We were going incredibly fast, but I was still able to make out the distinct character for ‘Slow’ painted on the road. Our driver seemed to ignore it’s presence as we barreled past, another turn that had me holding the door frame. Poor planning had caused myself and some friends to miss the bus that would take us to Chuandixia village, about 90 kilometers outside of Beijing. As we stood waiting for a bus that had already left, multiple Chinese men approached and repeatedly offered to drive us to our destination. If you are standing at this particular stop and are not Chinese, chances are fair that you are headed to this small village. The result is that a large crowd of illegitimate cab drivers stand and wait for a quick hire. We had missed our bus and the drivers knew it, making us easy targets.
An hour had already been spent riding the subway, and we were in no mood to head all the way back home. One particular driver was especially intent on taking us to our destination, and despite some misgivings on my part, he offered a good price and had a nice car (the importance of which I will explain in a moment). I tried to haggle him down in price, but he was not having it. “It’s 90 Kilometers”, he shouted, using his key to draw a picture for me in the cement wall to our side. There were three of us, and the price was ultimately negligible, so we decided it was better than nothing.
I mentioned that a nice car was an important factor, and this is true for two reasons. The first is that a nice car will keep you a bit safer and handle a bit better, but more important is that a nice car tends to have a driver who is more concerned about keeping his car in good shape, thus driving slower. Wrong. Immediately and irreconcilably wrong. As we left the city, it became apparent quite quickly that it would be a wide-eyed experience. The road to Chuandixia heads directly through a number of small mountains to the west of Beijing, a ribbon of pavement not dissimilar to many of the mountain passes in Colorado or parts of Europe. Back to back switchbacks and s-turns aplenty. We traveled a distance of almost 30 miles, and the driver managed to stay in the middle of fifth gear the entire time. Next time you are in your car, count the gears as you speed up, and once you are in fifth take a look at how fast you are going. Picture yourself on a narrow road laden with all forms of traffic, and then start driving in the wrong lane. Welcome to China.
Despite the partial to full terror that came and went, the road on which we were traveling was unlike anything I have ever seen. Enormous limestone peaks surrounded us on both sides, rising 300 feet straight up. At times there were green hills, and at times there were tan and blue pillars of raw rock. What appeared to be cement mines flew past as. As China grows, I worry about the future of these beautiful formations. If they are, indeed, completely limestone, they provide a much needed ingredient for a form of cement. In some areas, it was already apparent that strip mining had done irreparable damage to the valleys.
We arrived in Chuandixia unharmed, though I dreaded the return trip. The driver spent some time arguing with us about how much time we needed to spend walking around, as the sooner he got back, the sooner he could return with another load of passengers. The village is several hundred years old, and though it had been hailed as a very authentic day trip to ‘ancient China’, it was quickly apparent that tourism had taken it’s grip. A meal in this far rural bit of Beijing cost more than it would directly outside of my apartment. I did not mind, however, as it was great to be away from the constant shuffle of the inner city. I have missed the mountains greatly, and I found myself completely at ease sitting in the depths of this valley. Somewhere deep inside, the desire to hike the distant ridgelines began to come forward.
I had initially desired to come to Chuandixia as it has a number of old slogans remaining from China’s cultural revolution. These eerie bits of propaganda were, at one time, visible on the sides of hundreds of buildings all over China, but the three decades following the death of Mao have brought about much change. While most of these slogans have long since been painted over, Chuandixia still has a good number that remain, painful reminders of the twisted decade that ravaged China and it’s people. Looking around, it was possible to see small reminders of the thinking that once prevailed. “Use Maoist ideology” and “Students should study the ideas of Mao”, were the clear ideas set forward in most of the slogans that could be made out. It was a strange duality. This village had obviously embraced the ways of capitalism, but was doing so by marketing the very slogans that once criticized anyone who sought personal gain. I couldn’t help but wonder about the much older residents of the village, all of whom had undoubtedly lived here during the time in which these slogans were painted. How must it feel to survive between two times that so greatly contradict one another, and yet remain so intrinsically tied together.
We spent some time hiking in the upper reaches of the village, staring off into the vast mountains and cliffs that lay in the distance. The hills were on a scale that made them seem fake, with so much open space that it could be nothing but a picture. My friends were talking about how they could not possibly live here. What would you do to keep yourself entertained? I wonder how you could pass an entire life and never live in such a place; I think that I could spend days sitting within these hills and find myself completely happy. Terraced hills climbed outward from the village, giving much needed extensions of farmland in an area that has very little. Gates made from small sticks made it clear where we were not meant to walk, but they represented only a small portion in this town that has opened almost every part to curious tourists. Each house that we passed had signs advertising food and overnight lodging. Winding lanes and cliff-side pathways made this seem like some Oceanside town in Greece or Sicily, with a blue ocean horizon replaced by an equally infinite set of hills. It was an emptiness that completely filled my mind.
This was meant to be a story about a village in China, but I find that the experience was so colored by the physical travel portion that it has become something else. We made it back home unharmed, but not without experiencing any variety of terrifying moments and bizarre detours, courtesy of our lovely chauffer. It is unfortunate that riding in a car in China comes with such risk, as the remote places are often the most amazing. I have great desire to ride a bike through these valleys, yet I will never do so simply because of the danger presented by careless Chinese drivers. There were moments in which I found myself exhilarated by the terror, and moments in which I wanted to hit our driver for the arrogance he displayed in his disregard for the road. Cars, despite being prolific in number, are a very new thing for the Chinese, and road regulation and training are inconsistent and generally nonexistent. I learned to drive largely by observing how others did so. If this is how we learn, how will China ever overcome the hell that is a roadway?