As yesterday, I emerge into the dawn gloom at about six twenty, with activity in the streets and buses in motion. Indeed, one is leaving even as I cross the street, but when I mention Peking, the driver motions me to the terminal building. Within, the ticket office ladies nominate a bus to some illegible scrawl, mentioning another name I haven’t heard of. And it departs at six forty, which is now! Erk! There is no time to spend on laborious clarifications but many onlookers have grasped that I want to go to Peking and show no doubt as to the plan so a ticket is bought and I’m conducted out to the bus yard and shown to a waiting bus. Much later on, the ideograms are read, and it is confirmed that I had indeed left from Duolun, so now there is a new conundrum, the possibility that such a town has two bus termini. Or, that I was disoriented.
We leave a few minutes later, bouncing out of town along an unsealed road quite different from the sealed road that had taken me to and away from Duolun. Further, my compass shows that we’re heading north (Peking is south) as is confirmed by the location of the sun. But then we turn around, or rather, many turns are not quite countered so that the next time I check after a running struggle to keep the window behind me shut (just like the locals now; fresh air is too fresh!), jamming it with paper wads, we’re headed roughly south and east.
Time passes. Grey sky, wan sunlight, brown country, chill breeze. We rattle along a rough road, taking on and setting down but mostly gaining passengers. Outside, the country becomes rougher as we head towards mountains, but there are still villages (brown) to pass through.
Around eleven the sun finally rises clear of the overcast. Shortly after we stop for a break just before leaving a village. Out of the wind and in the sun is comfortable, the first sense of warmth I’ve had since leaving bed. A previous stop for a piss was attended by snowflakes, and a chill breeze tugging at the tear in my trousers. I have a sewing kit, but as with my other trousers and longjohns, it’s back with the Green Toad in Peking.
We continue after half an hour along a steadily diminishing road. Indeed, it vanishes as we take to a riverbed for an immediate improvement in the ride. Unlike the road, the river’s bed is re-graded every flood: once again, working with nature is better than opposing it. Presumably, when the river flows the buses stop, as there is no sign of any other track. Then we abandon the riverbed for a track to grind slowly up a mountainside whilst the passengers take much interest in my stuff: the photo book of New Zealand, the guidebook, phrasebook, etc. At the top we have a good view of an ocean of mountains, all bare and arid. Then down down down.
At two thirty we arrive at a substantial town in quite mild air (by comparison). Not only is it now afternoon, and there is no wind from the North Pole, but also we’re down to 2,500 feet.
I’ve no idea of the town’s name though. Happily, my neighbours are also heading for Peking, and further, there is a bus here about to depart for it. Aha, we’re within range of its web. On my return from the gents (a noisome trench behind a low wall) I’m hurried on board before I can make it clear that I would like to know the name of the other place on the destination plaque besides Peking. Mumphf. I still don’t know where I am, except that it is somewhere in the mountains north of Peking.
More mountain roads follow, but sealed now, with significant engineering of embankments and cuttings. The scenery is impressive, but still bare. We’re mostly descending, which is fortunate as uphill stretches are at a crawl. A stop at four-thirty for snacks and a piss then on. Next to me, a young man slumps against my shoulder in slumber; my reward for not showing him off is a dribble splot on my jersey.
Night falls as we head into more populous area, with other traffic to be seen at last. We end up at some bus terminal in a street at seven thirty. A few signs would be helpful. Minibus fellows point me along the street when I indicate an interest in the subway, and I end up walking a fair way to the Lama temple station, having missed the Dongzhimen stop. The Lama temple is memorable for other things, in particular a singularly noxious public urinal that Rod had noticed as well. As for Rod and Christian and Danielle, I’m too late to join them at Mama’s so I eat in town at a street restaurant diagonally opposite Dongdan park that I’d used before. I have previously established that I can barely manage two dishes along with rice, so dining alone is much more restrictive than when in a party of gourmands.
Back at the Hotel Longtan I’m returned to room thirteen, again all to myself, and get stuck in to scrubbing my laundry and self, then scribble. At about midnight the others wander back, having been drinking in the hotel bar. I’m cheerful too though without alcoholic aid, proudly displaying my loot from the summer palace. Yes, it is just dirt, but special dirt. Even after I explain about Marco Polo taking oil from a lamp at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and that I will take this dirt to Jerusalem in roughly the reverse of his route, there is still a shortfall in understanding.
And the next edition of Lonely Planet’s China guide book omits mention of Xanadu.
Am I the only romantic left?