Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Bad News 

Really bad news. They paved the road going from the bus yard to my village. I live out in the western hills now, where Mao and the Red army were holed up before they took Beijing in the fall of '49. The whole area is now part of Fragrant Hills Park, and it is a national treasure. Mao's office and the place where he stayed is a little museum. The place where Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De (Mao's general), and Ren Bishi camped out is all boarded up now, but I have managed to get in there a few times just to see what it looks like. The East Gate of the park is about a fifteen minute walk from where I live. Before I moved out here, I used to visit Fragrant Hills Park about once a year. It was pretty, but a bit unpleasant because so crowded. It's different when you live here, because you can get there early. If I can be at the East Gate by 6 am, and climb right up to the trail half-way up the mountain, I can just about have the whole place to my self. Or I go there in the evening when it is starting to get dark. Everybody is leaving and it is quiet and peaceful.

Fortunately, although my village is close to the park (as is the bus terminal) it is not between the bus terminal and the park; it is off to the side. The result of this is that during the busy tourist season, tens of thousands of people pass within a few hundred yards of where I live, but no one ever ventures down the dusty road to my village. There would be no reason to; it doesn't go anywhere. So even though my village is not that far from the city (takes about 45 minutes to an hour on the bus to reach Wudaokou), it is actually quite remote. In some ways, I might as well be on the top of a mountain in Shanxi Province living in a Yaodong (earth cave). The young daughter of the folks who run the little produce market next door was just a toddler when I moved out here. Whenever she saw me, she would start laughing, and then cover her face and start screaming. She was so overwhelmed she couldn't decide which emotion to express. She literally didn't know how to respond to the strange apparition standing before her. Her mother worked with her quite a bit to help her get used to me, and now she is quite friendly and playful. But my point is that the remoteness of this village, in spite of the fact that it is not far from Beijing, and is, in fact, within the boundaries of the Haidian District, has resulted in my village remaining a quiet, Saturday morning kind of place, in spite of the frenzied growth in the more central areas of the city.

But that's all over now. This is China. Paved roads draw big black cars like a magnet does iron filings. Paved road. Better drive on it. You know how that goes. Once a few rich people in their big black cars get a chance to see the peaceful tranquility of this place, they will be bringing their friends. Pretty soon, the tour companies will catch on, and one after another they will be scheduling seven hour tours to South Hardship Village. In one sense, it's not as bad as I'm making it sound, because the first three hours and the last three hours will be spent shopping for trinkets at a souvenir shop somewhere, but even one hour in this village--well, you know, with 1.3 billion people, it adds up after awhile.

And as if that weren't enough, wait 'till it shows up on Google Earth. You know how that goes. Paved road. Must lead somewhere. Backpackers the world over will be fighting to come here and experience the quiet peacefulness of this remote village. And the growing numbers won't dissuade others, either. When you look at Google Earth, you're not seeing a picture of a village taken just yesterday. You're looking at a picture that was taken right after the road was paved, before all the people started to show up. So they will just keep coming. I can see it now. Before long, there will be a youth hostel on every corner, and bars all over the place. When I step out on my balcony and night and gaze at the southern sky, I won't see Orion. I'll see the bright lights of the revelry below me. And I won't hear crickets chirping. How could I, with the loud music coming from the bars blaring in my ear?

And rent will be sky high. I rented this little place for 700 RMB a month when I moved out here last year. It has already gone up since I have been here. My landlady let me know by telling me quietly, "If my husband is here, you must pay me 800, but I will give you 100 back later." It's simple now. No lease--I just pay my rent month by month. If I forget, the landlady doesn't get angry. She just makes me a plate of jiaozi. I think she's beginning to think I forget on purpose just to get the jiaozi. Not far from the truth, because her jiaozi is pretty good. But after the crowds get here, the place will probably be confiscated by some corrupt official and sold to the highest bidder. I better just go ahead and say goodbye to my neighbors now. I can't afford to live in a resort hotel for 10,000 RMB a night.

I've always known it was going to get bad. The subway is supposed to be out here by 2014. But somehow I had hoped to delay the urban sprawl as long as possible. Now there's no hope. Oh, China! I knew this was too good to be true.

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