A walk through an average Chinese city, with hutongs and temples, markets and street food.
In the afternoon we went to the other half of town, called Qincheng, which is some 20 km from Beidao. Pick up any bus that goes west, and you will be dumped in Qincheng, very simple. Next to the drop-off point was, unexpectedly, the market. Only later during our journey we began to appreciate that China is actually one big market, and that no matter where you are being dropped off, you will find yourself in the middle of it. This particular one was the usual colourful display of vegetables, fruits, and especially of red chili peppers. The chilies of which there were thousands and thousands, were all piled up in large heaps, next to a young girl with a simple grinding device, resembling a small, sharp metal bicycle wheel with which she trampled up and down a wooden bowl filled with the peppers. Mountains of powder, rather than mountains of peppers, were the result of her efforts.
Our aim in Qincheng was the local Fuxi temple, Fuxi being one of the traditional Chinese ancestors. In walking to the temple we began to realise that actually the entire town was the market, everywhere people had occupied parts of the streets or pavements, and were selling whatever you can imagine, cloth, plastics, shoes. One woman was selling small chicken out of a basket tied to the back of her bicycle. The average market stall, however, consists of a bed, which is covered with a blanket, on which all the ware is exhibited. Occasionally, the bed is missing and the blanket has been spread out on the ground. More fleeting salesmen just come with a hold-all bag, and sell straight from the bag. In this pandemonium of business, which comes complete with shouting, car horns, bicycle bells and bus attendants calling out destinations, the temple is an oasis of peace and quietness. It is located in an area of the town dominated by old houses, the hutongs, although not for long, anymore. Most of them are being pulled down rapidly to make space for modern high-rise, and soon this very characteristic neighbourhood will have disappeared. For now, it allows a picturesque view of how the Chinese town people live, or used to live before the advent of apartment buildings.
Back in town it had become eating time. China may be one big market, it changes twice a day into one big restaurant. The central square had filled up with mobile food stalls, often mounted on the back of a tricycle. Delicacies included pig feet, chicken feet, sheep’s head, sheep’s intestines, sheep’s brains, and a whole variety of organs that even my wife, meat connoisseur par excellence, did not recognise (and did not care to try either). Eating some kebabs, roasted on small charcoal barbecues, we quickly came to understand the reason for all these mountains of red chilli peppers we had seen earlier.
The next day we had an early afternoon departure for Lanzhou. We had only been able to secure ‘hard seater’ tickets. China is using an intricate ticketing system, in the absence of computers. Each station along the line has been allocated a certain amount of tickets for each train, in ‘hard seater’, ‘hard sleeper’ and ‘soft sleeper’. If places have not been sold in one station, the next station has no means of knowing. Only the chief conductor on the train is aware of which places have been left unsold, and will, from ten minutes after departure, sell the empty spaces to people who wish to upgrade. However, as our ride to Lanzhou was only expected to take six hours, we stuck to our hard seats, for the experience. Six hours is actually just about bearable, and was helped by the scenery along the way: deeply eroded gullies in a wide, fertile river valley.
We had resumed our Journey to the West – which is how the Chinese call the Silk Road – again.