Last Week in Fujian

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North Across China: Night Buses, a Bowl of Noodles, and a Rotund Sichuanese Migrant

I said a temporary goodbye to Beijing and boarded a night bus for Erlian, the Chinese Mongolian border town renowned for prostitution and gigantoraptor fossils.

As the bus pulled away I was surprised by the English inquiry that greeted my unsteady approach to berth 37. There was a helpful tone to this young girl’s voice and I quickly discovered it was not the common Chinese student wanting to practice pidgin English. She was part of a small group of Chinese American missionaries on their way to the border to extend their visas that they may continue to proselytize and preach. Amicable though they were, we lived in two very different Beijings. Their company on that first leg of the journey was enjoyable, from the Jazz age ‘ohs’ and ‘yeahs’ at meal prayers that they took turns saying to the odd conversation denouncing evolution at a Mongolian dumpling restaurant a few kilometers from the 2005 discovery site of 70 million year old fossils. We parted in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, autonomous in China is a silly word.

Outside the train station in Hohhot a phalanx of Uyghurs sold snacks, those dried rice, sweet nuts and fruit squares of exceptional mass they weigh out in front of your nose to your surprise at the cost when the presumably small slice you have selected amasses more gravity on the scales than your appetite was hoping. It’s a known scam but one avoidable if you know how to place your order. I didn’t feel like buying but I had time to kill before my train so I started to chat with one of the vendors.

‘Are you Uyghur,’ I asked in Chinese. ‘Shi.’ I am, he said. ‘Yakshimisiz.’ In his language, I said hello. At first he had been quite insistent that I purchase some of his dried and overpriced confectionary but my show of linguistic solidarity changed the course of the conversation. He was curious about this foreigner who knew a few words of the Uyghur language. ‘Where are you from?’ He asked me in Chinese. I told him I was American and he perked up even more. He was excited to her this, excited because he looks up to the United States, he explained, because America is a friend to the Uyghurs. He then brought up the name that the Chinese Government detests, the source of Islamic terrorism and separatism by the propaganda of the Han. ‘Do you know our Ribya?’ He asked in reference to Rebya Kadeer. I replied that I did, presumably he understood this to mean that I had heard of her, that I knew something about the suffering of the Uyghur people. I did not mention that I had met Rebya in Brussels only a few months earlier. It was the feeling of comfort that someone knows about your pain, that someone cares enough to step outside of their own parochial concerns and troubles to take the time to learn about another’s. This is how the world changes. With a somewhat victories sheen on his face he glanced around at his compatriots to see if they had heard. Tonight he will no doubt talk about the American who knows about Rebya Kadeer.

Shortly later I was on train 1717 to Lanzhou, Gansu Province’s capital in the Gobi. The ride was a normal 18 hour ordeal. I arrived in Lanzhou at mid morning the following day with no plan or place to go. I wasn’t sure how I felt about staying in this city famous for the noodles to which it has lent its name so I clung to the train station, toying for a few minutes with my options. Eventually I walked back to inquire about the trip to Turpan, the oasis on the edge of the mighty Taklamakan desert, the site of ancient minarets and mummies, and a step closer to my destination.

All the seats and hard sleepers on the train were sold out. There were soft sleeper tickets available for all the money I had just withdrawn from the ATM or 100 Kuai, about 15 dollars, for a standing only ticket. To hell with it. I bought the standing only ticket, a right to enter the train and nothing else, no space to claim, no right to comfort. The train would leave in several hours and I resolved myself to the next five hours of Lanzhou exploration before the madness of migrant workers with their instant noodles, folding chairs and cigarettes; the train ride from Lanzhou to Turpan takes just over 24 hours, much of that along the ancient Silk Road and the inhospitable Gobi desert.

I had heard about German beer gardens at the top of Baitashan but when I arrived on the bluff below the White Pagoda I discovered that the beer gardens were still closed for winter. It was early April, but with the beating sun, magnified by the thick insulation of pollution and a humidity that rose from the Yellow River that bisects the city, my heavy traveling pack, the hike, it sure felt like summer. I passed several migrant workers, stopping in the shade for a brief chat with one or two. Eventually I ordered a bottle of Snow beer, one of the world’s best selling brands with 61 million hectoliters of annual sales, an example of the sheer size of the Chinese market that an unknown beer to the rest of the world is made one of the best selling by virtue of domestic consumption. With my beer I settled under a tarpaulin to read James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. After a few hours of charging my phone and getting lost in the past of the Tarim Basin I made my way down the hill and toward the train, with a necessary stop to eat Lanzhou lamian, hand pulled noodles.

I put my bag on the ground up in front by the brass railing. I figured this was a good idea and the best way to wait. It would be another two hours before the starting bell rang and the hordes began their frenetic dash for space on the train. I sat there on the floor amid the migrants and their bindles, with my over-packed backpack and a small red plastic bag containing naan; the only foreigner in the massive waiting hall, I attracted a lot of attention.

There was some confusion and commotion; the train was late. The scheduled time had approached and the scattered clumps of bodies that had been waiting, some supine on large parcels others squatting sipping steaming broth and tea or harshly chain smoking with yellowed finger tips and blackened missing teeth, congregated en masse and crowded their way to press against the rails, row upon row of smelly bodies, mostly dusty men, the occasional woman in a brightly colored veil, all waited, all pressed forward and I was smack dab in the front where I had positioned myself hours earlier. Behind me, in many distinct and gruff accents from the men that travel the entirety of China, complaints and impatience, some made jokes about rushing the conductors but the gate finally opened. The women in multicolored and sometimes sequined hijab and the children with expectant faces were the first to be let through the gate, from among the amorphous throngs of dirty suits and great bulging bags the frail and young were freed from the corral that still held the rest of us. Finally, the time, all the little gates opened, the space trembled for a moment as in a vacuum, and everyone was off dashing. I made a fevered dash with the rest for train car 15. I made it past some 10 cars before my lungs, under the weight of my heavy pack and the humidity refused to process oxygen and I had to slow my pace. Still, even walking the last few cars I found a little space of my own on the train, a little space next to a portly worker from Sichuan. We would become friends in the confined space. We crammed ourselves into a little nook, with a sink that had no water and a window that did not open, across from the toilet; I edged against the corner of the sink. It would get very full very quickly.

The Sichuanese migrant was a veritable encyclopedia. We drifted from American foreign policy and Chinese domestic labor regulations and monetary regulations. We spent a long time going over the unique foods of different regions. He had traveled all over China. When he wanted to really make a point he would slam his right hand down into the palm of his left hand. I noticed he was missing the tip of his right index finger every time he made an exclamation mark with these gesticulations. He would eventually pass out leaning against the corner of the wall for an hour or two. I found myself hoping for nothing but a surreal unconsciousness tinged with delirious dreams that distort space. Propped up, wedged in, obliquely resting, sleeping on their feet. I hung my head and in the canvas behind my eyelids I stared into the faces of my fellow passengers, tearing into their histories we exchanged knowing glances as we each got lost in one another’s tired visage, expecting an answer or sympathetic wink, and all this with my eyes closed, on the verge of something close to a dream.

I dreamed that the train car was full of Hajji, Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the benches had been swept up on each other, crowded against the window to make room for the isles to expand into a vast room with a single great red Afghan rug below the individual prayer rugs rolled out, unfolding and unfolding, hundreds of hajji praying to Mecca. In the soundscape of my dream the muezzin had become a gestalt, the adhan an amalgamation of Chinese workers from Gansu, Hebei, Sichuan, and Qinghai, their faces melded together into one great gaping maw to utter the adhan in a cacophonous prattle of Mandarin and local dialects.

After a while of some ersatz sleep I was startled back from the land of sand by the loss of blood in my whole right side. My leg was freezing and my hand had no feeling. This pins and needles, a mala sensation like that of spicy hot pot, would linger for a few hours. To pass the time I tried to speak with some of my cellmates. One man from Gansu, on his way to Aqsu, started to complain to me that his boss wanted to send him to Pakistan. But it’s so dangerous there. The money doesn’t matter he was saying. He didn’t want to go. These faces were all bronzed by years of outdoor labor. What I earlier mistook as angry or suspicious glances were nothing but the looks of confusion and curiosity. They wanted to speak to me but some of them head such thick local accents or dialects that I could barely understand them, they could barely understand each other. Admittedly, my Chinese could use a lot of improvement.

There was a whole crew from Hebei going to Korla. One man, simple, glowing, toothless in a Mao suite, we barely exchanged words but forged a friendship over peanuts. We shared a cigarette and tossed shells onto the floor. He had a child’s grin and the eyes of a Buddha. He couldn’t open his iced red tea bottle or close the toilet door so I stepped in to help with these easy tasks. I shared access to his folding stool for a few minutes and we took turns leaning against the same chunk of wall. At one point, in my sleep deprivation, I really mistook him for family or my traveling companion, a full 10 seconds of pure confusion before I realized we barely knew each other. When I finally got off in Turpan I made a point of shaking his hand and saying goodbye. We was continuing another ten hours to Korla.

Youths played cards and slammed down their last cards with triumphant yelps. Some, those who had purchased hard seat tickets in advance reclined on their torn green pads while others loomed above, leaning, swaying with the train. One woman had slid herself under the seats, presumably to avoid the conductor as she likely had no ticket. My Sichuan bigman pontificated for all who would listen. He had that tone you couldn’t help but trust, his confidence more than made up for any lack of experience or grasp of the text. He didn’t like to work in Sichuan in the summer, too much rain. He preferred the torrid temperatures of Hami, in Xinjiang. He had made the trip a few times already. He was traveling with his tiegemer, iron blood brother, but he did all the talking. I never saw him eat anything on the train. How did he get so fat? Around 6am the conductor brought hot water in a trolly. There was a mad rush, people pushed and some nearly scalded; those clutching their instant noodles tight would eat, others would miss their chance. There was only so much water in this tiny metal water buffalo that was wheeled out a few times throughout the journey.

After some time, around 7am, I saw an empty spot on top of a pile of coal in thick white plastic sacks. I curled up, not quite an IKEA product, and forgot about my empty stomach. I snatched an hour of sleep, folded into myself like another chiseled bag on top of the coal. There were four columns stacked up chest high, but in the center of the four columns of sacks the empty space acted like a chimney for the freezing desert night air that rushed in from the Gobi outside and blasted up. I could only sleep for a short time before I was freezing; the coal shards themselves, sheathed in coarse plastic bags, were surprisingly comfortable.

The exhaustion wore on and the train continued. How do these people do this? My Sichuan friends eventually departed at their stops. Those who got off at Shanshan would free up a seat. I had a place to sit for the last hour before we arrived in Turpan. The seat was sticky but heavenly. Chinese pop music suddenly came blasting from the speakers. I started to think about power and the influence of discourse.

These people were all tired, deprived, struggling to make a living. They were transporting themselves where they thought there was work. They bore no malice. The struggle between subaltern and bourgeois is poorly understood. This was the case of Sartre’s introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, both are dehumanized, both are exploited. In this situation it is both the Han migrant and the Uyghur local, or the Kazakh or Yizu, who are exploited, somewhat dehumanized. Their animosity is misdirected, their prejudices and misunderstandings unnecessary. But I am no Vanguard among these people.

I hoped that with close proximity to one another such stereotypes would be shed. One migrant grumbled something at a veiled Uyghur as she passed him in the train, “These stupid minorities can’t speak Mandarin. They don’t listen or understand.” To which a quick witted and strong willed Kazakh women shouted back, “Ah, and you don’t understand their language. Don’t be so cocky.” Another point, I overheard some Han guy remark in disbelief that a minority eats the same foods. I hoped that some sort of exchange would happen when those from the interior are shipped off to the hinterlands, or when they share a confined space for extended hours, but I am sure they will sequester into native place camps once they arrive to work. There will be little discussion or learning among them. Maybe Han from Chengdu or Chongqing will argue with Han from Hohhot about who has better Hot Pot but I doubt that Kazakh, Uyghur, Han, or Hui will manage to break out of the carefully placed roles they have been taught to accept.

Thinking about this I drifted off in my green seat, finally able to sit properly after more than 20 hours; from staring at the passing landscape my mind returned to a concept I was toying with on the night bus from Beijing to Erlian a few days earlier. Power exists in interactions. It cannot exist in a solipsistic sense. It requires an opposite by which to demarcate its borders. While dialogical power is certainly a constructive force and one that owes its origin to the interactions of grossly unequal hierarchical structures it also resides in the everyday reproduction of collective identities. It is true that repertoires of resistance follow an evolutionary path, in that they generally slowly evolve from previous episodes, otherwise they would lack resonance and no one would know how to follow them. Equally this should be the case with grievances. Understanding and processing grievances follows something of an evolutionary or memetic pattern. Therefore, this evolution of grievances is very much a part of the linguistic world, the world of theory, that has a hard time breaking into the world of action. Of course it is more than symbolic violence that drives revolutionaries forward but it is beginning with symbolic violence that violence becomes structural, from mocking a minority woman on a tight train car to institutionalized prejudices. It is this immaterial, systemic violence encoded in the collective consciousness and understood in shared discourses that reifies the grievances that lead to action. What dictates the path of this action is the degree of political and symbolic opportunity space afforded by the regime and society, the influence of space. As I drifted about in these thoughts, the train finally rolled into Turpan. The Turpan depression is the second or third lowest point on Earth.

We pulled into the station and I got off. The train station was lost in time, an Old West feel; this part of Turpan was a frontier town on the edge of the desert. I asked at several lodgings and nowhere would take a foreigner. After several chaodaisuo, the Chinese equivalent of a hostel for migrants and students traveling on the super cheap where a night might cost around 4 dollars, and bingguan, hotels, that rejected me I was getting concerned. I needed some food so I went in for a steaming bowl of lamian and struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a friendly Uyghur man.  I ordered my noodles, moments later we were fast friends. I explained the problem. I could tell, even though they spoke Uyghur, that he was arguing with his wife about offering me to stay with them. No luck, the fine if they were caught harboring foreigners was too high. They suggested heading into the city center. The train station is 50 kilometers from the city.

I meandered, lackadaisically from place to place, in a daze, the lack of sleep over the few previous nights, the distance, the train food, the baggage of swirling thoughts of politics and ethnicity, my brain was having a hard time comprehending the simple situation. I stumbled back into the train station and asked about tickets to Korla one more time. I could buy another standing ticket, forgo sleep one more night, fight for a space at this late distance. Unlike in Lanzhou, where I came in relatively early in the life of the passengers, here I would be a new comer, relegated to the bottom rung, the lowest in a vile hierarchy. Others would have already forged bonds. I would have a hard time but I decided to push on, to forgo comfort and make momentum my deity.

I bought my standing ticket to Korla. It would be another slow train, about 10 hours or so. I bought some naan and water. The secret of good naan I am told is the salt and Xinjiang has the best salt in China. I made my way again through the metal detector, the prying eyes and incredulous looks of the security guard and the other queuing patrons. In the waiting hall I went to the toilet. Inside the floor was standing urine, acrid, the air was viscous with smoke, teary eyes, there was no place to stand or pee, the urinals were clogged and overflowing. The smoke and ammonia were asphyxiating. Soggy mounds of paper crumpled and made mounds on the floor and turned black from the fallen cigarette ash.

I went back into the waiting hall. Every eye was on me. Every face bore into me with interest and distrust. Why was I there. It didn’t sit well in my stomach. Bags overflowed their benches and oozed off of one another. The heaving mass of flesh and textile inspected me with one amalgamation of interest, dark circles under the collective eyes that protruded toward this wayward foreigner. In places where even the Chinese are considered foreigners, it is natural to be curious and concerned when you see yourself as a subject in an occupied place. They would all be competing with me for a place to stand or sleep on the train. The owners of these bags are experienced at fighting for space armed with a standing ticket, I told myself. They have a language they share. I couldn’t shake their glances. I felt the awesome weight of it all, the situation, the prospect ahead; anxiety swelled up. ‘To hell with it,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing this. I’ll let the 30 kuai ticket go to waste. I’m going to Turpan City.’

I stepped back into the darkness. I thought about options. I could also spend the night sitting in the wangba, the internet cafe, wait until around 6am when the bus station would be open. Standing in front of the noodle restaurant with the friendly Uyghur owner, a cab pulled up, 20 kuai, about 3 dollars, to Turpan. ‘Curse the hotel employee that told me that at this hour it would be 100 kuai,’ I muttered. I could easily manage a 20 kuai cab ride out of the dust, out of the darkness. The car filled with two others and we sped along in the pitch of the desert emptiness. The driver was another wonderful soul who, after dropping off the other riders, took me around to three different places. In many parts of China, especially the contentious border regions, most hotels are not allowed to accept foreign guests. My driver stopped at two that refused before we ended up at Turpan Bingguan, where I would pay 50 kuai for a room in the basement with two beds, a shower, and a TV.

I followed the woman from the desk down the stout staircase into my room, smiled and thanked her, closed the door as she left and collapsed onto the bed, wishing I had someone to share the moment with. After a most glorious shower, I was out in the Turpan night market eating the best roast mutton I have ever tasted. Seasoned with the sudden alleviation of days of traveling discomfort, buses and trains with nowhere to sit. Through small periods of deprivation that which is not often a luxury is gilt and sure enough that night I walked around the streets of Turpan for a little while with hhe broadest grin on my face and tasted the sweetest apple before returning and sleeping on a bed.

The next day I took the bus to Korla. All I had to work with were the instructions, “Go to X Restaurant. Tell them you are a friend of mine and ask for Billo. They will take care of you. They will give you something to eat.” That’s how I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Uyghur noodle restaurant in Korla for four nights. The rest of the Korla story and what happened next will have to wait.

Before the Visage of Angkor Thom


Riding in the Chinese Countryside with Nietzsche

Last Monday, excited to seize the relatively unpolluted skies and appease my desire to escape the city, taking advantage of surprisingly temperate early August weather, I made plans to cycle out of Beijing and into the peripheral village district of Huairou, around 60 kilometers from my apartment near Yonghegong, the Lama Temple.

First the home of Emperor Yongzheng, it was converted to a monastery for the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism after his ascension to the throne in 1722. Under the auspices of Zhou Enlai it was spared the destruction that befell other historical reminders of pre-Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976); opened to the public in the 1980s, it now brings thousands of tourist visitors a year to this Northeastern corner of Beijing’s Dongcheng district. Huairou offers a break from the overrun hutongs of central Beijing.

With a population density of around 146 people per km² it is in stark contrast to the central Dongcheng and Xicheng districts. For the sake of comparison, Dongcheng has a population density of 22,635 people per km². Huairou is home to many picturesque sections of the Great Wall, lakes and reservoirs and the largest Buddhist temple in Northern China: for tourist purposes, official descriptions paint Hongluosi, or Red Snail Temple, similarly with the Potala Palace or the Shaolin Temple. A bucolic foil to frenetic Beijing, Huairou is a mountainous retreat for dilettante archeologists and more avid weekenders alike. It was the thought of Yanqi Lake and the shadow of Mutianyu, a more rustic portion of the Great Wall, that beckoned me to shirk the city and peddle out for a Monday overnight.

Sunday I prepared with a cursory Google maps reconnaissance of routes, and laid out a few sundry items for the trip. I would cycle out early, arrive at the lake, splash about with the wild geese, find a guesthouse or wrap myself in the sidereal bed sheets of an open field, and return to the metropolis the following day, a smooth ride, an ample soundtrack of mp3s, sun and shade, a sojourn, an excursion.

However, what is anticipated is not always what is experienced, and when cycling perhaps more than any other mode of travel we are made aware of that Nietzschean concept of the ‘Eternal Recurrence.’ For Nietzsche, as with many Buddhists who graced the halls of Yonghegong, what is minimized is the importance of ‘ends’ and ‘purposes,’ and what is maximized are ‘states of being,’ because everything is eternally repeated and there is no end or purpose. Or, as R.J. Hollingdale explained in the introduction to his 1961 translation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “It is as if one were on an unending sea journey. The destination is immaterial, since it is never reached; but whether one is sea-sick for much of the time is very material: it is really all that maters.” And while I never arrived at Yanqi Lake, I would like to think that I managed to develop a deeper appreciation for the ‘Eternal Recurrence.’

I was well on my way, out along Jingmi Lu: National Highway 101, a long direct stretch from Beijing to Miyun, arcing Northeasterly from Zuo Jia Zhuang, about half way between the second and third ring road, unfolding parallel to the Airport Expressway, passing art districts and subtly marked parks before defiantly shooting North at Beigao Bridge.  This stretch of asphalt ferries cycles and automobiles, buses, rickshaws, and taxis from near inner Beijing to the farthest district, Miyun, to the Hebei border, and onward to Shenyang city in Liaoning province, near the border with North Korea.

From Beijing the city thins and comes back in patches of growth, expat condominiums filled with eager housewives and nouveau riche Chinese, IBM executives, imported cheese, and luxury hair salons have displaced the Northern landscape’s agricultural ventures, chasing villagers from their demolished plots into camouflage workers uniforms amid the orgiastic developments, to KTV waiting rooms and tight skirts, or silly uniforms in hot kitchens and greasy dining halls. The road passes groves, shaded ditches, fluorescent ponds, and massive interchanges moving onward to other cities.

There is an Italian farm, several wholesale art dealerships, the types with websites that advertise for bulk orders to fill the banal walls of formulaic cafes and painful restaurants. Massive carved wooden sculptures, rock work from ancient myths for modern wealth, kites, go-carts, and small train stations for commuters outside the Metro lines, more farms, open landscape, car dealerships, bridges, a canal, and myriad stands of teenagers and grandparents selling fruit on the side of the road, under multicolored parasols in the shade, and you can buy fresh watermelon or carrot juice for less than a dollar from a roadside vendor, it is a hodgepodge out there.

I was somewhere past the grit of barking construction crews and torn up tarmac, large sand laden trucks that spit wads of sundry debris with more ferocious accuracy than trained camels in a Moroccan souk. I was through some ferocious roundabout from hell, and had bobbed along for quite some time under high, thin lazy arboriculture. I remember passing the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park and wondering what was being done with the space now that the spectators and advertisers had fled.

Somewhere out amid the stimulus I realized my rear tire was quite low. I found a gas station and borrowed a pump from an attended who was sitting, collapsed into himself on the curb outside the small service station’s inside. Not the well stocked snack Mecca, the attendants in orange were all sitting in small folding, cheap metal chairs; a few busied themselves washing a Mercedes. He smiled at my request, the unaccustomed to foreigners speaking Chinese grin one comes to expect outside major urban centers. He rushed off to fetch the small device as sweat cascaded down my face. Accompanied by a few pleasantries we filled the tire. I thanked him and ran inside the station to buy a water and bottle of sweet black currant juice. I quaffed joyously from my sweet drink, replenishing sugars and liquid levels in the shade of the massive concrete awning above the pumps and, before refreshment lingered into torpor, I was off.

With my soundtrack raging to stimulate a push for lost time at the station I doubled my rotations. The sun was beating down upon my back and the small grey hand towel I had stretched out over my neck, between my shoulder and backpack, was proving less reliable a shield than I had hoped. Still, since I had set out from Beijing without sunscreen, the little cotton rag was better than nothing between my sensitive skin and the carcinogenic rays. Ronnie James Dio blasted through my headphones and I felt a jolt of energy. A jolt that would last for about thirty minutes before the tires ran low again.

Somewhere just inside the Huairou border I slowed down by the side of the road, near some thorny street side inhabitants with small green leaves. The tire was indeed riding dangerously low. If I kept on it would pop. But considering I had just refilled there was obviously a hole. I slowly peddled to the crossroads ahead. At this point the stretch of highway had shrunk into only a few lanes, a far cry from its origins in the city, more a country road than a cross-country highway and ahead a Robert Johnson kind of crossroads.

There was an abandoned police checkpoint, blue and white painted walls and a high roof. It momentarily deterred me before reality checked my inherent fear of authority, a fleeting memory of some line in Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) where Louis-Ferdinand Céline had quipped justly about avoiding the notice of the authorities. However, neither did I have anything to fear nor were there authorities present to be fearful of. There was an emaciated octogenarian slouching near a tricycle, burdened with recyclables, dressed in the communitarian Mao suit and a large straw sun hat, the lines of age and exposure, no doubt memories, face stained with a kind of gentle confusion from not being able to keep up with the GPD, positioned this poor man, alone in front of a desolate backdrop, not an odd sight really. He found me out of the ordinary.

I slowly passed the octogenarian on my uneven tires. The village was asleep in itself. Later, Google maps and satellite images proved there was a larger inhabitation and quarry of buildings hiding commerce and production than met the less than keen eye of cursory street level observations revealed. I peddled into the Sergio Leone gas station, three attendants in red jumpers, two women and a man, asleep just inside a small fishbowl. They didn’t have a bicycle pump, and went back to sleep.

Next stop, a small store, a few teenagers, a boy and a girl, the type who travel into Beijing’s Xidan to buy clothes once a month and each have one foreign friend online somewhere, an old English teacher perhaps. They smiled. I asked about the pump. A worker in blue overalls, with yellow stripes down the center, shuffled to the back of the shop. Across the isle from malted milk balls, knock off brands of Western sweets, they keep some chemical cleaning fluids, light bulbs, and permanent markers. He grabbed the pump and we stood in the sidewalk attempting to refill the rear tire. No luck. I asked about a bicycle repair.

I would have to pass the octogenarian and cross the dusty highway. Across the way, I was told; there is a man who fixes bikes. Pushing away I began to loose my confidence about celestial bed partners and reservoirs.

This side seemed more rural. Dirt lanes that stretched downward into nothingness, crudely scrawled signs for dragon fruit on one side stared across at signs for red lumber. There were high piles. I walked in a ways, unsure. I had been told I would see a sign. I was looking for the usual Xiuche characters denoting bicycle repair. Tall grass, and the sound of livestock, a few shops down the lane, I headed back toward the crossroads. There was a man standing near a car, with no obvious purpose but to wave me over and inquire about my needs. He called the bicycle repairman, who apparently had gone home for lunch. Smiling, he pointed me down the lane and told me to wait once I arrived at a cluster of green trash bins. Look for a sanlunche, three-wheeled cart, he informed me.

As I walked my bike toward the trashcans and sanlunche, I glanced around at the various small constructions, and listened to the orchestra of chickens, roosters, and  dogs. Almost choreographed to coincide with a dead goose I noticed that had been tossed out with the trash, a small pile of vegetable waste and the dead bird on the side of the street, a sudden load pop, a crack, comic book hiss-kepow, that momentarily overpowered the cockadoodledoo of roosters and my front tire went completely flat. By the time I reached the green trash bins I had a frame with two flaccid circles of rubber.

I walked up to the bicycle repairman. He smelled of baijiu, the national moonshine of China, literally meaning white wine but something more akin to turpentine; he had dark, stained and gapped teeth but enjoyed smiling. I explained my problem and folded into a stool under the meager shade of a little tree. His wife came and went several times, with each arrival being greeted with a bark from her husband, something about the wrong bit of this or the wrong size of rubber strip or brand of adhesive. She rode a heavy-duty mountain bike with celerity up and down the narrow divots of farmland jutting off from the paved road. The make shift repair station was nothing more than a small flat-bed tricycle next to half a dozen green trash cans and a large pile of wood, just off the street, and the proprietor was drunk on midday booze, but he worked skillfully.

As I sat there watching his adept movements, pry, pinch, pat, removing the inner tube and dipping it into a small, pink, plastic basin filled with dirty water to descry the source of air escape, speaking with a thick accent and slightly garbled words, explaining his actions between asking me questions, ‘do you like China,’ ‘Chinese people love to help,’ ‘where are you from,’ ‘what’s America’s biggest problem,’ ‘where did you cycle from,’ ‘where are you going?’ He finished his inspection of the rear tire and moved on to the front tire.

It turned out I had blown a hole clear through the inner tube on the front tire. He sent his wife home again to grab a much larger inner tube, which he would shortly shred for a Macgyver rubber band to wrap around the wheel, between the inner tube and wheel. The process moved swiftly. With villagers stopping to say hello or inquiringly engage the foreigner for a moment. I sat there for some time, 30 minutes or so. He joked a little but I was getting tired, adrenaline levels subsiding. It cost 50 kuai, less than 10 dollars to repair both tires. I paid him and shook his hand. The cordiality seemed to surprise him. He invited to me stop for lunch the next time I passed through.

He advised me to return to Beijing. The patch was probably solid enough but he suggested I not risk another blow out all the much farther from home. There would be no shadows of Mutianyu Great Wall, Huairou reservoir, or Hongluo Temple. I mopped the sweat from my brow, smiled goodbye, saddled my bike and started to peddle back to Beijing.

Although my original plan was probably too easily thwarted, the ride itself took on the overshadowing potency of a journey; a metric century in the end, the 100 kilometers I rode that day, the little patches of natural reality outside the city and the short exchanges just inside the Huairou border seemed more important than had I reached what I thought I set out to reach. And before the blisters from the sun revealed themselves across my back and shoulders I told myself that I had had a good day.

As I rode back toward Beijing I repeated that thought to myself, “The destination is immaterial, since it is never reached.”

Cuandixia the Cooking Pot: Sojourn, Hills, and Honey

Through dusty prairies and Northern landscapes of mostly brown and grey, intermittent hills carved millenia ago, passed few, small, scattered lakes and towns, nuclear reactors and the characteristic cirty-outskirt industries of China, the bus from central Beijing has been rumbling along for over two hours; you are about to arrive in the somewhat, if not perhaps artificially, sealed-in-time village of Cuandixia, 爨底下.

The winter has passed and the hills surrounding you are beginning to transform themselves with the sprouts and buds of spring. Cherry blossoms lightheartedly pop up and speckle the terraced hill sides in bright pink contrast to the winter’s earth tones, sun dappled clumps of petal or reflective mineral seize cloud breaks to demonstrate their luster amid golden husks of last year’s corn, clumps of increasingly verdant juniper and still brownish skeletons of deciduous residents in tantalizing Bob Ross displays. Coming from the sand, glass and steel, population, frenetic pace and demands of Beijing, the mountain air, the infectious, almost soporific, relaxing temperature and tempo of Cuandixia is ideal for short term sojourns from the city. Indeed, Cuandixia has been serving similar purposes, as a road side inn, a stopping point to warm and feed along the Silk Road, a burning fire kept warm to protect and nourish travelers and residents, since it was established during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Moving Westward from Shanxi, the Han clan eventually settled in the depression of two hills some 80 kilometers from modern day Beijing. The spot they chose, tucked into a valley between what looks like giant Pandoro cakes, the favorite pointed cakes of Italian children on Christmas, would be named Cuan, a complicated character with several founding legends and etymological connotations, dixia: the land below, or beyond, the furnace.

According to the most prominent story, the monk Han Shoude, a villager who is said to have strongly resembled the reigning Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722) of the Qing dynasty, worked in service of the emperor and, with imperial funds, constructed much of the grander buildings, courtyards, and landscaping that formed Cuandixia into its recognizable manifestation of tiled roofs, narrow passages that now jut up to beehives, courtyards and scenery.

The name, Cuan (header photograph), means stove. For the villagers of Cuandixia, it carries the signification of not only warmth, and a source of food, but of shelter and protection. The meaning and legends have perhaps blurred a little over time but residents and neighbors will still speak of the significance of the name, in the idiosyncratic way some Chinese people discuss the etymology of a unique character.

Chinese history is rich with internal conflicts. The saga of the Three Kingdom’s period, a protracted civil war during the 3rd century AD is one of the most popular and known periods of Chinese history. And many centuries later, in the Ming dynasty, for the Han clan the myriad sagas of conflict, poverty, and prosperity were no doubt fresh in their mind as they made the migration from their native Shanxi, several hundred kilometers to the West, in search of security in the hills. With these stories comes the multiple meanings of the stove: to keep warm the home fires, as a shield against hunger, cold, and the scourge of war.

However, as the machinery of war advanced and the scope of conflict became more totalizing Cuandixia’s poetic metaphors would fail to deliver as they had during the dynastic era. With the rest of China, Cuandixia witnessed blood for much of the 20th century. Graffiti scrawled on the walls decades past but left as a reminder, out of desire or government decree, speaks to episodes of Sino-Japanese belligerence (until the 1940s) and, in brighter paint, the ideology and propaganda of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A number of the residents, still all surnamed Han, were reticent to divulge details of this period. How did the villager’s fare? Were they inundated with sent-down youth, urban youngsters sent out to the countryside to learn from the peasants? Were they left alone? Were there public struggle sessions in the earth around the village that now grows corn? Or did the legend of CUAN really protect its residents from the horrors of that lost decade? It is difficult to know. Only one resident  responded, with, “wenhuadageming bu tai lihai,” ‘the cultural revolution was not very bad.’

Of course, all that remains of this time is what is still stained on the walls. In the last several years Cuandixia has grown from a secret tourist gem to a well known but still seldom visited destination. The issue of internal migration, rural residents moving to cities in search of better paying work-only to sometimes find exploitation or the later loss of rural rights-is a national issue surely, and Cuandixia has recently faced the same problems as other villages in China. It is inhabited primarily by the elderly and some young. Those of working age have left to take jobs in factories or salons in Beijing, Hebei, or Guangdong. Some return, others never do.

One will see construction, repaving a road or building a new stone house, but many of the workers will themselves be migrant laborers from other parts of China, such is the contemporary ballet of labor migration across the country.

The parents and grandparents of Cuandixia remain to manage guest houses. The village is a truly Northern Chinese caravansary, for every old courtyard house has been converted into an inn, 客栈. Some are more renovated than others. Choices range from ground level to slightly higher on the hill. Each guest house has a kitchen and modest menu and every resident of Cuandixia seems to keep bees. In fact, in much the way that every locale through China has its techan, 特产, (special local product), Cuandixia is best known for its honey production. But the increase in tourism has apparently placed too high a strain on the locals. Of the five or six jars I looked at, none boasted the thick, speckled, opaque, fresh, handmade honey I had heard about. However, it is still much cheaper than honey you will find in the city. The honey can be seen as a kind of sweet contrast to the bitter reminders of lingering propaganda on the walls.

Past the writing on the walls, the signs for honey and guesthouses, the unique architecture of courtyards, stone windows, and alleyways spotlight the rising hills and terraced fields in the distance. Cuandixia has also long been a popular retreat for painters, poets, and more recently day hikers. Some local hiking groups have visited the location for its gentle trails and views. You can hike between several villages in the area and, unlike other regions in Northern Beijing that are less accessible by public transportation, Cuandixia is relatively easy to reach. At only a few hours from Beijing, this nestled escape is worth the journey.

Cuandixia is located in the Mentougou, 门头沟, district of Beijing. Beijing is broken into a total of 16 districts. Mentougou is in the far West, between Changping District to the North, Haidian, Shijingshan, and Fengtai to the East, Fangshan to the South, and Hebei Province to the West. Mentougou District has a population of about 300,000 which translates into the lowest population density of Beijing’s various districts. According to geological data Mentougou is roughly 90 per cent mountains, which contributes to its low population density and its rolling landscape popular with day hikers.

Cuandixia is easily reachable from the Pinguoyuan, 苹果园, subway stop on the Western terminus of Line one. From the metro station take bus 929 or bus 892.

There are multiple 929 buses but they do not follow the same route. The 929 direct to Cuandixia only departs two times a day: once at 7:40 am and again at 12:40 pm. There is information online that sites other buses but conversation at the transit station contradicted this information. If you miss 929 at either of these times the 892 bus to Zhaitang, 斋堂, is the other best option. This bus is frequent, beginning at 7am it runs until 5:10pm. The cost for either bus, 929 or 892, is 16 RMB. From Pingguoyuan to Cuandixia via a black cab will start bidding at 200 RMB.

If you take the 892 to Zhaitang, when you arrive in Zhaitang there will be several hired cab drivers waiting to take you the rest of the way. You can negotiate a price with the drivers at Zhaitang. Don’t pay more than 20 RMB.

If you wish to arrange for transportation in advance, Zhaitang resident Mr. Li Wei, 李伟, is very friendly and can be reached at 13146517262. He can also assist with transportation to some of the other villages in the area.

An entrance ticket to Cuandixia will cost 35 RMB and can be purchased at the gate just outside the village. The bus or hired cab will stop for you to purchase your ticket. However, a number of the hired cab drivers will likely make you the offer to give them the cost of the entrance ticket and take the ride for free. For example, if there are three of you in the cab, the driver will suggest that you give him the 105 RMB, paying nothing for the ride, and he will drive you in without buying a paper ticket. He keeps a cut and gives a cut to his friends at the gate. You can probably barter for a cheaper rate if you wish. Once inside you will not have to show a ticket.

Once you arrive in Cuandixia there is no shortage of guest houses, unless you go during a national holiday. Don’t go during a national holiday. 财主院客栈 and 古城客栈 are good options for guest houses but there are many others. Don’t pay more than around 50 RMB per night, depending on the season bartering is possible. All the guest houses will also have kitchens for meals. Make sure to check prices before ordering as people have reported being scammed into exorbitant prices.

The following is an example of some food and prices to expect: 肉炒菜椒 25元,  疙瘩汤 10元, 香椿摊鸡蛋 20元, 葱花饼 6元, 拍黄瓜 12元; a 1.5 liter bottle of water will cost around 3RMB or 5RMB for two bottles. A jar of honey will sell for between 25 and 50 RMB.