Thursday, January 7, 2010

Finding Zhao, scaling the Wall

We walked briskly towards the hotel to meet Zhao, the driver we had secured via Alan, cum Sheila, cum Eos before the bitter cold and the timing caught up with us. The dry cold of Beijing was quite deceiving through our NY lens. Intermittent filtered sunshine and generally moderate winds belied a tolerable environment until you stood outside for three minutes. The chill seeped to the bone through all of clothing layers by severity of degree not the damp we were used to. Taxis made money from our shivers.
Michele ran upstairs to grab something from the room, when I spotted Zhao, pacing in his parka between the host stand and the lounge. I went to greet him, with Yusi’s notes in hand to navigate hello when Eo appeared to smooth the intros. Handsome and animated, I guessed early twenties; I could see that he was a bit nervous. We collected Michele and jumped into his Nissan; yes it did appear quite new. We navigated the few phrases that I could muster, occasionally repeating them for better tonality. Yusi, the student I had traded Mandarin for Spanish classes with at the end of the term had instructed me to wave my arm in the direction of the tonal sounds as a reminder. This would probably have been comical to Zhao, but more effective than my vocal butchering of his language. Needless to say we were off, in a car on a highway, passing tracts of middle then working class high rises, factories and the Northeastern corner of the city on our way to see the Great Wall. I, we specifically didn’t want to go to a viewing area like Badaling, fully renovated replete with T shirt stalls and tchochkes. This is the closest location and homing point for most tour groups. We wanted to find a country-spot, to see the landscape a glimpse of village life and a rustic view of the Wall; or in our sense of cultural capital a more unspoiled, “authentic” vista.
As we neared the toll booth, I realized that though Michele and I had discussed our desires, and tried to effectively share them with Eo in the pidgin conversations we had shared I wasn’t clear what she had relayed to Zhao. As we sat waiting for our turn to pay the toll, I took out the guide book and my notes and tried to clarify our goals. Boy did that end poorly. He looked at me aghast, paid the toll, pulled through the booth and pulled up the parking brake and stopped the car 10 yards into an eight lane highway. No pulling into the shoulder, popping on the flashers, N-a-d-a. I hopped from back to front seat while Michele quietly whispered that at least we both had health insurance. After 10 minutes of un productive conversation I telephoned Leo (Liu Ye), the concierge from the hotel. We passed the phone back and forth a few times trying to arrive at an understanding. At this point I learned that Zhao, like many people I would meet in these next few days was not from Beijing but had come to study and make a better living. Coming from Anhui he knew very little of the geography of the city. He was uncertain of where to go, how to get there and whether we could get there from here. That is why he had decided to just stop the car…Yikes. As we took turns on the cell, Leo told us both, that it was not difficult to find, just further out than Zhao had envisioned. Immediately, he wanted 100 yuan more, which I agreed to in sign language and word, via Leo. He looked into my face, realizing that this brief ride had more legs than he had planned; pursed his lips, brightened his face and started the car. We drove to the first exit and he pulled to the shoulder, got out his map/guidebook of Beijing and walked to the exit toll booth, pocketing his keys.
Seven or so minutes later, he was walking towards us, and then disappeared. Michele looked at me quizzically. “He’s probably pissing,” I said. Stepping from behind a pine tree hiking his pants and rebuttoning his coat, he jogged to the car, obviously colder. We were off. He now had ideas of which summit to drive towards. We haggled, now having some weird shared common gibberal Chinese-sign system in place. He rejected one of my suggestions and we agreed to Huanghuateng, my second choice; based on a guide book gloss. Hoping to rebuild our spirit, I pointed to the radio. He smiled and switched on his CD player. Hearing his selection, I recalled the ‘80’s working as a journeyman cook at the Odeon with virtually an entire crew and sous chef from Foochow in Canton or Guangdong province. They loved prepping to this satellite radio stations from Hong Kong; nothing but love songs it seemed by the syrup and smiles. Sometimes I heard current American pop presumably translated or literated into Cantonese; though commonly twangy simple melodies and high register harmonies. I was back in current roster of that playlist. All of a sudden, my fog cleared and I turned to Zhao and repeated the refrain, once then again to be sure I had it right. He burst into a shit eating grin. Turning from the road and looking straight into my eyes, we laughed like homeys and chanted, “w̌o ai nǐ, w̌o ai nǐ: I love you, I love you.”
Paying closer attention, I realized that it was all wrapped up in unrequited love, she loved him and he wasn’t noticing her. Hmm, patriarchal gendered romantic politics are global and again reductive towards women. I hoped that his glee was like mine based in shared understanding and not complicity with the lyrical theme. No matter, I was never going to be able to convey those ideas, gotta keep it all in the moment.
Our day continued with stops and starts, asking directions, stopping at toll booths and flagging down cabdrivers as we made our way from the highway into the countryside. By this time, every stall yielded a wondrous gaze or photo-opt chilling us out as Zhao attempted to understand our geography. 50-60 minutes later, after passing through many small villages we began to climb. Careening around switchbacks glimpses of the wall peeked through the clouds and distant hillsides, Zhao switched to a decent jazz disc; life was good. I was premature in believing that we were moments from our destination. We still had several foothill villages to traverse. As the mountains rose on either side of the car, I saw how accurate the many hanging scrolls I had seen in museums and art history courses were to the landscape. Striped terraces of either low stone walls or earth poked through the mist and marked the terrain. Anxiety mounted as we curved and climbed since Zhao would switch lanes as the rise steepened. Thankfully the downward oncoming vehicles never got to too close. Suddenly, we nosed down a steep grade ending up at a country lane intersection. To our right was a stream and half a dozen middle aged men hovered on a small footbridge, smoking, holding a few farm tools and talking. An empty store or school sat on the opposite corner with a semicircular porch and red iron grillwork. The road ahead turned to dirt, as had many before. This one led to a housing district. The hard right seemed to follow the stream and tail off. The street signs did not appear to clue Zhao in, so he stopped the car and looked at me bewildered. Using my book of notes and characters I stitched together, then blurted a sentence, loosely, “Why not ask those men?” Again he took the keys with him as he crossed to the huddled group. Returning quickly, turning to me as he settled into his seat, his eyes brightened and he exclaimed, “huanghuanteng. Here, we are. Huanghuanteng, now.” We almost headbutted each other we laughed so hard. No wall in sight too low for any view of anything, yikes this may have been a mistake… after a moment we elected to continue down the road to the right along the stream. Another village appeared at a fork in the road just a few km ahead. Zhao pulled over by what seemed to be a store or trading center with a porch full of neatly stacked dried corn. From there we could make out the wall on top of a nearby ridge. He got out and lit a cigarette, while Michele and I got ready to hike.
The village was defined by narrow dirt lanes set into the foothills below the wall, stacks of bundled branches, kindling I assumed, freshly made bricks, millstones and piles of drying chestnuts in prickly hulls. Every low brick and rough hewn beam home had a small yard or compound punctuated by low walls and slightly corroded iron doors. A few seemed larger or more prominent than the others. There were stairs cut in between some of the homes to climb deeper Around the base of Phoenix on top of a six foot concrete slab disc two winnowing baskets held drying persimmons and freshly harvested red dates. More corn and kindling were drying in an open garage door just to the side. Uh-oh, M told me she needed to pee. I looked around and saw nothing available, until just up the way I saw a parted iron gate. I walked up and knocked lightly, the metal twanged back breaking the morning calm. A late middleaged man, cutting wood turned with a warm smile, bright eyed with long teeth many random or jutting out at odd angles grinned and greeted me. In sign and word I asked to use his outhouse. Beckoning Michele she, then I found relief. He had disappeared behind a thick swatch of fabric covering the door to his house across the yard. When I had finished I heard his voice from behind the curtain, speaking loudly with a voice muffled by the fabric. His hands motioned to us before he poked out his head. One hand parted the curtain to reveal a large steaming pot of water on a wood stove. Rubbing his palms together he mimicked hand washing, then pointed to a large bar of soap, that recalled lye versions meant for scrubbing clothing. Upon entering into the large, dark living area, I heard the lowing noise of someone sleeping behind the curtain in the adjacent room. I washed quickly and left to find Michele who had walked back out to the street.
Within two city blocks the village proper fell away as the grade increased. Persimmons and dates drying on trees were the only remnants of the local community. As the brush became prickly and more unmanageable, Michele began to fall back, even the few birds seemed to still their song. Trudging forward obsessively, wanting, coveting the wall, my stimuli were the view ahead, the slight crunch of brush and a strong pungency of the clayey red soil. Later that evening in the hotel, when I re-examined the icon by the bathroom faucet to confirm that it implied, not potable as I ran the water to prep my shower, I realized that the hot spray had the same aroma of red earth. Washing myself that evening, I fell back into the summit I had struggled climbing that afternoon.
Obviously impetuous, I scampered as best I could up the hill, while Michele cheered me on as she descended back to the car. Blinded by the goal, I lost the trail and mistakenly continued climbing old rainwater courses that had interrupted the terraced furrows and hillocks. Shortly after, I was a hot mess of bramble, skittish stones that often implied stability but yielded to gentle pressure and tumbled into the brush. I grasped at roots and boughs for support, more crawling than standing. I just kept my focus of the summit and the prize of communion with this relic; punctuation, ancient boundary or lineal drawing in stone. Now sweaty after nearly 30 minutes of effort I had to rest a moment, swallow a few shallow gulps of water and go on. Soon after, I was able to right myself and continue in a more upright fashion still grasping for supports until I reached the top 10 or so minutes later. The final ascent involved wedging toes into ruts between the ever larger stones, skinning my palm once or twice and then pulling myself up to a weathered ruin of a former guard tower. My reason for choosing this locale to access the wall was to see an unrestored portion, and with that quirky marriage of the historical and the postmodern I craved the perceived ‘original’; the more pure-whatever that suggested or implied to each seeker. Now on top it made sense. I called out, laughed belly deep and sang a bit. Praised my family, departed mothers mine and others who guided me to through to these spaces and moments of my experience. Gave thanks to Cliff, my Dad and tried to observe this scene closely to better share a story of it with him back at home upon my return. Wanting to skip and dance, I calmed down a bit and just took it all in. turning to follow the undulating ridge decorated with this earthwork rise, fall, disappear and return miles in the distance. I counted one dozen sentry towers within view of my bifocaled eyes. Some more robust and unchanged than crumbling neighbors. I walked between two and considered for a moment climbing higher to reach two others. In the valley behind the village a few lone tall evergreens, all trunk for days with an ostrich plume hat thick with green needles brought a whisper of color to a fairly monochromatic ochre landscape. I heard nothing but wind in the lower trees, no villages sounds, trucks or signs of humanity. For a moment I felt like I held some magic that I wanted to retain at least in memory. Wistfully pc I considered a doing a Tai Chi set, and realized that I had probably been meditating here for an hour. I needed to wrap it up and get back with my crew. I walked along both sides of the wall, taking in the view from all directions, entered the first crumbling guard tower once more and made my way to the actual trail which was obviously easier to use for my descent. The beginning was still a little tricky to navigate but I got down fairly quickly within about 8 minutes. Walking back through the village, I stopped at the house who had shared their outhouse to say goodbye. This time his wife was working in the yard, apparently gathering ingredients together for the midafternoon meal. I tried to signal her to call her husband since I had no idea if she knew anything of our experience with him. As she raised questions to me in Chinese, he heard them from inside the house and came out grinning. We shook hands, and I snapped a quick shot before I waved goodbye. Back at the car, Michele had been people watching, shooting photos, creating her own communication method with Zhao while watching him smoke cigs at the front bumper. According to her, he had been anxious to understand my whereabouts and timing long before I returned. I think he had intended plans back in town. When I walked up he crushed a butt under his foot, smiled my way, jumped in and started the car. We left quickly, finding our way into town faster than we had our village, passing the Qing Tombs on the way in. unfortunately, traffic caught up with us on the highway, faulting my agenda to see the Lama Temple, the Drum & Bell Tower neighborhood and hǔtong alley districts before sundown, and the closing of the temple and local retail businesses. We were able to have a glimmer of a view of the compound just before the gates were locked. Wandering the hǔtong at dusk we found cramped living quarters, a gallery of antique sculpture and religious artifacts, bodegas, tea vendors and a lovely home cut into a small compound bounded by a walled yard with a tea house at the center. Two young teen girls prepared a classical Chinese Tea service while their mother quietly oversaw their work under the guise of reading, doing her bills and glazing over in front of a small late model tv. We walked back to the main street to look for a means home around 6 or 7ish, grabbing a freshly roasted yam from the neighborhood vendor. I ate my golden yam, walking and window shopping past stall and store after another full of golden Buddahs, incense and ethnic jewelry.

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