Shaanbei - Northern Shaanxi Province

Written by Jun 22, 2005 22:06
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The Roads of Little Sleep

TRAVEL TIP: Overnight bus from Yan'an to Beijing: 196 RMB

It's said that a culture is born out of its environment, which is part of what makes China such an interesting place to travel. Across the enormous spread of China's Mainland, Chinese people have for thousands of years observed a common cultural heritage transformed by the various environments found in the different parts of the country. You can travel from mountain range, across sweeping grasslands, through deserts and forests and cities of stone and wood: everywhere you can feel the impact of Han Chinese culture, and yet in each place there is something of distinct and unique colour; a flourish of cloth, a rare spice, an earthy phrase in local dialect. Just as the Chinese have spent centuries sculpting their land, so has the countryside left its mark on the men and women of this place. And when they leave for overseas, they take China along with them to foreign lands, the very soil on their tongue.

This was on my mind as I prepared for a harrowing bus trip across the arid mountainlands of Northern Shaanxi. I was travelling with a pair of Australian friends who were on their way to Beijing from Yan'an - I'd checked with the railway station to discover that the direct train route wouldn't open until the following month and that therefore the only way to get there without first travelling in the opposite direction and changing trains at Xi'an was to take an overnight bus.

Overnight busses are rarely comfortable creatures in any country. Busses devoted to long distance travel in China often feature slender bunks to give passengers a middle-to-average chance of sleeping, but their success usually depends upon the individual's ability to snooze through bumps and engine noise, and their tolerance for cigarette smoke - the non-smoking policy on the majority of such busses rarely respected even by the driver of the vehicle.

I broke the news to my travelling companions hesitantly - we'd come on a night bus from Xi'an to Yan'an, and it hadn't been pretty. The slow haul through precarious mountain roads had been stalled by heavy traffic, a truck accident, and arguments between cars ahead and the toll gate staff, and the trip had taken more than twice the stated length of time. Sleep had been impossible thanks to the driver loudly sounding his horn every time he needed to ease his own frustration with the traffic situation. As we had sat slowly suffocating in the nicotine air, the only mesmerising scenes outside were the city-scale oil refineries lit in bright networks of towers and gigantic, fire-spitting chimneys sprawling across the valleys like a space station in the featureless night.

Secretly, though, I was delighted - because the Yan'an - Beijing bus departs the station at 11.00am and drives through spectacular mountain passes right through Northern Shaanxi in the daytime before hitting the highways in neighbouring Shanxi and across Hebei for the overnight haul, arriving in the capital at around 7.00am the next day. The journey was unlikely to be comfortable, but Shaanbei countryside is legendary, and I was more than enthusiastic at the thought of seeing the homeland that gave rise to one of China's warmest cultures.

Northern people across the country are well known to be hot-tempered, gregarious, bold and boisterous, and Shaanbei people are no exception. Some years ago I'd purchased a CD of traditional Shaanbei music upon seeing a performance on CCTV and loved it - strong and highly decorated melodies chanted by heavy-throated and massively-lunged shepherds, accompanied by hand-drums and distinctive ethnic bugles. The performers on TV were demonstrating the famous local dance, Yang Ge - red faced, jubilant dancers pounded their legs from left to right, lifting their knees up to their waists and yodelling exuberantly. Shaanxi people are predominantly poor and hardy, with the kind of determination usually demonstrated by people of harsh, dry environments. Most are cave-dwellers still, and most towns are networks of caves dug in close valleys forming semi-underground villages.

We stretched across our bunks to the rear of the bus as it left Yan'an and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. Right next to the headrest at the top of my bunk sat a middle-aged man who already looked particularly bored. A girl behind me complained and asked if he'd be sitting in the aisle all the way to Beijing - and the ticket-collector assured her that he would be shifted to a bed after another passenger had gotten off halfway. He was lying - when we got to the next town, about fifteen more passengers were illegally added to our full load, and for the rest of the journey they sat there in the cramped space between the bunks staring blankly ahead. I looked over the row of heads bobbing in time with the poor bus suspension glumly and turned over to look outside.

The view very quickly became rewarding enough to ignore the stuffy interior of the bus. We inched up an endless slope gradually ascending the Shaanbei mountain ranges, an intimate distance from the front doors of the cave homes. If you've never seen the troglodyte dwellings of Northern China, forget the image of gaping, uneven cavern mouths with barely-clad humans sitting cross-legged around a fire inside - most are well-managed affairs, symmetrical cylinders cut into the stone, the entrance a perfect archway with a bold wooden door. Cave dwellers enjoy cool temperature in the Summer and warmth in Winter, and have resisted the occasional Government attempts to entice people into apartment buildings. These days, most caves have electricity and modern furnishings, and my Australian friends were most surprised to note that many of them had satellite dishes. Make no mistake: a cave with Satellite TV is still a cave, and these people are still very poor. Satellite communication is often installed by Local Government, being the cheapest way to reach the millions isolated across the Northern ranges.

Finally we reached the crest, and there it was: the splendid vista of mile upon mile of Shaanbei mountain. The view was awesome, each mountain painstakingly carved into terraces so that farmland might be cultivated at these heights. I stared, and wondered at the unthinkable ages it must have taken to subjugate each mountain in the region - centuries of bitter toil for the sake of dry croplands; all to be inherited by an agricultural dynasty of farmers subsisting on the ungenerous offerings of the unremitting earth. This is the countryside that spawned those heartfelt anthems, the boisterous music I'd heard before. I could imagine the gatherings of unshaven men squatting around the fires at the entrances to their caves, hollering and hooting old ballads and spitting the hot, sandy air through battered copper horns.

On the other side of the mountain ranges, we descended towards the bank of the great Yellow River, mother of Northern Chinese civilisation, which flows on the border between Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. The Chinese have a deep respect, and perhaps something of an instinctive gratitude for the Yellow River, and the moment one of the passengers caught sight of its waters the whole bus came to life. The squatting passengers who'd spent the whole afternoon navel gazing and smoking unselfconsciously strained for a view - fortunately, it was around dinnertime and the bus stopped at a diner between the sand dunes at the river's edge. I climbed a dune and looked out over the plains of ochre dust - the river water itself, clogged to capacity with silt and sand, the same colour as its banks - and across on the other shore, more of the same in Shanxi. It looked barely livable, but was unspeakably beautiful.

Our bus crossed the border, evening came, the towns we passed slowly changed their character, the caves gave way to ugly buildings of cement and rusting iron, gross overdecorated signs of neon cast garish colours into the sky. I felt the hands of one of the bunkless squatters next to my bed as he checked the comfortability factor of my bottom as a prospective pillow upon which to rest his weary head. I shuffled him off and watched the moon until the morning, when we pulled into Beijing's Lianhua Station; the four-lane roads, multi-storey skyscrapers and rich cars passing by seemingly impossible in the morning glare.

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