Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The difference of an hour


The attraction of Beijing, I often tell my friends in the ever cleaner and orderlier Shanghai, is its chaos. The entire country seems to be dashing towards the utopia of suburbia America, and Beijing, carrying a huge sack of contemporary poses and dynastic leftovers, sprints forward with a determined cacophony. Aesthetically, if one could overlook the handicapped beggars in the streets and the hookers hawking for business on the Bar Street, or even perhaps because of them, the city is a symphony of discordant changes. Aesthetically, it is beautiful.

Then every once in a while, the beauty shatters. Like this morning on my way to meet two friends visiting from the States. I picked up a random newspaper from the subway newsstand. The headline read:
“Desperate Father Committed Suicide to Sell Organs to Save Son with Leukemia”.

People rushed in and out of the subway in the rush hour. I read the newspaper, and got on the train when it arrived. White-collar workers and obese businessmen talked about higher-paying jobs, real estate prices, the wise investment they had made, and such-and-such foreign companies desperately wanting to do business with them. I read the newspaper some more, and got out of the train when it stopped.

I met up with my two friends and we took the bus to Huai Rou, a town one-hour away from Beijing. It’s my friends’ first time in China. I was taking them to the Yellow Flower Great Wall. Compared to the more famous segments of the Great Wall, like Badaling or Mutianyu, Yellow Flower was much less spoiled by visitors. A year ago when I went there for the first time, it was still largely wild. Villagers set up blockade on the path to the Wall and were charging 2 kuai ($0.25) for entrance fee. Standing on any one of the watchtowers, one could feel history pulsating along the Wall that meandered like the arteries of the land. Last fall when I went there for the second time, workers were everywhere putting new bricks up. The government had started restoring the site to absorb the overflowing travelers visiting the Great Wall, especially with the 2008 Olympics coming up. I wanted to see Yellow Flower again before tour buses arrive with crowds of tourists.

The bus was stuck in traffic for a good hour trying to get out of Beijing. Unlike Shanghai, Beijing still does not control the number of license plates it issues. The city streets and major highways are becoming increasingly congested. Trucks cut over buses, taxicabs squeezed in front, private cars honked. My friend Anthony was busy snapping photos through the bus windows. This was, as we joked, his first trip to the “Third World”.

In Huai Rou, we hired a private car to go to Yellow Flower. The young driver informed us that the government had taken over and shut down access to the Wall there during restoration. Instead, he suggested we go to another part of the Great Wall, Jian Kou, near the village where he grew up.

Jaded city folks as we were, we suspected that this might be a scheme commonly used in China to trap innocent tourists. But we had no choice. My American friends had to visit the Great Wall to be real men, as the ancient Chinese saying goes.

Once out of the busy town center, my uncertain nerves were calmed by the green hills, the singing brooks and the abundant orchards. The countryside bore almost no connection to the bustling urban life that is just one-hour drive away, except for the empty roadside restaurants lethargically waiting for the city folks visiting on the weekends. As the car climbed up the hill, we saw the Wall as a vague lining over the top of the rolling hills far away.

We stopped at the village in the valley to get lunch. Everybody seemed to know the driver. At the booth set up illegally by the villagers to collect fees, the driver talked to the guy in charge, a distant cousin of his, and got us in for free. He then led us to different families to ask for lunch. The only restaurant by the roadside was closed, the owner nowhere to be found. One family took us in. The wife, the sister of the driver’s uncle’s brother-in-law, made rice, omelet, green pepper and shredded pork for us, while the husband handed out cigarettes as a token of hospitality. The yard was being renovated. Workers were adding a new room to take in the travelers who had started visiting the still-wild Jian Kou Great Wall.

We sat on the kang, a stone communal bed for the entire family, and admired the Mao posters and the wardrobes and clocks from twenty years ago. It’s hard to fathom that people still do live for real in an environment that would be otherwise considered kitschy hip interior design by urban yuppies. The meal came and we ate. The husband tried to strike a conversation with us. His two long front teeth, yellowed by years of smoking, protruded prominently whenever he smiled, which was very often. The wife dutifully sat farther away.

When we finished, the old couple walked us to the car. They charged us only 10 kuai ($1.25) per person. They waved at us, as we got in the car. “Come again”.

The driver drove us into the hill. He parked the car and led us up a narrow path. Twenty minutes later, we were on the Wall. It’s called Jian Kou because the low point of the Wall straddles the ridge of the hill, in the shape of a bow.

Other than 5 Chinese who hiked up in their leather shoes and carrying a puppy, the Wall was completed deserted. No restoration had been done to it, at least not in the near past. Stones had crumbled. Bricks fell apart. Trees and bushes overgrew. “Last week a girl fell from a loose edge of the wall, and died.” The driver told us.

We hiked up, on all fours, up the Wall to a high point. The view was breathtaking. The Wall stubbornly climbed up and down the hills, always challenging the high ridges. Where we stood, we could see it circling the valley and extending as far as the eyes could see. Pure splendor.

A light fog was coming in. I breathed in deeply. It’s probably just a matter of time before this place is overrun by tourists. But no matter how fast new development encroaches, no matter how easily commercialization seems able to take over, the land appears big enough to harbor unspoiled beauty, in the people and the scenery.

And I realized one of the biggest advantages of living in Beijing is that it’s so easy to get out of its intoxicating chaos. It only takes an hour.

1 comment:

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