31. Into the Ming

Last Friday began before the morning birds even woke up. At 5am I had to crawl torturously exhausted, out of bed, prepare myself and get ready for a long tiring day.

We were heading to a nearby village with more than 400 years of unbroken lineage to the Ming Dynasty.

Sounds cool right?

It was.

It was so amazing in fact, that we decided to remain there overnight.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

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The village is called Cuan Dixia. Attention must be paid to the first character “Cuan” which has 30 strokes all flowing together in perfect proportions, every stroke knowing its place and size.

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As bus No. 892’s engines kick in and takes you away from Pingguoyuan Subway Station on the outskirts of Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road, the bustling capital recedes into rivers, valleys and simple houses. Two hours later, you are pulled out of your daydreams and into the town of Zhaitang.

Stepping off the long-distance bus, you are blindsided by a dozen or so black-taxi operators who pulls and pushes you to get into their cab. You dizzily pick one at random, and he flies you down the remainder of the distance to the village for the price of the entrance fee of 35 yuan. Finally, around the last bend of the mountain road, 90-km outside of Beijing, the village rises into view.

It is sprawled out at the base of two mountain ranges, climbing up one side as if it were liquidated history left to slide off the slopes. Pooled at the bottom are the 76 well-preserved courtyard homes in which inns and restaurants have sprouted up to cater to tourist demands. They provide the markers of a time past, collectively offering up a romantic image of dynastic China.

The village sits on the road that traversed Shanxi and Hebei Province, a passage for trade and transport. Founded by members of the Han clan that were migrating out of Shanxi Province, the area retains its rustic aura, without succumbing to the commercialization that accompanies mainstream tourism.

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Except for that one old road which curves around the base of the village, cars cannot move through the place. Only on foot can you make your way to the very top to enjoy the hollows of what was once the Landlord’s courtyard. The lack of automobile-friendly roads make the village exceptionally quiet and peaceful, especially during low seasons and weekdays.

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So after a mid-morning brunch, we began the day’s adventure in this almost surreal place. Following the meandering stone-paved paths and steps, we found the famed Mao-era quote, an intersection of history. It reads: Use Mao Thought to fortify our minds.

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On this first mount up the village, we also discovered a magical little terrace restaurant that served freshly self-grind coffee held in delightful little cups. We were fortunate to have arrived ahead of the weekend crowd. On that Friday, there were barely more than a dozen tourists roaming around.

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So, perched on the very top of the village, we sipped delightfully at the content and contemplated in silence. The sunlight, the clean air, the quaint houses, the mountains, the bees, the serenity of it all captured us. It was here that we decided to reject Beijing for another day and stay the night here.

The gentle slopes of the mountains around the place have been conquered by a series of footpaths, like veins snaking across and around the heart. These allowing for nice, short hikes up to the top for some head-spinning panoramic landscapes of the village and its jagged mountain ranges. Having been sufficiently caffeinated to ward off the mid-afternoon, post-lunch slump in energy, we headed up one of these pathways.

20 minutes later we reached the top and bumped into a lovely young lady who took care to explain in detail how there was a tiger, a turtle and a bat hidden in the outline of the mountain directly facing us. It took her several attempts before we started seeing these animals ourselves.  Can you see them?

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As we finally hunted out the rocky outlines of the creatures, it was time for the descent. On the spiralling way down, we heaved as the pain of sudden exertion on our joints reminded us of our lazy days in Beijing. But we made it down safe and sound, and decided to pay a visit to the largest courtyard house, the Landlord’s place.

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With its windows and doors opening out onto all the rest of the residence below, we rested our feet and spirits for a while.

Sitting in the well-preserved, hauntingly abandoned chambers of the Landlord’s house, we were all rather exhausted and aching from the excitement and majesty of this place. The talking and joking had ceased and we all just sat in each other’s company, among the historical remnants of what was once the ruling class of this small village.

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For a moment, the wind picked up, dozens of bees rose in unison above the clay-tiled rooftops, and the sun lit up the dust and grasses. There was nothing but silence. Peace. Serenity. The clean air flowed through my body, rejuvenating the polluted system. A calmness washed over me like waves over sand, soaking into my skin and bones, cleansing my soul. I closed my eyes, let it take over, and dreamt.

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A bird chirped. A camera shutter snapped. Someone laughed. The reality of the world came rushing back. It was time for another cup of wonderfully warm coffee at the highest courtyard terrace in the village. As the translucent white strips of caffeinated steam vanished into the peace and quiet, it gave way to the last strands of orange and violet in the sky.

When the last light of day slipped under, dinner was finished and we were ready for a stroll. The lights of all 76 courtyards came on, reflecting the stars sprinkled across the black magic that is the clear, midnight blue. All around us echoed the last sounds of the wilderness. The artificial lights of civilization melted away behind us as we ventured toward the mountains. The night sky paned out above us, so clear that it seemed you could just reach up and touch it. But at the same time, you were afraid that if you did, it would disturb the stillness and send ripples across the celestial lake, splashing the mountain silhouettes all around us.

And there in the middle of this glory, we were drowning in a timeless sea of starlight.

It’s easy to get lost in the daily tug and rush of Beijing’s city life, and forget that a mere 2 hour drive out lies another world of wilderness, simplicity, and peace. So the next time you feel drained, life feels monotonous, everyday a repeat of the one before, take time out to submerge yourself in the calm, restorative environment that Cuan dixia and historical remnants like it has to offer.

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