Travel Journal

Hei Shan, Gao Shanzi & Beizhen, 5/19-5/21

(Wednesday 14 September 2011) by Joanne Chang
Our hotel in Hei Shan doesn't know what to do with our US passports. When Mom booked over the phone they had no idea she wasn't a Chinese citizen and if they had, they wouldn't have accepted the reservation. Suffice to say, very few foreign tourists pass through these parts. There's not much going on in Hei Shan, but our purpose in being there is to find the old Zhang home in nearby Gao Shanzi, where Zuolin and Zuofu started out as gangsters, and where we believe my grandfather was born. Mom starts chatting with the ladies at the front desk, and finds that one of the girls is going to a Buddhist festival at a temple near to Gao Shanzi the following morning after her shift. "Women kuyi gen ni qu, ma?" ("Can we come with you?"), she asks. "Kuyi, a!" ("Sure!"), the girl replies. And we have our next leg booked.

The hotel has a bottle of Pabst on the mini-bar shelf for $1 so I help myself before we check out the town. The most interesting part is the local street market where we stock up on snacks -- fresh corn puffs, sesame crackers, bananas, cucumbers and melons -- while driver-less horse-drawn carts pass by, transporting goods autonomously. We have hot pot for dinner next door before getting to bed. Big adventures tomorrow.

Up and out at 9 a.m. with the hotel girl to the festival near Gao Shanzi. Hop in a taxi and stop at her home 20 minutes off a little dirt road to pick up Mom and Auntie, then off to the festival. It's already going off at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, people everywhere, the sky strewn with colorful streamers and flags, incense and candles filling the atmosphere. It's still amazing to see the spiritual devotion and commitment these people have, people who struggle to make a living yet give whatever little they have in offerings to Buddha and their ancestors. We hang around the festival for a bit then decide to venture on, getting into the first disgruntled tuk-tuk that's willing to take us to Gao Shanzi. We start back on the road, and within 15 minutes we're in the middle of nowheresville on a deserted stretch of dirt leading us further and further away from civilization. With every minute I grow deeper in worry, concerned that we have no real idea where we're going and no way to get back.

Mom starts talking. She tells the driver of our mission to find Zhang Zuofu and Zhang Zuolin's old house, that they were my great-grandfather and great-uncle, and we're here from America to trace the past. Suddenly the driver's interest and excitement peak -- You're ancestors of the Old Marshal! I know where Zhang's old house is! Then we get excited -- He knows where we're going! We're not lost! How very lucky we are, and what are the chances? After a bit more driving we start passing through residential neighborhoods, and a few minutes later we're in front of a large, tall stone wall, behind it the old Zhang home, and in front of it a vandalized sign with the Zhang name etched in stone. Zhang Zuolin was a gangster before he was a hero after all, and not loved by everyone.*

The gate is unlocked so the three of us walk into the empty courtyard. It's a large parcel of land with one-story buildings on either side and nobody around. Then I hear voices, they get louder, children's voices! From the north building a stream of kids start flowing into the courtyard with a suited man in tow, and suddenly we're surrounded by elementary school kids, running and laughing, with big smiles and lively chatter. This old house is now a school! I recall Mom saying she wanted to build a school to give something in return for what was forcibly taken away in Zhang's early days, so there is no more fitting conclusion than this. She chats with the school principle and the teacher while I play with the kiddies, discovering that the school is now 20 years old and that we're the third set of relatives to come visit. It's awesome that we found this place, a spontaneous serendipitous journey to connect with a piece of family history. Mom is proud, even Dad's brother and his father were unable to find this place (or, perhaps they never really tried.) When it's time to leave, our tuk-tuk driver takes us to the nearest stop where we catch a locals bus to our next destination, Beizhen.

In Beizhen Mom is a little apprehensive about the place she booked -- it was cheap ($10) and she booked it because she had a good feeling about the guy on the phone, but it's definitely budget and a little icky. But she sticks it out, and after dinner and a couple of beers she stops for a hair cut in a little shop where they've never seen an American Dollar before. She gives it to them and they forego the haircut charge, but she gives that to them too, and they're beside themselves. I experience something similar in a westernized fast food restaurant searching for coffee, with a group of teenage girls surrounding me when they hear I'm from America. They've never met anyone from America. They don't know what English is supposed to sound like, and ask me to say something. "Don't you learn English in school?", I ask (in Chinese). "Yes, but the teachers aren't good". I suppose it's hard to teach a language you're not proficient in. They want to know which is better, China or America, and they want to know how come I can speak Chinese. I entertain them for a few minutes before saying goodbye, and as they follow me out the door I feel like the first American ever to visit Beizhen.

The next day is a packed itinerary. In the morning we embark on an adventure up the Lu Shan mountain where Zhang Zuolin and his gang used to hide and fight. The mountain is a holy site, home to temples (and now a sky tram), where locals and tourists come with offerings for their gods and ancestors. Despite the tram, it's still quite a bit of walking and we're reminded of Huang Shan at the beginning of our trip. We've come quite a ways. After the mountain it's back to the guesthouse to get our stuff and catch the bus to Hei Shan. We've left the rest of our luggage there. From Hei Shan we catch another bus to Jingzhou, from Jingzhou a taxi to the train station, from there a train to Beijing to meet my cousin Ryan.

And what a journey it's been to go searching for pieces of our family history, to stand on soil where blood relatives lived, ruled and fought, to hear from the mouths of locals what an impact the Zhang family has had on Chinese history. My only regret is that I did not understand any of this sooner, for by now my grandparents have passed and there are truths that may never be known.

And look at all we've done, my Mama and me. The two of us traipsing around the villages of northeast China, going where the wind takes us, appreciating the journey as much as the destination. I've never seen her so full of life.

p.s. Fashion in this part of China is American 80's -- miniskirts, lacy tights, sequined blouses, puffy shoulders, 4-inch heels, permed hair. Punk rock! Awesome.

* Zhang Zuofu, my great-grandfather, died before my grandfather was born.


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