road tripping

January 28th, 2008

Like I said last night, the weekend meant spending an awful lot of time sitting in the back of miandis. Half of that time was spent on more or less normal tripping around Yanqing, to and from the county town, although the first trip, from Dongguan up to the village, meant a stop-off at the Rishang wholesale market to stock up on the huge crates of baijiu and Pepsi we’ll be handing out to the extended in-laws over Spring Festival as well as as much of the meat and fish and other Spring Festival necessities that can be bought in advance and hadn’t yet been bought. That might perhaps have been more interesting had I not been under orders to just sit in the miandi and wait- lzh knows too well how grumpy I can get in crowded markets. Still, it looked like the kind of place I could enjoy in carefully measured doses.

Rishang is huge and incredibly crowded. Now, look at a map of Beijing and note how large  an area Yanqing County covers. Then think: there’s only 200-odd thousand people in Yanqing. Those are some pretty impressively uncrowded stats for the eastern half of China. But then again, Rishang seemed a lot like Chaoyang’s Dongjiao (Eastern Suburbs) Market, just half a k south of Soho, Blue Castle, and Huamao: It has everything. And it’s all wholesale. Except I would guess, from the short time I spent sitting in the back of a miandi in Rishang, that Rishang is even bigger than Dongjiao. And judging by the types of vehicles- basically everything you’ll ever see on a Chinese road- and the licence plates, there was an equal mix of producers, sellers and buyers present, mostly locals and Hebeiren, but with some from further afield. And just like Dongjiao, I’m pretty sure that you could have decorated a large house and fitted out a five star restaurant and kept both abundantly supplied shopping solely at that market.

Yeah, Yanqing doesn’t lack for much.

Anyway, that was Saturday, and it was pretty uneventful, really: The miandi was loaded up, we headed out to the village, the miandi was unloaded.

Sunday morning we were woken up bright and early, as per usual. It’s hard to sleep in when you’re sharing a kang with peasants who’ve been getting up before the crack of dawn their entire lives. Apparently a local miandi had been booked to show up at 8:30, and he arrived just as we were scoffing down our fried rice breakfast. I’d only had time to get in about half of my matinal tea consumption. The baijiu and Pepsi and some other bits and pieces destined for Jiujiu and Jiuma and the household of some distant rellie of Ma’s parents’ generation were loaded into the miandi, Ba had to hold Zaizai back as Ma, lzh and myself piled in (Zaizai never likes to be left at home, especially when lzh and I are going anywhere, and has even developed the habit of jumping into the passenger seat of Ba’s bengbengche as soon as Ba starts to crank it up). Then we backed away from the detritus of the frozen, broken and apparently fixed water main, and took a slight detour before hitting the highway and heading out westwards.

I’d been out west of the village along State Highway 110 before, but only as far as one of lzh’s high school friends’ husband’s village, which is only slightly further west of the last Zhangshanying Township government building, and down further into the basin, and only for that one wedding, so I hadn’t really seen much of what was west of the village before.

For the sake of my ease of typing: State Highway 110/110国道 will henceforth be referred to as G110.

As you take G110 northwestwards from Yanqing County Town, there ain’t a whole lot to see. The County Town stretch is mostly lined with businesses aimed at the transport sector: restaurants, petrol stations, and garages mostly specialising in the repair of the trucks that form probably the largest sector of the transport making its way up and down G110. Then you leave the County Town stretch and it’s mostly just regular rural northern China up until the Longqingxia turnoff/Shijinglong skifield. There’s an estate of ‘fancy’ (tacky as hell when you get up close) villas and a regular apartment block area up there. Then you’re back to regular rural northern China, broken up by a driving school and the occasional petrol station, restaurant or garage, the petrol stations, restaurants and garages being in a wide variety of states of repair, disrepair and abandonment. There’s also what looks suspiciously like a vineyard to me, and I’ve always been curious about the potential for vineyards up in that part of the country…. but mostly it’s regular rural northern China: Fields and orchards interspersed with villages that look a bit rough round the edges, but definitely habitable. And then the Zhangshanying Township town itself, which is actually several villages grown together, combines all of those services aimed at the passing trucks with those for the local residents: There are also various kinds of general store (some focussing more on hardware, some more supermarketish, but the combination covering basically every need), pharmacies, a bathhouse, the township hospital, schools covering kindergarten to high school (but mostly empty: increasingly prosperous families are doing all they can to send their kids into County Town or downtown Beijing schools where they’ll get better access to better resources and teachers and more opportunities- same story in every country, ay?), and village and township government facilities. But apart from that one wedding, that’s about as far west as I had gone up that road until yesterday.

First up, both lzh and I were surprised to discover that the new “truck lane” (in reality, a separate highway) for the G110 as it runs through Yanqing had only been finished as far as Zhangshanying Township, and the trucks had to go back onto the old G110 from, I think, about the intersection with the road that runs over the reservoir to Kangzhuang. That road meets the G110 just at the western edge of Zhangshanying Township, and the intersection of the two roads has the only set of traffic lights I’ve seen northwest of Yanqing County Town.

So we were back to the bad old days of driving along beside a road we desperately wished would be finished already. But there weren’t too many trucks on Sunday morning (were the drivers all in church? Somehow I don’t think so).

Now, the air quality wasn’t the best this weekend. The problem with Yanqing and (it would seem from my few hours’ experience) Huailai, is that they lie in a basin completely surrounded by mountains. Beijing itself, at least, is open to the south and east. Yanqing opens into Huailai; Huailai opens into Yanqing. There isn’t much heavy industry up there, but there’s a huge transportation industry that passes through. For one thing: The basin has always been the main route between Beijing and parts northwest, and the modern roads have followed the ancient routes. Just ask Genghis Khan: He’d be amazed at all the modern stuff along the sides of the road and the crops like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and peanuts imported from the Americas, but he’d still recognise the old route from the Zhangjiakou area down along the southern side of the Guanting Reservoir through Kangzhuang and Badaling to Juyongguan. He used the same route himself on the way to harrassing the Jin Dynasty, after all. At least once. So anyway, transportation between Beijing and the industrial cities of northwestern Hebei (Zhangjiakou) northern Shanxi (Datong) and central Inner Mongolia (Hohhot and Baotou) and parts further afield is a big industry in the basin. There’s also a major railway running from Datong to Qinhuangdao which crosses Yanqing. So naturally there’s a fair amount of emissions from transport. Add to that emissions from central heating in urban areas and cooking and heating fires in the far larger rural areas and the (mostly very light, from what I’ve seen) industry in the basin, and yes, there is air pollution. It is not as bad as Beijing’s air pollution, and even on days when the visibility seems as bad as Beijing’s, your lungs still work easier.

Perhaps a bigger issue, visibility wise, was the murkiness of the miandi’s windows.

Whatever, one way or another, I couldn’t see terribly far beyond the sides of G110, and on occasions, the northern mountains whose base G110 hugs pretty tightly were difficult to make out. But still, on the way out to Huailai, the view out the (incredibly murky) windows of the miandi was a bit of a shock. I was expecting more of the same scenery you see from the County Town out to Zhangshanying Township. Yeah, most of the way up to the Beijing/Hebei border that’s what I saw, but there were a couple of sections of the same kind of truckie-focussed services you see along the county town stretch of G110, one of which looked so thoroughly abandoned I almost expected to see tumbleweed blowing down the street.

And then we reached the border, where the railway and the “truck lane” under construction swap places with G110, moving up to the north, closer to the mountains, while G110 takes a more southerly route lower in the basin. And from there on out the two sides of G110 looked like and extended series of very rundown truckstops. The roadsides were wide and rough truckparks covered in black dust- black, no doubt, from the sheer volume of diesel exhaust, with the coal hauled by more than a few of the trucks helping out. The garages were as filthy as you would expect any business dedicated to the maintenance and repair of heavy duty diesel engines to be. The restaurants looked like the garages. And this stretched on for several kilometres.

After a bit we ducked off the highway at a gap between the series of truckstops into a village and made our way through the lanes to Jiujiu’s home.

The village didn’t look too bad; like any village in Yanqing really, which is hardly surprising, but the lanes were unpaved and the buildings looked dirtier and rougher. And Jiujiu’s home was about half the size of lzh’s parents’ place, both in terms of courtyard and the main building. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any buildings along the eastern or western walls of the courtyard, and I don’t see how you could build any, considering how small the courtyard was. And it was confirmed that no level of government higher than Yanqing County, or perhaps at a stretch, the Beijing Municipality, had ordered the building of the new foot-pump-operated flush squatters everybody in our village now has in their courtyards. Jiujiu’s toilet is, as always, in the southwestern corner of the courtyard, surrounded by a wall built to roughly Chinese-average-knee-height, and an extremely short drop. So yeah, in winter, you get a lasting record of everything you eat and how well your gut processed it. And you get to re-read that record every time you use the toilet. And you wonder why I don’t sympathise with those who feel uncomfortable with Beijing’s public toilets.

The next extended in-law we visited, well, I can’t remember her position in the family, but her house wasn’t much different. I was surprised by the lay-out, though: Along the northern wall was the main building, as usual, but that occupied the centre, and on the sides were smaller rooms that did not form a part of the main apartment. There were structures along the western and southern walls, but I think they were as much of this rellie’s age compared to Jiujiu, and they were pretty rough and ready compared to the rest of the house.

Anyway, visits made, gifts given, our miandi came back at the appointed time, and we piled in and headed back for Yanqing. This time, though, one of the market places was full, and the side of the highway outside that market was crowded with various forms of two-wheeled transport, powered by petrol, electricity, or good old-fashioned muscle, all mixing it up with an ever-increasing number of trucks whose drivers had decided on one last pit-stop before Beijing.

Alright, so I haven’t described that one, small slice of Huailai I saw in a way that makes you think “tourist paradise” or “Wow, I could retire there!”, but I have to say this: I saw two apparently distinct economies operating there: The regular local agriculture; and the long-distance transport services. There was ample evidence of a large, local population independent of the truckies and the services they need, and there was ample evidence of a large, local population making their livings off the truckies. Add in the clear linguistic differences with Yanqing, and what would seem to be a slide towards Jin as you move northwestwards, and I’m intrigued. Actually, I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time exploring Huailai. Of course, I could quite happily spend a lot more time exploring Yanqing as well….

Oh, and lzh, who hadn’t been up to Huailai for several years, said two things of interest:

  1. “This is what Yanqing was like when I was a kid, but Yanqing has developed since then.”
  2. “Whatever’s popular in Hebei moves to Yanqing. They had satellite TV before we got it, so you’ll see more satellite dishes out here, for example.”

In answer to the first statement, Ma pointed out that all the wealth in Hebei moves to Beijing, leaving Hebei in its more or less undeveloped state. Shanxi coal mine owners seem to follow the same pattern.

As for the second statement, well, it’s hard to see at first glance, but remember that Hebei’s wealth, like Shanxi’s, tends to gravitate towards Beijing.

It’s odd that this gravitation of wealth would seem to leave Yanqing apparently so much better off than its basin-mate Huailai. You’d think that Yanqing’s wealth would also gravitate to Beijing, but it seems Yanqing’s biggest export to Beijing is taxi drivers, especially those basing themselves around Haidian District.

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