Lanzhou, China — Eight-hundred years after Venetian explorer Marco Polo crossed northwest China, the writer journeyed through some of the same regions to discover their sometimes old, sometimes modern face.
The people of Kushui (Bitter Water) commune, 40 miles into the hills from Lanzhou, have an unusual sideline occupation. They grow roses.
''Did you know that rose oil is worth more than its weight in gold?'' asked Miao Zhong, chairman of the commune's management committee. ''One kilogram of rose oil is worth 1.52 kilograms of gold.''
The commune, of course, does not get paid in gold, but in currency. One kilogram of rose oil earns the commune 12,000 yuan - about $8,000. Its total income from roses averages about 300,000 yuan or $200,000 per year.
Not everyone in Kushui, a narrow valley on one of the tributaries of the Yellow River, grows roses. The principal crop here, as in the surrounding areas, is winter wheat. Roses are still mostly planted along the borders of wheat fields.
But last year the commune organized a rose oil company that signed three-year contracts with qualified rose growers. Now 1,134 households spend at least one-third of their time growing roses, and of the 37,000 mou (6,166 acres) of cultivated land belonging to the commune, 1,456 mou (243 acres) are devoted to roses. Since the profitability of roses once the bushes reach maturity is about five times that of grain, more and more households are likely to shift to this cash crop as time goes on.
Rose growing is one example of how, under the new economic incentive policies spearheaded by Premier Zhao Ziyang in Sichuan and now applied nationwide, China's 800 million peasants - four-fifths of the country's population - are diversifying their sources of income.
The peasants of Kushui and surrounding areas have grown roses for more than 200 years, but not in any organized way. Roses were sent to distant Tianjin to be crushed into rose oil and thence to enter the international market. Very little of the profits from that trade returned to the peasants.
Today, the commune's own rose oil company contracts with commune members for their rose petal harvests. The company sends most of its output to Tianjin but has started a small rose-oil extraction plant, which it plans gradually to expand.
Any commune member with at least one mou (one-sixth of an acre) of roses may sign a three-year contract with the rose oil company. The company will invest 100 yuan per mou and the peasant must guarantee not to sell his bushes to any other person or organization.
In the beginning, when the bushes are small, the peasant's income will depend on the vegetables, grain, or other crops he grows on the same mou as the roses. As the roses get bigger, his income from them will increase proportionately, and by the third year he should be making as much money from his rose bushes as from the other crops raised on the same land. After the fourth year, Mr. Miao said, the rose grower's income will rise dramatically.
He can expect a return of 1,540 yuan (about $1,000) on his roses, whereas if he grew grain he would get only one-fifth that amount.
What is to prevent a peasant from giving up grain and giving all his land to roses?
''Well,'' Mr. Miao said, ''we have an annual plan allocating so much to grain , so much to vegetables, so much to orchards or rose bushes. This plan is based on instructions from the provincial authorities and cannot be changed at will.''
There is a degree of flexibility within the plan, but the peasant is not free , as he would be in a capitalist country, to decide what he should grow and how much. Still, if he does want to become a rose grower, he can start with a few bushes planted between fields and gradually expand production to the point where he has one mou in roses. Then he can sign a contract with the rose oil company. This is much more freedom than he had during the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution.
Kushui practices the policy of delegating responsibility to the households. Instead of being farmed collectively, each of the commune's households is assigned a piece of land, the size depending on the size of the household, the fertility of the land, and whether it has irrigation.
The land is assigned to a peasant for one year. Then, if he has managed it well, he is given a new contract. The system has been in operation only since last fall, but already, Mr. Miao said, it is clear that people are taking much better care of their land than previously.
''Before we used to have to keep reminding them, now is the time to fertilize , or now is the time to weed, but these days, they do all that themselves, and the wheat is growing better than ever before.''