A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pounding the mountains for a slice of history

It’s one of those picture postcard villages that guide books are so very keen to write up, but no one you seem to meet has ever been to – or even heard of.
Cuandixia (爨底下) is a village dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and located in the Mentougou District of Beijing. According to the blurb, it is a popular tourist attraction known for its well preserved courtyard homes.
I ask my friends, but no one has a clue. I look up Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, DK, Rough Guide and a plethora of web sites and they all wax lyrical about the place. So I decide the time has come to give it a go.
Now, according to the perceived wisdom of the copy-and-paste brigade out there in the blogosphere, you simply take a subway train to Pingguoyuan at the very end of Line 1 and look for a 929支bus which will whizz you to Zhaitang in about 2:20 hours for the grand price of ¥18 – or thereabouts – after which you have to take a cab the rest of the way. One of the web sites that mentions this place warns rather ominously “be aware there are many buses with this number driving to many different places”.
Well, I know Pingguoyuan of old. It is where the Eunuch Museum is located. And to get there takes about an hour from my place – or it would have done if I hadn’t decided that it would be a nice idea to travel there via the new subway line 6, thereby avoiding the dreaded interchange station of GuoMao (World Trade Centre) where Line 10 meets up with Line 1. So now, for one hour, read an hour and three quarters!
The first challenge on arriving in PGY is to find the 929 支bus stop. Except that it becomes clear that for 929 you should read 829. Not that anyone – including a policeman – appears too sure of where that is either. But a hike from the station for 10 minutes brings one to the said bus stop where there are a number of people talking animatedly while looking somewhat lost. A group from Hunan explains that no one appears to know if or when the bus will actually come; and this is surely why there is a gaggle of private taxi drivers hassling the would-be tourists to take them to their destination – for a hefty consideration, not surprisingly.
But they say timing is everything. The aforementioned Hunanese are in the middle of negotiations with the driver of a minibus – how about if we all piled in together and that way we could reduce the fare to 50 RMB each, which includes the ¥30 entrance fee it costs tourists to enter the Cuandixia area.
A deal is struck and we all crowd in for the 2½ hour drive in somewhat cramped conditions. There is good natured banter throughout the journey – 99.99% of it in Chinese, unsurprisingly – and the driver suggests halfway along the route that maybe the 'laowai' would like to sing a song to everyone for their amusement and delight. This laowai would not, however. For that matter, neither would anyone else.
Cuandixia is located on an ancient post road that nowadays is given the somewhat unglamorous moniker of National Road 109 – lying roughly 90 km northwest from central Beijing in the Jingxi mountain region. We pass through numerous unmemorable villages and past a plethora of unmemorable landmarks, until we reach a huge dam holding back the YongTing River to create the massive Zhaitang reservoir. And then the scenery gets much more interesting.
And then suddenly the driver pulls into a lay-by and tells us we can all stretch our legs. Bliss! Ahead of us the road twists through some natural rock formations that remind me of some of the desert rocks in Saudi Arabia. I, with a couple of other guys, walk back up the road for a much needed pee!
We pile back into the mini bus and drive for another five minutes against the flow of traffic until we reach a car parking area. Nowhere has there been a single sign for Cuandixia – but we have definitely arrived.
Only later do we realise the cunning driver has gone via the back road entrance – the tradesmen’s entrance to the village – and has thus avoided paying the tolls and made himself an extra 180 kwai in the process!
Up here in the mountains it is noticeably colder than in Beijing. There is still snow on the ground and many of the footpaths still have ice on them. Care is needed!
Once again, I read up some of the printed out blurb I got off the web sites: “Cuandixia is known for its architecture and natural beauty. It is home to 500 well preserved courtyard homes dating to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Many of these homes have been converted into inns offering food and lodging to travellers. Stone paved lanes and steep staircases help define Chuandixia's (stet) architectural identity. The village is a frequent subject of photographers and painters. The surrounding area is full of mountains and trails popular with hikers.”
Another entry contradicts the first: “A beautiful ancient mountain village. It is very small, only around 70 traditional court yards. It is renovated nicely and seems rather authentic.”
I’m more inclined to go with the figure of 70, although perhaps there are another 430 yet-to-be-discovered courtyards lurking somewhere behind the mountain.
The driver had mentioned that the village is popular with foreign tourists (though I am the only laowai here today). One of the web sites advises to “go in the weekdays if you want peace and quiet, as many Chinese tourists from Beijing are said to go there in the weekends.” Well, not today. A rough body count puts the entire visiting population at around 20-30, if that… far outnumbered by the locals who make a living from the rubber-neckers.
This is a living museum. You’re free just to walk into any house in the village. Most are built in the open courtyard style where you enter a portal before turning left or right and then walking through little passageways that interconnect between the different houses.
Every house has a special plaque at its entrance, and some even have additional information about whether they contain an eating place or somewhere to doss in over night.
Almost every home has a restaurant and practically every one acts as a guesthouse too, typically costing around ¥50 for a room for 2 people to sleep in.
Furnishings are very simple and one imagines it must be galling for these people scraping together a living seeing the hoi polloi coming in their charabancs down from the big city. Until, that is, one remembers that they are making a pretty good living from those tourists while other peasants have a very much tougher time of it.
All the houses, by the way, are owned by members of the Han clan who moved from Shanxi Province. According to legend (and Wikipedia), a villager named Han Shoude, who bore a strong resemblance to Emperor Kangxi, became a monk in the service of the self same emperor and built many of the grand courtyards of Cuandixia with imperial funding. Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, Cuandixia prospered from its position trading in coal, fur, and grain.
Whether it is for the tourists, or whether they really do love having Mao portraits in their sitting rooms, there is a definite Mao presence here. I read that there are still some extant Mao quotations daubed onto walls in the village, but I don’t come across any, not that I would probably recognise one if I did.
There are also some antique-y type pieces of furniture which have probably survived here for generations – or perhaps they have been brought in for the benefit of the gullible tourists. Who can say?
The houses themselves are built of mud, straw and stone – a bit like that used to construct desert homesteads in Saudi Arabia, I think to myself.
But all of this appears of no consequence to a bored looking feline, sunning itself in the early afternoon rays.
On the side of the village is the old well, said to be 16.7 metres in depth and with stone walls down which a bucket was suspended by a windlass to draw the water. It was used up until the 1960s after which it was replaced with a motor driven pump
Many films have been shot in the village, due to its “authentic” nature – the best known of which are ‘Winter Jasmine’, ‘Lovers Grief over the Yellow River’, ‘Master of Taichi’ and ‘Worldess Love’.
But now it is time for some exercise. Signposts point ominously upward to a scenic trail leading to the ‘Golden Toad watching the moon’ scenery-viewing platform.
At first the ascent is easy…
But the higher we go, the colder it gets, and the path becomes pretty icy.
We pause for some group photographs
There’s me at the back, my red scarf clashing somewhat with the red coat and red hair in front of me.
A panorama picture unfolds beneath us of the village and surrounding hills
and then the path meanders its way downwards once again. We come across a stone brick edifice simply labelled “Goddess Temple”.
Here sacrifices are offered to the Goddess Bixia Yuanjun, the patron saint of women and children. She, it is said, is in charge of youth, birth, obviation of danger, and relief of difficulty etc (though we are not told what the etc includes). But she does apparently respond to every plea – etc or otherwise – and is “the typical folk worship representative in the Beijing area”.
An example of her extraordinary powers is evident for all to see. Just a few metres away from her temple, she has put up a warning sign to be careful of the wet “floor”. (Apparently, however, it is OK to slide onto your sit-upon from a bit of ice on the winding path higher up the mountain.)
The stone of the mountain is a beautiful mottled red at this point – contrasting nicely with the grey and green-hued rocks of a little while back.
The brisk walk has worked up appetites all round. Hmmm…. Scrambled egg with Chinese mahogany bud sounds tempting; as does tossed lily magnolia bud; or fried Chinese prickly ash leaves.
But earlier we had spied an outdoor cooker from which amazing smells were emanating. The smoke fire at the bottom both cooks and smokes pieces of mutton inside to give it a very characteristic smell.
The maître d’-cum-chef is only too happy to lift the lid and give us a gander…
Round the corner are some more pots slowly cooking away.
One contains chicken being stewed with mountain mushroom; the other contains fish from the river.
Turns out the maître d’-cum-chef is also the waiter. Best not to look at his filthy hands. Others have survived before us, so we’ll be brave too, and we decide to plump for the chicken and fish.
The “dining room” is one of the tourist guest rooms – behind the other table is a huge flat area which serves as a bed – I reckon you could comfortably sleep six in it! The portions we are served are gargantuan too – including a bowl of rice turned red by the hong dou – or red bean, with which it is cooked.
It is actually pretty tasty – such a shame that the foreigners who have come before me have chosen to copy and paste comments such as “don't expect fine cuisine there” or “the residents there apparently were not good cooks”. FGS what do they expect? McDonalds and chips???
At last it is time to pile once more into the minibus that manages to cut half an hour off the return journey – and this time he charges “only” 30 kwai for the trip. But it’s a helluva better way than waiting for a non existent bus and on the journey home there is a lively debate on the merits or otherwise of Mao and Marx with the bus driver and one passenger taking sides again the rest. (I, of course, remain neutral!)
It’s been a long tiring day, but once again your favourite blogger can now amaze his fellow workmates with tales of daring do in far flung places they have never heard of – not, one suspects, that they will even give a damn!