Friday, July 18, 2008

Simatai Revisited

The first time I went to Simatai, it was as one of the tourists who descend on the place in droves and disappear never to be seen again. This time, staying in the village for a week, I got to know the place better: my full report will be up on the blog when it's finished. For now, some pictures of the trip will have to do:

We went up to Simatai by rail, riding in a truly ancient train car through the Chinese countryside. I slept through most of the ride——I'd spent the night before learning Chinese dice games, and I'd got up at 5 to catch the train——but I was awake long enough to see some incredible views of the great wall from the train.

I had dozed off again when I woke up at a station stop, to the sound of Chinese drums and the sight of villagers decked out in traditional costumes. In a propaganda exercise for the Olympic Games, the official logo had been carved into the side of a mountain, and a crowd had been gathered to celebrate down in the village. I would have liked to take more pictures, but the train was on its way again, and I was asleep.

After settling into our rooms in Simatai, we begain our visits to the nearby villages. The first one we visited was Jijiaying, which in ancient times was a military garrison and still has most of its original gates. The impression a place like this gives is one of age——ancient peasants hobbling past ancient cottages; and the villages are aging. The youth have mostly left for Beijing, and however many satellite dishes and telephone wires may be set up in the villages are not enough to give one hope for their future.

Jijiaying may be ancient and its villagers may be graying, but the ideal of modernity has a powerful appeal there. In the local offices of the Communist Party, a shuzi yingyuan——"digital theater"——had been set up for the villagers to watch DVDs. And through a window of a storage room in the offices, I saw this thing, a 投票箱 or ballot box. Village government in China is very democratic——China has no problem with democracy making local and unimportant decisions——but even here the Party branch secretary has the last word.

We next visited Sujiayu Village, where we spent a while pretending we could understand the accents of a few old men we tried to interview. Even an hour out of Beijing, you can hear local accents even our teacher couldn't understand. I did understand the man who kept offering me youtiao (a sort of oily and unsweetened flaccid churro) until I accepted; and I understood the three girls who fled behind a grindstone shouting "Foreigner!" when I came to their part of the village. I stuck around, and they got used to me enough to let me take their picture.

Our host and guide, Mr. Huaishun Wang, showed us some of the tools used by the local peasants...

...and much to the entertainment of the villagers, sent his American guests out to fetch water.

After a few days of walking around in these villages, the back of my neck was so thoroughly sunburned that I went out and ponied up the 4 kuai for a straw hat. The locals thought it was hilarious to see a white guy wear their kind of hat, but it does keep the sun off while you're grinding corn.
We had hardly been in the village a day when Mr. Wang came up with nicknames for all of us. Holding the bag is the Professor, behind him is the Beauty. Behind me is the Spaceman, and in front of me is Wu Shouji (which means "without a cellphone"; he refuses to buy one). My nickname was Fourth-year Student, which was a bit boring and cumbersome to say, but it could have been worse. In the picture on the right we've caught the fish that would be the next day's dinner. Chinese water doesn't make for healthy fish, but Mr. Wang was a good enough cook that we put aside our worries about mercury content and the strange lesions on the fish we caught.

When I came back to the city, I went to a Yale Club event, where I discovered just how many Yalies are in the city right now, and picked up some free tickets from a promoter of the Yale Philharmonia. Absolutely anything can happen in Beijing--and in just 20 days, things are going to really get started.

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