Our China trip begins in Beijing on one of the heavy hot, humid and unbearable days of August. The color of Beijing is gray, except in rare sunny days, with a mixture of smog and sultry weather, even when you are away from the metropolis to approach the northern hills. Gray is also the color of Hutong, the popular neighborhood that surrounds the Forbidden City, a miniature kingdom of voices, faces, and squeak of bicycles, where it's hard to stay even just for a moment.
What is striking at first sight of the city is its immensity. Beijing is as big as Belgium. While picking up a map we realize that to move from one neighborhood to another, it is much better to take a taxi. Tiananmen is the mirror of the greatness of Beijing, the largest square in the world. In front of the access to the Forbidden City is the face of Mao Tse Tung, protected by a guard of soldiers.
From the crowded streets of the center, including neon lights, rickshaws and street markets with silkworms and caramelized scorpions, the low houses give way to skyscrapers, the rickshaws to cars and the slow rhythms of the streets to the agitated pace of heels and suits.
We end up in a new bar with sound and lights dwarfing the furniture, with English DJ, African drummers, Cohiba cigars and bottles of flying Moet Chandon. The new Chinese entrepreneurs reach with a Mercedes or Porsche Cayenne, greeted by an army of attendants, who smile, open the door and accompany them to the table and even will massage their back while they wash their hands in the bathroom. In one evening they spend almost what a worker earns in a year, always following morbid Western styles in it's most exhibitionist events.
The Great Wall
After three hours journey from Beijing, we reach the Great Wall. In contrast to the clamor of other points of interest, Simatai remained more genuine, partially collapsed, and still far from being rebuilt. It's a difficult feeling to express what it feels like walking on a small portion of the wall, with thousands and thousands of kilometers that separated two very different worlds, with a border that no longer exists but still full of myths, legends and meanings, related to construction of the wall and the bodies of the dead workers thrown beneath the wall, whose souls still roam on the night on the bare hills that mark the border between the Empire and Mongolia.
Amidst gray skies and the silence of the day, when we trudge the ruined staircases, cropped towers amplify this sense of mystery around the barren landscape, sprinkled with bushes far away, without homes or traces of human life.
Returning to the city on the wrecked bus, which eventually breathed its last just before our hostel, our thoughts fly to the desire for at least a week with backpack and hiking boots on the largest street of China, suspended in a universe away from the real one.
A trip to China is a dream and sometimes a bit delusional with thousands of kilometers of long walls, large cities such as nations, monasteries suspended in space and terracotta armies that guard the sleep of emperors and temples hidden in the mountains with thousands of statues.
After a night train from Beijing, we reach Datong, filled with the splendor of its Buddhist temples, carved into the mountain from 400 AD, with statues as high as 15-19 meters, with 5,000 in all, carved into the mountain. The monstrous influx of tourists cannot annoy them, such is the majesty of these faces staring at you from above with flat and placid faces as if to convey that peace which they remain steadfast and unchanged for all this time. The travel companion in this surreal oasis of peace is the donkey.
A few kilometers away there is a wooden monastery clinging to the mountain like a spider, and they call it the suspended monastery, although actually four times in the past, it ended up in the river. Within a narrow gorge, for some inexplicable reason, the monks wanted to cling in such a harsh place, although now there are more tourists than monks.
Pingyao and Xian
Our journey continues south to Pingyao, where we spend quite a few days, away from the hustle and bustle. Pingyao is an exception in the metropolis of China, a beautiful country, which is still in the seventeenth century, with houses in imperial style, temples, the palace of the governor and mighty outer walls, all in a quiet environment in which the cars have been replaced by electric mopeds.
After the nights on the train and the chaos of the city, this small town is sprawling and we end up stopping here more than expected. From Pingyao to Xian is another night of travel, and a night without sleep brings the gift of being able to observe the microcosm in and out of the berth as the train runs on a night that is incredibly dark.
We do not see any trace of humans in the countryside at night and seems to move in an empty world, to cross lifeless lands. Sometimes the light beam projected from the locomotive collides with an oncoming lightning and is always a coal train. They are the protagonists of the Chinese nights, as dozens of coal trains move in the warehouse or on the sidelines, sometimes parallel with diesel locomotives that break with their roaring monotonous sound of the carriage.
Even in the stations there is silence, but the stationmaster is always there with a lantern in his hand to give the all-clear signal.
Xian is yet another Chinese city, in a nice neighborhood of Islamic markets and, even more, characteristic of engravers and calligraphers market near the southern gate, always happy to exchange a few words and offer a sip of beer to the few tourists, who venture into these neighborhoods.
But only an hour by bus here is one of the wonders of China, the Terracotta Army, with six thousand soldiers who guard the tomb of a dead emperor of eighteen hundred years ago, with every one of them with arms and face, different from others. The Terracotta Army is a crescendo of emotions, before you start seeing the single statue, then the reconstruction of a cart, and then ten percent, until it reaches the last shed where there stands out suddenly against thousands of soldiers, ready to receive orders and to break serried ranks maintained for thousands of years.
Around it sellers and taxis swarm, as always, but slightly away you can always find a good family restaurant in which to stop, but always had the local language menu. After a couple of evenings in pubs or see the water of the fountains under the Pagoda, Shanghai is the last leg of the train journey more harrowing than all.
16 hours seem too long, as the damn train to Shanghai goes on and on. Shanghai is a new megalopolis with a plethora of skyscrapers that rarely has low houses similar to Hutong. In these alleys are still all the classic shapes you'd expect to see in China, namely the sellers of chopsticks, the painters, the shoemakers with their tools scattered on the roadside and tailors sewing clothes in dark cabins and smoky wood.
But this world is losing day by day with the advance of gigantic skyscrapers, with the fourth tallest building in the world is now old. Between a walk to the Bund and a trip to the museum or in the nearby city of Huangdong, our journey is nearing its end, and we throw ourselves into the discos.
Then comes the morning of return, with the only regret not having tried the magnetic train, and loads of small backpacks and great memories of this unknown land. It was just a taste, the first taste of something completely new and different. And now is the desire to learn more about the people, who are so hospitable and so demure at the same time, to prepare for a second trip with a greater awareness.