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China III: hunting temples

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.

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