Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Beijing to Chengde.


Beijing early on a wintry morning in January 1984. Chairman Mao has been dead for eight years and lies embalmed and looking like pink plastic in his mausoleum. There is a clear blue sky and a pale watery sun. The temperature is well below freezing and in the lake the lotus leaves lie frozen in clear ice a metre thick. Cars and cycles take a short cut over the frozen lake. It is all very beautiful but we can't stop, we are bound for the station and the train to Inner Mongolia.

The station complex is busy with Chinese men and women going about their business, many still wearing the work-a-day navy blue cotton Mao jackets. They watch us curiously, for foreigners are still viewed with suspicion, as we board a long train pulled by two giant diesel engines.

Our seats are reserved and waiting. Each one is covered in crisp, freshly-washed white linen. On the table between the seats blue and white china lidded cups stand ready and before we move off the attendant comes down the aisle with a giant tea pot and fills our cups with pale, scented jasmine tea. Before our journey is over she will have refilled them many times.

We are making the journey from Beijing to Chengde in the North, on the edge of Inner Mongolia.

We pass a part of the Great Wall as it snakes over the mountains and disappears into the distance. and then we are out into open countryside and every picture we have ever seen of China comes into view through the window.
The frozen paddy fields are pale brown. They are separated by lanes lined with tall bare trees and on these lanes workers move up and down - some walking, some cycling, some driving mule carts and some in jaunty little three wheeled vehicles which nip in and out of the traffic.
We pull into a station high above a village and through a gap between the houses we see a donkey walking round turning a mill wheel to grind corn. Most of the houses have sweet corn and peppers drying on the roofs and in the garden small black pigs run along with children, while mothers move in and out of the houses shaking mats, or carrying food for the scratching hens.
Soon we begin to climb up into the mountains again. We are astonished to see that trees really do grow along mountain ridges.
There are wide rivers, all frozen solid, the white ice glittering in the hazy sunlight. A man walks
across one frozen river carrying a large bundle of twigs across his shoulders. Another man walks away from the rail track towards a distant house, a leg of what looks like a deer balanced on his shoulder. We watch enthralled as these tiny snapshot views of local life pass the window.
However remote the countryside we rarely see the scenery without a figure in it.
Somewhere along the line we pass a coal yard. Heaps of coal lie in bays, men, covered in coal dust shovel the coal into mule carts - it looks back breaking work.
When we reach Chengde we step out on to a platform crowded with men in their navy "uniforms." They are quiet and respectful but crowd round as we step down . Mr Yuan, our guide, tells us they have all come to see us as most of them have never seen a Westerner before.

18 comments:

Arija said...

How things have changed since then. I am glad you saw it at a time before it was all covered is plastic bags. It all sounds so serene or maybe that was because you were happy and at peace with your life and the frozed landscape..like a dragonfly caught in amber...

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm really enjoying this trip, Pat. I like your eye for the descriptive detail.

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

Yet more excitement! How quickly things can change, although I'm sure a great deal of rural China would still follow your amospheric description.

steven said...

weaver, another stunning story from your travels!!! the image of the lotus leaves frozen in a metre of clear ice . . . i held my breath so i could bring it together in my mind's eye. thanks for sharing this. have a lovely afternoon. steven

Heather said...

A fascinating glimpse of life on another continent. What a lot has changed since then. That must have been a wonderful trip.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh.
I feel as if I am there!
Where do we go next???

jeannette stgermain said...

Weaver, can you imagine, my son who lives in China in a city of around 2 million, had an alomst continous experience being stared at, or little children began to cry, because he was the first foreigner they ever saw.
In Shen-shen (across the border from Hong Kong, on mainland's side of China) we stumbled on an open air market, and when we were going through it everyone looked at us, people made place for us, and in their eyes was fear (hubby is 6'3") - this was 2 years ago!!

jeannette stgermain said...

Weaver, sorry I forgot to mention - your stories are very well written and full of suspense - thank you for sharing:).

Di said...

I really am enjoying this. More please!

Cloudia said...

This wonderful post made me feel as if I was there with you, Weaver.

This is an example of what is so wonderful about the bloggosphere (as are many of your gem-like posts)

So glad to visit! What a pleasure to see you at my Hawaii blog as well. Aloha Friend-

Comfort Spiral

acornmoon said...

Lucky you Weaver, how exciting to see China.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Thank you. Fascinating.

Totalfeckineejit said...

What a great description of a totally different world.You are so fortunate,weaver, it must have been wondrous.By the way, did you know that The Great wall of China and my pile of antibiotics are the only things on earth that can be seen from space?

Pondside said...

I'd love to have been on that train - with the crisp white seat covers and the wonderful views from the windows.
Where haven't you been???
Any thoughts on Japan?

Lucy Corrander said...

You've made me nostalgic for something I have never seen.

I'm also feeling rather overwhelmed that I have actually managed to land on your blog and to leave a comment. You have no idea how many times I have failed to read a post or, having read it, the comments page wouldn't load.

But, when I can, I come back and try again. Maybe the problem has cleared (whatever it is) - but, in case this turns out to be a fluke visit, I thought I would let you know that I value your writing. (And, when reading a post like this one - envy your life experiences!)

Lucy

Woman in a Window said...

That first paragraph is stunning! In '84 I was 14. Is there any way we can go back in time and I can go with? I was still pretty quiet then. I wouldn't make too much of a fuss. The visuals you shared here of this time (how wonderful that it was winter) strike me raw.

The Weaver of Grass said...

It is lovely reading all your comments - I would urge everyone to read them all - it brings such a wide view to the post, as usual. Thanks to you all.

Studio Sylvia said...

Hi Weaver. Once again, you have me enthralled. Your writing is mesmerizing - its descriptions and imagery have me anticipating the next scene, looking for more.