<A> Yan'an "The Red City"

Written by Sep 26, 2005 01:09
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Sleepless Nights

安 "An" is the Chinese word for peace with the character poignantly depicting a woman under a roof. These days however, peace is hard to find, even for China's bold matriarchs due to the incessant construction pervading nearly all of China's cities. This is especially evident in Yan'an, which is set in the mountainous plateau regions of Northern China. I have decided to bed down here for about five weeks to do some teaching, exploring, and sampling of various Chinese oddities. First off, I notice that the city center is awash with the construction of new buildings and the tearing down of old. It is so congested and noisy here because several years ago oil was discovered nearby transforming this working class town into a bustling hub for domestic investment.
Yan'an's history is also rich from the bygone era when it was headquarters for Mao and his Red Army. The area allowed for clandestine operations amidst the mountains and many caves which have been dug into the side of the hills by the locals for a cheap and efficient form of housing. You can visit Mao's cave and learn much about this period in the many museums here. The Bao Pagoda is also a famous attraction here. It was built in the Sung Dynasty and stands on a hill overlooking the city.
Back in my apartment, the noise is constant, and getting any sleep is a challenge. The construction racket ends at 4am, only to be replaced by funeral processions ot 7am in the morning. Chinese funerals include the clanging of xiao(cymbals), various wind instruments and a barrage of high power fireworks to scare away any unwelcome spirits and foreigners such as myself. I sleep on a large wooden plank with two small blankets. Chinese people don't feel it is necessary to buy mattresses and other superflous things of this nature. I have however decided to splurge and buy myself an electric shower instead of walking to the nearest public shower. The noise in my apartment is unbearable and I have been forced improvise a pair of earplugs. Chinese Playdo from the kids section works well and has become the latest edition to my Chinese survival kit along with my toilet paper and teaball.

Hobbit Houses

I ask my friends her if we can get out of the city and go to the countryside to sleep in one of the caves on a local farm. They agree, and soon we are off on a two and a half hour trek. The path winds through hils and valleys. My friends tell me there is a mountain village several hours by car and foot which has people in it who have never seen the outside world. They have no electricity and are very poor, living off of meager farming production. We arrive to our destination to smiling faces of kids and piles of watermelon. The food is great albeit a bit bland. There are a great many variety of breads here which are quite good. I couldn't help but notice the "smallness" of many things around me. The apples and potatoes I was served were a third the size of what I am used to in the states. Even the cows were not so large nor beefy. I found out that this was because there was no grass for grazing farm animals. These cows were used for plowing only and they produced no milk.
As I looked over the hillsides at the little modernized caves with their half oval shaped walls and tidy miniature yards, I couldn't help but think I had entered a land of hobbits although the people aren't so short but very thin and fragile looking sometimes. Inside the caves which now have plastered walls and even televisions, there is a large wooden bed built into the rear wall called a "kang". It is connected to a coal-fired stove used for cooking and it also heats the bed in the winter. It was rather comfortable and I slept well enough. Of course, there are no such things as showers out here so I was looking foward to returning to the city the next day. The girl who was our guide to this family's farm walks five hours every day to and from work in the city to this farm to save money rather than rent a room. We made it back safely to the apartment and I was back in the swing of city life in no time.

Roller Derby

My local friends here decide to take me out the next night. They decide on rollerskating because like basketball, they assume that all Americans are skilled at these activities. I try to explain that rollerskating was popular about thiry years ago in America and that I haven't rollerskated myself since I was probably twelve years old. They assure me that I am only being modest and off we go to the nearest rink in the center of town. As we approach the entrance, I realize we are entering a tunnel in a mountain. I ask my friend "Lucy" what this place is and she tells me that it is an old bunker built sometime in the beginning of the twentieth century during the war with Japan. I think to myself how awesome this place is as we proceed deeper and deeper into the chilly mountain air. After several hundred yards we reach the skating rink which is a converted officer's ballroom dancefloor. There are a lot of young kid's with lithe bodies skating swiftly around. After finally fitting me with the largest pair of shoes they could find, I became a spectacle for all to enjoy as I relearned my rollerskating skills. I had a great time and went back there several times because of the unique atmosphere.

Salt, Anyone?

The food takes a little getting useed to in Yan'an. Although the noodles are always delicious in Northern China, eating them every day gets to be a bore. As I try the other local food, it dawns on me that the influence of the spice trade of the sixteenth century must have never reached this area of Northern China. There is absolutely no sugar in any of the food and very little salt, if any. The breads here are very bland. Most of the food is cooked in rapeseed oil which tends to be heavy. The only spice that exists here is a red chili which is soaked in oil and served frequently. The flavor is an earthy and a bit strange, I haven't quite got used to this acquired taste yet. The best dishes here are the mutton and noodle soup and the "Huang Mifan", or "yellow rice" with bolied pork and gravy.. Millet, also known as yellow rice, is served in this popular dish here in Yan'an. I have to say that I broke down several times and visited the KFC diner here, the only American fast food chain around here.
After five weeks in Yan'an, my time has ended here, and it is time to return to Xi'an. I have made so many friends here, and I feel reluctant to leave. My journey to Yan'an is one of many which will enable me to understand this mysterious land and the complex character of its fascinating people.

 More Yan'an Travel Reviews
1. The Concise Yan'an Accommodation Guide MISHEN from NZ Jul 10, 2005 04:07
Comments (1)


Sep 29, 2005 10:53 Reply


Congratulations on getting this out. I like it. A good read and a great trio of stories.

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