Friday, August 14, 2009

Calling Wei Ziqi

"Hey Steve," came the message from Glenn Mott, ""I just got a hold of Wei Ziqi's cell phone number. Why don't you give him a call!?"

This out-of-the-blue news, it was immediately apparent to all of us, opened up the enticing possibility of one final excursion adventure before it would be time to pack up and leave Beijing. And so it was, just days before our departure, I picked up the phone and dialed Wei Ziqi's number.

Now, first things first...Who is Wei Ziqi? Wei Ziqi is a middle-aged man who lives in a small village high up in the mountains several hours north of Beijing. This village, known as Sancha, has been featured in several New Yorker articles written by Peter Hessler, who, along with several other Americans, has a getaway home in this quiet and beautiful location. From these articles, all of us were familiar with Wei Ziqi and his wife Cao Chunmei, who welcome visitors to stay in the guest rooms they have constructed on their property.

We were also aware that Sancha is within hiking reach of some remote and hidden sections of the Great Wall. We had been hankering for one last Wall outing, so it was an absolute no-brainer to give Wei Ziqi and Sancha a shot. A "weekend with Wei and the Wall." It would be a kind of capstone to the entire year's interpersonal and scenic encounters.

"Is this Wei Ziqi?" I asked after dialing the number.

"Yes, this is Wei Ziqi."

"Hi. My name is 白君竹. I'm an American living in Beijing with my family. We would like to come to Sancha, hike the Great Wall, eat some food, and stay the night. Is this possible?"

"When do you want to come?"

"How about tomorrow?"

"Xing." ("OK.")

"Great! So how do we get there?"

"Do you have a car?"

"No."

"Then take the bus to Huairou. I will pick you up there and bring you the rest of the way."

"Great! See you tomorrow!"

Right as we arrived in Huairou, the nearest town of measure to Sancha, my cell phone rang. It was Wei Ziqi's number. But rather than Wei Ziqi, it was Mimi, an American friend of Wei Ziqi who shares that getaway place with Peter Hessler and their respective families. "We'll be there in a few minutes," Mimi informed me.

"We?" I thought to myself. Now things are getting interesting in that crazy Chinese way!

As we stood there waiting, a man came up to me and offered a boisterous and friendly greeting. "Pengyou!" And just who exactly was it calling me "friend" on this seemingly random street corner? Turns out, this was the hei che driver who had awoken Desi, the kids, and I from our slumber last fall, when we had taken the same bus from Beijing to Huairou on our way out to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Seeing four snoozing waiguoren who were about to miss their stop, this shifu had boarded the bus, scared the you-know-what out of us, and proceeded to hook us up with a ride in his car to and from Mutianyu at a reasonable price. He was one of those nameless people who, over the course of a year of traveling Chinese style, had saved excursions that could have gone way, way wrong for us. It was great to see him again, in the same basic location, nine months later. You know you've lived in China a while when you have "old friends" in Huairou!

Before we knew it, up pulled Wei Ziji in his red subcompact car, with a back seat full of two Americans and a dog. "Hey, can you watch Dakota for a few minutes while we go inside and shop for tiles?" Now the efficiency of Wei Ziqi was becoming readily apparent. Wei Ziqi had told us to meet him at this particular bus stop because it happens to be adjacent to a big store where you can buy all kinds of home goods. The getaway house, we quickly discovered, is being rebuilt from the ground up. And so it was with pleasure that we hung out in the parking lot while Wei Ziqi, Mimi, and Aaron (a GW grad!) scoured the mall for just the right tiles.

And then the thought hit me...How are we all going to fit into Wei Ziqi's little car? No worries! Mimi, Aaron, and Dakota (a friend's dog who they were sitting) were actually on their way back into Beijing after some time out in Sancha. We still had the problem of squeezing four Ballas into the back seat. (Glenn was riding shotgun next to Wei Ziqi.) But Z is an old pro at contorting himself onto someone's lap and hanging on for dear life!

Wei Ziqi told us that the ride out to Sancha would take about forty minutes. It took longer than that, but only because we made a bunch of stops along the way. "Do you want to buy some fruit?" Wei Ziqi asked us as we passed a roadside stand. Now there's a clever entrepreneur, taking care of his fellow small businessmen! Of course we want some fruit! (Desi raved about the plums all weekend long, saying that this is what plums should taste like.)

Then there was the quick stop at a kiosk where I recharged my phone card. And the longer break we took while Wei Ziqi did some veggie shopping at a small market. At one point, we pulled into a place that looked like it sold all things having to do with Tibetan Buddhism.

Eventually, we began to zig zag up into the mountains along a series of switchbacks. There, at the very end of the road, where you could go no further, was the parking lot we had read so much about. We had arrived in Sancha...

~Steve

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