Chapter One: An Introduction
In recognition of the Dragon Boat Festival, we got Monday off. Mel and I decided to travel. Our destination? Ji'an, a town in the southernmost hook of Jilin province. Cradled in one arm by heavily forested mountains, and the other by barren land, Ji'an gaily faces off against North Korea. Only the muddy eddies of the wide Yalu river holds the two apart. Ji'an is best known as the seat of a UNESCO Wold Heritage site called the "Cities and Tombs of the Ancient Koguryo Kingdom" Koguryo is one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and at one time stretched across modern-day North and South Korea as well as parts of Manchuria and Russia.
But the real adventure was in getting there.
Chapter Two: Transportation
Hunchun, as you may have gathered by now, can take a while to get to. It's main hub is Yanji, a two hour bus ride away. Ji'an, too, is a two hour bus from its main hub, Tonghua. Once we got to Yanji, we took a taxi to the train station. The ticket officer looked at us. "There is no train from Yanji to Tonghua," he says, "Go to Longjing and take it from there." Back to the bus station we go, for the short shuttle ride southwest to Longjing. That shuttle ride was my first lesson in "How to make more money than you are paid." In this case, it meant packing the aisles half full of "express delivery" packages, and then shoving in extra passengers - all picked up about 5 minutes after leaving the station. The bus attendant happily pushed the "fare" for these items into her own pocket.
The train didn't leave Longjing until 4:30. So we filled our five-hour wait with noodles, 50 yuan of bakery items, the traditional dancing of some women in the main square, and a circumnavigation of the entire town.
I grew up with a brother who loved trains. So even though Little Jen had no particular interest, I ended up nonetheless with a wide education in train museums and train rides. Only when I ended up at Northwestern, riding the El every couple of weeks, did my own appreciation blossom. As I got onto the train, I felt that same knot of happy anticipation.
Over the course of the 8.5 hour ride, the most obvious contradictions of China were laid before us. Homes in remote valleys, their stonework crumbling and thatch falling in, spoke of bare survival. But there too, was dense forest of pine and deciduous, stretching to the horizon. And in those hours, this gave way to clear-cut forest, stubby vegetation ground out by cattle-grazing. And then factories and high rises - industry and an exploding economy. In one view, China has some of the most pristine forests in Asia. In another, it darkens the sky with exhaust. In one, poverty reigns. In another, the economy explodes. No one view is true, and yet they all are.
These are the things a train ride can show you.
We stumble off in Tonghua at 1am. Lightening storms after sundown had tailed off into a gentle rain. The last bus to Ji'an left long ago, so we hire a taxi. This ride is winding and precipitous; the worst hairpins have speed bumps and mannequins who look like policemen stand at every turn to startle you into slowness. Signs proclaiming "danger!" are accompanied by picture of a truck falling off a cliff. I ask the taxi driver to turn up his Chinese club music, hoping it will keep him awake. Mel gets carsick.
It turns out, when we get to Ji'an, that the hotel I booked was in a different Ji'an, in some other province. But the taxi driver goes above and beyond, and drives us around until we find an empty room. It is 3:30a when we finally fall into bed.
Chapter 3: The Kingdom
Despite forecasts of thunderstorms and lightning all weekend, we wake at 7:30 to find the storm has blown over completely and left us with clear blue skies. We check out of the hotel, and buy our return trip bus tickets. We find a different hotel in the Lonely Planet book, then go explore.
Being with Mel in Ji'an is like accompanying a celebrity around town, minus the paparazzi. People literally follow us around, staring at her blond hair and pale skin. Men on the street run into poles looking at her. Even people walking in front of us can't stop turning around in their tracks. At one point a high school girl comes up to us and in well-enunciated English says, "Hello, how are you?" to Mel. After welcoming us to Ji'an, she turns to me and says with wide eyes, "Are you her translator???"
This day is one long idyll. Mel and I have been craving summer heat (even now, Hunchun is 60 degrees) and we get it in sunny spades. We grill out at a Korean bbq restaurant that we discovered by chance. Later on the bus, a Ji'an native tells us this is the best restaurant in town (his classmate owns it). We eat cold noodles, fresh bbq'd river fish, and some of the best beef i've ever had. Our meal stretches for almost two hours, as we lounge on the decks by the river, watching the water run.
We find a taxi driver to take us to the Koguryo sites, and I'm proud of myself when I bargain a local's price (lower than what the tourism bureau told me I would get, and much lower than Lonely Planet). The tombs are simple and clean. Not convinced it was worth the 30 yuan per site, we nonetheless admired their location in this pretty green valley, and were appropriately impressed by the vibrant wall paintings inside one of the tombs. Photos of the sites are here, as are the sites' fun facts.
Having seen all the tombs, we walk back down the mountainside through an undeveloped part of Ji'an. It is so tightly packed next to the train tracks, and high rises are so near, that I don't doubt these lovely little homes with their dirt paths, backyard crops, (and bad sewage too), will be gone within a few years.
Our descent ends at the Riverside Park, where you can sit on wide wooden decks over the Yalu and gaze all you want at the North Koreans walking around. There are children's games on one of the decks next to us, painted bright plastic colors. The locals are staring again, but we ignore them and wonder what the North Koreans must think of all this hubbub on the other side. On the Ji'an side, they are building brand new apartments - gleaming and luxurious. People stroll with their dogs, walk their children, and in a nearby tent you can choose from 15 different types of cold beer. A motorboat zips down the river, flying the Chinese flag. On the DPRK side, an old tractor froths down a dirt road. A few small trees dot the hillside. A few motorscooters zip across. It is all colors of the earth.
Mel and I go to dinner.
Chapter Four: Falling in Love
It happens without fail. I fall in love in every country I've ever been to.
It started simply enough tonight. The people in China are fascinated by my story. They like that my grandparents left, that my parents were born in the US, and yet here I am back again. And lo and behold, I speak Chinese and they understand me. Everytime I tell this story to the curious questions that draw it forth, I see them nodding. In their hearts, they fold me in. "You came back," they tell me. Mel loves to see this happen, she says their whole faces light up at the story. Tonight after claiming me back, the restaurant owners gave us zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, in honor of the Dragon Boat Festival) from their own stash. Enjoy the town, they said, and pointed us back toward the Riverside Park.
I wish we had stayed all night to talk to them. I wish I knew their names, and their story. But I can never think of the right questions at the right time, and so failing, I turn and walk away.
We walk back to the hotel. While I wait for Mel to shower, I open our window and look out to the park just across the street. There's music playing, a circle of boys kick a hackeysack around, and three old men on a bench bend together in conversation. There are, tackily, lights in the trees that "fall" like artificial stars. I hear fireworks, and catch a glimpse of their reflection in a nearby building.The streets are sparsely populated here: it is mostly people, not cars, that saunter along them.
Grabbing my journal, I lean on the windowsill and uncap my pen. And then, I fall in love. I feel it deep in my bones, and as if it were the first time, the words float around me: "I love it here." It's totally unreasonable. But it is always like this, coming upon me in the most mundane moment. There is nothing unique about looking at a park, or people-watching. Yet there I am, trembling like a bell, struck. I do not forget.
Chapter Five: Return
Our bus goes from Ji'an to Yanji on Monday. 9:25a to 7:00p. I buy a newspaper, thinking I will have downtime. But once on the bus, I am lured into conversation by person after person, and end up talking for nearly half of the trip. It's the best, and longest, day of Chinese practice I've had since arriving. It's glorious and exhausting. I learn about the Chinese medicine trade from two men who make quarterly trips to Ji'an, where they buy herbs and mark them up 100% for sale in Yanji. I learn about the English language major at Yanbian University in Yanji. And Korean community. I learn about the generosity and curiosity of well, almost everyone on the bus.
We find out 3/4 of the way in to the ride that the last Yanji to Hunchun bus leaves at 6:30. Rather than be stuck in Yanji, the bus assistant drops us off at a gas station just outside of Yanji. Twenty minutes later, the Changchun to Hunchun bus swoops us up. We pay again, just 60 yuan. Into the pocket it goes.
More conversation. This time I learn about Ji'an's famous strawberries, cold noodles, river-bathing, KTV. We get to Hunchun at 10:30 pm. I wasn't sure we'd make it, I admit to Mel, as we walk back to our house in darkness. "But we did!" she says brightly, fearless. I like the feeling.