Step by step

Italo Calvino has described the “invisible cities” that Marco Polo encountered on his journey to China, including this one:

If you choose to believe me, good.   Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made.   There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks.   You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands.   Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support.   All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities.   They know the net will last only so long.

I thought of Octavia as we snaked up the switchback alleys and edgy paths that define Longsheng village, a daytrip from the Li River vacation of early October.  Because it clings to a steep mountain, even a narrow foothold is a builder’s achievement.  The town is a jumble of baskets, benches, planks, platforms, pillars, porches, slabs, and stairs, with a web of clotheslines, corn drying lines, power lines, and racks and lines of colorful textiles for sale.

But to live requires flat land for crops, and rice especially, which must be flooded at the beginning of each growing season.  They’ve solved this problem too.  After the people of Longsheng have have finished their work, their land is the flattest in China.


About lloyddan

Professor, Trinity College, Connecticut, but living in Tianjin, China, until July 2011
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