Sunday starts with a delay over depositing the Green Toad (my backpack) in the baggage room, so a city bus to the railway station would risk missing my 8:50 train. The assistants normally lurking around the gates are absent but a small taxi delivers some Chinese so he gets an immediate refill, and only charges the meter reading of Y13ï¿½5, thereby showing that he rarely conveys foreigners, or is a decent fellow. More delay at the station due to some freshly-swabbed floors (I don’t want to remember the Chinese habit of spitting everywhere but the sound ‘hoik…splot’ is ingrained) and then I’m directed to the wrong platform, but I finally find my train and carriage, sitting down just as it moves off.
Now I can relax, and stare out the window at the haze of pollution. Our route turns out to be via Badaling, one of the standard visiting sites for the Great Wall (and no, it is no more visible from the Moon than a thread is at thirty yards), obscured by more haze and smoke and attended by a traffic jam exacerbated by big tourist buses. Hi ho for the empty northern plains. But first we must zig-zag our way up the mountainside past odd strands of the wall, before passing through a tunnel under the Great Wall area itself.
Now there is a great open space, a plateau in shades of light brown. We pass through a succession of industrial towns, cross a vast river, and at last reach a big new station under construction that declares itself Zhangjiakou. (All railway signs have below the ideograms the name in Latin script, now using the Pin Yin system). But I’m not anywhere near the city. A taxi takes me some ten miles for Y30 to the actual city, dropping me by some bus terminal. Not a very active bus terminal. This looks to be the sort of place where all transport sets off in a surge at dawn, followed by inactivity punctuated with occasional arrivals until the next dawn. Certainly, the next bus to Duolun is tomorrow even though it is early afternoon. When this is clear, a helpful woman sweeps me away to a nearby hotel (I’d never have spotted it) and after a second lot of excitement over the mad foreigner, I’m in.
And not allowed out, being shooed back to my room when I thought to go and find some place for dinner. This proved to be so that the hotel ladies could ensure that I didn’t get lost, as they conduct me along a twisting alley to a neighboring eatery at 6pm. Two plates, rice, pickled lettuce (a specialty), and tea come to Y18, plus free entertainment for the other surprised guests.
It was a pleasantly warm night under many blankets, and quiet too. Dawn brings a rumbling of engines, so maybe this really is a bus depot after all. I emerge at about six-twenty into the dim morning light, to find a minibus paused outside. As ever, peering at the ideograms on the destination plate doesn’t bring speedy understanding (even though China has converted to ‘simplified’ ideograms as one reform of the Communist party, another being the removal of the radical “dog” used in the ideograms for the various non-Han ethnic groups), but when in turn the driver peers at the ideogram “Duolun” that I’ve carefully written in my notebook, he waves me on up the street to the bus station. Then the conductor motions me aboard for the short ride, they’re obviously worried that I might miss the bus. Indeed, on arrival, a bus is in the street with engine running and passengers aboard. This time I identify the Duolun ideogram before I’m swept aboard, and we’re off.
Well, not quite. After a short circuit of some streets we go to the departure bay of the bus station, where waiting ticket holders are eventually allowed on. All the street passengers are banished to the rear, except for me. I’m moved to the front right-hand seat usually occupied by the conductor, so as to have a good view. The prospects are good. When I’d shown the surprised passengers and crew the guide book’s entry on Xanadu along with its line drawing of Kublai Khan, wonderment at the presence of a foreign lunatic was replaced by enthusiasm. I must be getting close, as people now know what I’m on about. Also, these people aren’t Han, colonizing the country in cities, but Mongols and here is someone who has come along respecting their history instead of despising it and them.
Meanwhile, so far as I can see, the street passengers buy tickets (as do I, now that the conductor can change a Y50 note) rather than the money going straight to the crew. So, why do they chase passengers, rather than wait for them to turn up at the station?
Anyway, around seven we roll out of town into a broad flat countryside of thin yellow grass on dry brown soil that rather reminds me of New Zealand’s central Otago, except that here there are ploughed fields and residents. We reach Duolun at eleven, stopping somewhere in a street. I walk on, hoping to find a Post Office or a bus terminal to ask about the nearness of Xanadu. Locals point me to a nondescript building which turns out to be the street frontage of the bus terminal, and there is a bus at one-thirty. Xanadu is not so near.
Read Part 3