Published: October 21st 2011October 21st 2011
The dust jacket for Invisible China
says that Jacob and Colin, his coauthor, "threw away the guidebook" when they travelled around China to collect the material for the book. We have been fortunate, with Jacob as our guide and interpreter, to be able to leave the Lonely Planet
trail a couple of times this trip. The first was the incredible tea town of Ninger. The second time was our current excursion to Zhangjiakou, a prefecture city in Hebei provice northwest of Beijing, outside of which we spent today looking for the remains of part of the Great Wall.
The map shows the Wall crossing a river at the north end of this mainly linear city. There is no official Great Wall entrance here, with the accompanying shops, tour buses, and other hoopla. In fact, when we crowded onto the train in Beijing yesterday afternoon and squeezed into our hard seats for the three-hour train ride, we didn't know exactly what we woudl find here. One thing for sure was that we hoped this trip to the countryside would means some relief from the constant cloud of air pollution in the capital city. Instead, the sir seemed to get thicker the
The wild Great Wall
Most of the 4000 miles of the Great Wall is unrestored and looks like this
farther north we got, even when we passed through a region of lakes and amazingly steep mountains. As darkness fell, the mountains gave way to bleak towns with coal mines, power plants, and what looked to be housing for industrial workers where the use of lighting in homes was very limited. Here we found a city that appears to be prosperous and modern, if still a bit bleak due to the air pollution.
Jacob found us a small van for hire today, driven by a young man who brought his girlfriend along for the ride, making a total of seven of us. At first it seemed as if she might spend the day talking on her cell phone, but later she was very helpful as we navigated the back roads with a combination of the local map bought at the train station and queries to the country people. Outside of the city the sense of prosperity quickly fades to one of barely getting by. The area has apparently very little rainfall, the country is dry and open and very brown this time of year although that color is punctuated with yellow sycamore (?) and poplar leaves and yellow corn
Threshers with wind generators in the background
They put the grain on the highway so that the passing cars will crunch it and separate the grain fro the chaff
stalks drying on the village roofs. There seem to be very few people under the age of 45, and many people still wear the old blue Mao hats and worker outfits more typical of the Communist days. We saw quite a few carts pulled by donkeys. All these sights were more common on our first trip to China n 2003-04, but we saw little of this last year or this, except for today.
We drove northwest on a back road that paralled the Wall, which we could follow to a degree by spotting ruined towers. These are mainly the packed loess soil and clay that was left after the local citizens removed the rocks from the outside walls over the years. According to Jacob, this part of the wall dates from the Ming Dynasty, meaning that it was built a little over 500 years ago.
We found one place to stop that looked like it had been a fortress, just inside the wall. We found some pottery shards there that may have dated from the days of the Wall, or not, but they were cool to find nonetheless. At another place we found a great ruined tower at
Corn drying on the roofs of a small village
Here's where we saw old cave dwellings and spoke to a friendly couple
the top of a hill next to a line of ruined wall that we could follow along the ridge to the horizon. This is how most of the 4000 miles of the Great Wall actually looks today.
During our expedition we also stopped in a small town to look for cave dwellings where people had lived until 50 or so years ago. One old man (ok, in his 60s, not so old), told us that he know people who lived there, but "they are all dead now." Apparently the local people store potatoes in those caves these days. His wife came along carrying her grandchild. The child's parents work here in Zhangjiakou because of no opportunities in their small town and come home to the village maybe a couple of times a year. These people have lived in the village their whole lives, and it is difficult for us to even imagine all that they have been through in that time.
Proceeding down the road we came to a large wind farm, which was interesting to see in this area dominated by coal. Then, in the midst of the wind machines, we came upon some people threshing grain
the old fashioned way by tossing it into the air to separate out the chaff. They had the grain spread across the road so that passing vehicles would crunch it and loosen the husks. Later, back on the main road, we saw a donkey cart making its way along with cars, trucks, and motorscooters whizzing by. The contrasts between the old and the new and the rapid pace of change were very apparent today.
There are more photos below