Zhang Bi Ancient Fortress and the Wang Family Courtyard. That’s where we were heading.
We worked our way through the most barren and depressing looking countryside I have ever seen. You quite literary couldn’t see beyond the lifeless naked trees that lined the streets, unless of course it was the silhouette of yet another ugly chimney with clouds of smoke billowing out into the already struggling atmosphere. This disturbing sight seems to be the constant that makes up the horizon line in this part of China. It’s ugly!
For me this sad scene triggered thoughts of what I imagined an aftermath of a holocaust would resemble, or maybe even the result of some extreme natural disaster. There was no life, no green, and certainly no blue skies. As I wrote about in the previous posts we had already been introduced to the grey skies, with the almost non-existent sun but what we were experiencing on this little side-trip was on a different scale altogether. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and the whole experience left me feeling deeply disturbed. It was depressing to be in a world with no colour, no life, it was even more depressing to know that we’ve all played a role in this environmental devastation.
For some crazy reason Liam and I Googled the effects of this … catastrophe in this sad and barren land. The results were shocking! In Beijing and the surrounding areas 2014 has seen the pollution levels rise to over 20 times the ‘safe limit’. (and that’s what they publish!) In one report it claimed that the air surrounding Beijing was unfit for human inhabitance, so that’s well over 20 million people living under a cloud of toxic smog – frightening! But not only are the people that are breathing in this smog in danger, it goes well beyond that. The soil, the waterways, everything that our precious and fragile ecosystem requires for healthy growth is in critical danger. An article posted by The Guardian says, ‘Chinese scientists have warned that the country’s toxic air pollution is now so bad that it resembles a nuclear winter, slowing photosynthesis in plants – and potentially wreaking havoc on the country’s food supply.’ Another disturbing headline from The Telegraph, ‘China’s ‘airpocalypse’ kills 350,000 to 500,000 each year from premature death’. (again this figure is the ‘published’ one)
And then there’s the shocking state of the water supply … the list goes on and on and on, it’s terrifying!
So with all this talk of death and destruction, added with the thick cloak of smog that we were looking through, there’s no wonder our day was feeling a little odd, eerie, and depressing.
The two sites that we were heading for are both steeped in history that goes back 1400 years, pretty impressive figures, and a destination that you would think would be crawling with tourists. Armed with this information I assumed that we would be fighting for our space against the constant stream of Chinese tour groups that seem to go hand-in-hand with these sorts of destinations. It would be another day of pushing and prodding, and poking out our pointy elbows in combat as we all make our way through yet another ‘must see’ site.
Today was the complete opposite.
As we drove into the first site, ‘Zhang Bi Ancient Fortress’, a twisty gust of wind travelled through the car park. There were strange looking shelters constructed out of a straggly looking grass or weed. A few even stranger looking life sized stickman, also made out of a woody, straw kind of material, were scattered around the place. The whole scene resembled a very weird movie set out of a Wild West cowboy movie, and most certainly not a hot Chinese tourist site. Eerie and odd. And even stranger there was no one in sight. No other vehicles, no big noisy buses, no tourists to compete with. Even the ticket booth looked to be boarded up. There was a dusty old sign that made some feeble attempt at explaining the site – in Chinese – with a mud map of our whereabouts.
At this stage I was thinking it was going to be a pretty quick trip, disappointed that our day was shaping up to be a huge disappointment.
Not wanting to call it just yet to, we gingerly followed the well-worn path through a few little alleyways and entered into the tunnels, known as the ‘Zhang Bi Fortress’. They were impressive. Three layers of tunnels that wind this way and that, cubby holes here and there, all very mysterious and cool. The tunnels are certainly wide enough for the Western tourist to meander through, with lights to guide us, and the occasional ‘EXIT’ sign to help us on our way. I read that you needed a guide so as not to get lost down here, but it all seemed pretty well signed, we didn’t have a problem making our way through – and out the other end.
We moved on to our 2nd destination, The Wang Residence. (construction 1762 – 1811). Once again I was gob-smacked at the sheer scale of this place, 150000 square meters, more than 200 courtyards and more than 2000 rooms, all laid out in a labyrinth map. Although very grey with absolutely no greenery (seemed to be the theme of the day!) the Residence itself was amazing and a great display of true Chinese architecture. Beautiful rounded windows and doorframes. Perfect curves mixed with the straight corners all work together beautifully to create a true example of Yin Yang – the hard and the soft, the beautifully liquid curves and the sharp corners – all working together to create perfect harmony. Chinese design of this stature really is stunning, and a sight I never tire of.
I imagined that it would have been something quite spectacular with a few Chinese tallows and blossoming trees scattered about in those 200 courtyards!
While we were walking along the massive walls of the Wang Residence, we discovered the cave houses that are spotted along the countryside that surround the Residence. After reading about these homes and this way of living, I was super keen to see them and point them out to the kids. It’s the chimneys that you spot first – little tin constructions with dome roofs that pop out of the ground. Once spotted you then follow that line down and you see an arched doorway, which must be the front door. It looked just like a village of hobbit houses would, a perfect visual for our little travellers!
As we drove away from the Wang Courtyard and Residence we were pretty excited to see these funny little Hobbit-like homes for quite a distance.
It was a strange day, laced with tones of amazing Chinese history, funny little hobbit houses, meters and meters of underground tunnels and all discovered through a very disturbing cloud of stinky smog. The day was a lifeless grey, a murky brown. Very interesting, very disturbing, and personally, very taxing.
I’ve found it really difficult to write about this negative aspect of China (obvious due to the time lapse of this post!) but both Liam and I agree that this blog is all about our experience and our journey, the good and the bad. China’s smog crisis became a really big part of our final weeks here and something that will remain with us. We all returned to Australia with niggling chest complaints, yes – possibly just a cold, but one can’t help but question the quality of the air that we were breathing into our lungs in those last few weeks. I’m happy to say that after a spell back home we’re all back to perfect heath and have very much enjoyed the fresh, clean and crisp Aussie air. Not only is my chest purring with each breath, but my vision is alive with the clear pictures of our beautiful surrounds. The ‘Ghost Gums’ are whiter than I have ever seen them and the scent of the Lemon Gum is sweeter than I remember. Yes, we are so very fortunate to call Australia home – the lucky country!