Friday, August 14, 2009

A Pile Of Rocks

The Yuan Dynasty Great Wall came advertised to us as essentially consisting of stones thrown on top of one another. Yes folks, this is the Great Wall of China you are looking at...


PS: See if you can find Glenn Mott. Trust me, he's out there...

Our Tour Guide

On our second day in Sancha, we decided to strike out on another path away from the village. We had heard that you can cross into the next valley and reach a summit where there is a section of Yuan Dynasty Great Wall. Unlike the Ming Dynasty sections, which date back hundreds of years, this Yuan Dynasty section marks its age as something like two thousand years. Now this we had to see!

Ever the gracious host, Wei Ziqi, once he heard about our plans, offered his son to be our guide for the morning. Wei Jia is about the same age as Z. Although he has grown up in Sancha, he actually attends school in another town, as the village is much too small to warrant its own classrooms. What this has meant, in practical terms, is that Wei Jia lives from Monday through Friday away from his parents, returning to Sancha only for weekends and vacations. It is a routine he has kept up since he entered first grade as a six year old.

Leading us away from the village seemed to be no problem for Wei Jia, at least not at first. But then we made the mistake of leaving the path for a few moments, only to find it difficult to retrace our steps back. It was at that point that Wei Jia pulled out a map of the area that his father had just scribbled down on a piece of paper.

After surveying the terrain, Wei Jia seemed confident that he knew the way. Neibianr, he said. "That way."

It was at that point that things didn't seem to add up. As Glenn pointed out, we were not really walking on a path anymore, but rather switchbacking our way up some terraced fields that looked like they have been left fallow for many, many years.

It was at that point I asked Wei Jia if he hikes out this way often.

Hen shao, came the reply. "Not very often."

Eventually, we turned around and headed back down the mountain, in search of the elusive trail.

After a few more twists and wrong turns, we eventually did find our way back to the path. For Wei Jia, though, a different problem was beginning to present itself. Apparently, Wei Ziqi had told his son to have us all back in time for lunch. Thanks to all of our detours, lunch time was quickly approaching and we had not even sniffed the Great Wall.

It was at this point that Glenn picked up the pace. Z and I decided to follow, which left Desi, Julie, and Wei Jia to sit on the mountainside in the shade, awaiting our return and news of what lies up ahead.

When we returned down the hill a while later, we happily reported that we had reached the summit and located the Yuan Dynasty Great Wall. For Wei Jia, though, going further up the mountain was a non-starter. In his estimation, it really was time to jet back to Sancha.

Desi, thinking as a mother, judged it important that we honor Wei Ziqi's wishes and make sure Wei Jia and the rest of us return to Sancha by the appointed hour. And so that's what we did, even though Desi, thinking as an adventurer, was definitely not happy to miss out on experiencing another very different and very interesting section of the wall. First a mother, then an adventurer...That's Desi!


This Is Supposed To Be A Guy's Game

So we're sitting on the patio of Wei Ziqi's place, eating our delicious meal and staring out over the mountains, which are topped beautifully by the crumbling Great Wall, when a conversation begins between us and a large table of Beijingren next to us. You see, two families had made their own trek out to this treasure in the trees (as they do around four times a year), were sharing some chuanr they had brought themselves in coolers (and had Wei Ziqi grilling up for them), and, upon realizing we had some language skills, commenced verbal exchange.

At the start, there was some artistic sharing, as one of the sons (who is in his early twenties) stood up and began singing a selection from the Peking Opera. His voice was really beautiful, and it struck me that he was some type of Renaissance man, in that at his age he was willing to perform a difficult cultural piece among people he didn't even know. Imagine a twenty year old that you know standing up in a restaurant and bellowing, "Ok-la-homa, where the winds come sweeping down the plain..." Yet this young man was totally into it. He even gripped his stomach in an effort to maintain perfect pitch.

"So, can you sing for us now?" they asked us.

"Shenme?" we responded. ("What?")

OK. Now it was time to put all our hard work and effort to use, as we decided "Wo Ai Beijing Tiananmen," a Chinese Revolutionary song that we had heard months before at Beihai Gongyuan and learned for fun, was about to come in really handy.

"Keyi!" ("Sure!")

They were all thrilled to listen, and they all joined in at the chorus very enthusiastically!

This performance provided entry into what would be an evening of conversation...And some unexpected guanxi on my part.

You see, at banquets and dinners, there is usually a lot of alcohol flying around. The men are expected to clink glasses (a tradition that has its own set of rules!) and ganbei, or "dry their glass." While tonight there was no evidence of baijiu (a type of Chinese grain alcohol) around, when the keg opened the real surprise was who wanted to ganbei with who.

"Nushi...ganbei!" she said. "She" was one of the forty-something year old moms in the group. As you may have guessed, "Nushi," (lady, miss) was me!

"Huh?" I said as I looked around. "Oh, hao de (OK)!" I said as I tried to ganbei.

As not much of a beer drinker, I decided in the spirit of cultural exchange that I'd put aside my taste buds and do my best to drain the glass. They all cracked up as I took a gulp, swallowed, took another...You get the idea. Let's just say that my technique was not as smooth as my xin pengyou (new friend)! In any case, I was kind of hoping that this was it, cup was filled again...and again...

At one point, the woman's husband (who is a Beijing traffic officer) looked sympathetically at me, as if to say, "It's OK, you don't have to keep up with her." But I know the meaning of mianzi (face) in China so I did keep up. This was much to Z's chagrin, who was adorably concerned about me. "Don't worry," I told him,"this beer is really weak."

Either the beer was weak, or my German genes kicked in, because I'm proud to say that my pengyou went off to her room before I did.

And I had no headache to speak of the next morning!

Now, while I definitely do not recommend involvement in this type of cultural exchange (in fact, the whole idea of drinking at banquets is now under scrutiny in China because of obvious hazards and health risks!), it was certainly interesting to get a glimpse into an aspect of Chinese culture that I had only heard about. (Even Steve has been fortunate enough to avoid this tradition.) For me, it was certainly harmless, but it is easy to see how this type of behavior on a regular basis could be tough for society to absorb. Not to mention their livers.

For me, singing was definitely a better option. Did anyone say karaoke? I'm in!


Now Those Are Some Tasty Rainbow Trout!

Chilling out in Wei Ziqi's courtyard after our hike out to the wall, our minds eventually turned toward what we would be eating that evening. I asked Wei Ziqi where we could grab a bite to eat, not wanting to assume that he and Cao Chunmei would be cooking for us. But that's exactly the response that I got, along with a couple of questions..."When do you want to eat?" And, more importantly, "How many fish do you want?"

A few years back, as the outside world began to discover Sancha, Wei Ziqi built a small cement pond where he now raises rainbow trout. When we suggested that two fish would be enough for the five of us, Wei Ziqi went to work. Using a net on the end of a long pole, Wei Ziqi pulled out a couple of beautiful fish.

Those beautiful fish then got their heads whacked on the concrete a couple of times. Within moments, their bellies were cut open and they were gutted. And then, minutes later, they were on the grill, being seasoned and prepared as part of our fresh, home cooked meal.

For her part, Cao Chunmei was busy making down home favorites like nangua (pumpkin), tudou si (sliced potatoes), and other delicious vegetable dishes. A meal like that, in a natural setting like that...And the real fun had not yet even begun...


We Took These Photos While We Could

There's one thing we know for sure...The next time we make it out this section of the wall, things will not look quite the same. All we can hope to do is record nature's ongoing victory over man...


Hiking To The Hidden Ming Wall

After getting settled in at Wei Ziqi's place (and enjoying the first of a number of delicious home cooked meals, courtesy of Cao Chunmei), it was time to strap our packs on and head up the mountain. Our goal on this first day was to reach a nearby section of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. Now, the Ming Dynasty wall is constructed in the style you are all familiar with, featuring guard towers and walkways that look out over the surrounding hills and valleys.

In this case, though, what we were looking for was not a section that had been restored in all of its centuries-old glory. (Mind you, there is nothing wrong with preservation!) No, we were in pursuit of what others have called the "wild wall."

For my part, I prefer to call such sections the "hidden wall." Specifically, we were on the hunt for a section of the wall that the Earth is in the process of reclaiming. Towers have crumbled. Walkways have disappeared. Where soldiers once stood on watch, grass, bushes, and trees now grow unfettered. The stone wall is, slowly but surely, giving way to the quiet power of soil, water, roots, and wood. Before too long, it will likely vanish from human sight altogether.

As for reaching the hidden wall, we had been told ahead of time that, from Sancha, there is a series of narrow dirt paths that head up to the mountaintop. We were also instructed that is it easy to get lost out there, and that whenever there is a fork in the trail, we should turn to the right. These instructions were right on spot, and we had no trouble, other than the steepness of the climb itself, in making it out to the wall. In fact, the most "difficult" part of the journey occurred right in Sancha itself. We actually had no idea where the path up the mountain began. Feeling kind of like Frodo when the Fellowship of the Ring first sets out from Rivendell, we had to ask Cao Chunmei which way to turn out of her front door. That obstacle surmounted, the journey and the destination both turned out to be every bit as wild, hidden, and beautiful as we could have hoped for...


This Is Sancha

Altogether, as Wei Ziqi informed us, there are about sixteen families living in Sancha. The fifty or so people in these families certainly do not have lives that you would in any way call "easy." That said, the place they call home is strikingly simple and beautiful.


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?"


"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...