July 21, the day of That Big Rain, the storm that wiped out Fangshan, we piled in the car and drove up to the National Convention Centre up by the Olympic Green. It was mostly a waste of time, this so-called toy exhibition. But we wandered around, had a look, got some lunch, then the mother in law, the Wee One, and I got back in the car, while lzh jumped on the subway. Our plan had been to go to this exhibition on the Saturday, then on the Sunday for Ma, the Wee One and myself to head out to Yanqing for the week. But lzh heard of heavy rain forecast for Sunday, so we decided that we’d head out on Saturday to try and beat the rain.
July 21 dawned grey and murky. Hardly dawned at all, the haze was so thick. When we got to the exhibition centre very light rain started to fall. We tried to leave just before lunch, but the rain had become much heavier and we’d had to park at the shopping centre next door because the Convention Centre carpark was full. So we got lunch. The rain lightened up, and I made a run for the car while the others walked down to a convenient corner where I could pick them up. Then the three of us set off for the peace, quiet, and comparative cool of our village, while lzh trundled home, alone, still having to go to work on Monday.
Being so close to where the 4th Ring meets the G6 was a bit annoying. Normally, I’d take the Jingcheng Expressway out to the North 6th Ring, thence across to the G6, as that lets me avoid all the traffic heading for the real estate scams along the G6 in northern Haidian and southern Changping, and traffic at the Qinghe tollgate is awful on a good day. But that didn’t make any sense from where we were, and the alternative routes would have traffic just as bad, but with traffic lights. So, bite the bullet I did and got us on the G6. Fortunately, the traffic does generally lighten up as you work your way northwards, but it takes time.
I guestimated visibility to be about 200 metres and turned the foglights on, and then got annoyed. Everybody southbound had their foglights on, but northbound there was only me, and a few with their hazard lights on. We got through the tollgate ok, but then it happened. The heavens were rent asunder, as if some celestial woolly mammoth had sucked all of Lake Baikal up into its trunk and sprayed it over Beijing. That was not much fun to drive in, and made worse by a certain few idiots who could not see any need to adapt their driving to the crap visibility and multitude of opportunities to go hydroplaning.
Ah, whatever, we got to the village ok, and the Wee One found it great fun watching the water go shwoosh! up all over the walls lining the village lanes that had been turned into torrents of muddy water. The father in law met us at the gate with umbrellas so we could get inside relatively unsoaked, we unloaded, we settled in, the rain stopped.
Later that evening I heard how bad the rain had gotten down in Beijing and especially Fangshan. It was a little surreal, because I’d just been driving for the better part of two hours through that storm, including along a narrow, windy old road across the mountains, but had seen nothing beyond the behaviour of other road users to give me cause for concern. Clearly the storm had gottten much worse as it made its way south.
So the Wee One spent her week out in the village much as 16-month olds do: Eating, playing, visiting friends, hanging out with the other toddlers who gather on the village square. I had given myself two missions:
- Get out and see some of these interesting-seeming places around Yanqing that after all these years I still haven’t gotten around to visiting. Stop being such a bloody recluse, in other words.
- Get some recordings for Phonemica.
Both were achieved, although I would’ve liked to get a few more recordings.
Sunday, July 22, at least out in Yanqing, there was still a lot of cloud about, but the air was dramatically clear. Crystalline, almost. So I thought up an excuse – the Wee One needed a paddling pool. What Kiwi kid goes through a summer without a paddling pool to splash around in? So I grabbed the camera, jumped in the car, and took a rather circuitous route in to the county town, just enjoying the fresh air and amazing views. I vowed that on the way back I would drive up to the top of the road that runs over the front range of the Dahaituo Shan to Yudu Shan. Shopping done, I headed off up the old G110.
Just as the last couple of times I’ve been out there, at regular intervals along the G110 there were signs warning that the Gulong (Guyaju – Longqingxia, I believe) road was closed for repairs, and indeed, at the first right just after the G110 swings round to the west at the base of the Shijinglong
Skifield Shocking Waste of Precious Water I saw a barricade and a torn up road. No luck. Continuing on I saw an open road leading up the hills. This road seems to claim to lead to Yuhuang Miao, although the maps dispute that. I had a wee look, but it seemed to be very crumbly, rundown, and in desperate need of repair, and didn’t look to be heading up high – it looked more like it was determined to disappear into a gully. So, turn around, back on the G110, try again. The road to Yudushan was good, and I headed up, but… The gate to Yudu Shan is rather low down the mountainside, and to get to the top I would need a ticket. It didn’t make sense to buy a ticket for Yudu Shan just to go to the top of the pass, stop, take a few photos, and go home for lunch. So I turned around and headed back down to a small bluff where, on the right hand side of the road a beekeeper sat in a small tent surrounded by his beehives, on the left the Shanrong Tomb Museum stood looking empty and abandoned, and spread out below us was the entire county.
The Jundu Shan stretched along the southern rim of the basin westwards down to where the Yongding River would drain the Guanting Reservoir if there were enough water in it. Wind turbines stood down among the wetlands that are what’s left of the reservoir in the southwest of the county, or perhaps just over the line in Huailai County. The Solar Power Tower under construction in Badaling Township rose just below the Jundu Shan in roughly the centre. And to the east the Dahaituo Shan I was standing on and the Jundu Shan gradually closed in on the Guishui River valley. I snapped a few snaps, but mostly just stood there in awe.
I decided a second detour up the mountainside was in order, and took the road that runs up the hill at the eastern end of our village’s fields and orchards, up past the carpark and abandoned, broken viewing platform that…. were built on half the orchard of somebody close to me against that person’s will. Powerful herbicides in sufficient dosage to leave the soil useless for several years are apparently quite persuasive. Anyway, across the Gulong Road and further up, past the small reservoir linked to the water-gathering channel cut along the mountainside by a small, but quite scarily high if you use it as a narrow bridge with no guardrails, aqueduct over what looks to me like a dry stream bed, or perhaps a channel formed by floodwaters after rainfalls like that monstrous one of July 21. Further on up to where the road started running along the mountainside to a village further along. So I turned around and made my way back looking for a prominent bluff or at least a lump from which to stand, absorb, and feel awed. And a few more snaps were snapped.
Not much exciting, I know, but quite a successful morning, nevertheless.
Well, almost. I’d managed to get the very last paddling pool in the store. It was a bit on the small side, but that’s ok, the Wee One is only wee still. It was inflatable, and needed to be inflated, but it came with no pump. Try as I might, I just could not get any air into it using my own lungs. My lungs ain’t great, but usually I can manage this sort of task. Ba had a go, and no more luck than me. We had no pumps around with a suitable valve, having given last year’s pool – one made for wee babies to swim in with a float around their necks rather than one made for toddlers to splash and play in – and its pump that would’ve been quite suited to the task we’d given to friends with a baby who would soon be in need of such a pool and the exercise and freedom it can provide babies otherwise too small to be able to move on their own. It certainly didn’t make any sense to drive out to their village, reclaim the pump, inflate our pool, then take the pump back to them. I tried a couple of the village hardware stores, but they did not have a pump with a suitable valve, or even just a suitable valve to attach to one of our pumps. So back into the county town for a pump, or at least a valve. I found a pump with a suitable valve, but it was small, cheap, and nasty, and it took quite some time to inflate the first ring of the pool. Then the pump came apart in my hands. But that’s ok, the valve was attached to Ba’s proper pump, and the pool was ready in no time.
Now to persuade my parents in law that no, it was not some kind of fancy inflatable bath tub, but a paddling pool for playing in. Yes, of course I’m putting cold water in, no you don’t put hot water in. Yes, I know the water’s frigid, having come from a mountain spring, but we’ll leave it in the sun to warm up a bit before we put her in. No, you don’t put hot water in a paddling pool, it’s a paddling pool, not a fancy inflatable bathtub. It’s not for having a bath in, it’s for playing in. Yes, kids play in paddling pools, not they don’t have baths in paddling pools. Alright, you can put a bit of hot water from the solar water heater in to take the edge off the chill of the water. No, it’s for playing in, it’s not a bath tub.
…oh, alright, if you insist, it can be a fancy inflatable bathtub.
But I guess, considering that not even lzh could persuade her parents, when she joined us in the village having slipped out of work early on Friday afternoon, that it’s a paddling pool and not a fancy inflatable bathtub, that paddling pools are simply too far out of my parents in law’s experience for them to grasp the idea.
Ah well, whatever, the Wee One got to play in the water in the sun and she got clean at the same time. Two birds, one stone, sweet as.
Next day I decided to head for 古崖居/Gǔyájū, some ancient cliff dwellings, as the name suggests, just a few kilometres out west of our village. It’s a group of cave dwellings carved into the steep side of a gully in the front range of the Dahaituo Shan. Not a lot is known about the origin of these cave dwellings, and there are many different opinions. But I like the idea that it may have been some kind of brigand’s lair. From down on the basin floor at the foot of the mountains you can’t see any cave dwellings, only an impossibly narrow gully, and yet up this gully are 117 dwellings carved into granite. Standing on the paths outside these dwellings looking down into the gully you can see how eminently and easily defensable they are. One can easily imagine in ancient times brigands charging out of the mountains down onto camel trains plying the route between Beijing and the grasslands of the northwest, raiding them and hauling the plunder back up into the mountains only to vanish from sight, and any pesky government official snooping around trying to find whence these brigands emerge and whither they disappear himself being disappeared quicksmart and with no trace left behind.
The sun was bright and hot and outside of the shade reflected almost painfully off the pale granite. But I was armed with a bottle of water, a camera, a giggle hat bought at the souvenir shop of the National Army Museum at Waiouru, and sunglasses. So I looked more than a little silly, but who cares?
I went westwards up the G110 and through that annoying compulsory checkpoint just 2km west of our village – compulsory as in large concrete blocks blocking the road, thereby forcing anything and everything bigger than either a pair of feet or a bicycle through the checkpoint, then further out keeping an eye on the distance and taking note to remember all the landmarks around an alternative road that bypasses the checkpoint, then up through Dongmenying to the foot of the mountains. I parked outside the gate for 5 kuai, although I discovered later I could’ve parked inside the gate at a price I don’t know. Whatever. Bought my ticket, then wandered up. Tickets are checked about 50 metres up from the main gate and ticket office at a little log hut that the ticket checkers share with the kindling shed, a big red banner on the kindling shed proclaiming their determination to prevent forest fires. The path leads past a few small caves dug for defence purposes in the 1960s, one of which now houses a Buddha, and then suddenly to your right a smaller, much steeper gully opens up and the dark holes of doors and windows dot the cliff face burnt nearly white by the sun.
‘Tis quite an interesting sensation, looking from the cool shade of this narrow gully up this narrower, steeper gully at your first glimpse of these mysterious ancient cave dwellings, pitch dark holes in a cliff face incandescent in the sun, a sensation that leaves you struck nearly dumb, capable of little more than the “wow” of Keanu Reeves in the early stages of the Matrix.
So I kept climbing, following the track, exploring a few of these cave dwellings – not easy when they’re pitch dark inside and the rooves are considerably lower than the natural height of your head – I got me a few bumps. And then I found myself taking what seems to be the compulsory photo from the compulsory angle – everybody seems to have this shot, albeit shot in different seasons:
But it seems that a combination of that day’s heat, magnified by the climb and the reflections off the granite, and a dodgy restaurant in the village conspired to knock me out the next day, good for only a run up to the township hospital then into the county hospital. But the day after I was back on my feet.
I didn’t actually do much though, just found another excuse to go shopping, but actually disappearing off to find a way to get close to the Solar Power Tower under construction down in Badaling Township. That involved my little Suzuki bouncing and bumping over roads that alternated between gravel and mud, rough and rough as guts, in big loops through fields and past villages, until I suddenly found myself on the perfectly smooth access road bordered by immaculately landscaped lawns. I drove down this road and found her rising there, a balletic twirl at the base, surrounded by heliostats, three rectangular holes in her northside, and an array of PV panels at her base on the southern side, workers toiling away. Wow, this is a thing of true beauty. Although, from what I understand, the economics of solar thermal are somewhat less than attractive, I can’t wait to see this complete. Pity, though, that the weather had turned back to smothering grey haze, otherwise I could’ve got some awesome photos.
Now, a friend has talked of driving through Yanqing and suddenly coming across two churches right next to each other in a township I believe to be somewhere out in the east of the county, although his Chinese isn’t great and getting him to remember placenames is not easy. A while ago I had reason to be checking the website of the local official Catholic church and saw a church in Yongning, out east of the county town, although really more in the centre of the county judging by the maps. Yongning sits at the junction of a few provincial-level highways, and so I thought it a likely candidate for host of these two churches side-by-side. I told Ma I was heading off to Yongning to look for an old church and she said, “Oh, I bet Laogu’s out there for the summer holiday, let’s all go!” So Ma, the Wee One, and I jumped in the car and took off, Ba having confirmed his younger sister was indeed in Yongning.
I’ve passed through Yongning before, but only around the edge of the town. I totally wasn’t expecting to see a sign saying ‘永宁古城’ (Yongning Old Town), turn a corner, and see this:
And so we parked in the shade of the tower in the square and Ma ducked into an old building housing a supermarket to buy some stuff for Laogu and her grandchild and off we went.
Laogu, clearly, is from our village, but she married a man from Yongning, and although they’ve since bought an apartment in the county town, they’ve kept their old courtyard in Yongning. But I discovered that their apartment is just outside, indeed, right over the road from the old Yongning Town Wall. Not that you’d know that was the town wall just over the road from their courtyard unless somebody who knew pointed it out:
Yup, that’s it, that ragged mud face. And it seemed to me that the northern and eastern sides of the old town don’t have a wall, and that the wall on the western and southern sides of the old town is less than a wall than the edges of a platform built up to keep the old town flat. The ground seems to naturally slope down to the south and west, towards the county town in the Guishui River’s downstream direction, and if one steps back from the wall on the western side, one can see houses apparently perched on top of it. The same on the southern side.
‘Twas a pity I didn’t get a recording of Laogu or her grandson, but, well, they were home alone, and he was keeping her well busy. Even more a pity is that Laogufu wasn’t there. He, being from the east end of Yanqing, has an accent that is slightly subtly different from those of the rest of my in laws, who hail from the northwest end or eastern Huailai. Ah, well, next time, maybe.
But after lunch, with Laogu’s directions, we headed off for the church. It wasn’t far around the corner, just south of the tower in the square at the centre of the old town:
So, not the two churches side-by-side my colleague had spoken of, and really quite underwhelming, and firmly closed, but whatever, mission accomplished.
This brings us up to Friday, and my last chance to go randomly exploring on my own before the better half came out to join us, and again, I used a random excuse of needing to buy something before heading off in some other direction. This one took me down the old G110, heading off towards Longqingxia at the base of the Shijinglong Disgusting Waste of Precious Water out to Jiuxian, then looping back into the county town. Again, I was hoping I might stumble across these mysterious two churches side-by-side, but no luck. Oh well, whatever, maybe next time.
Saturday saw me back into a calmer, more domesticate, less roaming mode. The morning saw a shopping odyssey. First to Rishang on the eastern edge of the county town to check out some items of kitchen and bedroom furniture, get some fruit for the aforementioned friend with a young baby just getting old enough to swim in that little baby’s pool we passed on, but who can’t travel easily thanks to the tinyness of her baby, her husband being at work in Beijing, and her being at the mercy of her in laws with whom relations aren’t always great, and other family issues, and to get some lamb for the barbeque we had planned (most of the shopping for which I had done as my excuses to vanish into the distance over the previous few days). Success with the kitchen furniture, near miss with the bedroom furniture, very far miss with the fruit, we headed into the centre of town before we even got to the lamb. The first furniture store we tried was good, but more expensive than the market, so we tried a few others. Here’s where it got weird: The quality of the furniture at the other stores was no better than at Rishang, but the price kept going up at each store. So back to the first one, spending a bit more than either of us would’ve preferred, but getting decent goods, and to be delivered to the village in the next few days. Now, that lamb.
See, I told you Walmart didn’t have any. I already tried and failed. I loathe Walmart for many reasons, but actually, the Yanqing branch is pretty good and has saved us many times in the past, particularly, but not exclusively, with baby stuff that we haven’t been able to find anywhere else northwest of the Jundu Shan. But no, the only lamb was the pre-sliced, rolled and packaged stuff for hotpot or the pre-packages mystery meat kebabs one generally prefers not to put on one’s own barbeque. Worst of all was the large bags going for two yuan each. Yeah, that meat came from the kind of sheep that used to say “squeak, squeak” as it worked it’s way through the county town’s sewers, right? Back out to Rishang.
Success, then home, then out to Xiwuliying to deliver the fruit and hang out for a bit, then home for a barbeque. Then, on realising we had more than we could possibly eat, phone calls to uncles and aunties in the village, with one aunty bringing her two sons and her oldest son’s girlfriend over to hang out, but them all vanishing before we’d even lit the charcoal, but another uncle bringing his Mrs and grandson over to help eat, and them all doing a solid job of it. And the Wee One loved munching on the kebabs she was given. Good food, good times.
And it deigned to rain an hour after we packed up, putting to rest any of my lingering fears of smouldering charcoal getting up to mischief.
The next day, our last in the village, was a final break in the overcast and occasional haze, beautiful weather, the kind that just makes you want to settle permanently in Yanqing. Pity we had to head home. But it wasn’t the first time that bastard Murphy struck last week, so you just take his impertinent slaps and move on as always. Bloody Murphy.
Then when the time came we set off for the brother in law’s place in Yanjiao to deliver a load of potatos before we headed home to the southern end of Chaoyang. That meant my now usual, thanks to the new tunnels avoiding a certain notorious tourist bottleneck, old road over the mountains, on to the G6 at Nankou, then down to the North 6th Ring – the usual route home – but continuing eastwards past the Jingcheng and onto the Jingping Expressway, which, despite its name suggesting Beijing to Pinggu, advertises itself as a green channel from Beijing to Tianjin. Doesn’t make much sense, right, heading way northeast of Tianjin City? Ah, but Tianjin’s Ji County lies just east of Pinggu, just on the northern side of that odd little, um, enclave? or exclave? of Hebei comprising Sanhe, Dachang, Xianghe and Yanjiao, among others, caught between Beijing and Tianjin but having no direct border with any other part of Hebei.
It was an easy drive, with good weather and that stretch of the G6, the 6th Ring and the Jingping being lightly trafficed. Then off the Jingping onto the road down to Yanjiao, and that’s where the frustration started. First, because despite not seeing a sign marking the Hebei border, I suspected we were in Hebei because the quality of the road surface had deteriorated so badly. Then, because I found myself on a 10-lane road, 5 lanes in each direction, perfectly straight, and flat as can be expected in Hebei, with bugger all traffic, but a speed limit of forty kilometres per hour. I kid you not. Forty. And speed cameras to enforce it. That hurt. But we got to the BiL’s place alright, got lunch, hung out, headed home.
And then the Wee One was happy! All those toys and books she hadn’t seen for a week, and her own cot! Wow! And a present from Nainai that had arrived while we’d been away with lots of pretty clothes and three new books! Sheesh, you’d’ve thought it was Christmas.