January 2nd, 2010
This evening is one of those evenings I’m glad it was my wife who made the decision. Had it been up to me or my father in law, we’d still be in Yanqing watching the snow fall and wondering if we’d make it back to Beijing in time for lzh to get to work the day after tomorrow. But she insisted we leave this afternoon, pointing out that the last bus leaves at 6pm (actually, 7pm, if by “last bus” she was referring to the last 919 from the county town into Beijing. Of course, 6pm may well be the time the last bus leaves either our village or the terminus further up the road, the last village before Hebei, and therefore our last chance to get into the county town). And let’s face it, so long as we first get on a bus for Beijing, and secondly get across the Jundushan before the weather turns bad, it really doesn’t matter how late we leave.
This morning started with one of those utterly pathetically light snowfalls that north China occasionally turns on. A few flakes fall, enough for you to know it’s snowing… kinda… not enough to do anything useful, like make a snowman, or even a snowant with, hardly enough to make a snowamoeba. But enough to let you know it’s snowing… kinda. It wasn’t long before the sky cleared and I was scoffing at the accuracy of CCTV 1’s 7:30pm weather report again.
It was a late kind of a day. We were all rather slow to leave the warmth of the kang. Breakfast eventually came more towards lunch- than brunchtime. Jiaozi were promised for lunch, and of course, there were the shrimp bought in the county town the day before. By the time they were all cooked, it was almost 4pm. Both myself and my father in law were getting rather reluctant for lzh and I to leave. I mean, this late…. why not just wait till tomorrow. “What if there’s snow?” she said. “The weather’s good now, but it’s supposed to change.” I quickly got online via my cellphone to check the forecast. Alright, fair point, there’s a decent-sized snowfall predicted for tomorrow, which, if it materialises, will probably close the roads over the Jundushan, stranding us in Yanqing. No big deal from my point of view. I don’t have an exam till the 5th, and therefore had an extra day to get back. But she’s got to get back to work the day after tomorrow, so getting stuck a dozen kilometres north of the Great Wall when her office is dozens of kilometres south of the Great Wall probably isn’t the best idea.
So after a lunch too late to be lunch, not quite early enough to be dinner, we quickly packed, rugged up, and walked down to the highway. By this stage the sun was already very low in the southwest, filtered red through the remaining cloud, and it was more than a little chilly by the side of the road. Fellow villagers also waiting for the bus into the county town told us not bad news: They’d been there a while already and had seen two buses heading upwards, so it wouldn’t be long before one came back. About ten minutes, which these days, since the introduction of public transport swipe cards killed off the miandi business, is pretty good. A largely empty bus, it was, too, which is a rare sight out there these days indeed. We got seats, even. Turns out, it was the bus whose terminus is at the other end of the village, and the late hour meant relatively few people competing for the far too few buses into the county town. But largely empty, and old, meant cold and drafty.
And after a few months at a temporary location by the county railway station, the county bus station has moved back to its original location. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that the short walk down and across the road after getting off the 920 into the county town to get the 919 into Beijing has reverted back to getting off the 920 at the closest bus stop, then hiring a banche – a flatbed tricycle good for hauling goods and people – for a short hop across to the county bus station. Not bad, but after a cold and drafty half-hour bus ride, certainly not warm. I spent most of that short portion of the journey burrowing my face down into the upper limits of my scarf in an attempt – successful, as it turns out – to stop my lips, cheeks and chin from shattering in the cold.
My father in law assures me it’s been an unusually cold winter so far. My mother in law agrees. I’ll take their word for it, considering they’ve spent almost their entire 50-some years on this planet in Yanqing or (in the case of Ma’s early years) Huailai. And I can’t think of any New Year’s Day I’ve spent up there that I’ve sat on the warmest part of the kang (the part right next to the stove) for half an hour and have still been shivering.
Anyways, after the ritual pitstop across the road from the bus station, we joined the queue. A rather short queue, mercifully. And even more mercifully, they were loading two buses at a time, despite the lack of people. And not just loading two buses at a time, but bringing buses out of the depot instead of relying on refilling buses from Beijing. That and the strange people who won’t get on a bus if their ideal seats are taken meant we were on a nice, warm bus quick smart.
Too warm, perhaps. Warm enough to make me sleepy, and yet I couldn’t sleep. And it being about a quarter to six when we got on the bus, it was the first time I’ve crossed the Jundushan after dark, which made it a rather boring journey. Usually I manage to fall asleep as we cross the mountains, only to wake up just in time to be bored to tears as we cross the plain through Changping. This time I managed to be awake-but-sleepy through the whole journey, but with nothing to look at. The first signs of the morning’s snow came at the safety check at the top of the mountain, where the wide bus park and weighstation left enough space for snow to have settled, and streetlights made is visible. Otherwise the mountain portion of the trip was darkness to left and right with mostly a red glow in front from brake lights.
Yes, brake lights rather than tail lights. The morning’s snow, as I had expected based on my only other trip across those mountains after a snowfall, had made everybody a lot more cautious. The red glow of brake lights was only broken by the flashing blue and red of policecar lights at a couple of accidents, orange from a couple of signs, and the occasional flash of white light as we passed some mountain village’s houses.
Maybe my imagination was primed by my re-reading of Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi, but the journey, especially as we passed through what I’m told is Asia’s longest road tunnel (although I have no idea how accurate that claim may be), seemed as interminable as Camel Xiangzi’s flight with three camels from military conscription. Sure, he was fleeing from the southwest, whereas we were on a peaceful bus from the northwest, and his flight was marked by pitch darkness, whereas our trip through said tunnel was marked by featureless orange light, followed by a ride down a nighttime highway, but it seemed to take so much longer than normal. It can’t have, though, because we got home a little after 8pm. That would seem to me to be slightly, but not significantly, longer than usual. Still, the bus felt somehow slow.
Getting off the bus at Madian, we hoofed it for the best corner of the interchange to get a taxi home, as usual. Somehow we managed to get a driver who lives nearby our place, but who didn’t want to go home just yet, as he hadn’t made his day’s rental – ah, yes, what novel did I just decide to reread? In any case, he got us home in good time, thanks in part to the sweetest traffic I’ve seen in a long time, and mostly to his good driving. At Madian we’d seen evidence that it had also snowed here in Beijing this morning, or at least (as the taxi driver confirmed) last night, but it wasn’t until we got close to home in southern Chaoyang that we saw evidence of a decent snowfall. There wasn’t a large amount of snow around as the cab pulled into our estate, but there was certainly a lot more than we’d seen this morning, enough to suggest that there had been a pretty good snowfall.
And then, having gotten inside our apartment and, as per ritual, divested ourselves of our baggage and plugged in the water heater – the two first tasks to be performed when we get back from the village – lzh phoned her father to let him know we’d gotten home safely – ritual number three. “It’s big snow up here”, he said. Well, good thing I listened to lzh and we headed back when we did.