They were halfway done resurfacing the road in the town of Linying. I say halfway because although the old road has been dug up and left in big dirt mounds on the side of the road, they haven’t gotten around to putting in any bitumen for a new one yet. It was the kind of thing I had long since come to expect in China — an almost pathological drive to tear up the old and make way for the new.

At the southern edge of Linying I was still navigating through these mounds of detritus when I saw that this half-trench, half-road intersected with a wide, clean, tree lined avenue. This avenue exhibited classic Soviet characteristics and looked more like Karl Marx Allee in Berlin than anything I had seen elsewhere in China. Straddling the avenue was a sign informing us that we were entering the town of Nanjiecun, the last Maoist collective in China.

Nanjiecun collectivised in 1980 about the same time when most other towns in China were beginning to run in the opposite direction and embracing the open market. Whether it is a legitimate, functioning collective or just a glorified theme park depends on interpreting some of the facts of its existence. On one hand the collective provides its members with free healthcare and education but on the other it relies heavily on migrant workers to fill out its workforce. These migrant workers are not part of the collective when means that Nanjiecun’s collectivised economy is bolstered by uncollectivised workers.

Furthermore these facts are sometimes difficult to accurately establish. Whether the collective’s economic model is working effectively is a salient question. This depends on the amount of debt the collective has. External estimates put the debt at $250 million while the local party secretary says the number is more like $15 million. Perhaps it is the mark of an authentic communist collective that the truth is evasive.

As we passed under the sign and entered Nanjiecun we were assaulted by three staccato impressions, the first was of space, the second of order and the third of quiet. Any of these three things alone were hard to find in China but here they all were together which combined to evoke the feeling of walking through an immense outdoor museum.

The day was exceptionally misty and, like a video game with the detail turned down, things began to appear piecemeal as we continued down the avenue: a park with exercise equipment in it; a series of Bauhaus low-rise office blocks; another sign over the road, this time with a portrait of Mao, rosy cheeked and wearing a slightly amused expression. Along the avenue were propaganda posters done in the Soviet realist style.

One pictured a group of workers. The ethnic minorities were represented in this group and they were smiling effusively perhaps at having finally put their differences aside, now united under international communism. We then entered a shop that we mistook to be a supermarket that was in fact a large and nearly empty refectory. I noted that the workers far outnumbered the customers.

We made our way down the road to Red Square, the centre of the town, where tinny speakers belt out some of Mao’s speeches and a large statue of the man stands on a pedestal in the centre, under 24 hour guard, his arm outstretched, in a Roman salute tilted slightly to the side. Mao is flanked by the portraits of the Gang of Four which lie on the periphery of the square, Marx and Engles to his left and Lenin and Stalin to his right.

On the other side of the square, a manmade rainbow (lit up at night) arches over an avenue in the background. When you stand directly in front of the statue, the rainbow provides the tyrant with a multi-coloured frame. This is clever and clearly an instance of having their cake and eating it too — they get to frame Mao with gaudy lights but because technically the rainbow is not within the square its marble white dignity is retained.

The scene was accompanied by a strange smell. Something like star anise mixed with MSG. A signpost at the corner of the square pointed towards the “Seasoning Factory”. A quick wander around was enough to show us that Nanjiechun did in fact have functioning industries. In addition to the Seasoning Factory, there was a brewery and an instant noodle factory. We were lucky enough to see closing time for the factories when the empty avenues were filled with the putt-putting of scooters, as they hurtled past us in pairs, a far more orderly example of traffic than anywhere else I’d seen in China.

We decided to spend the night in the Nanjiechun hotel rather than return to, Zhengzhou, the grey smear on the satellite photograph from which we had come. Entering the lobby we saw that the otherwise empty reception was staffed by three smiling, enthusiastic women in red cotton dresses. It was difficult to locate the reason for this enthusiasm, whether it was due to the novelty of serving foreigners or because they were at a loose end and finally had something to do, was not clear.

We tried bargaining with the price but were told a flat out “no”. This was unheard of in a country where accepting the first offer is seen as an insult both to the seller and the buyer. We agreed and were shown up three flights of stairs, at the top of each was a member of staff whose job it was to open doors on her assigned floor. This in a hotel which seemed a little thin on patronage.

We were shown our room, a simple affair with stains on the carpet, the musty smell of damp and wooden furniture. I had seen a TV station in the collective and scanned the TV channels looking for it but to no avail. I was able to see a German variety show dubbed into Chinese, set in a kitschy imitation colosseum. The act on was of a celebrity called Sabrina who was tasked with trying to hula hoop a tractor tire for more than 20 seconds. She passed on her third attempt, clutching her flank where the tire had no doubt bruised it.

I went downstairs and got a few bottles of beer made locally in the collectives “beer factory”. I poured the room temperature liquid into a glass and it fizzed to a head promisingly. I took a sip. It tasted strange, like the difference between powdered milk and real milk had been applied to beer.

That night we visited the Chaoyang gate, at the town limits of the collective. On the Nanjiechun side, low-rise worker’s blocks in slight decay line the well-lit quiet streets. On the other side street vendors crowd the narrow passage, their tables loaded with colourful plastic junk. Mounds of garbage piled up and rotted in corners. People were smoking and spitting and hawking, scooters crowded a tiny gap between a honking tractor and a parked car. This chaos was modern China and it was literally banging at the gate of Nanjiechun.

To see these two scenes in quick succession is to finally understand what Nanjiechun is — an anachronistic oddity that, for better or worse, holds little relevance in a world where theme parks cannot afford to run at a loss.

K Johnson will be blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run. Photographs by Marty Cullity.