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The Chao Bai River doesn't really exist anymore. When it did it used to mark the border between the outer sprawl of Beijing and the farmland of neighbouring Hebei province. These days it is nothing but a desiccated linear sandpit punctuated with toxic scum ponds and clumps of hostile weeds, but there was a time, not even ten years earlier, when it gurgled happily through the North China flatlands and brought coolness and life to the villages and towns on the edge of the city where the cornfields begin.

Although never a really important stream in itself, the Chao Bai had been hooked into the amazing network of canals and rivers known as the Grand Canal that made it possible to travel from Shanghai to Beijing entirely by boat. They too are mostly gone now, shrivelled up or polluted in ways frightening enough to keep anyone away- all through the country the factory smells seem to linger longer with no living water to wash them away and when the summer comes everything is a shade less green.

In Tongzhou, a place that used to be a riverside town, there's still talk of the birds and boats and fish and splashy aquatic fun that used to be when the Chao Bai flowed, but there's also a lot of resignation in the way people talk about these things, and no one seems to hold any hope that the river's vanishing has been anything less than permanent. Just why it stopped flowing is not clearly known, theories include a new dam, more people, less rain, flood control or something to do with pollution.

In the winter the dirty puddles that are all that's left of the river freeze into a beautiful solid white and men with fishing tackle and ice picks and cigarettes crunch across the snow to spend days sitting out on it, dangling a hook into the filth and contemplating life through the hole they've gouged through the ice.

The knowledge that the fish are gone forever doesn't seem to bother them much.

The remains of the Chao Bai River look happier on those rare sunny days when everything has frozen- there's something about the bare willow trees up on the bank where the water used to be and the bright, cloudless sky all cris crossed by the contrails of the jet liners circling overhead.

Even now that the water has stopped flowing it really is nice out there in the winter.

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