Our weather in Sichuan, China was proving quite pleasant for travel. The dusty bus ride needed to reach Ji Ke’s small village wouldn’t be quite as unbearably hot as in mid-summer.
But more than beating the heat, it was a little over a year after the devastating May 12th earthquake. I was eager to see the current situation in his region, just outside of hard-hit Dujiangyan.
From Chengdu’s Jin Sha (Golden Sand) bus station, it was only an hour’s trip to Tong Le Cun, Happy Together Village.
The new four-lane highway made it a straight shot over the plateau. Looking out the bus window, I could barely make out the distant mountain ranges through the ever-present subtropical haze. It was hard to imagine a year ago, these now sleepy slopes filled China’s newspapers with tragic tales of mudslides, smashing boulders and crushed buildings.
All along the route, passengers shouted to the driver to stop for disembarking. I was one of them, being dropped off at a seemingly middle-of-nowhere destination.
The highway bypasses small towns and villages such as Ji Ke’s. My student’s village was a 20-minute walk down gravel and dirt roads from my drop-off point.
As always, he was waiting there to lead me on the way.
“Jason!” I called out, using his English name. “So good to see you again.”
It had been a year since we last saw one another, although we’ve been in contact via email over the year. We had a lot of catching up to do on our way, including a stop at the horse ranch nearby his home.
In China, many are trying their hands at creating more touristy environments for those from the city. So many now have private cars that they want places to drive to. The horse ranch popped up last year and now the owners are hoping to do a tourist business with urban folk looking for relaxation and fun. Riding horses, being a novelty in China, was considered a good venture.
However, according to Jason, not many are coming. Also, the horses themselves looked underfed and not in great condition. One does wonder if the ranch will go bust in another year or so.
Jason’s Village Home
As Jason and I walked the dirt pathways between his village’s wooden and sod houses, he pointed out remnants of last year’s disaster. His village suffered little damage from the quake but there were small reminders. A cracked wall here. A broken grave altar there. A door permanently stuck ajar.
Upon reaching Jason’s home, I was greeted by his parents and older sister in their traditional Chinese courtyard. They had been busy all morning preparing numerous stir-fried dishes for our lunch together.
Although Ji Ke’s family and I suffered little from the earthquake, like the survivors, we were celebrating a renewal of life.
A year ago, Ji Ke’s sister was dying.
The operation needed to repair her congenital heart defect had been too expensive for his farming family to afford. If she had been injured in the earthquake, she would have received free medical care. But in an unusual twist of fate, not being in the destroyed areas made her the unlucky one.
But with a little help from me, they were able to cover the operation costs.
When the hospitals in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu, began emptying of those recovering from their disaster injuries, Jason’s sister was able to have her heart procedure.
Sitting across the table from her, I noticed her healthy glow and high spirits, so different from last year. She blushed as her brother teased her about her fiancé. He is a day laborer, taking what odd jobs he can to add extra income to the Ji household. On this day, he couldn’t join us. He was working in nearby hard-hit Dujiangyan where his skills as a construction worker had him rebuilding the many destroyed buildings from the earthquake.
Visiting Jiezi Tourist Town
After lunch, it was time for touring.
Jason’s father couldn’t join us as he was working that afternoon. He sometimes was employed in a feather-cleaning factory in the next town over. The feathers were used for bedding in China.
It wasn’t a regular job but it did help bring in some money for living on.
It was Jason’s plan that we do something different from my last 2 visits and that was to travel 10 minutes up the road to a small tourist town called Jiezi (meaning street in English).
Street was a town which blossomed forth as an attraction for it’s old-style store fronts, narrow alleyways, special snack foods and home-made crafts. The earthquake pretty much shut it down for months. It was located at the foot of a mountain. Falling rocks and mudslides threatened those below, plus many of the buildings had been damaged during the shaking.
But a year later, the place was once again packed with those from Chengdu and surrounding cities who owned private cars and were looking for a fun day-trip to the countryside where food was a highlight as well as beautiful, lush green scenery.
Jiezi was definitely the place to go.
We first needed to return back along the dirt roads to the main highway to wait for a passing van. Jason, his mom, sister and I made our way along their neighbors’ vegetable and rice fields. We stopped at a nearby home to pick up his sister’s best friend. The two young women linked arms, their heads close together as they giggled and whispered over girly matters.
Jason’s mother, concerned about the hot sun, pulled up several plant stalks topped with giant leaves. She handed one to each of us. We then perched them on our heads, shielding our faces from the burning rays.
Some residents in the area buy nicely upholstered family vans which they use as businesses for driving people to and from towns along the highway route. It’s more convenient than waiting for busses and gives means for the not-so-rich to pay for a private vehicle.
Jason hailed down one such van and we climbed inside. The newness was quite apparent by the fresh off-the-assembly car smell inside, as well as the plastic coverings on the seats. I was appalled that Jason’s mother paid for this, 5 yuan a head making the cost 30 yuan ($5) for all 5 of us. That was more money than his father made in a day’s work at the feather cleaning plant.
The Touristy Town of Jiezi (Street)
It was great fun being led by Jason through the small streets of this touristy town. The place was packed full of people, many from the city looking for a place to drive to for the day. All along the narrow ways, we were greeted by food sellers hauling around spicy red-peppered snacks such as fried tofu squares or sweet sticky-rice sesame candies. The storefronts were all newly built but in the style of old China, giving the place a nostalgic feel. Everyone was cruising over handmade craft or specialty items from the area.
One of the biggest hits were medicinal pillows. They are filled with special herbs that are supposed to relieve headaches. All sizes were available, from 5 yuan (75 cents) up to 15 or 30 ($1.50 – $3.00). I ended up with 4 to take back with me to Chengdu, one each for Jalin’s parents and her dad’s older brother who was recently in the hospital. The fourth I kept for myself.
Never know when a medicinal pillow for headaches will come in handy!
We wove our way along all the cobbled streets all the way to the end, which placed us at the foot of the mountains, in the countryside. Lots of hotels and parking lots for those driving were found dotting the slopes.
According to Jason, when the earthquake hit last year, many of these hotels had to close up for a year to do repairs. In fact, the entire town pretty much came to a stand-still for most of the year before it got back on its feet again.
Walking along, meeting crowds of people enjoying themselves on this May holiday afternoon, I think those living here would pretty much agree they were back in business again.
Jason also pointed out small hostels where for 50 yuan a night ($7.25) you could stay directly along the street and enjoy the evening life of a touristy town in “old” China. And for 1,000 yuan a month ($150), he said some retired folk from the hectic capital city stayed in such hostels for the summer. They enjoyed the cool, crisp mountain air, hung out with their friends sipping tea or playing mahjong in the many parlors dotting the walkways and even had meals provided for them.
Now that’s the way to spend a summer.
It’s been a whole month since enjoying that day with Jason and his family but it’s a memory I’ll never forget. Jason has already invited me for another visit soon, most likely before I return to the States for a summer visit to my hometown, after he returns from Qinghai University.
We’re heading into the surrounding mountains this time around for a trek up the pathways, past temples and small pavilions.
Just one more thing to look forward to before leaving Sichuan in August for my new placement down south.
But more on that in the next blog.
As always, from along the Yangtze, Ping An (Peace), everyone!