October 8th, 2009

I don’t know why I only noticed it just now- well, early yesterday evening, actually, maybe because it’s just too obvious, or maybe because we’ve recently acquired new neighbours of a rather disputatious disposition, or some combination thereof, or something else….. …..but there’s a huge difference between the background noise of the countryside and that of the city.

Yeah, far too obvious, right? Shouldn’t even need to be said.

Getting off the bus at Madian yesterday instantly rose the background noise level, obviously. We were standing beside a highway as it intersects with the Third Ring Road, but the city isn’t all noise and contains many quiet spots. Where I sit now, the rumble of buses and squawking of horns on Xidawang Lu is as distant as the rumble of trucks on the G110 and trains on the Datong-Qinhuangdao railway were from where I was sitting in Yanqing County this time yesterday. I hear birds, a peddler hawking duck eggs, neighbours coming and going, kids playing.

Out in the countryside, of course it’s different. There’s the same sounds from neighbours going about their business. There’s the clatter of my parents in law getting ready for the day’s work in the fields- that generally starts at about 5 am, sometimes closer to 4. Sleeping in means being woken up at 6. Add in 50-odd head of sheep, 3 (and apparently soon to be 4) dogs, and more cats than I managed to get a count of, somewhere around half a dozen.

From our apartment I can hear distant echoes of the campus broadcast system- weekdays in the morning break, at midday, and at 5 pm. Out in the countryside, however, it’s the village PA system, turned on whenever the village officials have some orders to bark out. I’m not sure how many people pay any attention to their broadcasts. Only occasionally have I observed my in laws listening to it. I, myself, have never yet managed to understand anything in these broadcasts- there’s something about the lack of clarity and the interference of noise coming from several different speakers that loses me. Sometimes it’s been something useful, like “Everybody go pay your power bill”, or so I’ve been told when I’ve asked what that was all about. There have been times in the past when the officials have decided to treat us to an hour or two of music. One day- they must’ve left somebody younger in charge- it was an hour of back-to-back Wu Bai, but mostly the officials have managed to display their awful musical tastes. Not that the poor sound quality helps any.

I suddenly realise thatI probably hear more birdsong down here in the city than I do out in the village, and I don’t know how to explain that. The village is certainly not devoid of birdlife. Indeed, I spent a few minutes a couple of mornings back watching a raptor of some kind (it was too far away for me to have a hope of identifying it, even if it was one of the few birds I can identify) hover over the fields on the other side of the highway. I’ve watched my dog try and fail miserably to catch a pair of pheasant. Maybe it’s a play-off between available space and population density? I have no idea.

Totally random, off-topic, not even a tangent: In making sure I was right about the pheasant, I discover the Chinese word for diploma mill: 野鸡大学. Pheasant/prostitute university. Very nicely descriptive.

But out in the countryside it only takes a short walk into the fields and you’re enveloped in silence. Oh, not total silence, of course, but somehow silence closes in around you and all noise fades into the distance. I don’t understand how and why that happens, but it leaves me with a very comfortable feeling of being in a purely natural environment. Walking back into the village or reaching one of the roads is always a slightly jarring experience.

And getting off the bus at Madian feels like arriving in an entirely different country.

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