Sometimes when I open the curtains of my accommodation in Tianjin ( a city just outside Beijing) this is the view I am met with ( or lack of it):
Smog everywhere! It becomes an unwanted companion at times.
Hebei province has crazy smog levels that are often classified dangerous by the World Health Organisation. On days like this you cannot spend any time outside without starting with a hacking cough, taxis will refuse to pick up passangers as they can’t actually see to drive and it eventually becomes too overwhelming making the need to find clean air and leave the frenetic city behind paramount. One weekend, this quest led to a jarring bus ride packed full of locals, chickens and a solitary pig over virtually non-existent roads winding precariously along the side of mountains to a village where clean air is plentiful.
Only two hours outside Beijing is a smog free zone where the pace of life could not be more different from the capital. Eating woodstove cooked sweetcorn I wandered through the cobbled alleys to find faded Mao propaganda on the walls, goats and children cantering around and city dwellers looking lost and confused at country life. For someone from the countryside it felt like home!
One of village residents sat on a stool holding her grandchild and pointing out the foreigners; waving me over she gave me a toothless smile before handing the very scared child over to me so she could take a photobefore insisting I tour her house showing me her proud and joy-the songbird looking suspiciously over at the stranger standing before it.
The village has been around for over 400 years but there are now only 29 families left in the village all with the surname Han which means cold. While the village means cooking under a hot stove so under fengshui compliments each other. As with other rural villages it is struggling to attract younger generations who all leave to find more exciting possibilities in the big cities so as a result the village has got an ageing generation and there is much concern on what will happen to the village in 30 years time. But until then stepping into the village is like a step back in time.
That night as the sunset over the village it gave way to a sight never seen in the capital: the milky way. With no electricity or heating after sunset, there was nothing else to do but go to sleep very early swaddled in all my clothing in a meagre attempt to keep warm.
The next morning, after waking up to the chirping of birds in the courtyard I had an early start out of the village to the nearby valley. Only the occasional car swung past some pausing to check that I was not lost and intrigued that someone did enjoy walking. Eventually, the path led to a valley covered in trees turning vivid shades of orange and red glistening in the autumn sun. Along the way I met scatterings of city dwellers dressed in their new and expensive walking clothes but reaching the realisation that they did not really like walking. Gradually there was no one around and all I could hear was the singing of the birds and the rustling of the trees while looking at a beautiful valley and not believing how near Beijing I was.
Sadly, due to time restraints of the bus back to the city I had to turn around however if I had continued up the path and camped overnight I could have witness a section of the Great Wall undisturbed. Definitely something to come back for!