Darkness on the Edge of Town: A Journey from the Beijing Suburbs to the Chinese Hinterland – Pt 1 of 2

A burned-out expat joins a maverick Beijing businessman and his family on a New Year road trip through China’s industrial and agricultural heartland, from the sprawling capital to an ancient walled city where, many years ago in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the country’s financial industry took root. It is a journey that involves the world’s largest annual human migration, a high-speed car chase through the hills of Hebei Province, and a glimpse of the vast coal industry that powers modern China. 

“Living in fear in the Year of the Tiger.”

St Vincent, Year of the Tiger

I was nearly halfway through a two-and-a-half-year stint as an editor in Beijing and the novelty of a new job in a new city was beginning to wear off. I had fallen into a depressing routine of 12-hour working days, my Mandarin had plateaued, and I was growing too comfortable with a somewhat solitary existence on the fringes of the Chinese capital.

So when my boss and mentor, Mr Kong, suggested a trip to Pingyao, an ancient World Heritage-listed city in Shanxi Province, I welcomed the opportunity to get away for a couple of days.

Mr Kong was a passionate critic of Beijing, the city in which he had spent the majority of his professional life. Almost everything about the place filled him with a deep, visceral loathing. The traffic gave him road rage, the politics gave rise to long-winded diatribes, and the rejection by the urban youth of long-held traditional values had him shaking his head and sighing with exasperation. He came from a third-tier city in Hunan Province and had never quite adjusted to life in the fast-paced capital. He longed for the Great Outdoors and spoke fondly of his time as a student in Changchun, which in those days was a small industrial town near China’s north-eastern frontier.    

I was still relatively new to Beijing and didn’t fully share my boss’s antipathy towards it. I had thoroughly explored the city, from the downtown areas to the outer reaches, from the imperial-era temples, lamaseries, palaces and hutongs to the ultra-modern tech bazaars at Zhongguancun, the glitzy shopping centres of Xidan, the street-food stalls of Wangfujing, and the European-style pubs and cafes of Houhai and Sanlitun. And yet there was still much to discover, like the tranquil university campuses of Wudaokou, the gogigui restaurants of Koreatown, the mink markets of the Russian quarter, and the decommissioned military factory complex that had been transformed into a vibrant art district. The streets of Beijing were always yielding new secrets, new surprises, and the entire city seemed to be constantly reinventing itself before my very eyes.

But I saw where Mr Kong was coming from. Beijing, for all its charms, can wear you down. It is, at times, downright hostile to human life. First, there is the extreme climate – hot and dry summers and freezing winters. Then there are the mammoth construction projects that carry on round the clock and the soul-destroying commutes on insanely congested roads or packed subway trains. And aside from the well-documented smog, Beijingers must contend with the occasional sandstorm barrelling in from Inner Mongolia. I woke up one morning to find the sky had turned an apocalyptic blood-red and the sun had been nearly blotted out by thick dust – the streets were deserted but for a few brave souls going about their business, leaning into the wind with faces wrapped in scarves and goggles, like Tusken Raiders navigating the arid wastes of the planet Tatooine.

It was Spring Festival, a week-long holiday marking Chinese New Year, when Mr Kong suggested visiting Pingyao. Such was our eagerness to escape the daily grind of Beijing life that we were not put off by the thought of having to travel during chunyun, an annual mass migration on a scale that truly defies the imagination. Over a month-long period, hundreds of millions of Chinese workers would take to the roads, railways and skies, flocking to their hometowns from the country’s major urban centres to ring in the Year of the Rabbit with their families.

Chunyun compared with other large-scale human migrations.
By cmglee, Al MacDonald et al. – World map – low resolution.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Beijing traffic is bad at the best of times, but caught up in this great urban exodus we moved with a slowness that can only be described as glacial. Even though we had made a point of avoiding the main travel days of chunyun, the city’s outbound expressways were totally gridlocked for miles. We crawled through tollgates, inching towards the open country. During intervals when the traffic was at a complete standstill, motorists would get out of their vehicles to stretch their legs on the asphalt and smoke cigarettes. In the back of Mr Kong’s spacious Buick, his wife, Mrs Chang, chatted away to friends and colleagues on her phone. And their teenage daughter, Ling Ling, an avid consumer of Japanese pop culture, watched anime shows on her iPod.

At the outer limits of the city, we passed a number of container depots with their gantry cranes looming over them like strange arachnoid creatures guarding clusters of metallic eggs. And we saw huge under-construction overpasses and interchanges crawling with colossal many-wheeled machines. The city was expanding in all directions at breakneck speed, a phenomenon which Chinese urbanites refer to as tan da bing, or “spreading pancake”, and it seemed like there was no stopping it. It seemed as though the heavy-duty machines had overthrown their puny operators and, impatient for a concrete and steel future, were now advancing inexorably towards the realisation of their dystopian dream, block by block, bridge span by bridge span.

It was the Year of the Tiger and I was not long out of university when I took up an editorial job in Beijing. I moved into a fairly nondescript western suburb called Shijingshan, a few blocks away from Mr Kong’s family. Other than a popular amusement park, a velodrome built for the 2008 Olympics, and a complex of Buddhist monasteries situated at the foot of the Western Hills, there was little to distinguish Shijingshan from any other residential district of the city. From my seventeenth-floor apartment, I looked down on an under-construction flyover, a lofty porticoed court building, a futuristic sports centre and a slick new shopping mall where middle-aged women would gather in the forecourt to perform choreographed dance routines in the evenings. A little beyond the mall, the neighbourhood was bisected by a railway track on which freight trains occasionally travelled from east to west and vice versa. And on the other side of the track there was another mall — this one old and rundown — which backed onto a small coal yard. From there the neighbourhood continued in row upon row of generic apartment blocks until it reached the Western Hills, or Xishan, which rose in forested ridges hundreds of meters above the streets.  

In the winter, Shijingshan was a pretty bleak place — snowbound and leafless, with steam coming off the buildings. But in the summer, the streets livened up a little with al-fresco diners, mah-jong players and elderly residents using public exercise equipment. In the parks, old men hung caged songbirds in the trees while they practiced qigong and families strolled through vine-covered pergolas beside ornamental ponds teeming with brightly coloured carp.

But I was a casual observer of local life rather than an active participant in it. My intermediate-level Mandarin made it difficult for me to forge meaningful connections with the people on my block. Besides, I had little time for a social life — I spent long hours at the office in Haidian District, and by the time I’d made the one-hour commute home I’d be too exhausted for anything other than a hasty dinner and whatever movie was showing on the TV’s only 24/7 English-language channel. I had few real friends in Beijing but this didn’t bother me for the most part. I liked to be left alone and, after three years in a small Welsh seaside town where everybody knew everybody, I welcomed the anonymity of the 20 million-strong crowd that is Beijing. Even in my downtime, I made little effort to interact with people, preferring instead to disappear into the seething mass of shoppers at Xidan, headphones on, cocooned in a membrane of sound while the restless, noisy torrent of humanity surged around me. But at times the isolation got to me. I oscillated between bouts of gnawing depression and spells of giddy euphoria. And the isolation I felt was compounded by the fact that I was out of touch with people back in the UK — Facebook and other non-Chinese social platforms were blocked until I figured out how to use VPNs to tunnel under the government firewall.   

I felt adrift sometimes in a vast, impersonal megalopolis, not tethered to anything I could call my own. And it wasn’t just because I was a foreigner. The sheer scale of Beijing would make anyone feel small, insignificant and somehow disconnected from everything. I saw loneliness all around me — people trying to fill a void with work, possessions, status, and so on. Perhaps it’s no accident that an unofficial Chinese holiday celebrating singlehood has grown into an e-commerce bonanza that eclipses Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. Singles Day, an “anti-Valentine’s Day” celebration in which singles are encouraged to treat themselves to a shopping spree, has become a tradition worth tens of billions of dollars to retailers. The Singles Day phenomenon is indicative of a cultural shift towards individualism, but the annual splurge suggests an underlying insecurity rather than a newfound confidence.

Singleness is a hot-button issue in modern China. Men outnumber women by a huge margin — an unintended consequence of the government’s one-child policy, which ran from 1980 to 2016. In a society which traditionally favours sons over daughters, the one-child policy gave rise to widespread female infanticide and sex-selective abortions. As a result, there are now tens of millions of men in the country who will never find a wife. These men are known as guanggun, or “bare branches”. At the same time, Chinese women are increasingly putting off marriage in order to pursue professional or educational opportunities. These spinsters are known as sheng nu, or “leftover women”. Both single men and single women face enormous pressure from parents to get married and many of them report feeling great anxiety, especially during family occasions like Spring Festival. 

Like China’s “bare branches”, I thought of myself as a confirmed bachelor, albeit one who didn’t have to deal with overbearing parental pressure. In theory, my Englishness should have given me a leg up in the local dating game since Beijingers, though increasingly cosmopolitan, still tended to exoticise Westerners. Sure, I had a few random, sometimes bizarre, encounters — the Italian language student who invited me to a Beatles tribute gig in a hutong bar; the fashion student who kept making eyes at me in a hotpot restaurant before striding over with her friends to ask for my number; the commuter on a crowded subway train who struck up conversation about the book I was reading; the Europhile who sat across the table from me in a cafe and tried to engage me in a discussion about the writings of Milan Kundera; and so on. But, despite contact details being exchanged each time, nothing much came of these encounters other than a couple of short-lived platonic friendships. The girls I crossed paths with were generally intelligent, confident and attractive, if a little kooky, but I didn’t connect with any of them in any real sense, and the thought of dating for its own sake somehow depressed me more than the thought of permanent singleness. In Beijing, as in my home country, I was something of an anomaly. “Most foreign guys think Chinese girls are easy,” one perplexed girl said to me. I liked to think I was too much of a gentleman to play the “white guy in China” card, but it’s possible that I was simply too awkward and reserved.

I spent most evenings holed up in my studio apartment, with its floor-to-ceiling view of buildings and mountains, drinking tins of Yanjing beer and filling notebooks with neurotic screeds, an urban troglodyte wiling away the empty hours. I had little interest in getting involved with the expat community in the city. Though I tried to make a habit of attending Sunday services at an international church, one of the few approved by the communist government, I never developed a sense of belonging there. The church had a few thousand members who congregated in various locations across the city, but I didn’t feel as though I had anything much in common with any of them. I only showed up on Sunday in a bid to keep my wavering faith alive. Perhaps I thought God would forget about me amid the clamour of 20 million voices. Perhaps I feared I would lose sight of the divine amid the haze and lights and confusion of the city, just as city dwellers forget there’s a Milky Way above their heads.

But, while I was going through what Dostoyevsky described as “a furnace of doubt”, the Chinese people were finding God in record numbers. Over the past few decades, religion has flourished in China — the country’s Christian population in particular has exploded and is on track to be the largest in the world in a few years. This trend can be seen as a backlash against the burgeoning materialism in modern China — evidence, perhaps, of a hunger for something more than the trappings of economic growth. But this religious revival is not always obvious on the surface. The atheistic government places restrictions on public worship and bulldozes the buildings of churches that don’t comply, forcing their congregations underground. International churches are required to examine visitors’ ID and turn Chinese nationals away at the door.     

The most vibrant church groups in China are the ones that meet in private homes, away from the prying eyes of the government. Every so often, I hung out with one of these groups, but it was not “church” as people back in the UK would understand the term. The group worshiped together, prayed together, studied the Bible together, but there was no leader and no structure as such. They were far more close-knit than the large body of international believers I met with on Sundays. On one occasion, I joined the group on a hiking trip to a remote, overgrown section of the Great Wall which locals refer to as the Wild Wall. We spent a day clambering over the ancient, crumbling ruins and stayed the night with some local farmers. Another time, we had a barbeque on a terrace overlooking the lights of Shijingshan followed by late-night conversations, beers and cigars imported from the Dominican Republic. This motley, multigenerational group of people was the closest thing I had to a community while in Beijing. But their English was only slightly better than my Mandarin so, despite their sincere efforts to welcome me, I never quite shook the feeling of being an outsider.

Gradually, I succumbed to a deep spiritual malaise. There were moments of clarity, but for the most part I felt lost and directionless. I felt like an idiot every time I had to call a repairman over or visit the estate agent to pay my rent or use the ATMs to top up my electricity or sign in with the local police or conduct business at the bank. Pretty soon I started using the language barrier as an excuse not to communicate — with cops, with nosy neighbours, with chatty taxi drivers, with cold-callers, with colleagues, with anybody. Ironically, there was one Mandarin phrase that tripped off my tongue easily: “wo bu hui shuo zhongwen(“I don’t speak Chinese”).It was a magical phrase that kept undesirables at arm’s length, but the trade-off was a deepening sense of alienation. My world was getting smaller even as the world around me continued to stretch out into infinite distances. Little by little, Beijing was grinding me down, causing me to reassess everything I thought I knew about those two worlds, the one within and the one without. And there was nowhere else I would rather have been.

Once we had got beyond the 6th Ring Road, the monotonous and seemingly endless grey world of suburbia began to recede at last – the rows of apartment blocks thinned out, the congestion eased, and the road began to wind its way through rolling hills. In an outlying district of Beijing Municipality we passed a section of the Great Wall that snaked down the hillside, several miles from Badaling, the section that tourists throng to with their selfie-sticks and Mao caps.

Passing the Great Wall.

Soon the countryside surrounded us on all sides, interrupted only by a series of power stations with massive cooling towers that exhaled plumes of vapour into the crisp springtime air. We had ahead of us a roughly seven-hour journey through Hebei, the mountainous province that wraps around the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, and neighbouring Shanxi Province. We would spend the night in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, before heading to Pingyao the following day.

Mr Kong was not daunted by the long drive. He once claimed he had driven from his hometown in Hunan to Beijing – a journey of around 15 hours – without stopping for a break. Such feats of endurance were a matter of pride for him. He believed rest was over-rated and slept only 4 or 5 hours each night. “I’ll sleep when I’m in my box,” he used to say.  

The way he was driving, it looked like Mr Kong would be in his box sooner than expected, along with the rest of us in the car. Now on the open road, he gunned the engine, weaving through the traffic at speed with the James Bond theme blaring through the car speakers and his long-suffering wife clucking disapprovingly from the backseat. He was in his element, face to the highway with the raw beauty of the Chinese countryside flitting past the windows. He sat bolt upright with his sunglasses on, gripping a steering wheel that he’d covered with tissue paper to absorb the sweat from his palms.

Perhaps in that moment he recalled his student days, when travelling during chunyun meant curling up in a luggage rack on a crowded long-distance train. How times had changed! Now he could drive on wide expressways in a Buick with heated leather seats. He could even afford to indulge his thirst for adventure by going on the odd biking trip in the United States with a group of Harley Davidson enthusiasts he had befriended. There was freedom in the open road — a freedom that made him feel invincible. But he couldn’t get too carried away now — in a battered old hatchback behind us, his old friend, Mr Zheng, was struggling to keep up.

When the Bond soundtrack came to an end, Mr Kong flicked through the radio stations, cursing them one by one before writing them off as “Garbage! All garbage!”  Then, in keeping with a long-running in-car ritual, he turned to me and said: “Got music?”

Mr Kong once described my music collection as “a bunch of sad men shouting.” It is true that I had a soft spot for the elegiac, angst-ridden electro-rock of Radiohead, the world-weary folk of Bob Dylan, the dark post-punk poetry of Nick Cave, and the bourbon-soaked junkyard blues of Tom Waits. But, despite Mr Kong’s pithy put-down, he was always keen to know what I was listening to. After I took him to see Bob Dylan’s first ever performance in China, he went home and torrented the man’s entire back catalogue. It was the subversive lyrics of early Dylan that appealed to Mr Kong (though the Chinese government had forced him to play a relatively innocuous set at his gig in the Beijing Workers’ Gymnasium). A fan of ‘80s and ‘90s Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean rock ‘n’ roll, Mr Kong’s tastes were no less influenced by melancholy and a sense of profound social and political discontent than mine were. One of his favourite artists was Cui Jian, the so-called “Father of Chinese Rock”, a guy whose hits include a song called “Nothing to My Name”, in which he sings about being spurned by a girl because, well, he had nothing to his name.

Cui Jian’s music spoke to a generation that was disillusioned with life under the Communist government. During the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, he performed a couple of songs, including “Nothing to My Name”, while wearing a red blindfold. The year after the protests were brutally suppressed, Cui took to the stage dressed as a peasant, again wearing a red blindfold, and sang one of his protest songs, “A Piece of Red Cloth”, prompting the authorities to shut down the performance. Since then he has been banned from performing in large venues.

Mr Kong was a young adult when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened. He was not in Beijing at the time, but a couple of his closest friends were on the scene that fateful day. One of them, an old friend and long-time business partner, recalled being among the protestors and running for his life the moment the first shots rang out (a fact Mr Kong mercilessly ribbed him for whenever he got a chance); the other, our travel companion Mr Zheng, was one of the young soldiers sent in by the government to crush the protests.   

Like many in China who work for the state machine, Mr Zheng seemed to have chosen a military career for practical rather than ideological reasons. Bagging a job in the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, was a way of gaining social status as well as financial security. Even Mr Kong had tried to join the Air Force when he was young but had been rejected because his eyesight wasn’t good enough.

It was hard to imagine Mr Kong working for the state in any capacity now. He’d become a staunch adherent of American-style libertarian conservatism, and the totalitarian regime in China was the absolute antithesis of everything he believed in. He was very vocal about his distaste for the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, once loudly proclaiming that it was evil in the middle of a busy restaurant. He was old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, ten mad years of political purges and social upheaval instigated by an increasingly paranoid Mao Zedong. He recalled being left alone at home as a young child night after night while his parents attended compulsory communist meetings.  

Mr Kong was nostalgic for the anti-government activism of his youth and lamented the political inertia of recent years and the apparent apathy of the younger generations. Today’s Chinese youth seem to know little, if anything, of what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 4th and 5th, 1989. Government efforts to censor any mention of the massacre on the web or in the country’s media have been incredibly effective. In Beijing I met a south Chinese girl born the day after the massacre who had never heard about it until she’d reached adulthood.

As I write this, the protests in Hong Kong have been making global headlines for several months, but in Mainland China protesting is not an option. Many of the university students and young professionals I spoke to in Beijing told me they were frustrated with their government, but there were no officially sanctioned ways for them to express their disaffection. There was a short-lived attempt to stir up a popular pro-democracy movement while I was in Beijing. But this campaign, named the Jasmine Revolution after the Tunisian uprising that inspired it, was nipped in the bud by the government before it could get rolling. In the days leading up to the planned protests, the censors blocked all keywords relating to the protests on social networking sites and even in SMS messages. A number of people were arrested, including the artist Ai Weiwei.

Political commentators often say that the Chinese government won’t lose its grip on power as long as it is able to provide a satisfactory level of prosperity. Perhaps there is some truth in this. Certainly, the youth I mingled with in China seemed preoccupied with pursuing “the good life”. Like kids in the West, they turned to partying, shopping and other forms of escapism. There is an undercurrent of hedonism in modern China — a far cry from the Confucian moderation extolled by previous generations — and I witnessed this firsthand on several occasions. One time, while in Jiangxi Province, I was invited to a karaoke (or KTV) party hosted by a rich twenty-something called Hu Feng Tao who introduced himself as Hu Jintao (the Chinese president at the time). Hu was paying for everything, including a private room at a luxurious KTV bar and an endless supply of food, beer and Golden Bridge cigarettes. At one point a waiter came round with cocaine on a silver tray and Hu and his friends proceeded to snort lines using rolled-up 100-yuan banknotes. On another occasion, I found myself at a hard rock gig in Beijing which descended into near-madness when intoxicated fans began stripping naked and stage-diving into the crowd while Stratocasters shrieked and a swaggering frontman howled into a microphone.    

The youth of China were capable of hellraising on a par with anything seen in more liberal countries, but I didn’t see much appetite among them for outright political dissent. Even the above-mentioned rock concert had been decidedly apolitical. Perhaps the well-heeled party-going urban youth I mingled with were comfortable enough and considered it expedient to maintain the status quo. There were many who even believed that China was better off under the current regime than under Western-style liberal democracy. These people would argue that there is no history of democracy in China and that it could never work properly in a population of 1.4 billion people.

But Mr Kong was hungry for the downfall of the CCP and he believed this would inevitably come, most likely in the form of a violent upheaval. He kept abreast of every government scandal that came down the grapevine, gleefully monitoring each sordid development. When Bo Xilai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, became engulfed in a major corruption scandal that shook the whole country, Mr Kong was busily posting about it on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo long before the story hit international headlines.

Somewhere on the G6 expressway, a national trunk road that heads towards Tibet, an SUV with military license plates zoomed past us at twice the 80 km/h speed limit. This was not an uncommon sight in China — the military was intimately connected to the CCP and its officials were always behaving as though they were above the law. But it got Mr Kong’s blood up. The devil-may-care attitude of military drivers represented everything he hated about the corrupt officialdom that was lording it over the Chinese people — the double standards, the arrogance, the sometimes blatant disregard for public safety, and so on. With a cry of “military bastards!” he floored the accelerator and went after the SUV at full throttle, blasting his horn like a maniac. His wife yelled at him from the backseat but Ling Ling, used to her father’s wild antics, carried on watching her anime unfazed. Mr Kong tailgated the SUV at 160 km/h for quite a distance before reluctantly slowing down so that Mr Zheng, now far behind, could catch up.

Somewhere in Hebei Province.

We were now deep into the rugged hills of Hebei with the stereo system belting out Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, one of my favourite albums at the time. The road was smooth and we went through a number of long tunnels that had been bored through masses of solid rock. The hillsides were covered with brown scrub and here and there I glimpsed shrines and temples on the rocky heights and compact monochrome hamlets in the valleys, their bright-red New Year decorations standing out in a palette of earthy browns. Sometimes the road snaked through vast expanses of flat farmland, featureless except for a few elongated adobe structures. The image of two young kids play-fighting on a gas transmission pipe in the middle of this lonely landscape while bonfires blazed behind them remained in my mind like a freeze-frame.

Mr Kong took in the scenery. Country life appealed strongly to him and he dreamed of one day living out his retirement in a rustic homestead with a vegetable patch and a small bamboo grove. Sometimes he ventured into the countryside to help farmers plant or harvest their crops and he was never more alive than when he was toiling bare-chested in the mud of some remote field or paddy. But he knew that rural China was no Shangri-La. He frequently drew my attention to reports of farmers setting themselves on fire — victims of government land seizures who resorted to self-immolation as a final act of hopeless defiance. This was the tragic human cost of China’s rapid industrialisation.

Eventually we entered Shanxi Province but the topography remained largely unchanged — steep hills and wide-open plains. A few times I glimpsed ancient-looking cave dwellings that had been carved into the hillsides. Some were simple burrows; others had masonry entrances that protruded from the hillside. These dwellings, known as yaodong, are ubiquitous across Shanxi and other regions of the Loess Plateau that stretches across North China. Mao and his followers were headquartered in yaodong during the Communist Revolution. Today, millions of Chinese still live in these cave dwellings and even Xi Jinping, the current president of China and world’s most powerful man (according to Forbes), spent seven years in one as an exile during the Cultural Revolution.  

Shanxi is at the heart of China’s coal belt. The land around us was cratered with huge opencast mines in which labourers toiled in grim, often life-threatening, conditions to supply the precious resource that fuels modern China. I had been monitoring the country’s gargantuan coal industry as part of my work for Mr Kong, but this was the first time I was seeing it up close. This was a haze-covered world of slender chimneys, drab industrial buildings, and gigantic silos fed by long conveyor belts. Trucks laden with heaps of coal went up and down the highway — it may have been holiday season, but someone had to keep the furnaces burning. Once or twice I saw stooped-over village women at the roadside collecting lumps of coal that had fallen from the trucks. The road skirted the edge of Datong, a coal mining city near the border of Inner Mongolia. With its forest of belching chimneys, the skyline was reminiscent of a Lowry painting — a dark, Dickensian vision rendered even gloomier by the gathering twilight. The city was bathed in a thick amorphous cloud of smog that glowed beige in the half-light.

Soon night closed in and there was little to see other than the silhouettes of mountains, the glittering constellations of distant towns and the beady eyes of car lights drifting, disembodied, through the darkness. At some point I think I dozed off.

By the time we reached Taiyuan, it was late. Mr Zheng had used his connections to fix us up with rooms at a military-run hotel — this was a time when the PLA had numerous business interests across the country, before President Xi reigned in these commercial activities. Once we had checked in, we went out for dinner at a bustling restaurant. Mr Zheng called for baijiu, a potent grain-based spirit, and he, Mr Kong and I shared the bottle. After dinner, we all took a walk through the streets, hands in our pockets and coats buttoned up against the bracing cold. Firecrackers were going off in the middle distance. Mr Kong, Mr Zheng and their wives, in high spirits after the hearty dinner, talked animatedly among themselves. I wished I knew what they were talking about. Mr Zheng had a son who was roughly the same age as Ling Ling. They were both shy but they had known each other a long time and seemed to get along well enough.

Finally, we headed back to the hotel, where I had the misfortune of sharing a room with Mr Kong. The guy was fast asleep within minutes of hitting his bed, and he snored something awful — a heavy industrial sound like a sawmill going into overdrive. I tried in vain to block out the infernal sound by pulling the covers over my head and pumping music into my ears. I tossed and turned until finally, nerves frayed and body exhausted, I fell into a shallow, troubled sleep.

Tomorrow we would explore the ancient streets of Pingyao.

Stay tuned. Part 2 coming soon.

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5 thoughts on “Darkness on the Edge of Town: A Journey from the Beijing Suburbs to the Chinese Hinterland – Pt 1 of 2

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