ACCORDING TO GOOGLE MAPS, Chen Yang’s farm is situated in the middle of a patch of complete, unblemished grayness. There is no Street View. Driving directions on his website are an exhausting 368 words long: Jingzang Expressway to Badaling, a tunnel to exit 62, keep right after a U-turn 200 meters after a toll booth at a fork in the road.
It’s safe to say that Chen and his family live in the middle of nowhere.
So what’s easiest is to pay them 600 yuan (roughly a hundred bucks) for a round-trip car ride from a northern Beijing subway station to their family farm in Chenjiapu Valley. If traffic’s bad, which it was for us, it can take a full hour to escape Beijing’s filthy suburbs and abysmally wide streets to reach what, at first, appears to be “rural China”: a gaggle of crumbly bungalow walls, single dirt lanes, twists and turns through the communist state’s shrubby mountains. But that’s just the halfway mark. Only once paved roads disappear, and you pass a donkey carting two old men smoking on rickety wooden planks, do you realize that you’ve yet to witness “rural China” whatsoever.
Chen’s home is less a house and more a series of concrete standalone single-room buildings painted white, set upon a large plot of land with a garden in the center. When we arrived, the women of the house—one just past middle-aged, one in her 30s—sat us down in the sweltering heat of their backyard and laid out an English menu. The Chens themselves, however, speak no English—not even the Konglish chitchat one comes to expect living an expat’s life in South Korea.
Only once paved roads disappear, and you pass a donkey carting two old men smoking on rickety wooden planks, do you realize that you’ve yet to witness “rural China” whatsoever.
It took 15 minutes of Google Translate to clarify that we wished to take a hike of mid-range difficulty. (There are three options, only one of which is “easy” and is still three hours long.) We unpacked the bulk of our bags in one of their rooms, grabbed fridge-cooled bottles of water and set off with the younger of the two women.
She led us to the beginning of the unmarked trek. We followed her uphill for 20 minutes, passing scuttling lizards as she practically skipped by, cheerfully singing and picking branches to whack at bushes, ostensibly to ward off wild animals. Soon we met a crew of descending Caucasians; at the group’s tail stood Mr. Chen himself, wearing a long-sleeved fleece polo and the kind of loose-fitting striped dress trousers one might find cheap at a Nampo-dong thrift shop. He smiled as the other foreigners continued their descent, breaking for no longer than one minute before restarting his mountain climb with us in tow.
The entry point of the wall is a decrepit section of the 21,000-kilometer-long, centuries-old behemoth; stones have crumbled into a heap and been reassembled into de facto stairs onto the wall itself. Chen handed us crisp, bright red farm tree apples and miniature fresh-picked cherry apples from his knapsack, encouraging us to shout into the valley below, which we did, creating a palpable echo that rattled the otherwise totally quiet nature surrounding us.
The Chenjiapu section of the Great Wall is overgrown with weeds and covered in dirt, ravaged by hundreds of years of wind and rain. But the guard towers are still relatively intact. These structures drew out dreams of both the child and adult in me: I wished I were an archaeologist able to appreciate its ancient beauty, but it’d be way more awesome to be 10 years old with a paintball gun.
These structures drew out dreams of both the child and adult in me: I wished I were an archeologist, able to appreciate its ancient beauty, but it’d be way more awesome to be 10 years old with a paintball gun.
After we’d climbed back down to the farm, the older woman immediately offered us an unbelievable late lunch: home-grown potato and pork stew, scrambled egg and green onion pancakes, tangy tofu-cucumber salad, freshly-grown and roasted almonds, Hebei radishes, hard-boiled quail eggs. Chen’s seriously shaggy dog (like, so shaggy he’s got dried shit specks hanging off all the shaggy hair covering his bum) waddled up to us before rejoining Chen’s quietly leering cat, watching us inhale the food and cheap Chinese beer.
Behind all this, literally, stood the Great Wall: an idyllic backdrop, impenetrably vast, forever strong, taunting us with its picturesqueness just a few kilometers away. It taunted us at the farm and snaked along the highway, taunting us past the yellow mountain, past the highway interchange, back into Beijing and beyond, in my mind, where it still taunts me today.
This piece originally appeared online for Busan Haps in January, 2013.