city. Normally it is an empty, bleak place: serried ranks of tombstones marching over hills to the horizon; no presence but the dead. In the distance, the city is a haze of white blocks, everything apparently built yesterday, everything flashy, though closer inspection reveals the hulks of abandoned factories and sudden patches of unimproved housing where conditions look spare in the extreme. The river a distant grey strip.
But today is the day after QingMing, the tomb-washing festival, and it seems yesterday the entire city descended on this place, forming endless tailbacks of traffic up the winding road that, past the brown countryside where dry trees lead to hills topped with tors of shattered granite.
So today, the cemetery has some colour in her cheeks. Each of the thousands of tombstones here has a garland of plastic flowers sellotaped to it, and the remains of a small bonfire at its feet. The archaeology of what has now joined the dead as an unseen presence in the air is discernible in these little ash-piles: an offered meal (dumplings, fruit, some breads, say); paper money specially printed for such occasions. Mostly this looks like money from old china, inscribed with jokey messages such as ‘hell bank note’, but occasionally there is modern money and even US dollars, always with some conspicuous misprint of message to demonstrate its function. They will have washed the tombs, and painted in the names of those who died recently, and each members of each family group will have genuflected a few times before leaving. The atmosphere will have been sober, but not religieuse: people are happy to take mobile phone calls, or to chat quietly while they do all this. It’s a tradition kept alive by family feeling, a way of marking those who have passed who mattered and are missed, rather than an active belief in an afterlife. Nevertheless, people have tied red rags to the dry bushes that line the way out of the cemetery in an attempt to keep ghosts within rather than without its bounds. They peter out at the bottom of the hill, where a few stallholders eke out a living from plastic flowers and tissue paper money, a business with a one-day annual season.