Posted by on Aug 14, 2011 | 1 comment

24 April 2011

We started out on Sunday feeling very stiff and sore, after having spent more than seven hours climbing on the Great Wall the day before. I was feeling a sense of excitement and anticipation, though, because today we would be embarking on a very special journey. I was finally going to have a chance to visit Yuan’s village in rural China, the place where she grew up and where her family still lives. The plan was to spend several days out there, and return to Beijing on Thursday. Yan, who had been with us for that grueling hike on the Great Wall, had generously offered to pick us up and drive us out and back.

We had decided to get a later start, aiming to leave around noon, since we were so tired from the previous day’s activities. We still had to pack everything and do some last-minute shopping for things that we would need for the journey, though, and I was not completely ready to go when Yan showed up in front of our building.

We made our way downstairs a few minutes later with our luggage in tow, and Yan was patiently waiting for us. We packed the car and departed shortly thereafter. I sat in the front seat next to Yan, with Yuan sitting in the back seat.

I speak only a little Mandarin, and Yan speaks only a little English, so communicating was going to be a challenge during this trip. We had quite a few hours to look forward to spending together in the car, so it was going to be important to establish an ongoing dialog. Everyone was still feeling a bit sleepy and moving slowly as we made our way out of the city. Yuan did her best to translate our attempts at conversation.

I really didn’t know what to expect, as we made our way out of the huge, sprawling metropolis of Beijing and entered the rural communities of western China. The thought of driving through the countryside brought to mind a pastoral landscape of rolling hills and green pastures, with animals grazing and farmers tending the land. I had already been told that it was not going to be anything like that, but I couldn’t really shake that imagery until I was face to face with the reality.

The first thing that struck me was how industrialized it all was. Alongside the roadways were ever-present signs of ongoing construction. Trucks, tractors, and other vehicles designed to haul materials of all kinds surrounded us on the roads. New construction zones stood next to run-down and abandoned buildings with windows broken and walls torn down or otherwise neglected. Everything was dry and dusty, with piles of sand and crumbled bricks and stones everywhere. Smoke stacks and coal piles were constant reminders of the importance of mining to the local community.

Rural Traffic

After my experience with Beijing traffic, I thought I had seen it all. So I was completely unprepared for the total anarchy of traffic in rural China. We had entered the Wild Wild West here, a land where the rules of the road appeared to be non-existent, or at least were utterly ignored by the vast majority of drivers. The road was shared by huge trucks, cars, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles, carts, donkeys and pedestrians, traveling at widely varying speeds. It was very common to see small three-wheeled trucks with two-stroke diesel engines that made a very loud, rapid popping sound as they drove down the road. Passing slow-moving vehicles while avoiding collisions with oncoming traffic was a continual challenge. Traffic from side streets would just barrel out onto the road without even slowing down, forcing us to brake suddenly or swerve out of the way. Pedestrians would just amble along, often carrying long and awkwardly-shaped farm implements, appearing to be completely unaware of the level of danger they were imposing on themselves and everyone around them.

Yan was very well-adjusted to the demands of driving in this environment. Whenever possible he would drive straight down the middle of the road (reducing the chances of being surprised by someone darting into the road from the side), and only move to the right when someone passed us going the other way. Like most Chinese drivers, he made liberal use of the horn, even when there was no one around (to warn potential drivers or pedestrians up ahead of us). When he saw me flinching as we narrowly avoided one near-collision after another, he told me jokingly about a Chinese saying that applies in these circumstances: 我的天 (wo de tian), which translates to “my sky/heaven”, or more loosely to “oh my God!”. They would say this (accompanied by pointing a finger upwards) when facing what appeared to be imminent death. We ended up using this expression rather frequently during the rest of the day’s drive.

I got the impression that we were not taking the optimal route. Occasionally we would look over and see what appeared to be very new, modern highways that would have gotten us to our destination much faster. Some of these highways were a little too new, though, and were still under construction. The route we did take involved a number of road changes. Yan had taken this route many times before, but it was still complicated enough that he had to occasionally stop to ask people for directions, to verify that he was actually on the right road.

It was getting to be fairly late in the afternoon, and it was becoming clear that we were not going to get to the village before nightfall. We came to a section of road that was fairly empty, and Yan started really picking up the pace, driving at a speed that I thought was dangerously fast, along narrow, winding lanes and around many sharp, blind curves. It was dusk, and the light was dim enough that it was hard to see the obstacles in front of us. I was getting very uncomfortable and feeling extremely unsafe. Finally Yuan said something to Yan, and he laughed and slowed the car down.

Before reaching the village, we had to drive through a gate, where there were giant blocks set up that we had to drive around. I was told that the blocks were there to prevent huge trucks from driving straight through the center of town and disrupting the lives of the villagers.

When we finally arrived at the village it was dark. It had taken us more than 8 hours to get here. Yuan’s brother and sister-in-law were there to greet us, along with their son. I learned that Chinese people tend to refer to their family members by their relationship to them, and rarely use their actual names. Those relationship names can be very specific. So Yuan would call her brother 哥哥 (Gē ge, meaning older brother), and his wife was 嫂子 (Sǎo Zi, meaning older brother’s wife, or sister-in-law). Sǎo Zi had prepared an elaborate meal with many delicious dishes. There was so much food that we could not possibly finish it all. Yuan’s father showed up after dinner to say hello. It was a warm reception, and I felt very welcome there. Of course we were very tired after the long journey, so we turned in early.

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