The high-speed train takes three hours to get from Beijing to Tai Yue. The regular train ten. I took the high-speed of course, which doesn’t seem to go that fast and stops fairly often. I can’t imagine how slow the other train can be.
The suburbs of Beijing go on forever, bristling with the closely packed stalagmites of skyscraping apartment buildings. Thirty floors is no rarity.
Then comes a huge green perimeter of agricultural land: Beijing has some 20 millions hungry mouths to feed. Then a grey no-man’s-land, everything will be grey all the way to Ping Yao.
I got the middle seat, nice neighbors but they speak over my head which entails a fair amount of spluttering. Good thing that SARS is a thing of the past. Someone tries to close the blind! Loud protests and I join the chorus. My not speaking Chinese won’t prevent me from trying to express my point of view. Up goes the blind.
The young man on my right speaks a bit of English. He tells me his name is Liu Xiao Meng and that he is a household appliance “engineer”. I didn’t know there were such engineers. Maybe did he mean a repairman. He is traveling to Tai Yuen for a three-month stint.
It’s raining and 18 degrees in Tai Yuen, but it’s not my final destination. A car will take me to Ping Yao, a two-hour drive away. I’m thankful to see a young woman at the station with a sign bearing my name. We walk to the curb under the rain but there is no car waiting. Out goes her cell phone, it will come out a lot in the next 45 minutes or so. There are at least a few strategically placed umbrellas for us to try and keep relatively dry. She doesn’t seem to be able to figure out where the driver is. A barrage of taxi drivers is trying to get our business and I’m tempted, while I’ getting wetter by the minute, to accept their services.
But where is that chauffeur? “Oh, lots and lots of traffic!” I see. “Cannot come in here. We go over there.” And there we go, traipsing through the mud, dragging my suitcase and the two of us huddling under the umbrella. “You stay here, wait!”. At least, she leaves me with the umbrella. A motorcycle practically runs me over, as I try to avoid the splashing cars. I feel a bit lonely there with my umbrella. The girl eventually comes back. “So sorry, station is new. I didn’t know. On the other side, so sorry!” and there we go again.
By the time we got to the car, I was good and soaked. The scenery beyond the window reminds me of a futuristic town having entered some sort of a postnuclear winter. Not too cheerful.
There is a golden statue on the dashboard of the car. “What is that?” “For protection,
it has a knife to cut people’s faces off.” That’s what I understood from Maggie’s explanations. She’s an English major and hopes to become an English teacher. To cut people’s faces off, uh?
We finally made it to Ping Yao. The hotel, like just about everything else in Ping Yao, occupies a lovely old siheyuan, house built around one or several patios.
And, as I will discover later, all siheyuans no matter how opulent, are characteristically dark. I can barely see the tip of my nose in the bathroom’s mirror, which might be a good thing. But what I’ve grown to love is the kang, the platform which might have served as a the main piece of furniture, at the same time dining table, desk and bed at night when you unroll the mattress. They are unbelievably comfortable and I would readily exchange my bed for a kang. It costs me to leave it in the morning.
But I was not in an ecstatic mood yet: wet and cold, my morale plummeting as I crossed the courtyard to my room, trying to avoid the puddles -why, I don’t know, there was really no point.
I felt a lot better after putting the heat on, taking a hot shower and deciding that nothing but the fanciest restaurant in town would do.
After a glass of Chinese Chardonnay (not bad at all) at the Jing’s Residence, the street scene unrolling before my eyes became tinted with exotic romanticism: umbrellas hurrying through the old, prosperous banking town like flowers blooming on ornate facades of carved wood, glazed tiles and fantastic animals preening on the curled edges of cornices. I think I’ll have another glass of that Chardonnay.