So we’re packing our things the day before the trip. Our inventory is an interesting one. We have bags of dried hawthorn, mango and dates, two whole roast ducks for Dad and two bumper economy packs of powdered lotus root for Suzie’s Mum. Simply add hot water to make either a sweet drink or a porridge, whatever takes your fancy.
We’ll be up at five thirty in the morning to avoid the traffic on the fifth ring road. A sense of foreboding hangs over me like a cloud as it’s another national break. Last holiday we took a taxi to the park but had to turn back after only twenty minutes. Oh and also one hour to actually get off the expressway such was the level of congestion. Some Chinese friends also going in that direction this weekend warned us that this was still too late and that they would be setting off at four thirty!
This is the first time to go to Suzie’s folk’s place. “It’s out in the countryside” is the only information I’ve been able to glean so far, that and the address; Beisujiagoucun 北苏家沟村 in Lulong County (beɪ/sju/ʤɑ/gaʊ/sʌn or bay-sue-jar-gow (like cow) – son). Pasting it into Google maps I find it’s a small village way past Tangshan, far removed from any major roads.
“You can find it when we get there. That’s your job,” says Suzie casually “I haven’t been there in ten years so I can’t remember anything. I think it may have a shop!”
Next day in the Godforsaken early hours I pray that my brain can rapidly wake up to deal with the roads.
“What is this holiday anyway?” I lamely ask as we open the front door. I should really know this by now.
“It’s Labour Day!”
“So what’s it about?” More lameness.
“It’s for workers to have time off and respect people who work in the countryside like my parents. That’s why they use the word ‘labour’; to labour in the fields. My parents have a field you know.”
“They have a field?”
“Yes of course they do,” laughs Suzie “What do you think they do in the countryside? I also have a field!”
My wife has a field! Well you learn something every day!
The early start pays off and we’re out of Beijing after an hour and a half. However on the G1 Gaosugonglu (expressway) things immediately slow down to a snail’s pace. An endless number of bumper to bumper prangs bring the flow to a virtual standstill, no doubt due to the early start and loss of concentration. There are also four and five car shunts as well as trucks and buses that have made side to side contact as they try and jump lanes.
After a long and tiresome morning we finally arrive at Lulong County and exit the expressway. An instant change in road quality is an indicator that we’ve landed into unfamiliar territory. Potholes and cracks send the small city car we’ve borrowed juddering and banging as its poor suspension takes a severe beating. The narrow roads snake past ramshackle hamlets, farmlands and through clouds of sepia dust forcing us to close the windows. Ageing machinery towers rusting and abandoned vividly against the clear blue sky. Empty buildings are left to decay with no reason for demolition. Farm animals wander around aimlessly across the road and empty railroad tracks.
Finally we arrive at Beisujiagoucun. I must admit I’ve never been to anywhere like this before. A single downward sloping thoroughfare with barely enough space for the car connects to six or seven side-roads and around fifty small homes. Our slow crawl down the street means that the locals all stop what they’re doing, gawping at the foreigner inches away from the window.
Suzie’s folks live in a three room one storey house. It has a central kitchen area with a bedroom on one side and living room on the other. They have an outside toilet and a couple of sheds and you can climb onto the roof with a metal ladder permanently wired to the side of the building. From there you get a three hundred and sixty degree panoramic view of the whole area. The sense of space is overwhelming, magnified by a legion of pylons suspending crackling electricity lines above the furrowed land off into the distance. Directly below, one of their neighbours spends the whole afternoon meticulously repairing a steel bucket.
Shu Lan (Mum) lays on a huge spread of food. There are a lot of friends and relatives and everyone dives in with gusto. How Shu Lan manages to make so much food from one gas burner I dont know, but she continues to cook the whole time while everyone is eating, adding more dishes to the table. One of the ducks gets broken up and served along with spare ribs, shredded crispy pork and ‘country style’ chicken. There is dofu and spinach soup along with countless other vegetable dishes. Phew!
Suzie and I go for a walk after dinner. Mile upon mile of dry terracotta soil stretch as far as the horizon. There is hardly any water around here and it’s been in drought for years. Corn is the most common crop since it’s hard to get anything else to grow. Groups of people are working on the land; specks in the distance disappearing in the strong afternoon sun. Oh, and she cant remember where her field is!
There are numerous mounds of earth spread haphazardly throughout the area, some really close to the village. “They are the graves. When people die they get buried in their field. They work on their field all their lives so it’s where they belong. Their family will continue farming around them.”