For the past week and a half, I’ve been traveling with my extremely patient and adaptable mother, who has kindly dealt with the minor inconvenience of the 13-plus-hour flight from the United States in order to visit me here in China. I met her in Beijing, where we spent five days or so visiting the sights, wandering through the hutong, and meeting up with friends for delicious meals such as a hotpot dinner at Haidilao (they have a SAUCE BAR! unlimited choice! unlimited refills? who KNEW this could be done in hotpot?).
Beijing is a comfortable place. We stayed in a warm, cozy two-bed private room at the Downtown Backpackers, a hostel surrounded by chic clothing stores, bars, and salons, as well as the odd Tibetanesque import shop blasting (thank god) Genga or Lobsang out of their speakers. The public transportation was fast, clean, and cheap, and never once broke down. We even stopped in at a couple of coffee shops for afternoon coffee breaks. How 文明 (civilized) of us; how 文明 of Beijing.
But we were reminded that we were truly in China when we decide to take a dayhike on the Great Wall. Yes, the famous rampart coursing serpentlike over hills, through the next valley, then up impossibly steeply so steeply you can’t imagine climbing up it surely you would fall backwards off those one-meter steps before it reappears, curving sinuously (dragonlike, the Chinese like to say) atop a needlesharp ridgeline, then plunging into unknown territory beyond. It can’t be seen from the moon, but it is accessible by public bus (or private car) only sixty-odd kilometers north of Beijing.
Being the ambitious travelers that we are, we spurned the more touristed sections of rampart such as Badaling for a partially-restored chunk of wall noted in the Lonely Planet guidebook for its “breathtaking panoramas” and “lack of tourist infrastructure.” As Huanghuacheng (黄花城, Yellow Flower wall) was only sixty or seventy kilometers from the city, we decided it would be our best option for a nontouristy wall experience.
However, getting to Huanghuacheng required taking an hourlong bus to the satellite city of Huairou before (so said our trusty guidebook) hiring a private car for the remaining 40 kilometers to the wall. So after disembarking from the bus after the surprisingly speedy ride to Huairou, I was not surprised to be immediately surrounded by drivers, who seemed to form an airtight cordon around us as they badgered us to get in their car.
“Where are you going? Mutianyu! Huanghuacheng! Great wall! We take you! Get in car!” said the cordon of drivers (collectively). They started tugging on my sleeve. Pissed off by now, I pushed through the battalion with a lie about how I had come to Huairou to visit a friend before finding open space at last. Finally, we could look for cars of our own initiative, rather than have them find us.
We found a driver who, after a few minutes of negotiation, would take us to the wall for 90 kuai, which seemed expensive but he justified by saying it was more than 50 kilometers away, and which I justified by comparing the exorbitant admission fees at other areas of the wall (45-60 kuai per person, sometimes more) to the pittance we’d be paying for access at Huanghuacheng – a mere two kuai each. Before we left, I clarified things with the driver.
“So we’re going to Huanghuacheng for 90 kuai,” I said.
“And we’re only going one way. Like I said, we’re going to find our own way back because we don’t know when we’ll be coming back.”
“I can wait for you at the wall; you can take my car back.”
“I don’t want you to wait – we might be three hours, we might be four hours, we might be two days,” I said. “We only want to go one way, and you don’t need to wait. Understand?”
“Yes,” he said grudgingly before we sped off into the smoghazemistily thick atmosphere clouding industrial Huairou and the mountains beyond.
We quickly ascended into the hills and, after about half an hour driving through a valley, arrived at a narrow gap where a river passed between two steep, rocky hills. The gap had clearly caught the wall-builders attention as a place that needed fortification; the wall rose steeply up hillsides on either side, and the surrounding countryside was liberally speckled with guard towers. The gap had also caught the attention of China’s modern dam-builders, for a vintage-1980’s dam bridged the narrow gap, linking the ancient fortifications rising up each hillside and creating a surprisingly peaceful reservoir in the wider valley beyond.
We paid the driver and told him that we didn’t want to take his car back, that we’d find our own ride, though he continually protested, saying there were no buses that went along this route and that we’d be unable to find a way back. As he spoke, a bus went by and we stared at him. “That was a privately hired bus,” he said. “There’s still no way to get back.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “We’re going to get back by ourselves, and don’t wait for us. Find someone else to take back.” And we turned away and hiked up to the wall, which undulated beautifully over the ridgetops into the distance. The wall had beautiful views over the surrounding countryside, including the main road, along which we aspied public buses passing by at regular intervals. Goddamn lying driver. But he couldn’t take away from the beauty of the landscape or of the wonderfully snakelike structure along which we walked. We clambered up steep staircases and down sharply angled snowdusted slopes along the walltop, then again up, increasingly up, then vertigoinducing up before the cliffs lining the wall became simply slopes and finally reached their apex at a narrow guardtower-topped peak. We relaxed in the hazy sun before descending off the wall, a section of which had recently collapsed, becoming an unformed lazy pile of ancient masonry. We continued into a deep narrow valley where the wall bridged a narrow gap and ascended, now unrestored and crumbling and visibly ancient, up the opposite mountainside. We decided to turn valleywards down a one-lane road winding down the narrow gorge, and before long we arrived at a narrow compound, which had announced itself long beforehand by the raucous noise of three dogs barking at different pitches and intervals. Arriving at the cluster of houses, we were just in time to see an elderly man close and lock a chainlink gate, topped with barbed wire, that stretched across the entire roadway.
I asked the man if we could cut through his property, we were sorry to have disturbed but we would like to pass through simply to access the valley below, we wouldn’t stop or disturb anything. The old man didn’t respond, but simply pulled out a piece of chalk and, painfully slowly, wrote a number on the ground.
“Sixty kuai to pass?” We had paid two kuai per person for wall access, so this seemed a bit ridiculous.
He shook his head and, still unwilling to deign us with an actual response, wrote a slash under the “60” and, in the denominator’s position, wrote the Chinese character for “person.”
“SIXTY KUAI PER PERSON?” I almost screamed. “That’s ridiculous!” I snorted, laughed in his face, and turned away.
“Hey!” the man actually addressed a vocalization at us, even if it was a call for attention. He directed our attention to the pavement, where he crossed out the 60 and wrote 40. I turned away in disgust; rather than pay this nasty old man his entrance fee, we decided, it would be better to hike back over the mountains to the place where we had climbed up to the wall. We wouldn’t have to pay, and the old man wouldn’t get his much desired and much anticipated victory over the stupid foreigners. Not only would we save money, but we’d save face as well, one of the few things in modern Chinese society more valuable than money, though the two are often tightly linked.
So hike over the mountains we did, and after spending a pleasant half-hour with some Europeans on top of a guard tower overlooking the valley, we descended to the road to find our driver waiting at the roadside.
“We told you not to …” I started, but as I was speaking a public bus magically appeared, cruising along the road towards Huairou at a respectable speed. I flagged it down, and, the driver’s continuing protests faintly echoing in my ear, we jumped aboard. Swiping our fare cards (2 kuai), we took our comfortable seats and settled in for the forty-five minute drive back to Huairou city.
The bus had traveled for about ten minutes, stopping a few times in small towns, before we came to an unexpected complete stop in the middle of wheatfields. We were wondering why we had stopped until, after a minute’s wait which had even the locals puzzled, a man jumped aboard. It was our driver.
He made a beeline for our seats where he looked me in the eye. “I waited for you for four hours and you’re not taking my car back? You need to get off the bus and take my car.”
“I’m not taking your car,” I said, “because I never said I was taking your car. I told you to find someone else to take your car. We only wanted to take your car one-way. That’s what we agreed.”
“I waited for you in vain for four hours! You promised to take my car back!”
“You lied to us about the public buses!” I said. “We’re going to take the bus back to Huairou. We never said we’d take your car. If you can’t find someone to take, that’s your problem.”
“No it’s not,” he said whiningly. “It’s your fault. You promised to take my car.”
“That’s a total lie,” I said, “just like the one about the bus.” And I addressed the driver. “Shifu, we’re taking your bus. Let’s go!”
The bus driver paid no attention. But our driver refused to give in. “You’re taking my car,” he said. “You promised. Let’s go.”
I was beginning to sense that our argument would go in circles. We continued in this vein for a while, but made no further progress. We had a staring contest. The other bus passengers started to grumble. The driver and bus attendant started to grumble. A couple of passengers told the guy to get off the bus.
Finally, I asked the bus driver one last time to go. “We’ve paid for your bus, and this guy is lying to us and trying to cheat us. Let’s go to Huairou.”
The driver, finally paying us some attention, turned around. “I can’t move forward,” he said. “This guy’s car is blocking the lane.”
I looked ahead, and – while the driver could have backed up the bus and squeezed through the left lane – what he said was true. Our driver’s car was angled across the front of the bus to prevent its forward progress. We were being blackmailed.
“I’m sorry,” said the bus attendant, “but you really need to get off or we’re going to be late. This is not our problem.”
We were helpless to change the situation. After another prolonged staring contest, we gave up and got off the bus, which, once the driver moved his car, sped rapidly away as if trying to distance itself from a nasty situation. And it quickly became apparent not only that the situation was exceedingly nasty, but also that it was a nasty situation in which we were seemingly inexorably stuck.
The driver pleaded with us, at first kindly. “Take my car! I’ll make it cheaper for you. You promised you’d take my car, I waited for four hours for you, now I’m offering you a deal! I have to feed my two kids! My wife will be waiting at home! Get in the car!” Pulling out every argument in the box, the driver stood by the roadside trying to coax us in the vehicle.
“Should we just get in?” said my mom.
I was tempted. But I couldn’t bring myself to get in, regardless of the price. “Not only will it be pricey,” I said, “but we’ll lose massive face and he’ll gain massive face and he’ll pull this shit on foreigners again. Let’s walk down the road and try to get another car or bus.”
Which we did. We passed a sign saying “Huairou: 24 kilometers” and a sign facing opposite suggesting Huanghuacheng was only 10km away, a combination which flew in the face of our driver’s assertion that Huanghuacheng and Huairou were 50-plus kilometers distant. We thought we had left the driver in the dust until, after a few minutes, we heard a low humming approach us from behind. I turned around and saw the driver, in his car, about fifteen feet behind us. As we continued walking, he followed us, always staying the same distance back. We had a stalker.
We continued along the road at a quicker pace, the car hovering behind us, until a van appeared on the road; we flagged it down. No sooner had it stopped than our driver had pulled up alongside the driver’s-side window.
“We told this man we only wanted to take his car one way to Huanghuacheng, and he lied to us about buses and about how far it was. Now he’s accusing us of lying to him and breaking promises, and he stopped our bus and is following us. Can you please help us by taking us to Huairou? We’ll pay you.” I was desperate.
But I was interrupted by our driver, who started whispering to the van’s driver through the opposite window. After a couple of minutes, the van’s driver said “sorry, I can’t help you,” and sailed off down the road. We’d been blackmailed again.
The driver pulled up alongside us as we continued walking. “If you get in the car, this won’t happen again,” he said. “I’ll make it cheaper for you. You promised.”
By now, nothing could possibly make me get into that car. Its interior was toxic to me, as was its driver. “We’re not getting into your car. You lied to us, and now you’re cheating us. Anyway, we like walking. We’re going to walk to Huairou.”
And we continued along as before, us walking down the country road under a dipping, gradually falling sun, the driver following us, an unwanted cloud hovering fifteen feet behind.
We had the same encounter with another bus and several minivans before finally, after the road markers informed us we had walked more than six kilometers, we waved over a car which turned out to hold two foreigners sitting in the backseat. We informed them of our predicament and asked for a rescue. We offered the driver 50 kuai to take us.
“Sure,” said the foreigner guy. “Jump in. We’ll get you to Huairou and away from that guy.” Who argued with our new driver for a minute, but ultimately in vain as we quickly sped away down the road to Huairou.
Our rescuers were a German brother-sister pair, the brother studying in Beijing, the sister in medical school back home, and sympathized as we told our tale. We made it back to Huairou and, eventually, Beijing, as the sun setting over the city turned the misty gray haze incrementally darker shades of dustcoalthenblack, then the black fading to orangeyellow brightness of day from streetlamps building lights carheadlights advertisements all the brightness and energy of the approaching, now encompassing, now seemingly endless city.
The rest of our trip went comparatively well. We spent a couple of days in historic Pingyao, a well-preserved walled city in Shanxi province that I was surprised I didn’t truly enjoy. The endless nagging of tourist touts (perhaps due to the lack of actual tourists in mid-February) were irritating, but what prevented me from liking the city was its uniform, monotonous grayness. City walls buildings streets vehicles sky even people blended together in a confused featureless dreary grayness unrelieved by splashes of color. Blue sky, or flowers, or even snow would probably have changed my opinion, but I think my mental image of Pingyao will remain uncolored, a grayscale photograph where the viewer must search to distinguish traces of actual life.
From Pingyao we took a short standing-room-only train to Taiyuan before boarding a sleeper train to Lanzhou (no stops for 1000 kilometers!); the next morning, we took a bus to Xining. We didn’t simply stay in Xining; a short two-night detour to Rebgong was a welcome dose of countryside after time spent in cities, but it’s been good to be back in Qinghai regardless of what I’m doing. The place feels remarkably homelike; it’s hard to believe I’ve become so established here in a few short months. But that’s what Qinghai seems to do: it sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. Even the taxi drivers here are more honest. I think. Maybe. So far, at the very least.