When you live in Beijing you welcome any chance to get out of it.
It’s not that the Chinese capital is an exceptionally bad city. It has its charms. But its expats will know what I’m talking about. The smog, the copious amounts of humans choking the transportation grid, the vast distances involved in getting from one part of town to the other, the dust, the nocturnal construction projects, the oppressively hot summers and freezing winters, the sandstorms which sweep in from Mongolia – this combination of factors can drive even the most hardened urbanite into the hills.
And there is no bigger critic of Beijing than my boss, Tang Yuanbao. He comes from a rural town in Hunan Province and the twenty-odd years he’s spent in Beijing have done nothing to soften his loathing for the city.
So when a national holiday came around we hit the road – Mr Tang’s family, some old friends of theirs and myself – heading West through Hebei Province to Pingyao, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Shanxi Province. It was a journey of about 600 km. A five hour drive. Not a problem for Mr Tang, who claims he has driven all the way from Hunan to Beijing – more than 12 hours – without stopping.
Beijing’s outbound traffic is appalling during holiday season. We crawled through a few toll-gates, witnessing mammoth new road construction projects. But once we were deep into Hebei, the mountainous province which surrounds the municipality of Beijing, the traffic eased up.
Mr Tang guns the engine, crisscrossing between lanes with the James Bond theme blaring through the sound system, while his exasperated wife clucks disapprovingly in the backseat. When the CD spins to an end Mr Tang goes through his radio-surfing routine in which he flicks through channels, cursing them one-by-one before announcing ‘Garbage! All garbage!’ and enlisting my DJ-ing skills. He’s always eager for me to introduce him to new artists, even though he dismisses my entire music collection as ‘a bunch of sad men shouting’, a description which doesn’t do justice to all the ‘sad women’ who also populate my iPod. His music of choice is 80s-90s Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean rock n roll. He’s especially fond of Cui Jian, whose song ‘Nothing to My Name’ was an anthem for student protesters at the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
On the subject of the Tiananmen massacre Mr Tang is outspoken. Although he was (conveniently) not in Beijing at the time of the protest he has two close friends who were – one who was on the side of the students and one who was a soldier. The latter, Zheng Jin, was accompanying us on this trip. The other guy is a business partner of Mr Tang. He ran away from Tiananmen Square when the bullets started flying, a fact for which Mr Tang takes great delight in ridiculing him.
Mr Tang seizes any opportunity to condemn the Communist Party. He once declared loudly in a restaurant that ‘communism is evil!’ He says there is a lot of anger among Chinese citizens, simmering just below the surface. He anticipates an explosion of popular rebellion. He eagerly followed the events of the Arab Spring in North Africa, hoping that the optimism of those dictator-purging revolutions would spread to the People’s Republic of China. And he uses his account on the Chinese microblogging website Sina Weibo to propagate leaked news about government injustices, somehow managing to elude the censors.
I played Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ while Hebei slipped past the windows. The land looked arid but there were a lot of fields and rows of humped structures which looked like greenhouses made of mud. Two ragged kids were play-fighting with sticks on top of a gas transmission pipe, miles from any visible human settlement, while bonfires burned behind them. We passed a section of the Great Wall which snaked right down to the roadside.
At some point a military-registered SUV roared past us. It must have been pulling 160 km/h at least – double the 80 km/h speed limit. The white number plate which indicated that the vehicle’s owner was a member of the military caught Mr Tang’s eye. It was like a red rag to a bull. Mr Tang floored the accelerator of his Buick and tailgated the SUV, hollering ‘Military bastards!’ and blasting his horn in the most demented display of road rage I’ve ever seen. What you must understand is that military and police personnel are the most reckless drivers in China. They ignore road laws with impunity. This corrupt system does not sit well with Mr Tang’s personal philosophy. Mr Tang couldn’t give a damn that he was breaking the law. The military and police are pigs as far as he’s concerned. He figures ‘Hell, if Mr Military-man can do 160, why can’t I?’
We chased the SUV like this for a mile or two. Mr Tang’s wife was shrieking in the back but his daughter silently carried on watching Japanese cartoons on her iPod Touch. She is used to her father’s crazy antics.
Eventually Hebei turned into Shanxi and the road wound around dry, rocky hills covered in sparse, twiggy shrubs. Many of the hillsides were pockmarked with cave dwellings in which people still live. The entrances of these Hobbit holes are decorated like regular houses and some have very elaborate facades. I have since read that an estimated 30 million Chinese people live in such cave homes, which are called yaodong in mandarin, and that Chairman Mao himself once lived in one.
Shanxi is one of the centres of coal production in China. It has played a key part in fuelling the country’s industrial boom. The landscape is scarred with huge coal mines and dotted with the cooling towers of massive power plants. When twilight fell we passed by Datong, a city which thrives on the coal business. From the road it looked like some Dickensian nightmare – clusters of tapering chimney stacks blurred out by hanging smog. Grim in the twilight.
By nightfall we reached Taiyuan, the provincial capital of Shanxi. We checked into a budget hotel and went out for dinner. We drank baijiu, Chinese white wine, and bought some chuanr, traditional kebabs originating in the predominantly Islamic Uyghur ethnic minority of northwest China. Mr Tang struck up small talk with the two Uyghur chuanr sellers who said they came from Xinjiang, a large province some 2,000 km to the northwest.
Then we all turned in for the night. I shared a room with Mr Tang. The guy snored like a beast. An inhuman howl that shook the night and raised the dead. I despaired, smothering my face in my pillow.
Tomorrow we would see Pingyao.
NOTE: Story continues in next post: Traveling to Qing Dynasty China in Style