A dim flickering light cast a pale image over my book. The train rolled back and forth, and the two elderly ladies sleeping below engaged each other in excited conversation. Not terribly interested in what they are talking about, as it is 2:13 in the morning, the lights just been turned off (or it seems that way in my blurred visions between reality and dreams) and I can’t get the Count of Monte Cristo out of my head (what I’ve spent the better part of the night reading). The only outline of my wife I can see is a plume of black hair and her soft breathing from across the cabin. We set out from Tianjin to Meiheikou just about five hours ago, having scored soft sleeper tickets during the October holiday. The train is an older model and doesn’t have air conditioning, and having top bunks, this is perhaps the second time in the night I’ve woken from feeling drenched in sweat. Still, this is a respite from the busy life in the city and teaching.
Meihekou, on the other hand, felt like a weed grown out of dry ground. I have many memories of taking the train to God knows where, pulling into podunk stations where the only hint of existence is a series of columns and platform (the station) and a few brick and cement houses that compose what is commonly called a town, although truth be told resembles more a rest-stop. Meihekou is one such town, as sitting in the station waiting for our next connection after our overnight the feeling that one has been here before in another life creeps ever so slowly into consciousness. The town surrounding the station seems like a legoland of bricks and pylons that have hop-scotched their way into cement trees and secret hatches. The station itself was already full, and the man sitting next to me (while secretly drinking out of a brown bag) soundly sleeps, while the girl sitting in the aisle across robotically tapped words into her phone. That being said, the whole scenario has the feeling of a dream — as if we woke up from our respite on the train and having stumbled out into the countryside air, watched our fantasies shudder up out of the ground Inception-like, walking through our daydreams and waiting for the moment when we open our eyes and realize we are still on the train.
That moment doesn’t occur. We lucked out to have purchased standing tickets for our connecting train to Tonghua. My wife and I tried to remember the train trick: the secret car where you can upgrade your standing ticket to an actual seat, although neither of us remembered which particular car. However, as the train pulled in, the conductor whispered to us, “Try car 10,” and pointed to the left, giving us a nod. The train begins at Qingdao and ends at Tonghua, and by this leg of the trip, the train cars felt like a ghost town. Half the seats empty, and the seats seem to have been upgraded from the normal wooden seats of most trains, with cushions and plenty of leg space. The train shot off from the tracks along the plains of northern China, and moved into the mountains, dodging light as we moved into and out of tunnels. My ears popped, as we moved above the 800 meters mark.
Our uncle met us at the station, overjoyed. Both my wife and I, tired after sixteen hours of traveling, happily collapse from his commands, and are ushered into a small van. We ate a traditional lunch at a local restaurant (dumplings, and well, twelve plates of meat and potatoes). Combined with the autumn hills, warm weather, and farmer food, I already feel like I am home in America, sitting with my grandparents in a Missouri diner. As we headed into the mountains toward our final destination, Uncle regaled us with the history of the area around us, showing the coal plant where a cousin works and operates a heavy duty crane, and pointed out various factories and businesses that are somewhere in the family web. Tonghua, situated near the border of Jilin province (hundling on North Korea’s shoulder) is an imitating landscape, saddled in the center of a giant valley with mountains that creep up to 1200 meters tall, and a series of villages that sprawl the giant delta as it crawls into the various labyrinthe peaks. The sky is a sheer blue, cloudless, and the autumn colors of the hillsides truly express the season of fall, a welcome image in a country where the seasons seem to have vanished entirely. We passed through a village that hovers over the river, and then pass into a smaller valley, crawling ever east. Qidaogou, our final destination, is a tiny village of just 6,000, that fills in one such valley and sits at the end of Chinese civilization, literally.
In the morning the sun shone brightly down on the little village, lighting up the cornstalks that line the hillsides and the morning walkers. Uncle took my wife, cousin and myself to his work for a few minutes. He hit the gas and our sandianche (powered by a Harley) ripped through the village streets. He works as a machinist molder at the mine, the main economic producer of the village, placed at the furthest eastern portion of the valley. The mine holds some significance to world history, surprisingly. It was one of the cornerstones of the Japanese occupation of both China and Korea in the early 1930s, “employing” nearly 4,000 workers. The village of Qidaogou, with its plethora of both wood and coal and situated in a protected valley of high valleys and two way access, provided a perfect staging ground for an occupying army. The first president of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, was noted for driving the Japanese out of Korea, but while he was the commander of his Korean soldiers in the Chinese army, he was nevertheless unable to drive the invaders from Qidaogou, being forced to steal their horses from a local lumber mill just to sustain his soldiers. He could not even cook the meat, as the village contained so many Japanese soldiers at the time, he and his soldiers had to eat the meat raw.
Our cousin walked us past the courtyard of the mine and showed us the old entrance to the mine, which he said was over 100 years old. Some workers hammered away at the track, which in just a few minutes, would be transporting miners up the side of the mountain to the upper entry of the mine. My cousin, a university-educated graduate from the Minority University in Dalian, had a wistful look at he points out the entrance to the mine for us. While he has in a way taken on his father’s occupation (he is a concept designer for machine parts) he has somehow through educated avoided the mine, and works in a thriving city in a nice office as a professional, while his father toils away in a room filled with sparks and oil, and carries home the smoke of the mine home every evening. He is truly the modern filial son, and I wonder for a moment if I should have done the same.
Walking through Tiger Mountain (a local park that was built many years ago), my cousin and I stopped to skip stones on an abandoned lake. Vines and overgrowth have overtaken the park, crawling up the broken faux pagodas and painted cement sculptures of grape clusters. As Uncle lead us through the dream, we followed blindly and then realized that we were stepping on small blocks that once were a footpath but long since have been turned into forest path. We stopped before a huge birdcage, dramatically rusted and empty, with a few heavy weeds grown out of rock terraces which used to be a pleasure palace for sparrows. A dream truly: yet there is no one here, only birdcalls spoken freely and water spiders jumping along the lake, their spindly legs criss-crossing the water with vibrations. Once upon a time, when the young still lived in the heartland, but no more today, as the cities have turned into monolithic structures and the countryside villages have all but vanished into old men stooping over burning coals and farmers’ wives pining for luxury. And yet for a singular time, villages like this entertained something more, and dreamed of becoming more than wheatfields and lumber mills.
Later that afternoon our family voyaged into the wilds, hunting for mushrooms. My wife, four cousins, two aunts, an uncle, and a grandmother, struggled up one of the hillsides, braving the rumors of wild bears to scrounge the ground for yellow mushrooms. I was chastised to put down the white poisonous ones, and only pick up the small, yellow mushrooms. As it so happens a woman two years back picked the wrong mushroom, fell ill, and passed, creative a strong lesson for all villagers. As a village activity, this was quite popular, as we weren’t the only family on the hillside with baskets and wide-brimmed hats. The hills are amazingly filled to the brim with both seasonal and evergreen pine, and the trees planted so close together that near the bottom of the mountain, leaves only sprout at the top because that is the only place they receive any sun, giving the impression of a hillside of giant paintbrushes touching the clouds. Small creeks cut into the hillsides, tumbling down rocky ravines. It’s even said that gold can be found in the hills, as we passed on our hike a mound of dirt that had been flung into a mini-mountain overshadowing a dirty little pond, which while it did mar the overall image of the valley’s beauty, provided an excellent summit to capture pictures of the rolling hills.
Cousin told me a haunting story about the hills: once when he was young he was heartbroken and stole into the mountains during the winter. The snow was so heavy it crept to his knees, and the air so quiet he could hear the wind driving through the trees. While there are stories of wild bears in the mountains, during the winter they sleep, and the white hills are empty of life. He was so troubled that he continued walking until he realized he didn’t know where he was; awaking from his stupor, he saw the trees surround him on all sides like a maze, and the snow under his feet shone brilliantly, as the moon broke through the darkness and illuminated the whole hillside like a lamp. The entire image was so frightening to him he ran down the mountain as fast as he could and stole back into his bed, and none was the wiser.
Our family had one more task to fulfill. Due to circumstances beyond her control, when her grandfather had died my wife was unable to attend his funeral. We found ourselves the next day amid cornstalks twice the height of a man, walking along the gutted roads of wagons and tractors. The hills we found ourselves was what many countryside villages consider a cemetary, with tombs and mounds placed into the mountain. The family tomb was striking: four walls, nine levels of cemented bricks and taking up nearly two hundred square feet, it lay across the hillside like an open-box of secrets. A dozen trees planted within a green carpet of weeds, spreading across the entire series of tombs. We said our prayers to Grandfather, burned incense and bowed, and with tears in our eyes, left the scene. Wheher we left more at peace than when we arrived is in question, but we knew we had finished one image of our lives that could finally be put to rest.
Feeling the mood somewhat heavy, Uncle proposed we climb a mountain. What every family does after a funeral, yes? In the center of the valley, a giant inhuman rock rose out of the river. Covered in trees and grass, it struck an image of a protector or guardian of time. In ancient days, the people who lived in this valley believed the rock actually housed a god inside, who would come out to protect the people who lived in the valley from disaster. However, the god was not necessarily a good god, and was a bit amoral when it came to saving people’s lives. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese army was struggling with guerillas living in the village who hid out in the surrounding mountains and in order to land one final blow, they believed that if they blew the giant rock into little pieces, the river would flood the valley and force the fighting villagers into other valleys that weren’t so well protected (as well as blunt some bothersome superstition). Unfourtenately, after days of trying to blast the rock into dust with their guns, the Japanese were unsuccessful, and the people of the valley believed it was the god protecting them.
After pulling ourselves up the side of the rock by climbing over tree roots and hauling ourselves up by grabbing onto a rope that had been strategically hung from the trunks of trees, we found a small temple at the top. The image from the top of the mountain provided a glowing picture of the valley, showing the farmlands stretching into the horizon, and the small rivers flowing down from the mountains as they coalesced into the main river leading to the city of Tonghua.
That evening, we had dinner at a very local restaurant in Tonghua, specializing in dongbei sour vegetable hot pot. By far this was the biggest family gathering, with three uncles, three aunts, five cousins, and even two nieces, myself and my wife. As the night went on and the bottles drained, the room filled with smoke, and the laughter became addictive, even including three bouts of competitive arm wrestling: this was our last night here. Coming to the big city from the village, life changes dramatically: people are more tense, their eyes less trusting, and money becomes a commodity in the building of relationships. From the peaceful and almost rustic environment of picking mushrooms on the mountainside, coming to the busy highways of the city, the air itself becomes thicker and fraught with walls. As the evening came to a close and people filled with more joy and remorse, my wife and I headed toward the train station, watching as the night lights of the city sparkled over the river. At the train station, tears were shed and promises made. Climbing into our bunks and waiting as the light of the train station faded away, we felt the contemplative silence that is granted to all dreamers of yesteryear.